Oscars: Bennett Miller talks Brad Pitt, Kubrick’s influence, and the beauty of “Moneyball” – AWARDS ALLEY

By Sean O’Connell
hollywoodnews.com: Bennett Miller’s “Moneyball” was the best movie I saw in 2011.

Granted, it didn’t register as my favorite movie immediately after a pre-Toronto screening. But I found myself thinking about Miller’s adaptation for weeks. I went out of my way to see it again. Then one more time. By year’s end, no other film stuck to the ribs in quite the same way, resonating on multiple levels as it recounted the maverick story of Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane (Brad Pitt, at his finest) and his against-the-grain plan to get his undervalued team back in contention.

I’m not alone in recognizing Miller’s efforts. The Broadcast Film Critics Association have nominated “Moneyball” in three Critics’ Choice Movie Awards categories including Best Picture, Actor (for Pitt), and Screenplay (for Stan Chervin, Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin). The film earned four Golden Globe noms, and the New York Film Critics Circle recognized Pitt and the “Moneyball” script late last year.

It was an honor to sit down with Miller to discuss “Moneyball,” the impact of certain movies, having a partner like Pitt and the beauty of baseball. Here’s Bennett Miller.

HollywoodNews.com: I found that I got more out of “Moneyball” on a second viewing than I did the first time through. Do you hear that often, and do you think about how many times an audience might be able to see your film while you are making it?

Bennett Miller: I do think about the shelf life of the film, and if it’s going to survive the ages. As I’m making it, I am interested in making something that holds up over time. I just think that the nature of the work that I’m interested in doing does have some complexity to it, and there are layers and subtlety, and it communicates on different frequencies. I think it’s natural that one might not get everything if you put a lot in there, you know? I’m very glad that you had that reaction, and I heard that before from Capote and The Cruise, also. But it’s not a question of not thinking about who’s going to get it enough. I don’t consciously concern myself with worrying about that. But I am trying to make something that has a lot to appreciate.

One of my favorite films is Stanley Kubrick’s “Barry Lyndon.” I’ve been watching that film for years. Most recently, I watched it about six weeks ago, and it was almost as if I had never seen it before. It just gets deeper, better, and it becomes more and more of a marvel to me that the film even exists. The subtlety and the mastery of the performances and the casting … you know, Wagner had a German term that he used when describing the opera, and it translated to “all elements working as one.” To Wagner, that meant the music, the libretto, the production design, the lighting, the performances – all of the elements all working together toward a singular experience. I think cinema, at its best, achieves that more powerfully than any medium in the history of the world.

A movie like “Barry Lyndon,” for example, is one that you could watch for a lifetime and still be discovering things to appreciate about it. And without making any immodest claims, I’d say that that’s at least the aspiration.

HollywoodNews.com: “Moneyball” enjoyed incredible critical and financial success. Which of those meant more to you?

I think they’re both meaningful. More meaningful, though, is that before either of those outcomes are known, I took a moment and evaluated for myself the film and how I did. My own personal Rotten Tomatoes, I guess. And you put that in a lock box, and you put it away. No matter what happens, you retain your own feeling about it.

I’ll say that both of those things are meaningful. They’re not necessarily empirical verdicts of the value of the movie. I think there are films that get rated highly that are embraced by critics that I disagree with, and vice versa. Similarly with box office, there are films that are overlooked and under-patronized in proportion to their critical and box office success.

I think it’s important to not harness yourself too permanently to the whims of those things.

HollywoodNews.com: In the short term, both probably help you get your next movie made.

Absolutely. That’s where they are most meaningful. And I’m not condemning them. I just think it’s important to temper yourself when it comes to those things. If you are operating from a place of speculation about how the market and the critical masses are going to respond, I think you’re playing a different game. You surrender something. You lose something. You become obedient to something other than … it will sound too harsh to say it, but I think it’s better to generate your vision from within and follow that than it is to approach it from a market-research perspective. Signals from the outside world are not a terrible way to gauge reaction, to get a sense that you’re still dealing with some form of reality. But I think 95% of it should be inconsiderate of any kind of projections of box office or critical response.

