Brad Pitt’s role as filmmaker threatens to eclipse his actorly exploits and tabloid profile

Golden boy shines behind the scenes

Brad Pitt is a rare entity in today’s celebrity-obsessed culture: He’s the subject of endless fascination and yet has managed to maintain an air of mystery.

Take his production company, Plan B. Much of the publicity surrounding it has had to do with Pitt’s split with Jennifer Aniston, former principal Brad Grey’s divestment when he moved to Paramount as chair-CEO and the company’s shift from Warner Bros. to the Paramount lot.

Amid that upheaval, Pitt has emerged as the sole owner of Plan B (thanks to a recent settlement with Aniston), which was launched in 2002. And he has been quietly but methodically asserting himself as a producer of projects in which he does not star, like last year’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” In that regard, 2006 has been a breakout year for Pitt the producer as well as Pitt the movie star.

Aside from being cast against type in the past in films such as Terry Gilliam’s “Twelve Monkeys,” Pitt is not normally associated with the artistic challenges posed by a filmmaker like Mexico’s Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu, who de-glams Pitt to startling effect in “Babel.”

Just as Paramount Vantage was shifting its “Babel” campaign into high gear, two other Plan B projects (with Pitt credited as producer) started strong runs through awards season — “The Departed” and “Running With Scissors.”

Pitt hasn’t granted many interviews about Plan B, especially since a tumultuous 2005. That year saw Grey (longtime chairman of Pitt’s management company, Brillstein-Grey) take the Paramount job, Pitt and Aniston split, “Mr. & Mrs. Smith” usher in Brangelina tabloid fever, and the company get dragged into the fallout generated by James Frey’s controversial megaseller “A Million Little Pieces,” for which Plan B owns the films rights.

But Pitt took a few minutes from the set of David Fincher’s forthcoming “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” — a non-Plan B Paramount release — to speak with DailyVariety about his company.

“We’ve been the child of a bitter divorce,” he says matter-of-factly. “But things have come together, and we have a lot that I’m excited about. For me, the great feeling about producing is that you get a story out there that would not be there unless you champion it in some way.”

He adds that there are a lot of films in the Plan B pipeline in which he would never take a starring role. “We made an edict at the beginning that we would focus on stories and storytellers,” he explains. “I get to be part of stories that I may not be right for as an actor, but as a film lover I think they’re amazing stories to tell.”

Such was the case with “The Departed.” According to Pitt as well as another person involved in the film’s development, Plan B, using almost all of its discretionary funds plus money from then-host Warner Bros., outbid Harvey Weinstein for the rights to remake the 2002 Hong Kong film “Infernal Affairs.” The broker was Roy Lee, the go-between on Asian remakes such as “The Ring” and “The Grudge.” Pitt, the other person says, was “really enthusiastic about remaking the film, and he particularly fought for Matt Damon,” who plays crooked cop Colin Sullivan.

Plan B hired William Monahan in 2003 to write the script and courted director Martin Scorsese. Scorsese fell out a couple of times, and the casting of Jack Nicholson in a villain role vastly expanded from the original’s, altering the film’s budget. But finally, in early 2005, the film got the official greenlight at Warners. That March, Grey took the helm at Paramount and Pitt headed to Morocco to shoot “Babel” and other points on the globe to promote “Mr. & Mrs. Smith.”

Deciding they needed to enlist a producer to be on set, Plan B reached out to Graham King’s Initial Entertainment Group, which produced and co-financed Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York” and “The Aviator.” Thus, “The Departed” has four full producers: King, Scorsese, Grey and Pitt.

“That’s how it works with a lot of things,” Pitt explains. “We start them and then hand them over at some point. For example, we were involved early on in ‘God Grew Tired of Us’ (the Sundance prizewinning doc), but other producers then got involved.”

Actor-producers have existed in Hollywood for decades, and some (Michael Douglas and Robert De Niro come to mind) have attained significant levels of success behind the scenes. But Pitt says there is no particular model for him.

“I’m just kind of groping my way through it,” he says. “I really just focus on knowing the stories and trying to make films that I’d want to have in my DVD collection.”

