Concussion: Director Landeman on Will Smith, the Story’s Issues and Potential NFL Controversy

In the eagerly anticipated film, Concussion, director Peter Landesman tells the story of 
forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born doctor who discovered a disease in the brains of NFL players.

See the trailer:

“I’d followed the strange deaths of pro football players for years, sensing something odd going on,” says Landesman, who is 50, and spent most of his career as an investigative journalist and war correspondent.

Concussion, the writer-director’s second film after 2013’s Parkland, which stars Will Smith, gains attention both as an awards contender and
 as criticism of the NFL’s efforts to reduce injuries.

There is already Oscar buzz about the performance of Will Smith, who has been nominated several times for the Best Actor Award but has not won yet.

Ahead of its November 10 premiere at AFI Fest, Landesman spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about watching autopsies with Smith, not dealing with the NFL and how his journalism experience has shaped his storytelling.

Awareness of Omalu’s work?

I only became aware of him when Jeanne Marie-Laskas’ article, “Game Brain” showed up in GQ
 in 2009. The power and depth of Omalu’s story, and what it meant, leaped off the page to me. The reality was simply undeniable. The conversation was no longer, “Is this real?” Now the question was, “What can we do about it and, more to the point, what are we actually willing to do about it?”

Spend time with the doctor when writing?

Bennet’s discovery of chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE) and its aftermath took place over the course of a decade. So he and I had several long interviews before I sat down to write.

The most inspiring thing about him, to my mind, was his deep and authentic spirituality: his relationship to the dead and dying, and commitment to telling the stories of what happened to them as a way to usher them into the next world. I’d never come across something that profound in someone as sane and seemingly normal as Bennet. And then for him to forge ahead, as an immigrant in hostile territory, to tell America this story was to me deeply courageous.

Impact of journalism on the screenplay?

I start each of my scripts by going on a journey of painstaking research and discovery, much as I do a piece of long-lead journalism. Once I’m inside the beast of the truth, then I can find the shape and architecture of the movie.

Will Smith
Will Smith was much on my mind as I was writing the screenplay. Not just his voice but his physicality — the grace and energy he brings to his performance. And his inherent joy, which matches Bennet’s. It wasn’t more than a couple days after finishing the script that former Sony co-chairman Amy Pascal gave it to Will.
Will Smith’s preparation?

Will designed his exposure to the real Bennet with the same intention he brought to his performance: Enough but not too much. I was very wary of asking my cast to interpret or impersonate. I wanted Will, and everyone, to find his or her own version of their character’s journey, and their body, without pressure to copy “reality.” Will and I did watch a number of autopsies, including two performed by Bennet. I insisted on it, mostly for both of us to understand the physical dance of a man around a table, cutting up a body — the choreography and rhythm of the hands and the feet.

The trailer impact on former players and others?

Nothing that’s surprised me, but I’d be remiss not to mention the overwhelming wave of support and excitement we’ve received since the trailer dropped. People are hungry for this movie, players and former players even more.

Is it Concussion Vs, the NFL?
I expected some people to initially see it that way–until they see the film itself. While it’s about an important zeitgeist subject, the film is wildly entertaining, moves like a political thriller and is a profound emotional ride.

It becomes abundantly clear what it is really about: One’s man’s pursuit of the truth, in the face of a monstrous headwind of deception, despite the physical and material costs — a classic American tale that happens to be true.

Communicating with the league since the trailer came out?

I’ve had absolutely no communication with the NFL.

Discussion the movie sparks?

As a filmmaker, it’s not my intent to trigger or shape national discourse. My task is to make as powerful and understandable a film as I can. What happens next is what happens next.

That said, as a father and as an American, I want people to understand the world around them and the real consequences of their choices. When parents send their kids out to strap on a football helmet for the first time, they need to know everything that means. When we watch football on TV, we need to know what we’re really seeing. Life is itself an occupational hazard. Sometimes the things we love hurt us. Embracing and navigating around that contradiction is part of what it is to be alive.