Interview with Concussion director Peter Landesman
Yesterday, ComingSoon.net ran the first trailer for Will Smith’s Concussion in which he plays Nigerian forensics pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu, who discovered that concussive blows to the heads of football players was causing a deadly condition he dubbed “chronic traumatic encephalopathy” or “CTE.” (You can check the trailer out here in case you missed it.)
Later in the day, ComingSoon.net had a chance to get on the phone with the film’s writer/director Peter Landesman, directing his second feature after 2013’s Parkland. Landesman spent many years as an investigative journalist with some of his articles having been adapted into films as well as himself adapting a couple of books into last year’s insightful political thriller Kill the Messenger.
Concussion enters different territory for him, but it’s one that’s very much part of the public consciousness, particularly in America, where football has generated millions and millions of fan who may not be aware of the dangers in which the players are putting themselves.
ComingSoon.net: What got you interested in the subject? I know there was a Steve James documentary around the same time that Dr. Omalu’s research was being released, so did that spawn the idea of doing this movie?
Peter Landesman: My producer Ridley Scott had optioned his life rights and I had known about Bennet Omalu from a number of years ago before the subject really entered the zeitgeist and had become part of the national conversation. Ridley asked me if I would write and direct this movie. He’d seen my previous one, and it was a subject matter that was already close to me. I already knew Bennet, I had met Bennet, and it was a very natural movie to step into.
CS: I assume he was very much involved every step of the way as far as making sure it’s medically accurate?
Landesman: I spent quite a bit of time with him in the beginning and then I kind of let him go, and he let me go off and write it and make the movie, and I let him go because I had to find a performance inside my actor, inside Will, that would not be an impersonation, but be Will Smith’s version of this man, this heroic immigrant truth-telling man. If I stayed too close to Bennet, I would have ended up trapped by the truth of Bennet, but the real Bennet Omalu instead of finding the interesting, entertaining movie in it.
CS: Do you see this as a biopic or more of an investigative film?
Landesman: No, this is about as far away from a biopic as you can get. This subject matter is serious. It’s about a serious, important thing that’s part of the national conversation, but the movie is an entertaining, thrilling, really compulsively watchable tale. If this movie were complete fiction, it would be just as interesting. It’s partly because of the performances of my cast—Will and Alec Baldwin, Albert Brooks, Gugu Nbatha-Raw—the cast in this movie is ridiculously talented from top to bottom. They’re deep, they’re powerful, they’re meaningful. But the story itself is just a compulsive watch, so no, it feels like you’re on a real ride, not watching a biopic at all. Nothing dry about this movie at all.
CS: Did you use some of the same techniques you used as an investigative journalist while writing the screenplay as you might while writing an article in terms of figuring out what to include?
Landesman: Because of the importance of the subject matter, I do feel a responsibility to getting my facts right, so I did. The studio and my producers and I really linked arms to make sure that the movie was fair and airtight in terms of what we were saying. But then there’s the art of it and the entertainment of it, and you have to be able to put this in the mouths of characters that are interesting to watch and listen to. It’s this intersection between being correct and right but also being watchable and entertaining, and that’s really where the best movies come from. It’s a movie you have to see but a movie you really want to see and that’s hopefully the movie we made.
CS: Having Will Smith on board is obviously a bonus since he has a lot of fans, because he’s made a lot of movies including some more dramatic fare like this. What was it like working with him once he came on board and was he on board fairly early in the process?
Landesman: No, he came on board after I wrote the screenplay. I can tell you that Will is the most professional, joyful craftsman in any walk of life I’ve ever run into. I’ve had much different careers—I’ve been a journalist, I’ve been a painter, I’ve been a novelist—and Will is one of the very, very rare exceptional human beings who not only loves what he does down to the smallest detail, but takes tremendous joy in delivering his best performance in every take, in every moment. It couldn’t have been a better experience.
CS: Are a lot of the real players mentioned in the movie, because I know that Dr. Omalu did autopsies on many of them as part of his research.
Landesman: Yes, there are a number of players who died of this disease who are in it. Mike Webster, Dave Duerson and Andrew Waters, Justin Strzelczyk – these are all guys who are in the movie.
CS: I don’t know how much you want to say about the movie at this point with just one trailer out there, but there’s a pretty well known lawsuit where the NFL paid out a lot of money, which I’m sure they’re not happy about. Did you have any problems with them while making the movie?
Landesman: No, I really had no interaction with the NFL at all. This is a movie that was bigger than they are. It’s about a subject matter that’s bigger than the corporation. I mean, the game is bigger than the NFL and this is bigger than the game. This is about the men who play the game, so I had very little interaction and very little to do with them at all.
CS: Do you think they’ll have a problem with the movie when it comes out in December?
Landesman: I don’t really care. Their feelings are not my concern. (laughs) It’s not really my job to worry about their feelings. As long as the movie does its job—it entertains, it thrills and it informs and people walk away from watching this film knowing something new and having the experience of being inside the shoes of a heroic man, that’s the only thing I care about. I can’t worry about the consequences of what I do, that’s not my job.
CS: Are there players or former players you might do a screening for?
Landesman: Oh, yeah. There’s a whole groundswell of retired NFL players who are part of the movie and under the tent of the movie and support the movie and have seen it. If you’ve been involved in professional football or even football at any level, you can’t not be interested in this movie. There’s just no chance. There’s been a lot of that and there will be more of it.
Concussion opens in theaters on Friday, December 25.
(Photo credit: Getty Images)