Empire – November, 2011

FOR THE LOVE OF THE GAME – by Will Lawrence

Brad Pitt is a superstar in search of the unconventional. He wants that ’70s vibe. Films like “fine wine”. Hence Moneyball, his new baseball drama, “isn’t really a baseball film at all…”

Here’s a piece of travel advice: if you require a lift to a destination and are not sure of the exact route, do not travel with Brad Pitt. He has a trajectory issue. He doesn’t like going backwards. “If I’m walking out the door and I’ve forgotten something, I can’t go back and get it,” he muses. “It is something in my nature. If I’m driving down the road and I miss a turn. I have to keep going forward. I can’t reverse. It’s some kind of psychological defect. I don’t know the reason why.”

He has always been this way, even as a kid. “In highschool I tried all the sports,” he adds. “I went from one to the other. I played football, I wrestled one year, I was on the diving team one year, I played tennis, I did basketball, and I was capable at all of it but I wasn’t great at any of it. Maybe if I had stuck with one I could have been great. But it’s just that, for better or worse, I want to keep moving on. I don’t like to go backwards. It’s not what I’m good at.

What Pitt is good at is keeping his audiences, the critics and his fans guessing. The two observations are surely linked. The only consistency in his cinematic output is that his neverending bid to discover fresh, seldom-travelled paths throws up choices that zing out of leftfield. “They are just not what you expect.” notes Jonah Hill, who co-stars in Pitt’s latest offering, Moneyball. “He just makes a ballsy choice every time. He makes films that you would not expect.”

It’s hard to disagree–Pitt’s gallery of cinematic misfits is stuffed with rich and varied roles, each bursting with a distinctive falvour: the brawling traveller (Snatch), the slayer of Nazis (Inglourious Basterds), the hardest sword-swinger in the ancient world (Troy). Going against type, there was even a man who ages backwards (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

For all his idiosyncratic creations, arguably the most mystifying character in his motley collection is that of Brad Pitt himself. He is an A-list star whose name is written in invisible ink, a relative stranger to the world of red carpets, big-money rom-coms and high-paying, high-ocstane action flicks. Yes, he’ll goof with Clooney, Soderbergh and the cool kids for mega-millions in some Ocean’s malarkey, while the glossy Mr. & Mrs. Smith is his personal favourite among his own films (for one obvious reason). But the truth of the matter is that the higher his star rises, the odder his choices appear.

“I like films that make money,” he says, smiling. “But I’ve been less concerned with that of late. I’ve found with one period where I was thinking that way, I made bad choices.” He is quite possibly referring to the turn of the century, where the likes of The Mexican, Spy Game and Troy all survaced, forming a slight blemish on an otherwise crisp CV.

Since then, from Babel to Burn After Reading, Pitt has excelled at unearthing something individual, evolving into a real-life will-o-the-wisp, wafting nebulously through his press appearances while maintaining an itinerant lifestyle, which he shares with Angelina Jolie. “I think of, say, Cary Grant,” he chirps, “who made a career of doing similar things all the time, and I love him every time I see him, but it’s not for me. My choices have been smart, not risky.”

We meet on a wind-pummeled veranda in a Mexican hotel resort–the 47 year-old superstar wrapped in a white linen jacket and trousers, his unkempt hair, grown out for his forthcoming role in World War Z, long and tied back, accompanied by scruffy stubble.

“Filmmaking is about longevity. Is it a quality picture? Is it a quality story? Is there something original about it? The thing we miss the most is the degree of difficulty, like in The Tree of Life,” he says of his most recent offering, from cinematic luminary Terrence Malick. “Just to aim for something like that–I think there’s a quiet victory there, beyond what’s going to be in the record books as the best picture of the year.” He smiles. “Films that I’ve loved, like Jesse James and The Tree of Life, they’re ‘fine wine’ pictures–they’ll age well. They’ve got legs.”

Billy Beane had legs, and boy, could he run. When he retired from playing baseball–having turned out for the New York Mets, the Minnesota Twins and the Detroit Tigers–he ran his unfancied, under-budgeted baseball team, Oakland Atheltics, like no other team had been run before. Appointed General Manager of ‘The A’s’ in 1998, he employed sabermetrics, a form of statistical analysis that allowed him to bring in players overlooked by other, bigger teams. His exploits prompted the once controversial though now widely lauded 2003 book by Michael Lewis, Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game. Beane’s approach revolutionalised the way the baseball industry assessed and valued its players.

“I don’t spend a lot of time watching the sport, but I became obsessed with this book,” says Pitt. “These guys were questioning a system and going up against it, and I admired what that took. Billy Beane’s was a team with a $40 million payroll, and they were trying to compete against teams with $240 million payrolls. It’s an unfair game, forcing these guys to say, ‘we can’t fight the other guys’ fight. We have to question everything. We’ve got to search for new baseball knowledge. We’ve got to re-examine the sport and where we place value.’

“What’s a winner, what’s a loser?” Pitt continues. “These themes are universal. And also, it has to be said that the ideas that these guys employed in 2002 have now permeated all other sports, like football, various arms of business, and even the film industry.”

But isn’t there an irony in a film about underdogs starring a multi-million-dollar leading man? Something emblematic of the strange contradiction of Pitt’s status as a superstar who opts for th underdog movie over the ready-made franchise? He laughs. “Well, yeah, I grant you that does sound pretty counterintuitive. Funnily enough, Billy Beane gives seminars on this very thing. That’s how they first came into contact with the book: the studios were having a seminar with Billy on how to apply his theories to the film business. That I end up in the film is counterintuitive to the teachings. But I wanted to see it made. That’s all I want: to see movies get made that I believe should be made. And if my name–whatever it may or may not be worth–can help in that process, then that’s what I’m going to do.”

