This is what I know: A tale of two press conferences

Like Johnny Depp, Brad Pitt would like you to admire him for more than his casual good looks and acting ability. He wants you to appreciate his mind, which is why Moneyball is such a gift for him as both an actor and a producer. In it he plays Billy Beane, the general manager of the Oakland A’s baseball team who turned its fortunes around when he stopped listening to his scouts and started making decisions based on a different set of priorities that at first seemed counterintuitive. Though Beane didn’t come up with these theories, he and Michael Lewis, the author of the book Moneyball, made them famous, and now they are utilized by a number of professional sports teams. Pitt wanted to make a movie of the book for years, and had problems doing so since, as a wonky work of non-fiction, it defied adaptation to the screen. His perseverance paid off and the movie is one of the year’s minor hits; but more importantly it offers Pitt the sort of imprimatur he usually doesn’t earn, given the sorts of roles he takes. Like Beane, he’s something of an autodidact. The difference is that Beane, who opted out of university to become a major league baseball player, had to teach himself stuff to get his job done, whereas Pitt’s self-education seems earnest but non-intensive; which may explain why some of his responses during the Moneyball press conference at the Grand Hyatt in Roppongi on Nov. 10 were difficult to follow. What came through was the actor’s desire not only to put the movie across as something important beyond its entertainment value, but also to show that he understood its importance, even if he sometimes had trouble articulating it.

“It’s shameful how little I knew about baseball going into this film,” he said after taking his seat in front of the crowded but by no means packed ball room. What he picked up during the filming was the old cliche that “there are so many parallels to life itself,” and after clumsily conjecturing that this is the reason “why the game has become our pastime and part of the zeitgeist for the last century-and-a-half” he plugged Ken Burns’ famous baseball documentary, which Pitt called, “pure poetry.”

Pitt’s conversational style is mirrored in his most appealing trait as an actor: relaxation. (Granted, he’s most effective when he’s allowed room to run off the rails, as he did in Twelve Monkeys and Inglourious Basterds, but those aren’t the movies people usually mention when they cite their favorite Pitt roles) The main problem with trying to follow his train of thought is that he talks as he would with friends sitting around a table at a bar, only without the editing assitance of those friends. Sitting in a chair with no comrades to fall back on and no interlocutor to clarify his remarks, he sounds like he’s never put these thoughts into words before. But it was also obvious that these thoughts were very definitely his.

“It’s true we’re ruled by economics,” he said, warming to the prospect of revealing the secrets of the universe, “and success and failure is defined by those economics. What Billy Beane puts forth is the over-emphasis on the success or the worth of the moment. It’s the be-all-end-all. If I pass success I know it’s probably just the next step to the next failure, and then that failure becomes the impetus to the next success. There isn’t one without the other. The idea that we judge each other based on single moments represents a flaw in our value system.” What Pitt was getting at in his roundabout way is intriguing, but it’s also pretty obvious if you’ve seen the movie, and everyone at the press conference had. Though reporters’ questions at these things can be painfully obvious, asked for no other reason than to get the esteemed guest to say something quote-worthy, they most probably didn’t want to have the movie explained. That is their job. Pitt’s was to talk about his personal feelings and, most importantly, to reveal anecdotes that could be used as an “exclusive,” regardless of how trivial they might be.

In this regard, he was gracious but uncooperative, and deflected each question about his “personal superstitions” or “message to the younger generation” by quickly wandering off on philosophical tangents that had the interpreter scribbling furiously. He would get so caught up in his circular dissertations that he’d forget what the original question was and would have to ask for it again.

“It’s important to question why we do these things,” he said at one point, on a roll. “Why is the work week set as it is? Why is our voting system set up the way it is? Why do we accept certain things? I’ve always equated it to the automobile. If we invented the automobile today, would we invent it in terms of a finite fuel source that pollutes the environment? It would make no sense. We’d develop it the way we do our laptops and iPads. What you’re seeing now in America is a questioning of a system that has not served us well, a system defined by corporate lobbyists instead of the needs of the people. And people are feeling screwed a little bit. The important thing is not getting swept up in the fervor of the fight, when you are feeling marginalized or left out and frustrated. You can’t stop there. If you’re going to say, ‘One guy’s bad,’ you’ve gotta back it up with, ‘This is how you can fix it.’ That’s an important follow-up we miss.”

