Easy rider

Brad Pitt talks mo­tor­bikes, mid­dle­men and the drive to make more films

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Front Page -

Aphone call in­ter­rupts an­other sleepy morn­ing at the of­fice desk. “Hi, it’s Brad,” chirps the caller. “What?” blurts the Aus­tralian jour­nal­ist still prop­ping his head in front of a com­puter screen full of the morn­ing’s blah. “Brad Pitt. We…” “Right. Of course,” I stum­ble, apol­o­gis­ing clum­sily that in­deed his call was ex­pected and, de­spite ap­pear­ances, the re­ceiver is not an­other too-ca­sual Aus­tralian. It’s just that th­ese phone calls tend to be highly chore­ographed en­ter­prises, timed to the minute and con­nected by a per­sonal as­sis­tant or pub­li­cist, most of whom then mon­i­tor the tone of the con­ver­sa­tion.

“No, I dial my­self,” Pitt says. “It cuts out the mid­dle man.”

It is a rather ob­vi­ous metaphor for Pitt’s sta­tus. Dur­ing a pe­riod in which the Hol­ly­wood stu­dios have wrested some power back from the stars — or at least the financiers and au­di­ences have shifted their pref­er­ence to films fea­tur­ing fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters or books rather than fa­mil­iar movie stars — Pitt is sit­ting com­fort­ably.

The Amer­i­can con­tin­ues to mix the big act­ing pay­days, such as World War Z and the com­ing adap­ta­tion of Michael Lewis’s book about the US bank­ing col­lapse of the mid-2000s, The Big Short, with more eso­teric col­lab­o­ra­tions such as the drama By the Sea, which co-stars his wife, An­gelina Jolie, and is due out shortly, and Ter­rence Mal­ick’s The Tree of Life and its com­ing off­shoot, Voy­age of Time. And he is the Academy Award-win­ning pro­ducer of 2013’s best mo­tion pic­ture, 12 Years a Slave.

It rep­re­sented an early zenith for Pitt the pro­ducer as his com­pany Plan B En­ter­tain­ment un­der­scored its cred­i­bil­ity as a gen­er­a­tor of qual­ity, so­cially sig­nif­i­cant projects.

The sear­ing pe­riod drama about the 1841 ab­duc­tion of a free black man from Wash­ing­ton, DC, was more than a wor­thy film; it was the first best pic­ture win­ner to be di­rected and pro­duced by a black film­maker (Bri­tain’s Steve McQueen) and writ­ten by an African-Amer­i­can (John Ri­d­ley). As an aside, Plan B, which Pitt runs with Dede Gard­ner and Jeremy Kleiner, re­ceived the Pro­duc­ers Guild of Amer­ica’s 2015 Vi­sion­ary Award ear­lier this year.

So, how does pro­duc­ing the best pic­ture Os­car win­ner change things? Pitt chuck­les. “I’m not be­ing ego­tis­ti­cal but I think we made the best pic­ture a cou­ple of times be­fore, so I can’t say. But it was more about get­ting 12 Years a Slave out here, which was part of our bleak­est his­tory and yet we didn’t talk about it that way,” he says.

“It was very strange there were no films made since Roots, which was a tele­play, and it took a Brit, Steve McQueen, to say: how come there’s no movies about Amer­i­can slav­ery? We didn’t say it.”

A tes­ta­ment to his early achieve­ments is the num­ber of the films he has pro­duced that had cred­i­ble claims to the best pic­ture Os­car (he has a pro­ducer’s credit on Martin Scors­ese’s The De­parted, but only one pro­ducer, Gra­ham King, was awarded the top prize).

His pro­duc­tions Money­ball and The Tree of Life had their ded­i­cated sup­port­ers when they were pipped for the top Os­car by The Artist in 2012; and last year the Martin Luther King Jr tale Selma was a much ad­mired best-pic­ture nom­i­nee but was trumped by Bird­man. Mean­while, Plan B’s adap­ta­tion with Ryan Mur­phy of Larry Kramer’s sem­i­nal AIDS stage play The Nor­mal Heart won an Emmy award as out­stand­ing tele­vi­sion movie last year.

