Inside Baseball with the True Story of Billy Beane, the Oakland As, and Sabermetrics

Faced with an almost ludicrous salary differential between the Oakland Athletics (which had $41 million to spend on players in 2002) and large-market teams like the New York Yankees (which threw around $125 million in the same season), Oakland's General Manager Billy Beane looked to the numbers to help give his team an edge. The best-selling book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game  examined Beane's efforts, which ended up changing the way many baseball clubs look at the game.

It wasn't clear how, exactly, anyone would film a book that takes baseball statistics – this brand of analysis is known as sabermetrics – as a primary subject, but with Brad Pitt attached to play Beane, it seemed destined to hit the big screen one way or another. First David Frankel and later Steven Soderbergh were scheduled to direct, but Sony squelched the Soderbergh project before the cameras could roll. Pitt hung onto the project until director Bennett Miller came on board, bringing with him film editor Christopher Tellefsen, A.C.E., with whom Miller had worked on Capote. Miller and Tellefsen got to work identifying the human elements that would add emotional complexity and urgency to a story  that was, truly, "inside baseball."  

You could call the results a home run – Moneyball was a box-office success and earned six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture and Best Film Editing, plus plaudits for actors Pitt and Jonah Hill, who plays assistant GM Peter Brand, the young gun who helped Beane leverage the mathematical concepts underlying the game. We spoke to Tellefsen about editing on the Avid, intercutting performances by actors and non-actors, and coal-mining in the cutting room.

StudioDaily:  Let's start off by talking a little bit about technology. You cut Moneyball on the Avid. Are you a longtime Avid editor?

Christopher Tellefsen:  Yes. What I love about the Avid Media Composer is its user-friendliness. I started working on the Avid in 1995. My first [Avid] project was Flirting with Disaster. It did everything I needed it to do, and I didn't have to be mired in anything beyond that. Some people had trouble coming over to digital from the film world, but I didn't have any problem with it. I just utilized it as an artistic tool.

There is one aspect of it that I'm especially happy with – the ScriptSync tool. Anyone I hire as my apprentice has to be a whiz with Avid's script tool. On this film it was Mat Greenleaf. That helps with every aspect of the film. With my first cut, I'm always ahead of the script tool because I try to react to the footage as soon as I get it and build a first assembly. I'm responding to it before there's been time to ScriptSync a scene. But I always go back to the material and vet every line for the performance aspect. I want to see comparisons of every take, and ScriptSync allows you to do a very tight comparison very quickly. It really shows the beauty of the technology. Whoever developed ScriptSync is my hero.

Have you worked exclusively on the Avid since then?

Not exclusively. The last film I edited on film was Kids, with Larry Clark. I did Flirting with Disaster on an Avid, but then I did The People Vs. Larry Flynt with Milos Forman, and he was adamant about one thing. He hadn't made a film in a while, and the digital technology was new to him, and he said, "Look, I like what you can do on a KEM, where you can have three images running in sync to show the picture from multiple cameras." I investigated, and at that time Avid 6.0 had multicam, but no one had done a feature with it. I wasn't going to face those bugs. But Lightworks had Heavyworks, which was generally used for TV shows with multiple cameras and had been used on larger shows, so that's what I used for Larry Flynt and Man on the Moon. Of course, these days a regular Media Composer is capable of running four camera views in four quadrants of the screen.

Earlier you mentioned vetting and reacting to raw footage from the shoot …

You watch dailies, make notes, react to them. Here are the moments that leap out to me immediately. This feels like a beginning, this like a middle, and this like an end. You find the immediate, reactive moments you want to hit. At the moment the stuff is in the Avid, before it can go through the assistants or processed for ScriptSync, I start cutting. I like to cut fast, keeping ahead of the shooting, so if there are any problems or anything feels like it's missing we can take care of that before the sets are struck.

Did director Bennett Miller spend much time working with you as you made that first assembly?

Not a lot. The shooting was grueling. This was a really intense shoot – time-consuming and exhausting. So there wasn't a lot of time to sit down comfortably and watch dailies. I would see him every two weeks during that time, or possibly once a week. If I had something I was desperate to show him, we'd make the time, but it was tough. Afterwards, of course, we worked together very intensely. It was a very rich piece, and the real challenge was getting all the undercurrents to work, and getting the whole structure of it to really shine. Obviously, the performances were very exciting. I knew we had something special.

Had you spent time sitting with Miller before the shoot began to identify and agree on that structure, and what those key themes would be?

Oh, of course. We had long, philosophical conversations about what the movie was about. What is this animal? What are we making here? That's the M.O., to go forward with an idea of what this movie is. The character of Billy Beane is very specific. We worked that out even to the point of knowing what the ending was going to be – this scene of him, alone in his truck, making a silent decision while listening to his daughter's CD. That moment has to read. You have to believe he's making the decision without actually saying it. He makes the decision with his eyes. That takes an entire movie before it to make you believe that moment. The narrative principles that get you to a moment that strong and subtle have to be knitted into every aspect and every scene and every frame. We were very much aligned and in sync with the philosophy of the picture and the tone and the tenor throughout.

So the trick is to identify the kind of material you need to emphasize throughout the cut.

