Leatherheads: George Clooney

Genesis of the Film

“Sports Illustrated” reporter Duncan Brantley was researching the birth of the pro-football league in the late 1980s, when he came up with the idea for Leatherheads. The journalist was digging into a story about star player John McNally, who ingeniously used the alias of Johnny Blood so he could play for the Duluth Eskimos in the burgeoning National Football League. This allowed McNally to play for the NFL without losing his eligibility for college sports.

The more he dug into the background of McNally and the other players of the era, the more colorful the characters who populated the sport became to Brantley. Indeed, their outlandish escapades fascinated him. After working on the script for several years, he brought colleague Rick Reilly on board the project, certain his humor would lend much to the script. Having spent many years together as S.I. colleagues, the friends felt they make a fine match as writing partners.

We had covered college football for years at Sports Illustrated, and we were fascinated by this story of Johnny Blood, recalls Brantley. He was a wild man who loved to drinkand really did ride a motorcycle with a sidecar, as we wrote for Dodge Connolly.

The team played 31 games that year, and 29 of them were on the road, Reilly says. Their owner was so cheap that he literally made them shower in their uniforms and then shower without them; then they hung the uniforms from the train windows to dry.

Writing the Script

It amazed them that often the teams would play four or five games a week, stopping the train if they saw a group of 10 or 20 guys that they could play for money. Though Brantley and Reilly had never penned a screenplay, the two veteran sports reporters had characters and a subject they loved, so they persevered. To add obstacle to their interest, however, Brantley lived in New York and Reilly in Colorado.

At first, Brantley recalls, we locked ourselves in a room for about week and worked out an outline. Then we figured out which scenes each of us were dying to write and completed those. Rick would edit my copy, and I would edit his. Next, we literally leapfrogged through the rest of the script.

We knew the characters were so richlike Red Grange and Ernie Nevers, Reilly adds. Plus, it was such an interesting period of sports history. For some reason, college football was really popular in the 1920sthey packed hundreds of thousands into those stadiums. But nobody cared about pro footballit was scandalous to play it, almost like, How dare you play pro football Its not for gentleman; youre supposed to go out and get a real job. Nobody really covered it before 1925, so we thought it was a unique and intriguing setting for a film.

Soderbergh’s Role

In the early 1990s, Reilly and Brantley brought the script to Steven Soderbergh, who in turn gave it to producer Casey Silver, then president of production at Universal Pictures, who bought and commissioned it. I was friendly with and a fan of Stevens, Silver recalls, and had worked with him before and I liked the scriptparticularly in that it was a romantic comedy set in an arena that hadnt been particularly explored in Hollywood.

As the script went through various phases of development, Soderbergh would go on to direct Out of Sight, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez. At this point, Silver had left Universal to become an independent producer, and the project went with him. There were different iterations, different attempts to get it made, and it came together right after Out of Sight, Silver recalls. Steven wanted to do it with George. Steven showed him the script with my consent, approval and support and George responded to it.

Clooney enjoyed Brantley and Reillys premise of taking the star of college football out [of the university world] to make professional football big. While he liked the story created by the writers, Clooneya longtime fan of the comedies of 1930s and 1940s directors such as George Cukor and Lewis Milestonefelt the best version of Leatherheads would be the Howard Hawks kind of comedy. Leatherheads would have to wait as the writer/director/actor focused on dozens of other projects for the next decade.

Enter George Clooney

In summer 2006, Clooney again turned his attention to Leatherheads and had another look at football star Dodge Connolly. By this time, Soderbergh had amicably withdrawn from the project, and Clooney considered it for his production company, Smokehouse Productions. The director offers: About a year after Good Night, and Good Luck. and Syriana, I pulled out the oldest draft of Leatherheads. He took a polish at the script, offering, I basically used John Kerrys Swift Boat as a routinenot in a political sense, but it was suddenly an idea of how to give this character a storyline.

Clooney looked to the story arcs and comedy of Philadelphia Story, of course, Front Page, Slap Shot and other films that I really love, he adds. Because it seemed like if you were going to do it, you really wanted to have those older themesyou needed a construct that we recognized from that era. Anything modern didnt seem to work.

With an ideal script and the time for him to complete the project, Universal greenlit Leatherheads, with Clooney agreeing to take the directors chair and star in the comedy. The story that had started all those years ago on two sports reporters desks was now ready for production in spring 2007.

Commends Silver, Despite making it look very easy for everyone else, George works very hard. His preparation is incredible. I thought Good Night, and Good Luck. was not only a very fine movie, but also a very well-directed one. It didnt take much imagination to see that he could pull this off and handle it exceptionally well, Silver says.

Clooney Directing Himself

Of the challenges of deciding to direct himself in the film, Clooney reflects, Its a part literally written for me, and its a character that I knew exactly how to do. When I wrote Good Night, and Good Luck, I wrote the Murrow part for myself. Then as a director, I looked at it and thought, Murrow always has this sense of sadness to him, this weightburden on his shouldersno matter what he does, even if hes laughing. Thats not something people necessarily ascribe to me, and its not something you can act. Its something you either have or you dont.

I realized fairly quickly that I wasnt gonna be able to play the part I wanted, because I couldnt play that part, he continues. I would have done it a disservice. David Strathairn always had that quality. Dodge was one where I thought, Im dead-on the right guy to play this part; its square in the middle of me.

Partner Grant Heslov

Clooneys partner in Smokehouse, fellow producer Grant Heslov, says that the project interested him primarily for its originality. He notes, I like period pieces in general, but what appealed to me was that Leatherheads was something we havent seen on film before. Its such an intriguing period with such fascinating, larger-than-life characters; it certainly offered some unique cinematic possibilities. George and I both love all those Preston Sturges and Billy Wilder movies, and this certainly felt like it had elements of those great screwball romantic comedies.

Heslov adds that three other films became touchstones for Leatherheads: The Sting, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bound for Glory. The producer explains, Those movies always felt authentic to the periods they depicted. They didnt look too pretty or Hollywood, but they also felt very contemporaryin terms of the relationships and their stories.

Script polished, director signed and lead male on board, it was time for Clooney and the producers to cast a number of thuggish football players and one gorgeous newswoman who could take everyones eyes off the ball.