Sunday, February 19, 2012

Oscar nominated Best Screenplay Adaptation: Moneyball by Stan Chervin, Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin

I'm planning on highlighting each of the best screenplay adaptation nominations as we approach Oscar day. Did I mention I am going to the Oscars next Sunday? My brother works for the Academy and is taking me as his plus one! So excited!
Yesterday, I featured a story on the partnershop of the now-deceased Bridget O'Connor and husband Peter Straughan and their Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy screenplay based on the John LeCarre novel. Today, I've found a Q & A with Stan Chervin who is one of the credited writers on the screenplay for the movie Moneyball along with Steve Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin. Chervin actually wrote the first draft. That's Chervin in the middle, Zaillian is on the left, Sorkin on the right.
The Q&A is excerpted from the website GoingIntoTheStory.com and  provides some insight into the script development process for that movie:
How did you first get involved with Moneyball?
Rachael Horovitz. After leaving her job as an executive at Revolution in 2003, Rachael had read the book Moneyball and became obsessed with making it into a movie. She happened to be talking to Jody Hotchkiss, the agent who represented the Moe Berg book that I set up at Warners and adapted, and my name came up as a writer she should talk to. Rachael called me. Fortunately, I had heard Michael Lewis interviewed on Fresh Air so I was familiar enough with the book to discuss it even though I had not read it.
I read the book and it was one of those moments you never forget as a writer: I instantly knew how to adapt it. It was like an epiphany. From the moment I read the opening line – “The first thing they always do is run you” – I had a clear, strong and viable take on how to adapt the book.
What writing did you do on the project and how did the script you wrote impact the process of getting the movie on track to be produced?
Here’s what I believe are some of my major contributions to getting the movie made:
First, I was the writer who got the project set up at a studio. Many people, even Michael Lewis, believed you could never do a film adaptation of Moneyball. What my pitch did was show studios where the movie was by reducing the book down to a single sentence which conveyed that this was essentially a human story and not a baseball movie.
Second, my draft was the first to prove what Rachael and I always believed: that the material could be a movie. I was the writer who started off just a blank page and the book and wrote a screenplay that enabled people to see the movie that the book could become. I often joke that the very first draft of Moneyball was like the proverbial dancing bear: what’s impressive is not how well he does it, but that he can do it at all. (Steve and Aaron then turned the bear into Fred Astaire.)
Third, my draft showed the project would attract A-list talent. David Frankel, the initial director of the movie, came on board as a result of reading my script and then hired me back to do a draft under his supervision.
Moneyball must have been a doubly difficult story to write because it’s not only a book adaptation, it’s also a biopic, both unique challenges for a screenwriter. Could you tell us some of the more difficult narrative choices you had to make in determining what content you chose to include, what you decided to exclude, changes you made to make the material work as a movie, etc.
Here are some of the key choices I made in adapting the material:
A major contribution I made was present in the pitch and I believed help sell it (and, eventually, helped attract talent to the project): I created the subplot between Billy and his daughter, Casey.
In the book, Casey is mentioned in only two sentences:
Early on, after his divorce, Billy is concerned that he won’t be part of Casey’s life if he takes the scouting job which required a lot of traveling; then, 300 pages later, when the A’s are going for their 20th win in a row he calls home to see if she’s watching the game and Casey is watching American Idol instead.
I took those two sentences and built up a sub-plot involving Billy’s relationship with his daughter, Casey.
I should note that I’m sure Steve or Aaron would’ve come up with this storyline as well. I just happened to do it first. Moreover, Steve and Aaron really showed how the concept of “less is more” works. In my drafts, I always had a more fully fleshed out Billy-Casey sub-plot, a whole “B” storyline centered on Casey. Steve and Aaron showed how you could convey all the emotion and challenges of an entire father-daughter relationship in just three scenes.
My other key contribution was to elevate and expand the role of Peter Brand (Paul DePodesta.)
