Helmer takes on third real-life character

Bennett Miller says Brad Pitt was the main reason he decided to mull “Moneyball”; a shared vision for what the story of the Oakland A’s manager should be onscreen clinched it. Miller spoke with Variety’s Christy Grosz about tempering one’s expectations about awards season and working on a big-budget studio pic for the first time.

You’re firmly grounded in independent filmmaking — what was it like working with a major studio on “Moneyball”?

Miller: Well, it was a bigger budget studio, but it still felt pretty indie. We felt pretty much left alone in the actual making of the movie, and there’s no real extravagance in the production. The big difference really is the politics. There’s a lot more personalities involved, and they’re positioned in much more formidable places than if you’re making an indie film. It introduces another layer of challenges in an (attempting) to preserve the intentions of the film. I guess there’s many different strategies and tendencies that people have dealing with that. It’s a reality of making a studio film, and I think we ended up managing pretty well.

A lot of filmmakers say that the creative solutions a director finds to those challenges makes the film what it’s supposed to be. For you, is that a natural part of the filmmaking process in general?

That’s absolutely true, a thousand percent true. It’s part of the medium. Filmmaking requires the participation and cooperation of many people. It’s unrealistic to expect that you’re not going to be challenged by unforeseeable forces from every direction. Every film teaches you how to make that film. This particular film — interestingly, coincidentally, perhaps even poetically — presented us with many of these dynamics inherent to the story itself. It is a movie about operating differently within a system, and the making-of story for this movie is the same thing. Throughout the process of making the film, (many) scenes mirrored what was happening in the story. And I gotta say, it was part of the research of the film, with (challenging) a traditional way of thinking and all of the little difficulties that ensue. If this film was made in a totally independent way, or if it did not have this gauntlet to contend with, I don’t know if I would have had the benefit of the insight. It ended up being part of the environment, but not in a corrupting way, in a really vigorously healthy way.

You came on after Aaron Sorkin did a pass on Steve Zaillian’s script. Did you do any work with them after he finished his draft?

I worked with both of the writers after I came on. They were many incarnations along the way. Stan Chervis did a draft. Zaillian came on. (Previous director Steven) Soderbergh did his version. Sorkin came on, and when I came on, I had all of these versions and the (Michael Lewis) book to look at. I took a few weeks with it all, and came back and pitched a final version. I should make a point: it’s not like Zaillian did a draft and then Sorkin came on. It wasn’t like that at all. Zaillian and Sorkin continued to work on it, and I continued to work on it right until the last day of the edit.

Brad Pitt was attached to the project from the beginning. What’s the casting process like when you’ve got a big star like that attached to the movie before you start?

The reason that I got involved with the film was because of Brad in the first place. Brad was the one that reached out and invited me to look at all of the material. When I flew out to sit and talk with him, a big part of it was wanting to understand what his interest was and what was driving him and if that was going to be an asset or a problem. There’s no way I would have gotten involved with this thing if I didn’t think that we were all making the same movie. I’ve never been on an interview for a studio assignment, and I was not really up for being a hired hand, hired gun, gun for hire, whatever it is. (But) his take on the character and why he wanted to do it fit right in with what my interests were. I think it’s a good sign when you work (with an actor), and you can’t imagine somebody else in the role. After that, this whole big star thing, it really never feels like that at all. He was also a producer on the film and was more supportive than anything else. His participation in the movie, the fact that he’s starring in the thing, is it attractive to other actors? I’m sure it is, but I can’t imagine that the casting process was radically different than if we were making an independent film.

Do you generally rehearse before production?

I like to rehearse. We did a lot of rehearsals for “Moneyball,” but it is really individual to the actor. It’s not like, “Here is my process, everybody. Fit in.” Everybody is different, so it is really more of a consideration of what’s logistically possible (and) what is going to serve us the best. It could actually save you some money. It’s better to discovery some costly things sooner rather than later if there are problems or things that need to be addressed.

I think it’s interesting that you’ve done three films in a row about real-life people. Is that a coincidence, or are you drawn to those kinds of stories?

I think it’s a coincidence. I am and always have been fascinated with people, and I have a very good time coming up with the narratives of people’s lives, exploring how a person thinks and feels.

Do you have any strong feelings one way or other about doing publicity around awards season? Is it distracting?

It can derail you from the things that you should be doing, and so governing principal for me is that I will only do what feels OK, that does not require any compromise. If there is a situation that forces a contortion where you cannot handle something with grace or dignity, then you don’t do it. There is a paradox in politics that what it takes to get elected is not necessarily what it takes to govern, and my feeling is that trying to control things too much feels icky to me. The more politics is involved the less meaningful the outcome of these things are. I have taken a backseat to it all, and having said that it’s impossible to be in the mix and not be affected by it. But that kind of want is dangerous and it’s best to temper it if you can. By the way, it’s also better to be a little bit slighted rather than be overreaching and take more than you deserve. It’s not uncomfortable; it’s a little bit liberating. A few moments with Bennett Miller

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