Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Mystery Man: Steven Soderbergh's Moneyball Script

Soderbergh opens his script with this sobering bit of news:

"Billy Beane's minor and major league career will be shown via filmed interviews with scouts, coaches, managers, players, and family members who were with him at the time. These interviews will comprise approximately ten percent of the film.

"Another ten percent of the film will consist of re-enactments of real events as remembered by the people playing themselves. The purpose of these scenes will be to provide set-up and perspective for subjects, situations, or relationships which currently appear in the screenplay without the requisite/normal amount of context.

"All that is to say an importation portion of this film will be written in the editing room. This isn't a cop-out; it's just a fact and entirely by design."

I will defend Soderbergh only this far: I'm guessing that he instinctively picked-up on the weaknesses of Zaillian's script, and he sought to, in an inventive way, make the experience more unique, emotional, personal, and generally, more realistic.

For that, I applaud him.

Having said that, Soderbergh should've retitled it 'FUBAR.' He re-shaped this flawed story into something so unnecessarily convoluted. His script contains not only the same problems as Zaillian's but also piles on more problems with weak, flat, phony dialogue and mountains of verbal exposition. Oh, the mountains of insufferable exposition, so high and so vast, they should be called "Soderberghs Himalayas."

Consider the differences between these two stories in how Billy met Paul DePodesta, a guy who is crucial in shaping Billy's new way of thinking about statistics. First, let's see Zaillian's scene. This starts on page 18. At this point, the team lost the division to the Yankees. They're about to lose their three best players. Their options are severely limited. You could cut the tension in Oakland with a knife. Billy had a heated discussion with his scouts and threw a chair. And now, Billy just had a very depressing meeting with the Indians' General Manager, who changed his mind about a deal after Paul, who worked for the Indians at the time, whispered something into the GM's ear. Billy has just left the office. He sees Paul.

Billy: You.

Paul: Excuse me?

Billy: Come here.
[Paul comes out into the hallway.]

Billy: Who the fuck are you?

Paul: I'm Paul, Mr. Beane.

Billy: I don't give a fuck about your name. What are you doing?

Paul: Um... I'm doing my job.

Billy: No, I'm doing my job. You - are fucking up my job. You just cost me a left-handed setup man.

Paul: I like Rincon.

Billy: You like Rincon. You like Rincon. Was I talking to you in there? [Billy leaves. Paul works up his courage.]

Paul: Rincon has nothing to do with your problem. Your problem is you can't replace Giambi with another first baseman like him, because there isn't another one like him.
[Billy stops walking.]

Following this moment, Paul and Billy eat at a Steakhouse. Paul enlightens Billy about what's wrong with current thinking about baseball statistics. Billy loves what he hears and hires Paul. Now, consider Soderbergh's approach. This moment starts on page 2 and PRECEDES the Inciting Incident of the Oakland A's losing the division to the Yankees.

Billy: JP said you're the guy I should be talking to.

Paul: JP is great.

Billy: JP is great. He said you just got promoted.

Paul: Yeah, I was advanced scouting and I just made Special Assistant to the GM.

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

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

Billy: I'll bet.

Paul: I hear you extended.

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

Paul: Which you need.

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

Paul: Yeah.

Billy: Great, because I suck at that. And you're totally up to speed on all the league rules? I need to make sure I don't accidentally put someone on waivers or something.

Paul: I'm pretty familiar with all the league rules. Also, I used a software program to chart games when I was advancing. It might be worth buying. It's really helpful.

Billy: Is it expensive?

Paul: I know the guy who developed it, I'm sure we could work something out.

Billy: Great.

Paul: So let me ask you. Do you really think you can win with your payroll? No small market team has made the playoffs since the strike.

Billy: I will never use payroll as an excuse. Look, being a small market team, we're constantly being pushed to the edge of extinction by the big market teams. We can't do it the way the Yankees do it. They've got guns, and we've got bows and arrows. We've got to find a way to adapt or we're going to disappear, and I like a lot of the ideas coming out of statistical analysis. It could be our edge.

Paul: You know, I was playing blackjack once and a guy sitting next to me hit on seventeen and actually drew a four. And he's collecting his money, clearly thinking to himself: "This is a good strategy for playing blackjack." And that's when I realized: that's how most teams operate, they play like the guy walking into a casino, when they should be playing like the house.

Billy: (excited) Right, exactly. That's what we have to do. We have to be the house.

Paul: You've heard of Paul Drucker?

Billy: The management guy.

Paul: He's got a thing called the Naïve Question: "If we weren't already doing it this way, is this the way we would start?" And can I drop another name?

Billy: Hey, you're the Harvard grad, not me.

Paul: You've heard of him: Thomas Paine. "A long habit of not thinking a thing wrong gives it a superficial appearance of being right."

Billy: That's fantastic. Look, Paul, you should do this. We should do this. Before somebody else does. Somebody with money.

Paul: How comfortable are you looking crazy? I mean, people have dabbled in statistical analysis, but to run a whole team based on sabermetrics - no one's really done it before. Some of the decisions we make will look really strange.

Billy: (trying to close him) That's our edge, them thinking we're crazy. The longer they think we're crazy, the better. By the time they figure out what we're doing, we'll have beaten them. So let's do this, right?

Can you not see the huge difference between those two scenes? Zaillian's version crackles with energy. It's short, fast, and snappy. It exists in the context of a huge conflict, that is, the Oakland A's team is up shit's creek and Billy is driven to save the team. Soderbergh's scene lacked life because this came before the Inciting Incident and there's no conflict driving the story or Billy. Zaillian's exposition in the steakhouse scene isn't bad because it's in the context of a problem. We need this exposition to figure out how to save the team. Soderbergh's exposition feels false and flat and nearly puts you to sleep because there's no conflict yet. There's nothing driving what's happening between these characters.

So let's come full circle back to the scandal. I'm inclined to believe (up to a point) the Brad Pitt theory. No star at his level would stay on a project when the dialogue has been butchered this badly. I do not for a minute blame the studio for pulling the plug on Soderbergh. I certainly would've done the same.

However, I will not give one shit about this project unless someone tells me that Aaron Sorkin (and his team of writers) fixed the problems in Zaillian's script and focused on the character's journey.

For An Intro to the Moneyball Disaster, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 1, Click here.
For Steven Zaillian's Moneyball Script, Part 2, Click here.

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


  1. The Soderbergh revisions were terrible -- I was somewhat surprised that an A-lister felt the need to write exposition in such a clumsy manner at the beginning of the script. I've printed this article out and hung on the wall -- for all the wrong reasons.

  2. I thought the same thing! I couldn't believe it.



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