For all the talk about how Moneyball is not really a baseball movie, rather, a character study, if we don’t buy the realism of the world of Major League Baseball, the movie’s foundation is suddenly shaky.
Production designer Jess Gonchor knew this the first time he toured the Oakland Atheltics’ team facilities. He also knew he wouldn’t be able to shoot there. Or on the A’s baseball field. Or in any of seven other ballparks where various key scenes take place.
“I treated it like a sports movie first,” said Gonchor. “After that, it’s a movie trying to get inside the character, this frustrated baseball player who never made it, and here he is, still frustrated with his life on both a professional and personal level.
“I knew there had to be a human side to it, but first I approached it like a sports movie technically. I knew I had to get that right. I didn’t base it on any sports movie that I’ve seen,” he says. “I guess I approached it almost like on a documentary level.”
The “documentary” concept left Gonchor walking a very fine line, because when Sony’s Amy Pascal famously pulled the plug on Moneyball in June, 2009, it was a Steven Soderbergh script pass taking a documentary approach that was at issue. If Moneyball wasn’t going to be a Hollywood movie starring Brad Pitt, it wasn’t going to be a movie at all.
That said, “If the audience take away isn’t that these guys are really inside the locker room at the Oakland-Alameda Stadium, and not on a stage set in Culver City, California, we’re in trouble. When I toured the facilities in Oakland, I didn’t copy it, but I based a lot of what I did on the actual rooms and changed it just enough to accommodate the flow of the movie,” he says.
“One thing I did that I had never done before, was let the set evolve. All those subterranean spaces, the locker room, weight room, offices… all of that we built on one set and we shot there for five weeks. Basically, I didn’t clean it up. The players, the extras, everyone was living on the set, so if they were playing cards and the game was over, we just left everything the way it was, and that made it realistic.”
The set took up an entire stage, “wall to wall to wall,” Gonchor says. “It had no windows, no bright sunshine, nothing. It was like a casino,” he says. Director Bennett Miller dubbed the set, “the submarine.”
“But that was intentional,” Gonchor says. “We had to create the feeling that this team was going through this thing together. You were on a mission with these guys and if you liked them great, and if you didn’t like them, guess what? You had to like them anyway, because there was nowhere else to go.
“So if the space feels depressing, well, that’s what it was. They’re not the Yankees. They’re not the Red Sox,” he says. “They don’t have a nice facility, and the wealth and pay scale of those organizations.”
When Pitt’s character left the Oakland complex, the feeling of the spaces was very different, Gonchor says. “In the Cleveland offices, where the Indians were selling out every game, 75,000 seats, there is an expansive cubicle land, the larger offices have windows with views. But in Billy Beane’s office, the A’s complex, there’s a mural of players from 1973 and they haven’t redone the place since then.”
Major League Baseball is a notoriously difficult master when it comes to licensed and trademarked materials, and no movie in recent memory has needed more cooperation from the MLB than Moneyball. It’s challenging to get permission to use stadiums and fields in the off-season, but actually filming on an MLB field during the baseball season is almost unheard of. Yet, Moneyball needed to re-create eight different fields and the entire shooting schedule fell within the MLB season, in the summer of 2010. Ultimately, the movie won permission to shoot in Dodger Stadium for about a week and that raised the bar to incredible heights for Gonchor and the crew.
“We had to quickly take a particular part of the ballpark and make it look like Minnesota in 1984, and then Fenway Park and then the Oakland ballpark, all during different time periods,” he says. That meant “taking out all the modern stuff,” and changing ballpark signage, graphics, paint, protective equipment and adjusting the technology, such as dugout phones, to conform with all the different time periods they were replicating.
Jess Gonchor is last year’s Oscar winner for best art direction for True Grit. He has four Art Director’s Guild nominations from 2004 through 2010 and he won the award in the contemporary film category in 2008 for No Country for Old Men.