Acclaimed author Michael Lewis wasn't sure if 'Moneyball' would make a great movie. As he told Brad Pitt upon selling the rights to his 2002 non-fiction book about the rise of sabermetrics and Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, "Don't call me and blame me when it doesn't work." Fortunately for Lewis, it does.
Out in theaters Friday, 'Moneyball' tells the story of Beane, but with a twist that made a big-screen adaptation difficult to fathom. "The book -- I thought, when I was writing it, grandly -- is the biography of an idea," Lewis told Moviefone. 'Moneyball' isn't the first film about an idea -- after all, 'Inception' was technically about one, too. But Christopher Nolan's blockbuster featured gravity-defying stunts and city-folding action; 'Moneyball' is about a mid-market baseball team taking pitches and it climaxes with a game against the Kansas City Royals. That it works as a film is due in large part to Pitt's Oscar-worthy lead performance, Bennett Miller's direction and the script -- co-written by Oscar winners Aaron Sorkin and Steve Zaillian -- but also because of Lewis's source. He captured the vivacious spirit of Beane and created the road-map for the filmmakers to follow.
Lewis spoke to Moviefone about 'Moneyball,' how a pair of key scenes in the film actually happened to him, his vocal critics (like Keith Law) and what Hollywood can learn from sabermetrics.
I just finished re-reading 'Moneyball' earlier this month.
You re-read the book! It's funny, I had not read it -- not opened it, basically -- since 2003. My wife caught me with the paperback in bed last night, and said, "Whatcha reading? Oh, that's gross; you're reading your own book." I said, "I gotta read it! I gotta remember what the hell I said." Because I don't! I kinda remember it, but I don't remember it that well. So, I just looked at it. I was surprised how good it was! She was really disgusted when I said that. "You know, this is a really good book." (Laughs) I felt I could be objective about it at this point. This is a really good book! It all kinda holds together.
It does, it does. Congratulations on that. Brad Pitt has been fond of saying that when you sold him the rights to 'Moneyball' you said, "I don't know how you're going to make a movie out of it." True or urban legend?
It's true! It's not an urban legend. That's a true story. It's also a true story that the book rather than a script drove him the whole way. He kept looking for the script that he wanted. When they bought it -- I guess we went back and forth by email -- but I've seen him since and said this: "It was not obvious to me that there was a movie in it and more power to you if you can find it. But, I don't want to have that responsibility. Don't call me and blame me when it doesn't work."
Now that you've seen the finished film, have you changed your mind?
This is what I thought about it: there were movie characters in it and there were scenes that any of the lines of dialogue could work. What there wasn't was a narrative arc that worked as a movie. Because the book was not a biography of Billy Beane. Billy Beane's development, such as it was in the book, was of tertiary importance. The book -- I thought, when I was writing it, grandly -- is the biography of an idea. I couldn't see, for example -- one of my favorite parts of the book was the chapter on Bill James, who hashed all this stuff up and who created the climate of opinion that enabled the A's to do what they did. I couldn't imagine how you got that on the screen. In fact, they just decided not to, basically. They didn't put it on the screen. There are parts of the book that ended up not even being used -- but of course that would always be true.
What I underestimated was the ability of a gifted actor to get across ideas just with facial expressions. That's what I hadn't banked on. The combination of -- I really think they did an unbelievably good job -- and I think two of the big keys to the movie is the sensitivity of the lead actor and the sensitivity of the director. Where he put the camera, and how he used the camera, and how Brad Pitt conveys unspoken feeling sort of drives the whole thing. I didn't imagine that was gonna happen. It really surprised me. At the bottom of this is the struggle of a noble soul who is kind of at war with himself and his environment. But they can't say that. You have to kind of convey that without it being said, and they did that. I just didn't guess they were going to be able to pull that off. It surprised me how well they were able to do that. I couldn't be more pleased with the film. It's amazing that they did what they did and I'm glad I didn't have anything to do with it because I'd have screwed it up somehow.
This is a film that took a very long road to the big screen. At first, Steven Soderbergh was involved with Pitt. After that fell apart, Bennett Miller took over. How much involvement did you have during the lengthy development process?
I was kept notified, but I was not consulted. Or, if I was consulted for my views, it was just a matter of politeness. It wasn't because anyone actually wanted to hear them.
Was there any point when you just gave up hope that it was ever going to come together?
I guess I thought that if Brad Pitt wanted it to happen, it was going to happen. No matter what. I didn't know if Brad Pitt felt that strongly about it because it really is a matter of opportunity cost, right? Who knows what else is going to come along? But, he felt that strongly about it. If you told me that Brad Pitt was going to have the level of conviction that he had, I would just assume the movie's gonna get made. Somehow, somewhere. If he doesn't want to make it, it'll never get made. Nothing will save it.
