The 35th Santa Barbara International Film Festival (SBIFF) presented its highest honor, the Maltin Modern Master Award (established in 1995, and then re-named to recognize long-time renowned film critic Leonard Maltin in 2015), to actor Brad Pitt at the Arlington Theatre on January 22. The award was created to honor an individual who has enriched our culture through accomplishments in the motion picture industry, and the evening was a celebration of his work, not only in his two most recent films, Once Upon A Time in Hollywood and Ad Astra, but also his entire film catalog.
During the two-hour presentation, featuring clips from many of Pitt’s films, and discussion with Maltin, himself, the actor talked in-depth about everything from his first Oscar nomination, his major in college, growing up as a film buff, his first impression of a professional film set, his unsuccessful first attempt at getting a SAG card, when he felt like he was actually a professional working actor, the filmmakers that have made the greatest impact on him, one of the film roles that he passed on, and a common theme in many of his roles. The highlights of the conversation that follow chronicle his journey from how he started on the road to acting, and go all the way to his latest work and his production company, and is definitely worth a read.
Question: Twenty-five years ago, you got your first Oscar nomination, for Best Supporting Actor for 12 Monkeys. What was that like?
BRAD PITT: It was a bit nerve-wracking.
We both majored in journalism. What led you to the path of journalism in college, at the University of Missouri?
PITT: It was one of the best J-schools in the country, and I had loved All the President’s Men, so the idea of investigative journalism appealed to me. And then, it didn’t.
You fell out of love with it?
PITT: No, not really. I just started finding myself being drawn more to design and maybe magazine layout, but I’d always had a love for film. It just wasn’t an option in Southern Missouri, or Missouri.
Were you a film buff, growing up?
PITT: Big time, whatever made it to our neck of the woods . . . I grew up on ‘70s films, like French Connection, Butch and Sundance, President’s Men, and Dog Day Afternoon. That was my jam. It left a mark on a lot of us.
So, did you just one day say, “I’m going to L.A.”? Was it as simple as that?
PITT: I remember, it was a week before graduation and I realized that all of my friends had jobs. They had applied for jobs, which I hadn’t done, and received jobs, which I had not. I had a friend, who was not even a close friend, who talked about going out to L.A. Her dad had a place. And it was just one of those things that hit me. I’d always lamented that there wasn’t an avenue for film in Southern Missouri, and it just occurred to me that I could go to it, and I literally loaded up the car. I didn’t graduate. All I had to do was hand in one term paper, but in my head, I was done. I was going west. Within a week, I was doing extra work and I was really, really happy.
And you had a place to stay?
PITT: Yeah, my friend let me stay in her dad’s place, but no one was there except a maid who spoke Thai and only Thai. What do you do? I didn’t have a lot of people to talk to, at that point.
How did you get extra work?
PITT: I landed and went straight to McDonald’s. I got the newspaper. I had $275 to my name, and I saw in the paper that you could sign up for extra work, so I signed up for three places. You had to pay $25, and within a week later, it was for an industrial film, but I was thrilled.
What was your first impression of a professional movie set?
PITT: I was just so excited to be there. I did extra work for about a year and a half, maybe two years. There was this catch-22. To get your SAG card, you had to have a line, but to have a line you had to have your SAG card. So, there was this Charlie Sheen/DB Sweeney movie, and I was an extra. It was a big dinner scene, and they pulled me out to be the waiter. I was supposed to pour champagne and I thought, “I’m gonna try it!” And so, I poured Charlie’s glass. They were having a big conversation. I poured the next actor’s glass. And then, there was a young woman on the end and I poured her glass, and then I went, “Would you like anything else?” I heard the 1st AD yell, “Cut! Cut!” He came over to me and said, “If you do that again, you’re outta here!” So, I didn’t get it.
And you did almost two years of that?
PITT: I actually got a job, and then went back and did extra work because it was Less Than Zero, the film with Robert Downey, Jr.
How did you progress? Did you take acting classes?
PITT: I did. It took me a bit to find someone that really spoke to me, and I found a brilliant guy named Ray London, who’s no longer with us. He shaped a lot of people’s careers, like Hank Azaria, Geena Davis and Sharon Stone. I was really lucky to land there, and he really pointed me in a nice direction.
What kind of things did he open your eyes to?
PITT: Just really about learning to make it personal, and not to bullshit or present, doing someone else’s idea. No mimicry. He was harsh. He would call you out and embarrass you. That was not a nice night. I’m really grateful for working with him.
When did you feel that you crossed the threshold, where you could say that you were a professional working actor?
