By Rob Brunner

"It's not a baseball movie," says Moneyball director Bennett Miller. "Period." Of course, it is a baseball movie—one of the most detailed and realistic takes on a game ever to hit the big screen. But to the film's director and cast, some of whom say they've never been huge fans of America's pastime, its themes reach far beyond the world of balls and strikes. Based on Michael Lewis' 2003 non-fiction book, the movie follows Oakland A's general manager Bill Beane (Brad Pitt) as he struggles to reinvent his cash-starved team in the early 2000s by rejecting some of baseball's most fundamental assumptions. "To me, it's about thinking differently," says Jonah Hill, who plays a clever young A's exec working with Beane. "I saw a story about people being undervalued."

At its core, Lewis' best-seller is a book of ideas, and turning it into a movie proved unusually tricky. "Listen, we're dealing with economics, we're dealing with [statistics-driven] sabermetrics, we're dealing with things that are not necessarily dramatic cinematically and palatable for an audience," says Pitt. "How do you get over that hurdle?" Even Michael Lewis said to us, 'Sure, I'll sell you the rights. I don't know how you're going to make a movie out of it...' I'm not sure we did, either. We just knew that there was something there at the heart of it. It became somewhat of an obsession."

The movie was plagued by setbacks and false starts almost from the beginning. After original director David Frankel (Marley ∓ Me) dropped out to pursue the comedy The Big Year, Steven Soderbergh (Ocean's Eleven) signed on. But just days before shooting was set to start in June 2009, Sony pulled the plug on the project after meeting with Soderbergh about his final script revisions, which outlined a docudrama-style film including interviews with real baseball players. "Suddenly we got a balk and everything was turned upside down," says Pitt. "It was a grim time." Even so, Pitt refused to give up. "I'm not sure I'll be able to explain that one until I'm on my deathbed," he says with a laugh. "It just spoke to me on so many levels. I just couldn't let it go."

In search of a new director, Pitt invited Miller (Capote) to his L.A. home. They hit it off. "In that first meeting we talked about a Trojan-horse approach to making a film like this," says Miller. "We were going to make it inside the system but try to carry a little bit of the spirit of films from the '70s." Miller then made his pitch to Sony and the film's producers, emphasizing elements of Beane's personal life that could give the movie a more traditional narrative arc (the film features Robin Wright as his ex-wife and Philip Seymour Hoffman as A's manager Art Howe). "It made us see that his version would be inspiring," says Michael De Luca, who produced the movie with Scott Rudin and Rachael Horovitz. Sony was convinced as well, and the project finally moved forward, with The Social Network's Aaron Sorkin also on board (he shares the screenplay credit with Steven Zaillian).

Miller was serious about nodding toward '70s cinema. A particular source of inspiration was All the President's Men, another movie about two behind-the-scenes guys taking on the system with an in-depth look at how things actually work. (There's even a quick homage to the 1976 film when Pitt's and Hill's characters meet secretly in a parking garage.) Beane himself was a big help in nailing Moneyball's realism—though he seemed ambivalent about being the film's central figure. "Billy was very gracious and open, and at the same time very uncomfortable with the idea of this kind of focus on himself, which, although I've chosen a business that is antithetical to that, I understand completely," says Pitt. After seeing the almost-finished movie, Beane recently shared his thoughts with Pitt. "I think if it was a film that wasn't about him," says the actor, "he would be absolutely in love with it."