Thursday, June 25, 2009

What happened to...Moneyball?

note: (9/23/11) Since these drafts, Aaron Sorkin came on to do a final rewrite on the script, which is the one that eventually went in front of the cameras. 

To get caught up on what exactly "Moneyball" is and the drama that occurred this week, go here to find out.

Genre: Sports Bio
Premise: A general manager with the lowest payroll in baseball invents a new way of scouting involving little-known but very powerful statistics.
About: Based on a true story. Adapted from the book by Michael Lewis. Moneyball came to the attention of everyone when Sony Exec Amy Pascal shut down the movie 3 days before the start of production due to Soderbergh's rewrite of the script (episode of Entourage anyone?)
Writers: Steven Zaillian (Dec. Draft)- Steven Soderbergh (June shooting draft) -- Edit: I thought I'd mention this because people keep bringing it up. There is a May Zaillian draft that I've been told is quite different from the December draft I read. Some of the things I liked in that Dec. draft were missing from Zaillian's subsequent draft (meaning it wasn't Soderbergh's sole choice to get rid of them).

Do you know the kind of balls it takes to shut down the production of a Brad Pitt movie? When Brad Pitt says he'll do your movie, 20 million dollars or not, he's doing *you* a favor. And it's not like Pitt hasn't picked up and walked off on a whim before. Anybody remember The Fountain? - And that was before he met the baby buyer. Nowadays Brad goes out for groceries and he comes home to two more kids. So the fact that Amy Pascal, Chairman of Sony Studios, halted production on Moneyball upon reading the most recent draft by Soderbergh is a BFD. The question is, what happened? Well, we all know Soderbergh has a seriously off-kilter approach to directing. Given some room, he'll turn your straightforward sports tale into a series of flashbacks and flashforwards with Spanish subtitles and 97 minutes of voice over. Lucky for you, Scriptshadow's got both drafts and will get to the bottom of this mess. Did Soderbergh destroy Moneyball? Did Pascal overreact? Read on to find out.


Baseball is a game of numbers. No other sport in the world depends more on numbers than baseball . From singles to doubles to home runs to RBIs to errors to batting averages to slugging percentages to on-base percentages, the sport *is* its numbers. And it's those numbers that form the nucleus of Moneyball's story.

I'm sure when I say the name Billy Beane, it doesn't mean much to you. But you say the name Billy Beane in baseball circles, and it means a hell of a damn lot. Billy Beane is the general manager of the Oakland A's. The Oakland A's are one of the smallest markets in Major League Baseball. To give you an idea of how small, the Yankees payroll is 120 million dollars. The A's payroll? 40 million. Do the math. So the question is: How do you compete in a league where every other team has at least twice as much money as you do?

Billy is a complicated man. He loves the grind but hates watching the fruits of his labor. Billy doesn't travel with the team. He doesn't watch the games. He doesn't like any of the players. All he cares about is putting together a team that wins. Unfortunately, his 40 million dollar payroll has made that next to impossible. Early on, Billy is with his girlfriend, getting ready to escape to a tropical island. But Billy gets a call on his cell, and that call leads to a few more calls, and the next thing you know, a trade is going down. He smiles politely to his girlfriend, hands her his ticket, and says, "Go ahead. I'll meet you there in a few days." And leaves! It's the perfect introduction to Billy because that action, that sequence, tells us exactly who he is.

You see, Billy just lost the three best players on his team and has been told by his owner that he's only got a few million bucks to replace them. So Billy heads off to another tropical paradise, Cleveland, to discuss some trades with the GM of the Indians, Mark Shapiro. Billy is particularly interested in a player named "Rincon", someone so low on Shapiro's radar that he barely recognizes the name. After Shapiro agrees in principle to a trade, a previously unseen nerdy 20-something on a laptop walks over and whispers into Shapiro's ear. He slinks back to the couch and Shapiro calmly turns to Billy, "I'm sorry, you can't have Rincon." Billy spins back and glares at this mystery kid. "Who the fuck are you??" his eyes say. But the kid is already back to his computer. This kid's name is Paul.

Billy corners Paul outside the building and demands to know what the hell he told Shapiro. The argument turns into dinner, and Paul lays out his approach to baseball. He's calculated every single statistic known to baseball and only one is inexorably tied to winning: On-base percentage. Since everyone else is obsessed with home runs and RBIs, this stat has been relatively ignored. Paul believes that if you create a team full of only players with high on-base percentages (A stat so insignificant that you could get the players for dirt cheap) you could theoretically win all the time. Billy thinks Paul might be crazy, but he's up shit creek anyway, so he hires him.

Billy and Paul then apply this untested strategy in the face of years of baseball experience. The idea that you can look at a spreadsheet, and not at the player himself, when putting together a team, causes all sorts of drama inside the A's organization. Essentially, Billy assembles a rag-tag motley crew of rejects with high on-base percentages. When Oakland quickly falls into last place, the drama only gets worse. But the stubborn Billy and Paul stick together, and in the end their faith pays off, as Oakland ends the season with a 20-game win streak, the single longest win-streak in American League history.

