Oscar Spotlight: Brad Pitt Interview For ‘The Tree of Life’ & ‘Moneyball’
At this years Academy Awards, Brad Pitt features in two movies in contention for the much coveted Best Picture category with ‘The Tree of Life’ and ‘Moneyball.’ Overall, ‘The Tree of Life’ is up for three gongs, while ‘Moneyball’ is up for six. Also, on an individual note, Pitt is nominated for his third Academy Award acting nomination for ‘Moneyball’ in the Best Actor category.
‘The Tree of Life’ is Terrence Malick’s deeply philosophical, visually stunning and ambitious story of a Midwestern family in the 1950’s. The film follows the life journey of the eldest son, Jack, through the innocence of childhood to his disillusioned adult years as he tries to reconcile a complicated relationship with his father (Pitt). Jack (played as an adult by Sean Penn) finds himself a lost soul in the modern world, seeking answers to the origins and meaning of life while questioning the existence of faith. Through Malick’s signature imagery, we see how both brute nature and spiritual grace shape not only our lives as individuals and families, but all life.
In ‘Moneyball,’ Pitt stars as Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s, whose unorthodox approach to fielding a team had a major impact on the game, discarding baseball’s conventional wisdom. Forced to reinvent his team on a tight budget, Beane will have to outsmart the richer clubs. The onetime jock teams with Ivy League grad Peter Brand (Jonah Hill) in an unlikely partnership, recruiting bargain players that the scouts call flawed, but all of whom have an ability to get on base, score runs, and win games. It’s more than baseball, it’s a revolution – one that challenges old school traditions and puts Beane in the crosshairs of those who say he’s tearing out the heart and soul of the game.
I can imagine working with Terrence Malick on ‘The Tree of Life’ must have been an extraordinary and unique experience?
Brad Pitt: I could go on far too long about this (laughs). My section of the story takes place in the 50s. Terry started by renting this entire block and dressing it as the 1950’s, therefore allowing us to go outside, wherever we wanted. His idea is, even though he gave us this very dense script, he never wanted us to do what he calls hammer and tongs – seeing to it as it’s written. He’s more interested in catching what was happening on the day. He’s like a guy standing there with a big butterfly net, waiting for that moment of truth to go by. The kids themselves weren’t given the script, they had a closet of clothes, they put on what they wanted to put on that day and that’s what we shot in. We would do two takes….Terry would get up every morning and write for an hour, he would give us pages in the morning and we would develop something out of that. I think because of that the moments are fresh, they’re not preconceived in anyway, the lighting even, there was only one light in the house, everything else was natural light.
It was a pretty incredible experience, I don’t know if I could do them all that way because it is exhausting, but you see what you get. Also he does what he calls torpedoing a scene, the youngest child he called the torpedo, on the first take me and Jessica Chastain are having an argument, we’re going at it, raising our voices, doing what you do. Then on the second take unbeknownst to us he would send in the torpedo and get him to sit at the table, suddenly it changed the whole tenure and tone of the scene. This is something that would go on, on a daily basis. I could go on for days about working with Terry.
Has working like that changed how you work since?
Brad Pitt: It’s changed everything I’ve done since. I’ve found that the best moments, what I find as the best moments, were not pre-conceived, they were not planned, they were the happy accident. In the things I’ve done since I’ve tried to go more in that direction. There’s intense study going into it but then going off the script a bit, seeing where it takes you, what happens.
The theme of creation, the mysteries, the religious themes run through the movie…
Brad Pitt: We had a lot of theological debates throughout the process, philosophies, religion, really interesting, he’s a very interesting man to talk to. I would say Terry is more of a spiritualist than a compartmentalised….version of Christianity, he has a more universal viewpoint in my opinion.
Was there anything you could relate to about your character in ‘The Tree of Life’?
Brad Pitt: I can speak a little about the southern upbringing, but I find this film more universal. I hope it speaks to all cultures, in as far as childhood, deciding who you are going to be when you grow up, from child to young adult, you try things, some things work, some things don’t, you’re being honed by the influences around you. In this case, the Mother represented grace and love and all that is pure and good, and the Father represents this oppressive nature, the nature that must survive, that will choke out this other plant in order to do so. The young child is trying both things on and figuring out what works for him and what he will be when he grows up. Then there are the bigger questions, the impermanence of life that we all go through.
