An exclusive interview with Concussion director Peter Landesman
The new medical drama Concussion chronicles the David vs. Goliath journey of Bennet Omalu, the real-life doctor who discovered Chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), a progressively degenerative disease found in those with repeated head trauma, especially football players. The film stars Will Smith as Omalu who, along with doctors played by Albert Brooks and Alec Baldwin, sets out to make the public and corporate interests aware of the dangers of football injuries to the brain, much to the chagrin of the NFL, who fears the revelations will effect the sport and their bottom line.
The film is directed by Peter Landesman, a former journalist who previously made the provocative JFK assassination movie Parkland. He invests the movie with a level of realism as well as dramatic tension that makes it more than just a Wikipedia article come to life. It also celebrates the value of immigrants and the positive impact they can have on American society.
We sat down for an informative 1-on-1 with the Concussion director, who discussed the controversy surrounding the film, the genius of Albert Brooks, and his next film about Watergate whistleblower Mark Felt.
ComingSoon.net: Albert Brooks’s line to Omalu about not being an American, “That’s so f*cking American.” I feel like that line carries an extra potent relevance to the discourse regarding immigrants going on right now. Is that a happy accident?
Peter Landesman: You mean did I design the ISIS attacks? No, those guys held off until I told them we were ready. (laughs) No, when I met Bennet I realized this movie is as much about what it is to be an American as it is to be truthful and a scientist and football and everything else. I wrote that line because I love the delicious irony of the fact that it took a foreigner in the most American of cities to reflect back on us what it means to be an American. I just love the line and Albert is Albert, there’s nobody better.
CS: Brooks is quite famous for his improv skills, but he doesn’t just go in there and just speak off the top of his head. There’s a lot of preparation to do what he does.
Landesman: Albert worked for months and months on this performance. He’s incredibly meticulous. He makes it seem easy because he works so hard.
CS: Did he and Will rehearse together to develop the relationship between these two doctors.
Landesman: I’m a big believer in rehearsal so I rehearsed all of them a lot, together and separately.
CS: There were also a couple of actors who seemed to have gotten lost in the shuffle, specifically Luke Wilson and Paul Reiser. Were their parts more substantial?
Landesman: Everyone’s part was more substantial. You have to find the movie in the editing room and it can’t be four hours, it has to be two hours. Everybody in the movie, including Will, had more to do, it’s just by virtue of the fact of what performances popped and also which elements of the story popped. There are entire scenes I shot that aren’t in the movie, it’s not just actors.
CS: Did that really come down to keeping the focus on Omalu?
Landesman: Yeah. It was always Will’s movie, it was always Bennet’s movie. When you’re making a movie like this that’s so centered on one character, the farther you get away from that… you get lost. Even as a filmmaker you can lose sight of the story you’re trying to tell, I had to constantly remind myself. You have people like Luke and Paul who are just majestic actors, they’re huge in their own respect. You’re always attracted and distracted by people’s talents, but you always have to remember the movie you’re making.
CS: There was a bit of controversy a few months ago where there were articles intimating that Sony wanted the movie’s portrayal of the NFL softened. Then I watched the movie and I’m like, “What movie were those people watching?”
Landesman: The answer to that question is they didn’t see the movie. That was The New York Times passing judgment on a movie they hadn’t seen, which I think is a very fascinating and questionable journalistic ethic.
CS: Especially coming from them.
Landesman: And I used to write for The New York Times.
CS: If there’s any kind of picture painted of the NFL in the film its one of extreme corporate irresponsibility.
CS: That feeling is in the movie now, in spades, but was there ever a moment where you did have to fight for that vision, or conversely that it went too far as a diatribe against their organization?
Landesman: Yeah, I mean, this wasn’t a documentary, it was an emotional ride, but the good news is this character’s journey is so powerful. I still watch the film and I’m still amazed at some of the things that happened to him and what he did. As long as you stay character-centric and as long as you stay focused on people and emotion that’s not a worry.
CS: You’ve had your own instances of being called out on the truthfulness of articles that you’ve written, specifically the sex slavery piece you did for New York Times Magazine, which you were ultimately exonerated and celebrated for. Was there a parallel with your own experience that gave you a special insight into what the good doctor went through, having his name dragged through the mud?
Landesman: There’s no question. I was vindicated but there’s always an incredible price to pay. It was a very hard experience, damaging and permanent. I definitely have a parallel understanding of what that is like, yes.
CS: Did you talk about that specifically with him?
Landesman: With Bennet? Yeah, and with Will.
CS: You had Ridley Scott in your corner, and this was a much bigger project than your previous film. How did Ridley work with you and help you along the process?
Landesman: Ridley was shooting “The Martian” when I was shooting this, so he was off making his own film. He helped me a great deal with cast. He isn’t premature on things. Ridley is a brand unto himself, but mostly he acted as a mentor. His wife, Giannina Scott, was actually more of the day-to-day producer on the film, she was in Pittsburgh every day. But you know, once you turn on the camera making a movie is making a movie. I don’t care if it’s $9 million dollars or $50 million dollars. You have bigger toys, bigger set, actors who are better paid, but once you turn on the camera it’s director and performance and I don’t find a big difference.
CS: On your last movie you unquestionably had some big names, but a “name” is different than a marquee movie star like Will Smith.
CS: What did having a Will Smith-sized superstar add to the equation?
Landesman: Well, every actor brings different characteristics to the table. Will is an enormously principled, professional, joyful artist. He’s a powerful instrument, so working with him was joyful from day one and we had constant dialogue with each other. I would go to his trailer when he was in hair and make-up at five in the morning and get our minds set for the day and talk about our intention and scenes, then giving him the head’s up on specific things that were on my mind that he may not have had on his. That being said, I’ll have that conversation with every actor before every scene, but this movie was about Will and “Parkland” was about a tapestry of 13 people. The focus on this was solely Will.
CS: I saw that your next film is about Mark Felt with Liam Neeson. Whenever I think of Felt, I always remember Nora Ephron talking about how she was married to Bernstein and people would come up to her at parties and she’d just be like, “Deep Throat was Mark Felt.”
Landesman: Right, she put it all together. If you were paying attention and you were smart you could figure it out.
CS: Was it a “secret” in quotation marks?
Landesman: No, it was a big secret. Yeah. There were a lot of very smart, very powerful people who did not know it was Mark.
CS: So is your storytelling weight going to be put on the “secret identity” aspect of it or is there more to it?
Landesman: There’s a great deal to it. It’s a Shakespearean melodrama, a massively powerful story. It’s like a domestic spy thriller but there’s a very powerful, almost Shakespearean thing happening inside his home, but it will incorporate all those elements.
Sony Pictures will open Concussion in theaters on Christmas Day.