Thursday, October 29, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Pt 1

There is a character moment in the opening sequence that I loved, probably lost now forever. Fade In. We’re flying over the Oakland Coliseum at night, the floodlights on. We drift past the Oakland A’s three premier players painted on concrete, a good visual setup. These guys are essential to the story. We turn, dip, and float toward the A’s dugout. There’s the faint sound of crowds cheering. There’s the voice over of a sports announcer talking about an exciting game: “one out, nobody on, two on two to Saenz…” We descend into the dugout and over to the tunnel and into the “netherworld bowels of the Coliseum.” The cheering and the voices of the two sports announcers get louder.

We continue to move down the cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” The announcer’s growing voice continues: “a ground out to second, Thom, is not what the A’s were looking for from Saenz – down by two in the ninth.”

We float into a room and see the solitary figure of protagonist Billy Beane bench-pressing “with the intensity of a soul expiating sins” as a nearby TV plays a game taking place somewhere else. Announcer: “- the A’s are down to their last strike and this Yankee crowd is on its feet. Rivera squints for the sign, gets it, delivers, and –“ Billy turns off the sound. He cannot bear this moment. He goes back to his bench pressing “like he’s trying to sweat out the impurities of deed or thought.” He sits up, switches the sound back on. Announcer: “it is bedlam in New York! The Yankees have done what no other team in MLB history has been able to do: come back after losing the first two games to win a Division Series!”

Billy sits up. He walks out as the announcer continues: “This is historic not only for New York, Thom, but for Oakland. The A’s have just set a new record, too, but not the kind you want: no other team has ever lost a division series after winning the first two games…” The TV shows the Yankees constructing a human pyramid at home plate while the A’s, including the ones we saw painted on the concrete, sit glumly in the visitors’ dugout, cameras zooming into their shell-shocked faces.

“Billy pulls himself up off the bench, walks over to an equipment area, selects a bat, regards his surroundings calmly… then suddenly swings the bat mightily at an open locker door, ripping it from its hinges… He attacks another locker, spreading its vents with a violent crash. He slams the bat into another locker… wood-splinters fly…”

That, my friends, is how you open a screenplay that will be greenlit by a studio for millions and millions of dollars with a premium director and global star attached.

A few thoughts about this sequence:

* Zaillian, first of all, gives us an intriguing shot that pulls you in as we float over an empty Oakland Coliseum and into its bowels. So often we think of strong openings as plot-related, that is, something exciting happens in the plot within the first five pages that makes us want to keep reading. Many times, though, intriguing shots can tease us with visuals that make you curious and want to keep reading to see where the shot and the story will take us. This is a great reminder to let your imagination take flight and consider unique experiences and new ways of looking at subjects we’ve seen many times before in film. There’s no limit to screenwriting, and yet, too often, we confine our imaginations.

* Zaillian also solves some tricky issues about the setting with this floating shot. This story is about the Oakland A’s, although this crucial, painful loss to the Yankees, which is the inciting incident, takes place in New York. You can’t change that. So we’re shown in this sequence the empty A’s stadium, how important these premier players are to thousands of Oakland fans by the fact that they’re painted on the concrete, which is contrasted later with their shell-shocked faces on TV after a stunning loss. Following this game, those players will become free agents, another huge loss to the organization.

* I love the shift in values over the course of this one sequence. At first, the juxtaposition of these words and images in the context of the baseball genre usually implies that this is a “reliving the glory days” kind of moment. The bread and butter of baseball is a romantic sentimentalism about the game. Here, you assume you’re hearing the ghosts of a past game that took place in the stadium in which there will be the inevitable thrilling victory. But we find that this isn’t the case at all. This is a very haunting present, complemented visually with this night shot and the darkened cinder-block corridor “dimly lit with wire-encased lamps like in a coal mine.” This haunting present leads to a very painful conclusion of a very important game that will set this entire movie in motion.

* I love how we’re first presented Billy Beane. He is so gripped by his turmoil about this game that he can’t watch it. He has to work-out while the game is being played. It’s a kind of manly expression of anxiety not seen in film before, I don’t believe, and without Billy saying a word, we understand his pain, not just because he’s bench pressing like his soul depends on it but also by seeing him turn off the sound of a moment he knew was coming that he cannot bear to hear. In that moment, we feel the sting of his loss. We know his obvious frustrations and goals for the Oakland A’s. We also get a sense of his past, too. He’s working out because he must’ve been a player. Or, at least, he aspired to be a player.

* Every detail in your screenplay is important in terms of the information you’re passing along to the audience. What did Zaillian do? He hooked us with an imaginative opening shot that sets up expectations about what we’ll be seeing in the film. He makes us want to keep reading. We want to know where we’re being taken and who we’ll be seeing. We think we’re hearing a sentimental glory moment and that expectation is turned on its head. He also slyly establishes the setting, the inciting incident, the principal characters, the protagonist, the protagonist's goal, backstory, and inner turmoil about his team, and he does all of these things in under two pages.

I dare you to do better.

Mystery Man is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma. He blogs at and tweets at And he has nice shoes.
A version of this post originally appeared on Mystery Man on Film.


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