The southern upbringing, I’m making it a cliché almost, but there is truth to a purity and sweetness to the mother, and a more father-knows-best mentality, a father is provider. And in the film you see the American dream as we grow up to understand, it is not working for….the father is on the tail end of that, there’s a lot of anger because of it, he intern passes that on to his sons inadvertently and unintentionally. I do think that there are parts of the story that are very personal to Terry, there are elements of the story that are personal to me, but I don’t think it mirrors, or is an exact template of either one of us.
In that it was evolving in captured moments, when you saw ‘The Tree of Life,’ what surprised you most about it?
Brad Pitt: I was surprised first off all by the structure, I thought it was quite ingenious. This marriage with the micro and the macro I found most interesting. He tells this micro story of this family in this small town in Texas. Then that’s juxtaposed with the macro of the birth of the cosmos, cells splitting. I find that quite extraordinary, there seems to be some parallel truths in that.
Now with ‘Moneyball,’ what is your own background with Baseball? And now with having played Billy Beane, do you find yourself paying more attention to the Oakland A’s?
Brad Pitt: Yes I do actually (laughs). My relationship with baseball was cantankerous at best. I had a crap arm, I thought I could hit until these guys laughed at the way I was swinging. It ended with eighteen stitches under the eye from a pop fly during high noon. So it was not my gift, let me just say, not my gift (laughs). The Oakland A’s were really gracious to us, letting us in, opening doors for us. Mainly we just had laughs, understanding the camaraderie that happens behind the game, it was really something nice to see and be apart of.
‘Moneyball’ had been gestating for a while, what kept you interested for so long?
Brad Pitt: First, I would say that it’s complicated material, it’s not your conventional story or story line, with conventional character arcs. So it took a lot of shots at it, and a lot of people getting their fingerprints on it, to try to hammer out what it would be. Ultimately I couldn’t let go of this story of these guys, who by necessity were trapped in an unfair game, an unfair situation. By necessity they had to think differently, they had to reinvent themselves. In doing so they ran up against great bias and a vitriolic wall, which really tested who they were. At the end of the day it’s a story about our values, about how we value people, what we value as success, what we value as failure, how we understand our own value, that the value system is warped with bias and prejudice – these kinds of questions. There are so many themes, I could go on about 70s films I thought it could relate to, and these characters, but ultimately it’s about values. It took Bennett Miller to crack the story.
What themes rung true to you with ‘Moneyball‘?
Brad Pitt: I’m a sucker for an underdog story. The title of the book is ‘Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game,’ how these guys were able to survive and stay competitive, questioning the things we accept every single day. Because we are doing something the same way for so long, does that mean it’s right for today? We don’t stop and question the context of why those decisions were made, that speaks to me. Why if we were inventing the automobile today, would it run on a finite resource that we’d have to go to war for, that it’d take so much of our GDP? No, we’d probably make it run like our laptops. It’s this kind of questioning I find very inspiring. If we were doing it today, is this how we would do it?
‘Moneyball’ is extremely probing, these men questioning the general consensus….
Brad Pitt: Definitely. I thought ‘Moneyball’ was a contemporary story, one of our time. I thought there were bigger universal themes that went far beyond the playing field – which is what I was most interested in. In some ways the film still holds the romance of the sport, and then on the other hand it’s anti-conventional, compared to previous baseball films. What these guys did I have great respect for, I had never looked at baseball, or sports, from a stand point as a fan in terms of economics, in terms that it’s not a level playing field. My feeling is that the best team wins, but these guys had to start asking new questions, they had to attack conventional wisdom, in doing so that’s a tough wall to get over. But they had to by necessity in order to survive, they knew they couldn’t fight the other guys fight, they couldn’t compete in that way. I think that takes incredible realism, incredible smarts to figure your way out of that box. I have great respect for that, I have great respect for what Billy Beane and these guys achieved, it changed the way we look at things. I think that’s one of the big points of the story.
How do you pick your roles? You seem to pick these meatier character studies.
Brad Pitt: Like ‘The Tree of Life’ itself, you want to discover, you want it to be about something, you want to find something new – I always have. I want to find something different, that’s been my focus. Also about 10 years ago I started thinking about what my favourite films were, they weren’t the big commercial things, they were things that had a little more depth, things that had bigger questions, or were REALLY REALLY funny. I do like a comedy. There’s some great comedy coming out of America right now in Zach Galifiankis, Jonah Hill and Danny McBride. But the point of it for me is to keep messing it up. I figure there’s only so many more of these I’ll get to do, and I wanna make sure it has some worth to me, and it has some more worth out there than that is something that is disposable.
The 84th Annual Academy Awards take place this Sunday.
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