Though Pitt was obviously enjoying himself, Sony probably would have preferred he talk more about the movie, and they did themselves no favors by not screening the questioners, at least two of whom were journalists who had already interviewed Pitt one-on-one for their respective media, meaning there were two less media who got to ask questions of their own. In the end maybe it made no difference since the star was talking about what he wanted to talk about and on paper much of it would look redundant and thus probably didn’t make it into print or onto the air, whichever the case might be. But Pitt is nothing if not professional and he realized in the end what he needed to do.

“We talk about some serious themes in the film but it’s also surprisingly funny,” he said without prompting. “I really enjoyed this film, and I think there will be a few people out there who will feel the same, so I just want you to know it isn’t that heavy. It’s a good time, and for baseball fans, you’ll never see the game shot more beautifully, and all credit goes to our director, Bennett Miller.” He even gave a shout-out to Sony’s Amy Pascal, the studio honcho who kept the film alive.

But there was one more thing. “We in the global community are greatly and painfully aware of the cataclysmic catastrophe of March 11,” Pitt said without breaking stride. “Our hearts and thoughts are still with you who are putting everything forward to rebuild and reclaim your lives for yourselves and for others. It’s inspiring, and as I travel the world I hear many stories of great inspiration. It does influence the rest of us, your tenacity and perseverence and survival. I applaud you all for that.” And, of course, the press applauded him in return, but it didn’t let him off the hook for the post p.c. “photo session,” which, as always, he only barely tolerated. Put him in a chair and give him the opportunity to speak off the top of his head about the meaning of “value” and Brad Pitt is happier than a clam; put him on a stage with a beautiful Japanese actress and ask him to stand still for a few shapshots, and he’s as restless as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rocking chairs.

Still, at least he did the photo session, which is more than can be said for Steven Soderbergh, who apparently refused to allow one at his own presser, which took place about an hour after Pitt’s ended in another room a floor below. We’ll assume the actor and the director met at the time, if only in passing, since they worked together on the Oceans movies and Soderbergh was the original director for Moneyball, but it’s difficult to think of two Hollywood names with such diverse approaches to publicity. Where Pitt was relaxed to the point of incoherency, Soderbergh was tense, careful, and almost banally clear-headed. But unlike the last time he was in Japan, for the two-part biopic Che, this time he was flogging a movie with more popular appeal, Contagion, which he has called his version of a “disaster movie.” Che was formally and thematically a difficult project, something the Tokyo show biz press, with their mission to elicit colorful sound bites, isn’t prepared to discuss on the same level Soderbergh wanted to discuss it, and the attendant press conference was marred by Soderbergh’s touchy responses, not to mention star Benicio Del Toro’s stoner circumlocutions.

Contagion is a popular entertainment, but one with a fair amount of social relevance. Consequently, Soderbergh had no problem spinning the questions into answers that he felt comfortable explicating. But since he’s also noted for his sharp, dry sense of humor, one could sense a hint of disappointment that the language barrier was keeping him from showing off his wit. He spoke slowly, and as always was keen to explain the sort of film mechanics that other directors might be less willing to talk about. He understands the movie fan’s fascination with process while recognizing that having such knowledge doesn’t detract from the filmgoing experience. In that sense, a movie like Contagion, which is star-driven and intense, is the perfect topic for discussion. He also found it easy to relate the theme of the film, which is about a virus that kills millions all over the world while various officials deal with the social ramifications, to recent events in Japan.

“One of the topics we’ve been talking about today in relation to what happened here in March and what happens in the film is how people respond to extreme circumstances,” he said, obviously referring to interviews he’d already done. “And I’ve been asking a lot of questions about how people in Japan feel and I hope, as everyone does, that lives are returning to normal. That’s what I thought about as we were flying to Tokyo.”

It wasn’t the only thing he thought about. “A plane is not a great place to be because of the germs,” he said, touching on the main delivery system for the virus in the movie. “The bathroom of a plane is a very bad place to be. I think about it, but I haven’t changed my behavior. I’m still shaking hands. And I’m not wearing a mask…yet. One of the reasons I thought this story was good for cinema is that it’s a subject everyone has to confront. I made a film called Traffic, about drugs. If someone wants to avoid drugs it’s a very easy thing to do. But germs are everywhere.”

