In Focus, Will Smith played a gambling con-man who sets his sights on the high rollers at the Super Bowl. Wait. Actually, it’s not really the Super Bowl. It’s the Associated Football Franchise of America championship game between the Chicago Rhinos and the Miami Threshers. See, the National Football League doesn’t lend its billion-dollar name and prestige so easily, especially if the sport gets a little tarnished on-screen. It’s why Al Pacino coached the Miami Sharks in Any Given Sunday and Nick Nolte played for the North Dallas Bulls in North Dallas Forty.
So it was a little surprising to see the NFL so prominently in the first trailer for Smith’s next film, Concussion. The Sony movie, out Dec. 25, tells the true story of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a Nigerian immigrant and Pittsburgh forensic pathologist who published the first journal studies on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy, the brain disease related to repeat and often undiagnosed concussions that result in dementia, depression, and erratic behavior. Back in 2002, Omalu discovered the disease while studying the brain of Hall of Fame lineman Mike Webster, who’d become destitute following his football career. Omalu believed that football players were at a dangerous risk of developing CTE, and the failing mental health and tragic suicides of several other ex-players provided additional evidence that the risks of football were greater than anyone ever imagined. The NFL quickly dismissed Omalu’s research, but his work became front-page news in 2009, when GQ and The New Yorker published his story while investigating the growing plague of football concussions.
The trailer for Concussion sizzles like a political thriller, with Omalu the protagonist whose truth-telling makes him a huge threat to a billion-dollar American institution. And it’s not the pretend AFFA from Focus; it’s the NFL, with glimpses of Pittsburgh’s Heinz Field, the league’s red-white-and-blue shield, and helmets from the actual teams. You might even think for a split second that the NFL sanctioned this film. They most definitely did not.
Writer/director Peter Landesman (Parkland) spoke to EW about his David-versus-Goliath movie and the daunting decision to depict the real NFL in an unflattering light without their approval. The league, which has weathered recent public-relations storms related to player safety, domestic violence, and deflated footballs, declined to comment on the film and the use of its trademarks and provided a statement from its SVP of health and safety policy Jeff Miller that addressed the health issue: “We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety. We have no higher priority. We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You launched the trailer in a somewhat unusual place for a Hollywood movie, with Sports Illustrated‘s Peter King, who’s as much an insider in the NFL as any journalist. Why was that important?
PETER LANDESMAN: This is not a movie that is intended to take down the NFL or destroy football. I love football. I played it, into two years of college. And our intent with reaching out to Peter was, this is a move that all audiences can watch, enjoy, learn from, but also be mesermized by what I think is actually a ground-breaking performance, maybe the best performance Will Smith has ever given. And we were reaching out to America’s biggest sports institution to be inclusive. So this isn’t a take-down piece. That being said, Peter King, who is, as you said, the insider of insiders, the fact that he’s embraced this movie, loved it, was eager to write about, was eager to be the one to introduce it to the world, I think that says an enormous amount.
Dr. Bennet Omalu stirred up controversy with an academic paper. You’re making a Hollywood movie about his studies starring Will Smith that’s going to open on Christmas Day. I’m sure the NFL isn’t thrilled that this story is going to get such exposure, and they are a billion-dollar empire. There’s a great line in the trailer where Albert Brooks says, “You’re going to war with a corporation that owns a day of the week.” What kind of contact did you have with the league in order to get this movie made?
I have a journalistic background, and my instinct is to do due diligence and to be fair and to reach out to the other side. So I reached out early. I then decided there’s nothing to be gained so I canceled the meeting. And then I got two emails from them asking if I was ready to have a dialogue, by which point I was already shooting the movie. I was halfway through production. I didn’t need it. And I realized at the end of the day, there’s really nobody to serve. I certainly wasn’t serving the movie because, although this movie’s not a piece of journalism, it is exposing a very uncomfortable, and to the NFL, a very dangerous truth. And I knew that they were not going to be pleased. So I didn’t want to subvert myself. I didn’t want to get in my own way and reach out to someone who is not going to be party to the project. There was just no purpose. So that’s a long way of saying that contact was really very minimal from either end.
One thing that really surprised me was the clip’s depiction of actual NFL teams, actual logos, actual stadiums. Typically, Hollywood is forced to invent phony team names like the Miami Sharks. I know the NFL has lawyers. How do you negotiate that?
Well, first I decided as the storyteller, and then the studio really courageously was supportive. There’s no way to tell the story without showing real football, without showing real football players, to get the texture and the understanding and the tremendous violence inside the game. So it became an imperative for us to be able to do it. What I was told by the studio was, “You’re protected. We’re behind you. This will be fine.” And I was allowed to do it.
Do you get the impression that the NFL had their own ways to get their hands on your scripts?
Oh, yeah, look, because of the Sony hack, we know they saw screenplays. But here’s the thing: so what? We were telling our story with or without them, and in this case, without them. We don’t need them. There are two things to say about the movie: there’s the truth of it and then there’s the entertainment of it. It’s a thrilling piece of entertainment that is incredibly compulsive to watch. There’s also the truth of it, and the thing about when you tell the truth is, you’re protected. No one can keep you from telling the truth. So the NFL gets a hold of our screenplays. At the end of the day, this is a David-versus-Goliath movie about a whistleblower who tells an important truth about an incredibly important thing. We’re not afraid. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
It’s notable that this movie is made at Sony. Could this movie have been made at Disney, Fox, or Universal?
Well, by asking the question, you’ve already answered it. Sony is the only studio without broadcast relationships with the NFL. That being said, they’re also the only studio that still consistently makes smart, challenging adult movies: Zero Dark Thirty, Social Network, Captain Phillips. The studios as a whole don’t really make those films any more. Sony is the last one that does. So I think it’s probably a confluence of both of those things. But certainly they knew they weren’t going to be punished. For instance, I don’t know how Fox makes this movie and releases it, or Universal. That’s just common sense.
This might be a different movie and a much harder sell with a different lead actor. How important was it for you to get Will Smith for this role?
Will Smith is the most successful money-making movie star on planet Earth, in terms of just how many people have gone to see his films, so Will is a guy who gets movies made. And this is not an easy sell, by the way. It’s a non-fiction story and potentially a political story. Will elevated this movie to way past politics, way past medicine, way past science. It’s so in the stratosphere of entertainment and thrill on the back of his extraordinary talent that as a director I’m nothing but grateful to ride his performance on this. Pardon the pun, given the sensitivity of the matter, Will Smith is a no-brainer for this movie.
Luke Wilson plays NFL commissioner Roger Goodell in the movie?
He does play Goodell.
Is he a significant character or just someone who represents something?
I would not say he’s a significant character. It was important to me to not make a movie that relied a great deal on impersonation. This is a movie on real people and their real struggles, and the performances are not impersonations. I didn’t want to get into that trap. And also, this isn’t very much about the machinations about the NFL and what was going on behind the scenes. There was too much story to tell on the other side. So he has a very strong presence. I wouldn’t say it’s a dominating presence.
How do you get football fans to see this movie?
Let me put it this way: I’ve seen big audiences, many of whom were rabid football fans, watch this movie, and their reactions were so consistently stunned and stunning. They were able to distinguish between the game and the NFL. I love the game. I love to watch. I watch it with my kids. I’m able to divorce the beauty of the athletics from the corporate entity that is the National Football League. I feel confident that when the movie comes out, people are quickly going to realize that they don’t have to go see this movie and feel guilty, as though they’re betraying the thing that they love. This is a movie that really belongs to all audiences, not just people who are predisposed to not liking football.
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