Even with his name, Moneyball itself has not enjoyed an easy path to the screen. But then, we are talking about a book about a sport, told from a very specific angle, and therefore far from obvious material for a movie. Steven Soderbergh was due to direct, persuading Sony that a narrative thread could be woven through the real-life, statistically driven story. Then Sony bigwig Amy Pascal pulled the plug on Soderbergh’s version of the project just before he went into production int he summer of 2009–she’d read a final draft of the script, which differed significantly from the one that she had championed through development.

The last draft submitted by Soderbergh apparently included provision for interviews with real players to run alongside the snippets of real-life footage that play in th movie, and the studio wasn’t ready to bankroll such a risky, near-documentary vision; unlike Billy Beane, studios tend towards the conservative. Soderbergh left the project, but Sony retained Pitt, appeasing their star with the appointment of Bennett Miller, who’d shot 2005’s Capote. He’d direct a script reworked by Aaron Sorkin, then Steve Zaillian.

“The film didn’t fall into convention,” says Pitt. “It was a difficult one to get made and it needed some muscle behind it. Sony stuck with it, even though it proved a real arduous time to mount this thing. We’re in tough economic times, and people start betting on safer, more tried-and-trusted brands. But Bennett’s been a great choice; he’s got a documentarian’s feel and approach to films, one of those directors who search for authenticity. A lot of the cast are guys from the business, real players and real scouts. These people are not real actors.”

There are still plenty of real actors: Pitt is Mr. Beane, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman provide support, while Jonah Hill plays right-hand man Peter Brand, a quiet statistician undervalued by his team until Beane trusts him into the spotlight. The relationship between Beane and Brand drives the film, which also dips into the General Manager’s home life, where he raises a daughter. These strands tie together to form the film’s emotional core.

“I’m really drawn to the films I grew up on, which were 1970s films,” says Pitt. “It wasn’t so much about character arcs and ‘someone learns something in the end and everyone’s happy and everything’s explained’. I’m sure Moneyball’s not for everyone, and I’m proud of that. It’s a polarising film that has had a visceral response from people, some of whom absolutely adore it.”

Sony may beg to differ, but according to Pitt, Moneyball is not told in conventional terms. It is not a story that follows a clean plotline. “It was designed to be experiential and to invoke your own memories. It’ll work for some people and not for others. I never saw it as a mass-appeal film, and I don’t think of it as a film about baseball.”

Pitt has had an uneasy relationship with the sport. “I know very little about it, besides the fact I took one in the face when I was in junior high,” he grimaces. “Eighteen stitches was the result of that accident. This scar here.” He points to his face, although Empire resists leaning in too close. “I like to play ball with my boys, throw the ball around, these kind of things. I like American football and football-football, as you guys call it.”

He apparently took in some Scottish Premier Leagua action when shooting World War Z, his adaptation of the post-apocalyptic horror novel by Max Brooks, directed by Marc Forster. They were in Glasgow, unusually standing in for Philadelphia.

Filming also saw Pitt turn into something of a real-life hero, the leading man throwing himself into hordes of extras as he sought to save a female extra from being crushed in a 700-strong zombie stampede. For all the positive press, however, many fans of the book’s distinctive narrative method remain unconvinced by a Hollywood adapatation.

“If we get World War Z right, it’ll be great,” Pitt counters, noting that even with a project this size, it is the lack of convention that excites him. “We are trying to ground these great, big experiential films and a big effect films into a humanity, and play it for real, in a sense. It is looking pretty good so far, but I have no idea if it’s going to work. The stuff I have seen is pretty damn cool. My boys are going to love it regardless.”

The actor, famously, raises six children with Jolie, and his partner reckons him to be a real gent, but also a real man’s man. “He’s got the wonderful balance of being a great, loving father,” she boasts, “a very, very intelligent man and physically he’s a real man.” His journey to becoming this “real man” began in Shawnee, Oklahoma, in 1963. He was raised with brother Doug and sister Julie, in Springfield, Missouri, his father Bill managing a trucking firm, working six days a week for 36 years. Meanwhile, his mother Jane was a high school counsellor, although Pitt says he recently discovered that she always held a desire to act.

That flame burned inside her eldest child too, and while studying journalism at Missouri University he decided to change tack–to go West, to LA and to Hollywood. He did that usual: acting classes, crappy jobs, and then in 1991 landed a small role as Geena Davis’ untrustworthy bit of rough in Thelma & Louise. “When Legends of the Fall was released about three years later, that’s when celebrity,” he says. “You get no warning and you’re kind of overwhelmed. I didn’t understand all the attention. It does not come from a place of real value, either. People want to get near to you, but it has nothing to do with you as a person. It has no more to do with something those people are missing in themselves.”

He describes his upbringings as “a bit Mark Twain” and is just a good ol’boy”, happy to have found his niche. “I have no aspirations for directing,” he says. “It would drive me crazy and my family crazy, I’d never see them. It would take me three years to do it. I like what I do now. I love cinema, and I’m still watching films I was watching 20 years ago. Making films that stand, that’s the goal.”

Namely? “Like French Connection–Popeye Doyle is just great. And it’s All The President’s Men, Cuckoo’s Nest, Papillon–that’s great. And Strangelove. That cracks me up every time, man. I see more each time I watch them, and I like that.” He smiles. “I’ll trade wisdom for youth any day. In fact, I’m happier now than I’ve ever been, and I like getting older.” Of course he does: Brad Pitt has a trajectory issue. He likes going forward.