PITT: A couple weeks ago. I’ve had some different junctures, along the way, where I would actually call myself a professional actor. Once Thelma & Louise hit, I tried some different things. One of the big pinnacles for me, one of the big moments, was meeting David Fincher. I’ve had a couple of experiences on films, where it wasn’t what I expected. And then, I met my dear friend David Fincher, who was talking films, in a way that was much more articulate than I was. He understood so much more than I did, and I found direction, that way. That was a big moment. And then, around 2004, with Jesse James, I started making things more and more personal. Around then, I probably could have called myself somewhat of a professional.
Thelma & Louise was a big deal. Were you aware of that, at the time?
PITT: I was certainly aware. I’m more aware of how high my voice is in that. My ass must have been clenched so tight, being the first [film]. That certainly was a precursor to where we are now, today. I’m really grateful to Ridley Scott and Geena Davis, who gave me that shot because that was the big league. I had nothing to show for myself, except for my extra work, and they took a chance on me. The weird thing was that it had gone through a few actors, and they were already shooting. I think they were desperate, to tell you the truth. They were already shooting ‘cause a week later, I was on set, working.
Did that movie feel like a turning point, at the time?
PITT: I remember reading the script for A Few Good Men. I didn’t have any opportunity at it, but somehow I got ahold of this early Aaron Sorkin script, and I noticed right away, “This is a movie.” And I felt the same about the Thelma & Louise script. It was like, “This feels right. This feels like the ‘70s.”
Fight Club was also a big deal, in a different way entirely?
PITT: Much different.
How did you build that character? Did you do a lot of research?
PITT: We were having so much goddamn fun on that movie. I don’t remember research being important. It was just pretty good fun.
If you have a great time on a movie, do you think it affects the outcome of the film?
PITT: The answer to that is Ocean’s 12.
In that case, we feel it.
PITT: I’m not sure you felt what we were feeling. Ocean’s 11, yes. Ocean’s 13, probably. Ocean’s 12, not fully.
Would it be accurate to call George Clooney the ringleader?
In the ‘90s, you did A River Runs Through It, True Romance, An Interview with a Vampire, Legends of the Fall, Se7en, 12 Monkeys and Seven Years in Tibet, which is a hell of a resume for one decade of a career. And you learned to do fly fishing.
Is that something you’ve continued to do?
PITT: No. That’s something I ejected when we finished the film. That’s actually something I’d like to pick up again. It was beautiful. But I haven’t. But I will. Probably.
What was it like to be directed by Robert Redford?
PITT: He doesn’t understand a call time. He often shows up very late. But Redford was one of my heroes, growing up. I certainly feel he’s very underrated as an actor. There’s this naturalism that he started, with talking on top of each other. The way he can move the plot along in Condor is just mesmerizing. He and [Paul] Newman, and these guys, were really big in my house, so to get that was really, really, really humbling. I’m sure I was more trying to impress him, each day. I should’ve been focused more on the part, itself. That was an honor for me.
Was he a patient director?
PITT: He was a great director. I was doing something in the scene, and he just came up and said, “You’re sighing.” and I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “Don’t do that. When you do that, you let the power out. You let the water out of the scene.” That’s always stuck with me. That’s one of those little Redford-isms, like the double take, that he’s mastered and passed on to me.
Even with all of the films you’ve made, how many films did you almost make because you lost the part?
PITT: If we were doing a show on the great movies I’ve passed on, we’d need two nights.
Give us a for instance?
PITT: No. Okay, I’ll give you one. Only one because I really believe it was never mine. It’s not mine. It’s someone else’s, and they go and make it. I really do believe in that. I really do. But I did pass on The Matrix. I took the red pill. I wasn’t offered 2 or 3.
Have you passed on or lost out on a lot of roles?
PITT: Maybe it’s my upbringing, but I come from a place of faith where, if I didn’t get it, it just wasn’t mine. But, I could feel myself getting closer. I see it with younger actors, where they just get closer and closer to a part and to working with great people. They get there. You can see it.
What do you think is your strongest ethic, from your having been raised in the Midwest by a stable family?
PITT: Probably that we don’t analyze ourselves, so I’m gonna be crap at answering that question.
How did you end up doing Snatch?
PITT: At that time, I did something that I felt was very commercial, and I was really interested to see what new directors were doing and what was coming out. So, I was viewing everything of first-time directors, and I saw this movie, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, by this cat named Guy Ritchie. And so, I called him up and said, “Hey, I really like what you’re doin’, and if there’s anything that I could fit in, then let’s talk.” And he said, “Well, there is.” And I said, Great! I’m in!” And then, panicked until the moment we were shooting.