The ac­co­lades grow, but Pitt’s out­stand­ing achieve­ment as a pro­ducer, which made the industry sit up and take no­tice, was his suc­cess in sal­vaging the 2013 zombie drama World War Z. The film, which fea­tures Pitt as a UN in­ves­ti­ga­tor try­ing to halt a zombie pan­demic, en­coun­tered a litany of tra­vails, in­clud­ing reshoots, is­sues with its di­rec­tor, Marc Forster, the lack of a fi­nal act, rewrites and the pub­lic air­ing of all its trou­bles in a prom­i­nent Van­ity Fair ar­ti­cle. Its bud­get bal­looned by 50 per cent to $US190 mil­lion. Yet a late change to the third act re­sulted in a block­buster and led to a se­quel quickly be­ing com­mis­sioned.

Pitt is no longer just an ac­tor for hire but a bona fide pro­ducer with nu­mer­ous projects in var­i­ous stages of de­vel­op­ment. He seems very con­tent wear­ing a pro­ducer’s fe­dora.

“Yeah, I’m very com­fort­able,” he says. “I quite like it, ac­tu­ally.”

He refers to Aus­tralian mo­tor­bike rider Casey Stoner, one of the sub­jects of the new doc­u­men­tary about the Mo­toGP cir­cuit and its big­gest con­tem­po­rary per­son­al­i­ties, Hit­ting the Apex. Pitt iden­ti­fies with the dual world cham­pion who abruptly quit mo­tor­bike rac­ing in 2012, cit­ing his weari­ness with the po­lit­i­cal machi­na­tions of the sport.

“Go­ing back to Casey, you just want to be a part of the pu­rity of the race and not all the side show that went with it,” Pitt says of the di­vide be­tween his on-screen and off-screen lives.

“The dog-and-pony show of it all, the end­less press re­quire­ments and the con­stant at­ten­tion and blog­gers and opin­ion — I com­pletely un­der­stand what Casey ob­jected to.”

For Pitt — whose mar­riage with Jolie re­mains Hol­ly­wood’s most glam­orous if, for many, frus­trat­ingly pri­vate — the sideshow is tire­some. You sense the re­lief as he en­thuses about the process of cre­ation and doc­u­ment­ing his true love, mo­tor­bikes.

“And pro­duc­ing, you’re be­hind the cam­era, you buy ma­te­rial, you de­velop the ma­te­rial, you put all the pieces and the tal­ent to­gether to tell that ma­te­rial, you edit that ma­te­rial, you fight for its re­lease and how it’s go­ing to be shown, and I quite en­joy that,” he says.

“You do every­thing and work on the story, which I love [do­ing], with­out re­ally hav­ing to put your pros­thet­ics and make-up on.”

Late last year, Jolie told The Week­end Aus­tralian she was al­most done with act­ing, say­ing: “I’m sure I’ve got a few more in me but I’d be very happy to say good­bye to that part of my life … [and] un­less I’m sure there’s a role or some­thing I should do or [which] re­ally means some­thing to me, I’d rather spend my time telling sto­ries from be­hind the cam­era.”

Surely one of cin­ema’s most al­lur­ing per­son­al­i­ties isn’t feel­ing the same way?

“Not di­rect­ing, but cer­tainly I’m older now and want to spend more time with my fam­ily, and I get to do that through pro­duc­ing, so yeah I’m peel­ing back,” he says.

The cou­ple seemed to rel­ish the in­ten­sity of the cre­ative process of By the Sea, a tale of a trou­bled mar­riage that Jolie de­scribes as “a very heavy, dra­matic film, and that had its own very un­usual set of chal­lenges”.

“To di­rect my­self was hard. To di­rect him was a chal­lenge,” Jolie says of Pitt. “And to be in scenes with him do­ing very, very heavy drama was dif­fi­cult.