Not to bog down in a lot of the changes from book to screen, but how did you feel the film handled Billy's flirtation with the Red Sox? It takes up a decent chunk of the final act, but you dispose of that in a matter of pages in the book.
You know, I can't remember. I didn't get that far in the book last night. I can't remember what's in the book and what I knew. I knew a lot about that situation when I wrote the book, and I'm not sure how much I was allowed to put in the book, but I thought it was actually great. I liked what they did. I thought the conversation with [Boston Red Sox owner] John Henry was great, in the movie. You know what's funny? There's no way they would know this, but there are a couple of moments in the movie where what happens to Billy actually happened to me. Not to Billy. One of them is that conversation with John Henry. I had that conversation about what Billy was doing. John Henry was saying those sort of things to me. I don't think he ever actually said those things to Billy, but he did say things just like that to me about Billy.
The second thing that was very weird is that whole thing where he's driving away from the 20th game and turns around. That game became very important to the book. It was the one game Billy watched with me; we watched it together inside the clubhouse. What happened was, I had gone out to the Coliseum that day, and it was such a media clusterf-ck that I thought it was pointless: I'm not going to get close to anybody today. As the game was starting, I left. I got on the freeway and I started driving home. I called my wife to say I'm coming home and she says, "Why?" I said, "There's nothing to be done here. I can watch it on TV." She says, "You've got to be there. They're going to make history and you're not going to be there?" I thought, "Oh, f-ck. All right, I'll turn around." So, I turned around and I got there and the place was totally silent; everybody was in the stadium because the game had started. The guards were gone from where they normally were, and I walked in and got as far as the A's clubhouse door. I banged on the door just wondering who was in there, and Billy opened it. He was in there alone. He was breaking his rule and watching the game. He just said, "Don't tell anybody, but you can come in." That was so lucky! If my wife had not made me go back, I never would have had that scene -- and that scene became so important to the book.
I can remember when Hatteberg hit the home run. Billy knew I had been spending a lot of time with Hatteberg. Billy turned to me and said, "You are so lucky. Your book is going to be great." There's a line in the movie where Brad Pitt says something like, "How can you not be romantic about this game?" What was funny was I pursuing this relentlessly hard-boiled line of inquiry, but these sentimental moments kept popping up. I had tears in my eyes! It was so incredible.
That is incredible.
Watching the movie, I was thinking, "Did I tell Bennett about this or did it just happen?" Then I went back to the book, and in the book, Billy didn't want to be there, but he was made to be there. Which is true: he was made by the marketing department to stay.
What about the meeting with John Henry do you remember?
I had spent a lot of time with John Henry before I wrote the book. I had gone to Boston and wandered around Fenway Park with him and had gone to lunch and he asked me not to write the book. He wanted to hire Billy and he wanted me to help him talk Billy into becoming the Red Sox GM. He didn't want me to ruin it for everybody. I never told anybody about that experience, but there it was [in the film].
There have been some vocal critics about your book and now the film -- notably Keith Law, who wrote a pretty scathing review about 'Moneyball' on his blog. Have you gotten a chance to read that?
The reason I know he wrote that is because Billy called me and said, Keith Law had sent him his review. I looked at it and thought, "What's he talking about?" There's some line in the thing about how he's in the book in a scene that never happened. I went and looked. He's not! I think he's lost his mind. [Ed. note: Law told the Yahoo! Projector blog that he is "mentioned in the book's epilogue in one or two paragraphs that tell a story that never actually happened."]
He's got some sort of problem: whether he's angry he got fired from the Blue Jays, or he wants to be a scout now and not a geek. I went to try and find what he said I made up about him. It's not true. He said, "I was in the epilogue," and he's not in the epilogue because he's not in the epilogue. But in the afterward of the paperback there is a thing about the war that happened because of the book, and he's mentioned in passing. In passing, it just says that J.P. Riccardi hired him because Billy had told J.P. that he needed to get his own Paul DePodesta. Which Keith Law wouldn't know whether it happened or not. I do! Because Billy told me and J.P. told me. It's very weird that he's on this. He's being intellectually dishonest, and I don't know to what purpose. [In the film version of 'Moneyball,' Jonah Hill plays a version of DePodesta, though not by the same name.]
Maybe he just wants to conflate his name with 'Moneyball' close to release.
