It’s been six long years since director Bennett Miller‘s Capote, and he’s finally returned with a very commercial, very accessible, and very good film, Moneyball. On the surface, the awards contender looks like a simple star vehicle for Brad Pitt. On a deeper level, it’s a film about ambition, being an outsider, and striving for greatness.
Clearly, that fits nicely into Miller’s wheelhouse.
Although this is only the filmmaker’s third film, the themes that spark Miller’s interest are apparent. Despite Moneyball being a commercial juggernaut and his 2005 critical hit being a breakout indie, they couldn’t be more thematically similar; both films are about men searching for career success, but finding something unexpected at the end. Speaking with Miller, you get a perfect sense of why the director is drawn to these ambitious figures.
Here’s what the Moneyball director had to say about ambition, the adaptation challenges of his character drama, and taking advantage of the medium he works in:
It’s been about six-years since Capote. During that time, were you looking for the right project?
I was trying to get another film made, and I spent some years trying to do that. I committed myself to another film, developed it, got it to a place where we were ready to do it, and then the economy shifted. I really believed we were going to be doing it, so I was turning down other stuff. Eventually, I had to concede that it wasn’t going to happen.
That’s kind of surprising after the success of Capote. You would think that you’d get more clout from that.
You would think, yeah.
So, at what point did Moneyball come along? Was there any hesitation in taking on this fairly sizable, commercial film?
If there was any hesitation it was because it was a studio film, because it’s a different set of criteria and not something I had ever craved to do. As a filmmaker, one tends to want to evolve evermore towards a place of independence. It would almost seem as if my three films are heading in a more challenging direction in that regard. My first film was something I was able to do by myself, and Capote was a real independent film. Still, there was money involved and this is a big studio film with some very strong personalities involved. If there was any hesitation about a commercial movie, it wasn’t with “will or will it not make money,” but the concern of whether or not we’re going to be able to protect the vision of the film and make the film we want.
Did you see that as an interesting challenge, to see if you could work the studio system and still come out with your vision onscreen?
In the best of circumstances, making a good film is very challenging, and challenging enough. If there is a part of me that is attracted to that notion, I couldn’t say. What I will say — one thing that is attractive about getting a real film made within the studio system — is that studio systems, with their marketing and distribution, have real power. If you’re able to keep it together and create the film you sincerely wanted to make, then the studio offers you an alliance that is impossible otherwise — meaning, your film is going to get out.
You’ve discussed before how tough it was to make Capote. Was Moneyball an easier experience, or just as challenging?
Yeah, it was tough. This was tough in a different way. I think mostly because the material was very challenging. It does not naturally lend itself to an adaptation; it’s not a 1-to-1 translation from book to film. The creative organization of the book needed to die before it could be reborn as the same spirit in a different body. How that was going to work was something that was going to be challenging throughout development, shooting, and to the very end of post. It was really being figured out right until the very end.
I’d also imagine it comes down to casting. There’s a lot of exchanges about statistics and trades that feel exciting, but could have been very boring. Does making those scenes work come down to casting the right actor?
Absolutely, those guys had to make it work. At the end of the day, Brad [Pitt] and Jonah [Hill] had to get in front of the camera and make the thing work. It was all essential to organize the film in such a way that we never lost touch with what the deeper meaning of what those phone calls were, which do not have so much to do with math and statistics as it does with a guy that’s engaged in a real dynamic personal struggle to prove something to himself, and that we understand the stakes and risks of what he’s doing. Also, I think it’s a testament to Brad and Jonah’s performances that they were able to carry that.
Despite the commercial difference, thematically, Capote and Moneyball are quite similar. For Capote, you said,”it’s a story of a guy looking for something and finding it — and discovering it’s not what he thought it would be.” Would you say that idea applies to Moneyball as well?
It is the same idea. I agree that there are similarities, and that’s a principle one. Ultimately, it really is a portrait of one person who has a public persona, a public life, and a public charisma, and a very different private and internal struggle that runs beneath that all; there are undercurrents to it. I think both of these films fundamentally are portraits that do not feature conventional antagonists, but are rather about two guys who are attempting something extremely ambitious in their work, with a hope and expectation that the result is going to be personally transformative. I think they both wanted to make an impact on the world, but ultimately, like any myth, the real meaning at the end of the adventure is about the protagonist themselves.
As a filmmaker, do those ideas resonate heavily, being ambitious and striving for greatness?
It’s fundamental. It’s hard to conceive of having the energy to make a film, to get up every morning, and toil for a year and a half with it, if you believe someone else could be making that film, if you believe you understand in advance everything that the movie might have to offer, if you in fact are constructing some prefabricated concept that’s been completed and fully understood in advance, then I don’t know how you can make a living, dynamic film. It’s something you need to discover. Every film, I believe, teaches you how to make that film. If you find yourself considering a project that seems like a layup, then you’re diluted or that movie’s probably not the right movie for you to be making.
Do you think you’ll always be able to find a project like that, where you feel it hasn’t been done before or that some journeyman couldn’t step in and easily do it?
Well, yes. You have a huge ocean to fish in. Meaning the ocean of that you do not understand [Laughs]; it’s endless and bottomless. I don’t think anyone gets to the point of their life where they feel like, “Okay, I’m done, I’ve mastered it all, I understand all, and there’s nothing left to exercise or comprehend through this medium,” and that’s not possible. It’s just whether or not you have the gumption for that kind of challenge.
So, you’ll never be a director that comes in looking at it as just a job?
It’s hard to imagine right now. Having said that, why don’t you check in with me in a few years as I begin to age and, perhaps, lose steam, tire, and feel like getting out of the house. I’m mostly joking, but for now, it’s hard to imagine wanting to do that.
You make your directorial process sound very difficult, and of course, it’s a long process. When a film’s completed and done, where does the gratification come from?
Are you asking what it is that’s the reward?
Yeah, because your process sounds very challenging.
I hope it’s not always as long and as painful, but I think the reward comes from realization; when the intention becomes real, when as a filmmaker you illuminated what it is you’re after, not just as a product or entertainment, but there’s a lot of themes in the three movies that I’ve done so far that were core, fundamental issues for me. The making-of the films themselves functioned as explorations and meditation on these themes. It’s really a means to investigate. Film as a medium, like a novel as a medium, possesses a unique ability to communicate. Film is capable of communicating in a way that no other medium can, and I would say the same for the novel. To not use it towards that kind of potential feels wasteful. Again, not being solely result-oriented, the process of filmmaking itself uniquely enables a person to confront and explore things that, otherwise, are not possible — at least, for someone like myself.
Moneyball opens in theaters on September 23rd.