Immersed in Movies: Editor Christopher Tellefsen Pitches Moneyball

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by Bill Desowitz
January 6, 2012 1:44 PM
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Christopher Tellefsen
Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, "Moneyball"
Editing is all about internal rhythms for Christopher Tellefsen, and "Moneyball" fit like a glove. On the surface, it's a David & Goliath sports movie. But it's really about the struggle against conventional wisdom for the fast talking and even quicker thinking Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane. Similarly, "Moneyball" is a studio film with a major star (Brad Pitt), but it's really a throwback to the 70s with its anti-establishment vibe. You could just imagine Sydney Pollack directing Robert Redford.

"It's about sticking to your dream against all odds," Tellefsen suggests. "Here's this guy, Billy, chewing tobacco in ugly clothes and it's totally not Brad Pitt."

Indeed, "Moneyball" reminds us that baseball is as much about psychology as poetry. Beane blew it as a player because he lacked confidence; now he seeks redemption as the ultimate puppet master. With the help of Jonah Hill's revolutionary computer analysis, Beane slowly transforms his "island of misfit toys" into an unconventional winner.

"The look, the feel, and the sound are different," Tellefsen concedes. "There are huge sections of silence." Like "Capote," though, also directed by Bennett Miller, the key was finding the right tempo. But with a million feet of footage to condense, "Moneyball" was like doing 11 "Capotes."

"Bennett saw it as a quest," Tellefsen continues. "Billy was overly praised as a ball player but misunderstood. He was not living the life he should be living and was eaten up by baseball. It owned him from the age of 17 and he failed at it for 15 years. And then he made the decision to become a scout; and then he found his way. Then finding Peter [Hill] was a revelation.

"It's such a wonderful thing for him to discover what went wrong and to overcome that self-doubt," Tellefsen says. He points to the old adage, "Many are called, few are chosen," used in voice-over during one of the flashbacks, as a thematic summation.

"Bennett talks a lot about the philosophy of the piece, even the first time it comes into conception. What are the underpinnings, what is its purpose? And that flows into the mindset of doing it. During shooting, I watch dailies alone and there is very little input from Bennett during the rough cut. He is so caught up on the set."

Tellefsen typically shows Miller the rough cut a week after the shoot. And then they sit down and go back to square one. "Finding the flow to tell the outer and inner stories was the biggest challenge," Tellefsen asserts. "I was always aware of not stopping the momentum. It was all about showing Billy's private and public face and the insider aspect of it. You're in the basement with these guys and feel the bad ventilation. There are some wonderful things that Brad does. In the first game, he's glad-handing and then his face just falls. It's so indicative that he's putting on a face and it's so effective. That's just before he says to Peter that he can't watch the games; just text him."

Tellefsen says another challenge was handling the losing and winning streaks. Like the flashbacks revealing Beane's agonizing career as a player, they were written in documentary fashion. The filmmakers then discovered a treasure trove of archival footage, which allowed them to reshape the commentary around the footage. "Even during the winning streak, he's questing, too. He just can't accept the winning. And that brings us to the long trade sequence where Billy and Peter are frantically negotiating on the phone."

By contrast, when the apprentice is forced by Beane to cut a player, it's a turning point in overcoming his self-doubt. "It's done in one cut and is spectacularly intense," Tellefsen asserts.

One of the emotional highlights, however, is watching Beane bond with his teenage daughter, the only woman in his life. She keeps him grounded and emotionally connected, enabling him to slowly crawl out of his shell and interact with his players during their record-breaking 20-game winning streak.

Meanwhile, Tellefsen refers to the early confrontations with the talent scouts (many of whom were played by actual scouts) as a mini-movie. They were rewritten the day before or improvised on the spot. Miller, true to form as a documentarian, just let them run with it.

"Moneyball" is fundamentally about the difficulty of adapting to change and learning to survive with less -- an apt metaphor for our times. "It's a beautiful portrait of a person and Brad got deeply into it. He gave us an enormous amount to work with and lots of variation. It's such an unconventional film."
 

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