He wants to be attached to that extent, but he wants to be at war with it. I've had this happen more than once. When things get attention, it creates a market for antagonism for people who want the same attention. But I think there's something more going on. "When I interviewed Keith Law, and I did, at length -- he was so nasty about scouts and scouting culture and the stupidity of baseball insiders. He was the reductio ad absurdum of the person who was the smarty pants who had been brought into the game and was smarter than everybody else. He alienated people. And now he's casting himself as someone who sees the value of the old school. I can't see where this is all heading and why. But I learned from experience that the best thing to do is ignore it, because it goes away.
What about critics of the book -- reading it recently, I did find it interesting that a big deal is made about Jeremy Brown, a catcher that Beane was determined to draft in 2002 who didn't really pan out as a major leaguer. Do you think that hurts 'Moneyball' for future readers coming to it after the film?
It doesn't matter because the fact is the war is over. The A's model has been adopted by three-quarters of baseball. There's not an argument anymore. The argument is a more narrow argument about people who are still pissed off, personally, that this change had to happen, and they want to direct that anger somewhere -- either at me, the book or Billy Beane. It's more honestly directed at me, but people blame Billy because I'm not in baseball and there's no point in bringing me up. So the way they go about doing it is trying to find acts of stupidity -- or seeming stupidity -- or mistakes. The point of this whole thing is that nobody has a crystal ball. It's in the movie! The point is not that Billy Beane could pick every player who is gonna be a big-league player out of the draft; the point was that this is a game of probabilities and you could shift the probabilities slightly, but not perfectly, in your favor. So any one example is not going to mean anything. The overall body of work is what matters. For a while, Billy was able to do this. As long as the game was inefficient, he was able to do this. Now it's not and he can't. There's not an intellectual edge to be had in the same way. At least not right now.
These arguments are all distractions from the main point. The problem is it's very tempting to engage with a pointless argument. If you say to me, "Jeremy Brown failed." I say to you, "How many catchers from that draft got to the big leagues?" You say to me, "Well, it might be one or two others who are better than him." I say to you, "We're talking about a young man who was regarded as undraftable and he got to the big leagues." He hit .300! He went 3-for-10 in the big leagues and he voluntarily retired. He didn't not make it; he was probably going to be the A's backup catcher when he walked out. They found value where other people saw none. To say Jeremy Brown is a failure is ridiculous! Jeremy Brown is a success. No one ever said he's going to be a superstar; what they said was he's much better than you know.
You mention how Billy can't do the things he wants to do as much since the intellectual edge is gone. How has he changed since 'Moneyball'?
He's changed a lot. He's mellower. He's much more detached from all this stuff. More amused. Harder to get angry. It's harder to make him angry. He's totally free. When I met him he was making $400,000 a year and if he lost his job he was screwed. He's now rich, independent and famous. They can't get him. No one can do anything bad to him. He's got avenues of escape.
'Moneyball,' 'The Blind Side' -- when will 'The Big Short' get a film treatment?
Brad Pitt owns it. He bought it right when it came out with Paramount.
Did you tell him you couldn't see how it would make a good movie?
No, no. I can guess how they make it into a movie.
Maybe like 'Contagion' for economics.
Ever worry about the film adaptations of your books not working out?
I don't think it makes all that much difference to me. I'd really like them to be good because you don't want to be associated with something bad. But the movie's the movie and it's not me. I can only control the books. I don't really think that much about it. I think I've just gotten incredibly lucky. So far. I'm sure one day I won't.
While we're on the topic of Hollywood, can the principles of 'Moneyball' translate to the film industry and movie stars?
Yes! They're all overpaid. Hollywood is where baseball was 10 years ago. Hollywood feels that way to me. Like baseball, it doesn't seem to have a whole lot of pressure on it to change. What I assume is happening is that there are smart, little studios -- smart, little production companies that have quixotic views on how to make successful movies. The problem is every movie is its own story; it's own business story. So you can rationalize everything. But on the face of it, I would assume the big stars are all over paid. They are all worth less to actual movies than people think they are. If I had to bet, I'd bet that really good-looking big stars are more overpaid than homely ones. (Laughs) But yes, there is an analogy to be drawn. It's a club-y business. It's a club-y business that operates in a really screwy fashion, in part because of the nature of the business and in part because of historical reasons.
Any plans to revisit baseball in some way anytime soon?
I sold 'Moneyball' as two books. It was always going to have a follow-up and it was always going to be about the kids they drafted in 2002. Quite likely, the next book is that. If I decide to do it, I'm going to decide to do it in the next couple of months -- so I'd start working on it at the end of the year.
Will Billy be involved?
He'd be a shadowy presence in the background. He's not going to be important to the book.
Top photo: Ben Margot/AP; Middle photo: Melinda Sue Gordon/Columbia