“But it was also a re­ally great plea­sure for us both to bust out of our com­fort zones and go back to just be­ing ac­tors who work and fight through scenes, and fig­ure it out and not be safe and not be sure, and try and push.”

The film, which Pitt’s Plan B pro­duced, con­tin­ues the com­pany’s not-so-mod­est tra­jec­tory and Pitt’s de­sire to de­velop and cre­ate rather than just act. Plan B has a broad slate of projects



rang­ing across size and genre, in­clud­ing the war satire War Ma­chine, which is be­ing di­rected by David Mi­chod, the Aus­tralian di­rec­tor of Ani

mal King­dom, and will be re­leased through the stream­ing plat­form Net­flix.

Pitt ac­knowl­edges Plan B has a cu­ri­ous slate. “It’s by de­sign, in the sense that we wanted to be a garage band that cham­pi­ons film­mak­ers that we be­lieved in and ma­te­rial that we felt was chal­leng­ing,” the 51-year-old says.

“So we kind of fol­lowed those di­rec­tions with the divin­ing rod. The pack­age is not de­signed, we’ve just kind of gone where we found those op­por­tu­ni­ties.”

Hit­ting the Apex is one of those op­por­tu­ni­ties, a pleas­ing di­ver­sion that re­flects one of his pas­sions. Pitt nar­rates and pro­duces the film by Mark Neale doc­u­ment­ing the scin­til­lat­ing 2011-13 Mo­toGP sea­sons and the feuds among the dis­parate per­son­al­i­ties driv­ing those sea­sons: Valentino Rossi, Marc Mar­quez, Jorge Lorenzo, Dani Pe­drosa, Marco Si­mon­celli and Stoner.

Just this week, Rossi un­der­lined his bril­liance and volatil­ity when, dur­ing the Malaysian Grand Prix, he kicked Mar­quez off the track dur­ing a mid-race fight. His penalty — be­ing as­signed to the back of the grid in this week­end’s ti­tle-de­cid­ing fi­nal race in Va­len­cia — all but lost him the chance for his sev­enth cham­pi­onship, as he cur­rently leads Lorenzo by seven points in the cham­pi­onship.

Hit­ting the Apex es­tab­lishes the scene, ex­plain­ing the eclec­tic back­grounds, tem­per­a­ments and styles of a band of highly skilled rid­ers and their thrilling du­els. Two Ital­ians, three Spa­niards and an Aussie walk on to a race­track. All hell breaks loose.

Doc­u­ment­ing it was easy, at least for Pitt; Mo­toGP is Pitt’s true sport­ing love (Neale nearly went bank­rupt twice be­fore Pitt’s com­pany saved the day).

He started rid­ing as a child. “I grew up in kinda Mark Twain coun­try of the US [Mis­souri] with a lot of fields and a lot of kids with dirt bikes, a lot of cousins with dirt bikes,” Pitt re­calls. “My dad [ who owned a trans­port com­pany] had rid­den bikes, so it wasn’t for­eign.”

As far as Mo­toGP is con­cerned, he says “I don’t think I’ve missed a race since 2001”.

“I got hip to it in the 90s, dur­ing the [Mick] Doohan era and got to meet Doohan a cou­ple of years ago back when my wife was di­rect­ing her film (war drama Un­bro­ken) over there in your lands, and it was fan­tas­tic,” he says of the Aus­tralian rider who won five con­sec­u­tive 500cc World Cham­pi­onships from 1994.

Pitt says he “re­ally got reli­gious” about the sport around the time Rossi started win­ning in the early 2000s. His suit­abil­ity for, and at­trac­tion to, the project was ob­vi­ous once a mu­tual friend put him in touch with Neale.

The lat­ter, who had once made mu­sic videos for U2 and Paul Weller, forged a solid doc­u­men­tary ca­reer with films such as No Maps for

Th­ese Ter­ri­to­ries, which show­cased cy­ber­punk author Wil­liam Gib­son, and ear­lier for­ays into Mo­toGP, Faster and Fastest, nar­rated by an­other bike nut, Ewan McGre­gor.