You've got that sense of striving and looking and digging. It's a process. It's the coal-mining of editing.

Moneyball is about Billy Beane as a character, and his relationship with the people in his life, but it's also, in part, a film about statistics. Did that create a challenge in the editing process?

We wanted to make sure the subject wouldn't confuse people, that it wouldn't be too simple for those who understood it, and that it wouldn't be too complex for those who don't know what the hell it is. In essence, we wanted it to be entertaining enough for anybody. And it worked. Audiences loved seeing those theorems fly by. It's sort of fun. We experimented with having them slightly animated and it just felt phony, so we kept it very dry but elegant. We had a graphic designer named Johannes Gamble – actually he's a filmmaker and an animator – who shot all the statistics, and it was a clear aesthetic decision to make them minimal and clean and clear.

It was all an experiment. We added the explanation of the under-handed pitcher Chad Bradford to that scene. He was originally introduced in one of the scenes with the scouts, but we felt it went a beat too long, so we moved it to the statistics scene to balance it out and give it a more personal note. The players are being reduced to numbers, but you're also getting images of them as people. There's something cold-blooded about it on a certain level, but that's the reality.

Are you a baseball fan?

No, not at all. But I read Michael Lewis' book and I find him to be an extraordinary nonfiction writer. Whatever he takes on, he brings so much character to it. I've gained a great regard for the art, craft, and physical grace involved in understanding the strike zone, which is the basic of sabermetrics. That's the core concept behind getting on base – understanding the strike zone, and not hitting balls that are outside it. When you think about that, these men stand there at the plate as a ball comes at them at 85 mph, and they have to judge the strike zone. It's very subtle. It's really precise. If you really understand those things, as you watch the game you're reading their faces and their body language, everything. The little signals they make to each other. It's a coded, bizarre, and interestingly arcane game.

We knew we had to make a film that everyone could enjoy. The scene where Billy and the traders are all talking on the phone? That is completely about the specifics of baseball, and it is enormously entertaining. Brad and Jonah are so brilliant. They're amazing. The physical stuff they did in that scene was so precise.

Can you talk about performance, and how you feel about your responsibility as an editor to the actors in a film?

It's a huge, huge responsibility, and many times I never even meet these people. It's just about using your sharpest skills of observance and intuition and understanding of what it is to be a human being. That helps you draw out a truly moving performance. It's a difficult process, especially when you're striving for something of a very high order, like editing Phil Hoffman's performance in Capote. You know you have something extremely special, and you handle it in a very special way.

Do you ever agonize over choosing a take, or placing a cut, because of the effect your choice will have on how a performance is perceived?

What's brought me where I am in my career is a strong intuition for performance. I look for odd moments, too, such as the little movements and tics that make a character memorable and real. What an actor gives – they'll give a lot, hoping and praying that what they're striving for will be properly brought out on the screen.

Did you move around any of the various story threads during the edit, or stick closely to the screenplay?

We certainly experimented. Much of it is in its original structure, but especially in the losing streak and trhe winning streak we moved around a lot of scenes and played with the structure. It is a true story, so there's a certain limit to what we could do, but there was a lot of play within those two sections. They were difficult because the required a lot of archival footage, and we relied on commentary to tell a certain part of the story. That was always the general plan, but we changed the specifics. There were really good period announcers coming in to do ADR and change a word or two here or there.

What about the scenes depicting Billy's history as a ball player, and his relationship with his daughter?

We just did a Q&A with Billy Beane where he said he was thrilled with the scenes with his daughter. The brilliant young girl, Kerris Dorsey, who plays Billy's daughter, was just marvelous. At her first audition, she played a song, and Bennett was so taken with the song that it ended up being the one she played in the guitar store, and that we hear at the end of the film. Brad is a father himself, so he has his own entry into that dynamic. They had a great thing going there.

Some of the scouts in the film were played by real-life baseball scouts. Is it hard to cut believably between professional actors and non-actors?

I love non-actors. In a film like Kids, everyone was a non-actor and the performances were spectacular. But it's a different vibe, and you have to work to blend everyone together so they feel as one. You don't want them standing out as something other. It's a massage to get it there – just working it and working it until things fall into a place where they feel natural and right. When we shot, Wally Pfister had three cameras set up and it was lit by fluorescents – just a room with a bunch of guys around the table. Bennett got them loosened up and threw the script away. They shot a lot, making the kind of choices and camera moves that would feel as natural as a documentary.

Are there any scenes we haven't talked about yet that you're especially fond of?

I really loved and worked hard on the sequence where you first see the players Billy's hired that are "less than." It's a fun sequence. You get to see them showing themselves as not being the greatest, you note Billy's concern, with all that he has riding on this, and then Art Howe's judgment. All those layers were fun to subtly play off one another. That whole sequence ends with the amazing bit where Billy goes up to Peter and says, "This better work." And then, "I'm just kiddin' ya."

Did you do previews as you were working?

We had about three test screenings. We did well right out of the gate, but we knew there were structural things that we still had to work on. Still, it was clear the audience was going to embrace it. At your first screening, you know if the audience is going to be with the film or at arm's length. It's a very mysterious thing.