One journalist made the connection to more traditional Hollywood disaster films, which are often characterized by their long roster of big stars. Soderbergh replied that it wasn’t as difficult or even as costly as it might seem.

“The fact that it’s an ensemble film with many characters makes it easier to get actors to say ‘yes,’ because the period of time they work is very short,” he explained. “So if you’re talking to Lawrence Fishburne or Kate Winslet and you say, ‘Look, I only need you for eight days,’ it makes it easier to get this kind of cast. It was important to try to get recognizable performers, because there are so many characters, there’s so much information, and the film is moving so quickly that the audience needs a rope to stay connected to the story. So I reminded myself that since the beginning of motion pictures we’ve had movie stars and this was a situation where we needed movie stars.”

Moreover, he can get them because of the kind of person he is. “I like actors, and you’d be surprised how many directors don’t. Actors know when they come on to our set that they’re going to be heard and are going to have an opportunity to bring all of themselves into the process. I’m surprised to hear from well-known actors who say they were treated poorly on other films. They’ve been spoken to in a way that I think is disrespectful. I think it’s scary what they do—to expose yourself in this way makes them vulnerable. And because I respect their effort I want them to feel safe. Because people talk all the time, actors know they’ll have a good experience in my films. They’ll have fun, and my hope is that they will want to work with us again. I’ve worked with Matt Damon six times now, so he’s a good example of someone with whom I have a very good, easy working relationship.” He then explained at length an anecdote in which Damon completely rewrote a scene that wasn’t working well and which Soderbergh believes gave the movie more credibility. This is exactly the sort of intelligence the press adores and it led to a similar question about Gwyneth Paltrow, whose most striking scene in the movie is the one in which she plays a corpse.

“She seemed very excited about that scene,” he said, prompting an outburst of laughter even before the interpreter translated. “We were shooting in a room that was used by a medical examiner and we had one in the room. I asked her, ‘What would happen if a person died under these circumstances?’ ‘Well, we would start with the saw and we would take the skin, it would be cut here and bring the skin forward.’ We had some dummies around the room, in case we had to show a wider shot, and so they pulled a piece of skin off of one of these dummies and attached some blonde hair to it. We put Gwyneth on the table and framed the shot, and she was laying very still. She has the contact lenses in and she starts asking the medical examiner questions. ‘What would my mouth look like?’ She said, ‘You’d see a bit of your tongue and you would have yellow sinus fluid coming out of your nose.’ It took about 40 minutes to get it all exactly right and Gwyneth stayed perfectly still the whole time. Our assistant cameraman, who worked on Saving Private Ryan, said when we did the first take and the flap of skin came over her face that he got sick to his stomach. I thought that was a good sign.”

Still, like Pitt, Soderbergh, when given the opportunity couldn’t resist pontificating on what his film said about the world at large, which makes sense since the movie is exactly about the world at large. Unlike Pitt, he managed to convey exactly what he thought in clear language. “There are two kinds of problems in the world. There are problems of our own making, and problems that are not. I’m frustrated at the problems we are creating for ourselves. When something happens, like what happened here in March, there is an opportunity for people to present the best of themselves, and I’m encouraged when I see people acting in a way that benefits the community, acting in a way that is selfless. One of the topics we’ve been talking about today in relation to what happened here in March is how people respond to extreme circumstances, and I’ve been asking a lot of questions. With a film like Contagion I hope the message would be that panic doesn’t solve anything; that we need to take time in extreme circumstances to think about what the best course of action is for ourselves and the group. But we are human and sometimes these issues are complicated. For instance, the Lawrence Fishburne character in the film has some information and he tells his fiancee this information before the public has been told. It’s something he’s not supposed to do, but it’s something almost everyone in this room would do, including myself.”

That isn’t to say the movie attmepts to solve anything. “There is no set of answers that apply to every situation,” he added, “and I don’t think I would ever make a film that tried to offer answers to all these questions. I think our lives are about exploration, and about asking these questions. Knowledge is not fixed. Knowledge is always evolving, so I wouldn’t want to live a life in which I felt everything was finished, that my understanding was complete. That would be boring.”

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