PITT: It was the dialect. If you haven’t seen it, I play this Irish gypsy, and the dialect is unintelligible, contrary to being trained to be clear and understood. And so, I was working on the accent and trying to be clear and understood, and it wasn’t working. I went to him the day before and I said, “Guy, I’m gonna fuck up your movie. You should do it.” He said, “Oh, no. No, no, no, no, no.” I was literally supposed to be on set the next morning at 6:00 am, and I was living in North London and I was walking the streets like a maniac. My friend kept saying, “You can’t understand it.” Literally at midnight, that clicked in, and I called and woke Guy up and I said, “Are you okay, if you can’t understand your beautifully written dialogue?” And he said, “Yep.” But also, I’ve gotta give credit to Benicio Del Toro, for his brilliant performance in The Usual Suspects. He was, to me, the first person that I’d seen, that was fearless with being unintelligible.
How did The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford come to you?
PITT: Because of an amazing film called Chopper. If you haven’t seen Chopper, it’s about this sociopath in Australia, made by Andrew Dominik, who directed The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford. I insisted we keep the title, by the way, so I have to say it, contractually. I had seen Chopper, and I was pretty mesmerized by it. Again, it was a first-time director. I called Andrew and said, “Hey, if you’ve got anything that I fit, I’ll do it.” And he said, “I do.” And I said, “Okay, I’m in.” And we ended up producing that. That was near and dear to me, as well as the 10 other people who’ve seen it. To me, it’s a statement on celebrity and wanting to make a name for yourself without any substance under that. It’s a beautiful film. It really is.
What got you into producing? Did you want more control of your own work?
PITT: I’m not a big control guy. In fact, I’d just as soon say, “You guys do it.” But there was this time in the aughts where what was happening was that the interesting ‘70s-like films that were aiming in that direction were not getting made. Films that were big tentpole budgets were emerging and studios were able to bet on them, or cheaper films, that were maybe 10 to 18 million. There was this huge gap in between, of really interesting stories with interesting filmmakers, who couldn’t get their shit done because it was such a gamble. Prints and advertising was becoming so expensive that it became such a gamble for the studios and they couldn’t make these bets anymore. So, I started getting in to push the kinds of stories that I was still interested in and that the artists that I had great respect for were doing. That was really impetus for the beginning of it.
To give yourself good material and choices.
PITT: Yes, and others, too. We are community and we do cross-pollinate ideas, we help each other with films, and we push each other.
At what stage did you become involved with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button?
PITT: When Fincher called to say that he was ready for the actors to come in. We’re friends with Eric Roth, who wrote it. That was the third time Finch and I got to do something together. And then, Cate Blanchett came in, and we had a really lovely time, fine-tuning it. When you’re on a Fincher film, you know that you’re in good hands. It’s well-oiled and he has a vision. The thing that became clear to me, besides that good directors talk with sound effects, they have a very, very distinct point of view about the story they’re telling, with very, very specific detail. That was the first time I heard it, talking to Finch, and that really stood out to me. That film was pushing technology and pushing boundaries, and my man was all over it.
Did you have any curiosity about how they were going to pull all of that off?
PITT: No. Of course, I was curious about the process, but I just knew it was going to be great. It’s going to be great when Finch is involved.
When the Coen brothers offered you Burn After Reading, did they send you the script?
PITT: Yeah, they just sent the script, and my first thought was, “God, he’s dumb!” You’re really excited to get a script from the Coen brothers, and then you go, “Is this what they think of me?” But it made me laugh, this guy who can only see the world from his own backyard, without an inkling of an idea that anything could turn out other than how he perceived it. It made me laugh.
Did they just give you a roadmap and let you go?
PITT: The Coens are funny. You get two takes, maybe, tops. And you know it’s working ‘cause Ethan is in the back, laughing, and you don’t know how it doesn’t make the sound.
When you made True Romance, did you get to meet Quentin Tarantino then?
PITT: I did not meet him until the premiere, but he left an impression.
Did he give you a finished script for Inglourious Basterds?
PITT: Oh, yeah. He writes everything by hand, and he writes single-spaced on a manilla pad. He overwrites and overwrites, and once he has a script, he gives it to you with his famous cover page, which is in his handwriting. Basterds was misspelled because that’s the way he originally wrote it, so that’s the way it went on the marquee.
Inglourious is misspelled, too.
PITT: Oh, right. I didn’t catch that, at the time. Missouri public education.
What appealed to you about that project? Was it just working with him?
PITT: That, and his writing is so specific that I could hear the character. I could hear it, from the first reading, and I don’t have that. I don’t normally have that experience. Also, I got to the part where he kills Hitler, and I was like, “Can you kill Hitler? I guess so.” Quentin can. It was funny.
