- Monday, Oct. 24, 2011
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In some respects, director Bennett Miller's career decisions in terms of projects to pursue parallel the epiphany that Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, played by Brad Pitt, had in the Miller-directed Moneyball.
As a young man, Beane did what seemingly most everyone wanted or would have advised him to do, signing with the New York Mets as a promising stud baseball player rather than go to college on a scholarship. While his scout-fueled prospect of superstardom as a center fielder quickly faded, Beane eventually changed direction and went on to become a star general manager.
In the movie Moneyball--based on the book of the same title by Michael Lewis--Beane's success in the A's front office translates into his getting another opportunity that again conventional wisdom would have told him to accept: an offer to become the highest paid general manager in Major League Baseball with the Boston Red Sox and being able to build a club with a payroll four to five times that of the A's.
Yet this time around, Beane looked more within himself. Divorced, he prioritized staying in close proximity to his teenage daughter in the Bay Area so he could be there for her and watch her grow up. He thought of what he still wanted to accomplish and prove against all odds with his small market team, the A's. So in the movie--and in real life--Beane opted to remain with the A's in Oakland.
Not to sound as grandiose about the decision of what movie to make next, Miller nonetheless deliberates long and hard and has to be moved within before he takes on a project. This in part explains the lengthy interim between his long-form endeavors, the well received 1998 documentary The Cruise--which centers on a homeless man whose love for New York City makes him an endearing tour guide for Manhattan's Gray Line double decker buses--followed seven years later by the release of Capote, which follows author Truman Capote, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, throughout the six years he spent researching and writing his classic nonfiction novel In Cold Blood. And now some six years later "on the heels" of Capote (which earned five Academy Award nominations, winning one Oscar), we have Moneyball.
"A film is such a big investment of time and energy that when you do something, you want it to be special, to be important to you," said Miller. "That's what creative commitment is all about. I think maybe some people are less drained by the experience than I am."
Also draining is waiting for a long-form project, holding out hope and then in the end it not coming to fruition. "After Capote, I had tried to get a particular film made for some years," related Miller. "I thought it was going to happen. I probably passed up another opportunity or two that could have had me on my next feature sooner. I eventually had to concede that the project I had been holding out for wasn't going to happen. Then I got moving on Moneyball. I loved the story and what it represented." (See separate lead news story this issue on several early Oscar contenders, including Moneyball.)
Interim gratification Making the interim periods between feature films more than bearable--in fact outright gratifying--have been commercials. "Luckily," said Miller, "I have the good fortune to be able to direct spots which offer a variety that I enjoy. I would much rather be energized by commercials than commit myself to a feature that I ultimately don't care about deeply."
Miller broke into commercials after The Cruise, which had some elements of humor. This prompted a call from Hungry Man, a production house known for its comedy chops. Miller came aboard the Hungry Man roster, did some funny ads and his spotmaking career took off. Now he continues to do his share of humorous commercials but has since diversified into other genres--at his current spot/branded content roost Smuggler. Evidence of that diversification over the years includes an American Express piece promoting fashion guru Diane Von Furstenberg, and the Bob Dylan video "When The Deal Goes Down." Miller's spot filmography spans such clients as AT&T, MasterCard, Verizon and The Observer.
Now with Moneyball in his rear-view mirror, Miller affirmed that he's eager "to get back to commercials and to get back behind the camera. I've been in post for a long time on Moneyball. It's been many months since I've shot anything. I'm pretty psyched to get back in the saddle."
Miller observed that his range of experience in commercials has helped inform him as a feature filmmaker. "I've learned from every spot I've done," he related. "Commercials inform my features, my features inform my short-form work. In short-form you really are put into a discipline that requires you to master every frame of what you're doing. The amount of focus and attention that goes into each second by second is really helpful when you find yourself grappling with a long-form project where the tendency could be to let something slide."
Conversely, noted Bennett, features allow him to bring something back to commercials. "When you live on a project for months, if not years, when you're shooting something for months, you end up discovering hidden potential in different people--the talent of your cast and what they can help bring to life on film. It makes you a stronger collaborator and even more appreciative of what those around you can do."