HollywoodNews.com: Coming at it from that angle, then, tell me how important it is to be on the same page as someone like Brad, and maybe how he can help push through some of the obstacles so that you can keep your vision as pure as it is.

It’s essential. To make a film like this without that confidence and that clarity in that partnership is not possible. If he and I are not working on the same film, there will be problems. It’s a fundamental guideline to me, that everybody be making the same film to every degree possible.

HollywoodNews.com: Staying on Mr. Pitt for a minute, he has been receiving some of the best reviews of his career. What did you see while directing him on a day-to-day basis?

I don’t think I thought too much about that. There’s not a lot of time and space to have those thoughts. Especially in this film, where it really felt like everything was pretty tight. Time and money were pretty tight for a film like this. We really dwelled on the problems of the moment-to-moment, and what is required for the performance in a given moment. Pretty much at the end of every day, we had a good feel of how this was going to go, or what kind of challenge we would have in editing. Did we get it, or will we have to find it someplace else, you know?

Nobody is high-fiving each other at the end of the day, but I do think we all kind of felt that we were getting it.

HollywoodNews.com: We haven’t talked about baseball, and yet, it feels like we should. Sony marketed “Moneyball” as a baseball movie, and it might have caught audiences off guard with how little baseball we see in the film. Tell me about your choices when you actually shot baseball. What did you discuss with Wally Pfister?

Well, there’s only really one game that’s portrayed with any thoroughness to it.

HollywoodNews.com: The Kansas City Game.

Yeah. And it’s one of the dramatic climaxes of the film. The reason why that game is in the film … my problem, Sean, is trying to speak in answers that are less than 1,000 words, but I’m going to try and limit this.

The idea behind the big game is that the style of it changes within it. It goes from a very naturalistic, almost verite treatment of it. It becomes a hallucination, a fever-dream nightmare that evokes Billy Beane’s anxieties, and the way he deals with them. The manner in which it was done … we did that within the guidelines and the principles of the style of the movie. Which is to say that even when it becomes highly stylized, it still has one foot planted, soundly, on the ground in a bit of reality.

The movie has an observational style. I strongly prefer films that observe stories, as opposed to telling stories. The cinematography, the score, they need to conspire to create a perspective through which you experience the unfolding of a story, as opposed to a more oppressive, pedantic way of doing things.

HollywoodNews.com: Which is why, on a second viewing, I better understand your pace. So when the camera lingers on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character after he’s essentially dismissed by Brad, and he fiddles with his watch but the scene doesn’t end, I better understood your camera’s place in the scene. It’s fantastic.

I just watched some of the quote-unquote airplane cut, you know? What they did to the film for when it plays on airplanes. And I jumped to that moment and saw that they cut that out. And I just turned it off. I literally watched 30 seconds of the airplane cut, and that’s the first thing that I saw – that they had cut that out. I just hit stop, eject, and I couldn’t even look at it.

HollywoodNews.com: I am so sorry.

I don’t even know what’s in the rest of that cut. But … yeah. So yeah, to answer your earlier point a little more deeply, I do care that the movie engages, communicates and delivers to a general audience. But it really is made for those who might appreciate it on more subtle levels, and who might value complexity in the presentation.

HollywoodNews.com: I wonder if there’s an airplane cut of “Barry Lyndon” out there.

[Laughs] You know, I’m absolutely sure that “Barry Lyndon,” at one point, was presented in a 1.33:1 pan-and-scan, cut-down version. Or maybe not. Kubrick was pretty in control, so he might have avoided that.

Last October, we proudly presented Bennett Miller with our Hollywood Director Award for his work on “Moneyball.” You can see Jonah Hill presenting the award to Miller via the link below:

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