The only problem with the script is that it gets too wrapped up in its details, too wrapped up in its numbers. We follow the A's through an entire season and, not unlike keeping tabs on a real baseball season, it's hard to stay focused. Late in the script I was myself asking that age old question: What's driving the story? The best I could come up with is: the curiosity of whether the stats system is going to work. But in that black hole where stories go to die known as the second half of the second act, there isn't enough to remind us of this - to keep us focused - and the story loses some luster as a result. The question is, did Soderbergh address this issue in his rewrite and, more importantly, what else did he address? We'll talk about that in a second. But in regards to Zaillian's draft, I'm going to recommend the read. Sure it wandered. But I've always been fascinated by the jobs of General Managers, and this gave me some great insight into their world.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely kept my interest
[x] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

Script Link: Moneyball (link taken down by request)

SODERBERGH DRAFT (dated 6-22-09)
note: Bad news. I cannot post this draft. It's got Sony markings all over it and you'll just have to trust me when I say it wouldn't be a good idea.

So was it *that* bad? I mean, studios go into production all the time with terrible scripts. Particularly when huge actors like Pitt are involved. So what made Pascal put her foot down? What made her embark on a decision that would taint the project from now til release? I'll tell you what. A bad script. Soderbergh really screwed this up. Moneyball wasn't Chinatown, but at least it was a story. Soderbergh's turned it into a mishmash of ideas in search of a point. It's like he yanked the sail off the boat and let us drift out to sea.

It's hard to point to any one change that ruined the script, but there are several troublesome choices that were made. Remember that early scene where Billy leaves his girlfriend at the airport? That scene told us everything we needed to know about who we'd be following for the next two hours. What does Soderbergh do instead? He has Billy meet Paul in one of the most basic, uninteresting introductions to two characters I've seen in a long time. The two stand around and proceed to tell us (er, I mean each other) exactly who they are.
JP said you're the guy I should be talking to.

JP is great.

JP is great. He said you just got promoted.

Yeah, I was advance scouting and I was just made Special Assistant to the GM.

Well, Cleveland's a monster franchise. I think John Hart and Mark Shapiro are super smart. They got a good thing going.

I have to say, it's nice knowing at the beginning of the year that you're probably going to the playoffs.

I'll bet.

I hear you're extended.

Yeah, four years. It's good, you know. I can watch things happen. And we're close to getting a new stadium.

Which you need.

Which we definitely need. So let me ask you. Can you work spreadsheets and all that stuff, like Excel? Can you manage a payroll?


Great, because I suck at that...
Yes, instead of that great scene where the mysterious Paul walks up and whispers into Shapiro's ear, we now get, "So let me ask you: can you work spreadsheets and all that stuff?"

The draft was an Exposition Empire, with characters blurting out all sorts of things we needed to know without a hint of subtlety. I kept thinking I was at a museum listening to a tour guide, "And here we have Billy. Billy has discovered a secret set of numbers. He will now try to apply them to his team and hopefully win in the process." All the fun from the first draft is gone here. The dramatization. The subtext. It's vanished, not unlike the Montreal Expos.

Also gone are most of Billy's scenes with his daughter, the only true relationship with another human being he has, and therefore the only thing that humanizes him - Billy's drifting from woman to woman (Although there's only scarce mention of it - he appears to be married in Soderbergh's version), the flashbacks of Billy as a player (replaced by interviews with real people who played with Billy) and that feeling of, "Billy and Paul against the world," stemming from their unique system and how it flies in the face of 150 years of baseball - probably the most exciting part of the story.

But the biggest faux-pas is the handling of the all-important "on-base percentage" stat. This is what the A's figured out that everybody else ignored - the hidden statistic that was the key to their success. It's what allows them to compete with half the salary of all the other teams. This is the movie. Yet here it's treated like an afterthought. In fact, I couldn't even tell you what the A's secret to success was in Soderbergh's draft. It's implied that there's a spreadsheet involved but the explanation stops there. A spreadsheet of never-explained numbers? That's how the team wins? That's your hook for the movie?

Look, Soderbergh is the kind of director that likes to find his movies in the editing room. Shoot a bunch of stuff, see what sticks. If something doesn't connect logically , throw some voiceover in there and add a little score. That seems to be his plan of attack with Moneyball. I don't know what the final movie would look like so I couldn't definitively tell you if he would of salvaged this, but I do know he turned a solid script into an incomprehensible mess. And that's why his movie was shut down.

[x] a mess
[ ] barely kept my interest
[ ] worth the read
[ ] impressive
[ ] genius

What I learned: Don't write a sports movie. They're too difficult to write. If the team ends up winning in the end, it feels overly-sappy and cliche. If you go with a grittier more realistic approach, it comes off as boring and self-important. Lose-lose. If you must ignore my advice, go with either a boxing movie or a true story (like this one). But just know that writing a good sports movie is RFH (really fucking hard) and selling one is even harder. Take my advice and don't do it.