Having had the experience twice, what’s it like, being on a Quentin Tarantino set?
PITT: He has such a verve for the filmmaking process. He’s knows he’s not going to be there, but for 10 films, so it’s not going to be indefinite. He has such reverence for filming and for film that, he makes a party out of it. He loves a story. If we’re in the middle of a good story, the take is gonna wait. We’ll get to the take and it’s gonna be good, but we’re gonna finish the story.
Does he do many takes?
PITT: Average, I would say. It could be anywhere from three to seven.
Why do you think he’s so fearless, when it comes to rewriting history?
PITT: [With Quentin,] I see this kid who grew up on film and grew up on television where the good guys won and things worked out. I really think he’s coming from a beautiful place of, “If only the world could be this way.” He talked about when he wrote about killing Hitler, he wrote it down that night. He wrote it on a Post-It and he put it by his bedside, and he woke up in the morning and looked at it. And it still felt like it was a good idea, so it was a keeper. That’s the way that worked for him. He’s playing on our collective wish that the world could be this way, or if only this horrible thing wouldn’t have happened. I see innocence and a purity in that.
What was the appeal of Moneyball, for you?
PITT: I was really compelled by him. I was really compelled by this book. It started with a script that, before the two greats (Aaron Sorkin, Steven Zaillian) got in there, was more Moneyball lite. It was more goofy, a little more silly, and more like the tone of Major League. And I read the book and just became rather obsessed with this book that challenged the way we think and why we do things, day after day the same way, and we need to be asking these questions, like why do we have an electoral college? Why are we still dealing with Daylight Savings? Why? And it was a long time in development to get the right tone. Another early conversation I had with Fincher was about the tone of a film. Each film has a very specific tone. What are you aiming for? I could hear the tone, and it was aiming for this tone, but I didn’t know how to get there. So, we actually developed it for years. I lost a few friends, but we got there. I’m pretty thrilled with that.
Do you see a theme in your work?
PITT: I’m noticing a theme of hubris. Se7en is a character who sees the world very black and white, and doesn’t see beyond his own spectrum. He doesn’t see what’s coming and he doesn’t understand. I see it in Burn After Reading. There’s a hubris. There’s an idiocy, but I see hubris. And there was hubris in the character in Babel. It’s the hubris that everything’s always gonna be alright, and not valuing the ones around him. I think that’s a theme. Hubris has always gotten me in trouble. I think it’s the thing that gets our nation in trouble. It’s something I’ve been rather fascinated with, along the way.
Troy was such a huge movie, and a lot of it was created through computer generated imagery, so what did that feel like?
PITT: I was in a skirt made of leather.
PITT: Yes, it’s called chafing. That was just fun ‘cause it was aggressive. There was a lot of action and a lot of physicality. We had some great guys that developed the fights. We were in Malta and down in Cabo. It was fun.
Did it feel big?
PITT: No. It felt more chintzy than what it was going to be.
What is your goal for Plan B, your production company?
PITT: My partners are Jeremy Kleiner and Dede Gardner, and we’ve been together about 17 years now. It’s always been story first, and then the artist. Our mandate is still the same. If something does happen to be something that I would fit into, then we’ll have that discussion. But that’s not where we’re pushing.
And here is the transcript for director David Fincher’s presentation of the Maltin Modern Master Award to Brad Pitt:
DAVID FINCHER: I watch actors for living. I watch auditions and screen tests and rehearsals and dailies, and the occasional premiere. The task of acting is multi-faceted. There’s the grand overriding two-hour arc that one might call the performance. There are the subtle behavioral hints at a lifetime of backstory, often referred to as the characterization. And then, there is the moment, and that’s the character at rest, a person idling. For me, this is the test, the ultimate challenge. No intention, no witty banter, no dramatic change or trajectory. You just roll the camera and be. And this is the gift to your film that Brad Pitt brings. Like a supple suede jacket, he form-fits his characters to the overall narrative and he shows up for more than the big beats. He idles smoothly at 3000 rpms, in the most fractal of moments between speeches, between stunts, between moments that most actors actually choose a role for. . . So few people in the history of movies have been good at this, that we annex them to a special tier. People like Bogart or Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart or Paul Newman. They exist on celluloid in a way than mere mortals can’t. They have a comfort and ease that cannot be faked, or sadly duplicated. And they are as rare as albino pandas. They are movie stars, and [Brad Pitt] is one of them. He’s a multi-talented actor, producer, father and friend, and now a Maltin Modern Master recipient.