It helps that the company is more than just Pitt and an assistant. On the contrary, former Paramount production executive Dede Gardner is president, and Tendo Nagenda, Jeremy Kleiner and Kassie Evashevski serve as key members of the team. Grey was forced to cease any day-to-day activity and personally divest of Plan B projects (even though he’s still a gross participant in “Departed,” “Scissors” and any other projects initiated before his move to Paramount), but his role running the studio where the company is based is obviously a boon.

Of her initial meeting with Pitt in 2003, Gardner recalls the encounter as being “really chill,” adding that “what I immediately felt is that he is not beholden to anyone or any approach. He’s a maverick thinker. You can see that in a lot of the roles he’s taken on as an actor.”

Pitt says the group functions as a “garage band.” “We established in the beginning that if one person really believed in something, that even if the others didn’t get it, we would back that person after debating all the merits of it.”

As an example, he cites a project set to shoot next spring called “The Gifted,” based on Ian Parker’s article in the New Yorker about philanthropist Zell Kravinsky, a real-estate mogul who has given away $45 million in assets and donated a kidney to a total stranger.

“Jeremy believed in that one wholeheartedly,” Pitt explains, “and we started talking about the questions it raises, like what is altruism? Does it come from guilt, obsession or a real compassion for humanity? So after talking it through and reading a great script for it by Jacob Estes, who did ‘Mean Creek,’ we decided to do it.”

There should be a lot more fruit soon borne of the garage band’s labors. Gardner is still in India overseeing production of “A Mighty Heart,” the memoir by Marianne Pearl, whose husband Daniel, a Wall Street Journal reporter, was killed by Middle Eastern terrorists. Pitt’s significant other, Angelina Jolie, portrays Mrs. Pearl in the film.

Also on deck are literary adaptations “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a murder mystery by first-time novelist Mark Haddon, told from the standpoint of an autistic 15-year-old that the New Yorker called “an original and affecting novel”; “The Glass Castle,” a memoir of family dysfunction by Jeanette Walls; and “True Story: Murder, Memoir, Mea Culpa” by discredited New York Times reporter Michael Finkel.

The films closest to release are Pitt vehicle “The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford,” slated for release by Warners in the first quarter; and comedy “Year of the Dog,” directed by “School of Rock” screenwriter Mike White and starring John C. Reilly, Peter Sarsgaard and Molly Shannon. Paramount Vantage has “Dog” scheduled for limited release April 13.

All in all, far from the typical high-concept fare that demands big budgets, star power and slick production design. In a way, “Running With Scissors” is of a piece with the previously mentioned projects, in that it’s also based on an acclaimed memoir that deals with damaged lives and often harrowing adversity.

Pitt says it was mainly a bet on helmer Ryan Murphy, creator of the small screen’s “Nip/Tuck” who acquired the rights to Augusten Burroughs’ vividly written bestseller. “So many films are a crap shoot on things people don’t fully believe in,” he says. “So when you’re working with people you respect and enjoy, it makes it worth it.”

Pitt, Grey and Gardner are credited as producers, and the latter focused on it on set when shooting began in spring 2005, just after cameras rolled in Brooklyn on “The Departed.” Also a full producer is Murphy, who wrote and directed and guided key casting decisions, such as Annette Bening as Burroughs’ bipolar mother.

Gardner cites Pitt’s “professional and sincere love of film” in describing his producing style. “He watches tons of movies and documentaries,” she adds. “There’s no real system or method. He just really empowers us to go out and get the best material and work with the best filmmakers, because he doesn’t want this to be a vanity label.”

Meanwhile, Pitt continues to challenge himself as an actor with “Button,” based on an obscure short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald about a privileged man who is born a septuagenarian and ages in reverse. His co-star is Cate Blanchett, who, just as in “Babel,” plays his wife.

Just don’t look for Pitt to follow the paths many other stars have taken into directing. “I plan to keep as much distance from George (Clooney) as I can,” he jokes. “Seriously, I don’t think about directing. There are too many good people doing it already, and it takes up too much of your time.”