In the book, the “Peter” character only appears a half-dozen times, primarily during the Amateur draft and in the Trading Day scene that’s in the movie. I was the writer who made Peter/Paul into Billy’s main supporter in his quest to revolutionize baseball, as well as the intellectual instigator of many of the ideas that then fell to Billy to put into practice. It was my choice to have Billy hire Peter during the movie’s time frame (in real life, by Oct. 2001, Paul had already been working for Billy for two years) and to then show onscreen the methods by which they developed their philosophy of identifying the players they wanted. In a way, Moneyball has no true “antagonist” – both Art Howe and the A’s owner partially fulfill the role, but neither is around all the time – so Peter/Paul often serves that structural purpose of providing complication or obstacles for Billy. If you only know the movie and then read the book, you’ll be surprised what a minor role Paul (Peter) plays compared to his role in the movie.
I also defined the “present day” of the story. The book jumps around in time – it opens with Billy being drafted, then goes to the June 2002 amateur draft, then back to Billy’s career as a player, followed by Bill James writing the Baseball Abstract. I determined that the story should take place during a very specific one-year time period from October, 2001, when the A’s lose to the Yankees in the playoffs, and then lose Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and relief pitcher Isringhausen to free agency, until November, 2002 when Billy turns down the job as G.M. of the Boston Red Sox. The other aspects of Billy’s life – his being drafted, his failure as a player, and his career as a scout – were all shown as flashbacks within the context of that time period.
It took me two drafts to clearly define that time period. In my first two drafts, I showed Billy’s life prior to becoming A’s G.M. in a quick preamble, maybe 7-10 pages to take him from high school draft to failed player to scout. It wasn’t until my third draft that I realized what a HUGE mistake that preamble was: I was giving away all of Billy’s secrets. I think Aaron Spelling said, “Characters are all about their secrets.” Billy’s “secret” was that he had failed spectacularly as a player and it affected all his actions as a G.M. – basically, Billy was determined to never draft a “Billy Beane,” a player who looked good, but couldn’t hit. I was telling the audience all his secrets in the opening minutes of the movie. It left with them with very little to “discover” on their own as the movie unfolded.
The single most important contribution I made to Moneyball was this: I reduced the entire emotional/thematic content of the book down to a single sentence. It was a sentence I used when we were pitching the project, and would later quote in almost every notes session I had with the studio or with the director. I am particularly proud that a version of the sentence was used as a tag line on the first one-sheet the studio put out for the movie. Basically, the sentence that summed up the “take away experience” of Moneyball, as well as the essence of Billy’s character arc, was this:
“It is the story of a man who learns it is more important to know his value rather than his price.”
How long did you work on Moneyball? How many drafts did you write?
I sold the movie off a pitch. I then had to submit a written version of the pitch.
I then wrote three drafts over a 16 month period.
The studio began looking for directors. David Frankel, fresh off his success of The Devil Wears Prada, attached himself as director.
I wrote another draft under David’s supervision which I submitted in July, 2007. That was the last writing I did on Moneyball.
The path Moneyball took from your first draft to finally getting released as a movie was a circuitous one. How closely did you follow all of its ups and downs including director Steven Soderbergh leaving the project within mere weeks of the movie’s start date? Were there times you felt the movie would never get made?
To be honest, I really had no more access than anyone else and only knew what I read in the papers. Rachael Horovitz kept me up to date on what was happening during that time period as best she could but she had far more important and pressing issues to attend than keeping me informed.
When Sony pulled the plug in June 2009, I did not think the movie would ever get made. I think it had $10 million against it and I just assumed it was dead. It is a real testament to Brad, as well as the producers, Rachael and Mike and Scott Rudin, and Aaron and Steve and, most importantly, Bennett, that they pulled off the truly miraculous feat of raising the movie from the dead and not only getting it made, but making it in a way that it was a critical and commercial success.

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