McGre­gor was try­ing to de­velop a Mo­toGP drama for film with Neale be­fore Pitt’s Plan B was “up and run­ning and pretty strong, and he came to us just to make the ride a lit­tle sim­pler”, Pitt says.

“And for me it was a no-brainer, a lovely thing to work on, a lovely thing to be a part of,” he adds.

“I talk about this race ev­ery week­end, so it was a way to say thank you to the sport I love.”

“I feel for the doc­u­men­tar­ian,” Pitt adds. “They put in four years into a film and each month they’re spend­ing their last dime, get­ting more money to put the pieces to­gether. It’s a very ded­i­cated pro­fes­sion.”

Neale wanted to fo­cus on the sea­sons from the end of 2010 to 2013 be­cause of the chang­ing of the guard among rid­ers and bikes, with Rossi’s abysmal jump from Yamaha to Du­cati and Stoner’s retirement, Pitt says, “at the top of his game when he cer­tainly had an­other cham­pi­onship or two in his pocket”.

The film doc­u­ments Rossi’s fail­ure and re­vival, en­twined with the ar­rival of Mar­quez and coun­ter­pointed by the tragic death of Si­mon­celli. Pitt says he was moved by the rid­ers on whom the film fo­cuses. The film aimed to de­fine the ed­u­ca­tion of a rider from child to world cham­pion and fo­cus on the “mythol­ogy” of each rider.

“We fol­low this sport re­li­giously and are into the weekly drama on Fri­day and Satur­day and into the race on Sun­day,” Pitt says.

“And the mythol­ogy that ev­ery man on that grid has their own fights, it’s some­thing I es­pe­cially love about the sport, which is a team sport right up un­til race time — and when the red lights go out you know it’s very much an in­di­vid­ual sport.

“And not just an in­di­vid­ual sport fight­ing the other guys on the track, but you’re also fight­ing your­self. It’s a bat­tle of the mind as well as the phys­i­cal abil­ity.”

Pitt says the in­ter­nal bat­tle of each rider helps to de­fine how well they per­form. Each rider, in their sum­ma­tion of why they do it, points to broader philoso­phies and how they want to de­fine their lives.

Pe­drosa, for in­stance, is very forth­com­ing about the re­gret of a sin­gu­lar mo­ment on which his ca­reer seemed to pivot, yet san­guine about his knowl­edge of how that trans­formed his life.

“I find it the very truest to this sport, specif­i­cally to this sport,” Pitt says.

Then there’s the rhythm and beauty of a fine race, as any­one who wit­nessed last week’s stag­ger­ing Malaysian GP would ap­pre­ci­ate. Pitt de­scribes the rid­ers’ tal­ent as sim­i­lar to the one­man band play­ing the trum­pet with one hand, the gui­tar with an­other while the foot’s play­ing the drums and knees the cym­bals.

“And the men­tal choices that have to be made in a mil­lisec­ond are so ex­tra­or­di­nary and it can only come from decades of hard work and thou­sands and thou­sands of kilo­me­tres on the track,” he says.

“Ev­ery ap­pendage has got to be work­ing, and work­ing in har­mony, on top of throw­ing your body weight around,” the fan and pro­ducer en­thuses. “It’s quite a beau­ti­ful bal­letic feat — at 200 miles per hour.”

Hit­ting the Apex is out on DVD and dig­i­tal from Novem­ber 5 through Uni­ver­sal Sony Pic­tures Home En­ter­tain­ment. By the Sea is in cine­mas from Novem­ber 26.

Clock­wise from left,

Brad Pitt; Casey Stoner in a scene

from Hit­ting the Apex; Pitt and his

son Shiloh with Valentino Rossi at the Mo­toGP Bri­tish

Grand Prix

Above, Pitt and An­gelina Jolie in By the Sea; Pitt in Thelma & Louise, far left, Fight Club, left, and with Mor­gan Free­man in Seven, be­low

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