Director's Chair: Peter Landesman - 'Concussion'
Issue: December 1, 2015

Director's Chair: Peter Landesman - 'Concussion'

The multi-faceted Peter Landesman is a director and screenwriter (2014’s Kill the Messenger, 2013’s Parkland), an award-winning journalist, author and painter. The latest addition to his extensive resume is Concussion, the new timely and topical sports drama out Christmas Day, which he wrote and directed. Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Luke Wilson, David Morse and Albert Brooks, Concussion deals with the controversial subject of brain damage suffered by pro football players and the David vs. Goliath battle that erupted between the real life forensic pathologist Dr. Bennet Omalu (played by Smith) and the NFL, who fought hard to suppress his research on CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy).

Landesman’s behind-the-scenes creative team included director of photography Salvatore Totino (Angels & Demons, The Da Vinci Code), Oscar-winning editor William Goldenberg ( Argo), and VFX supervisor Jamie Dixon ( Prometheus, Tropic Thunder).

Here, in an exclusive interview with Post, the director talks about making the film, dealing with all the effects, and his love of post. 

The film doesn’t pull any punches in dealing with the NFL. Given that this is such a controversial subject, how nervous were you about taking this on, and what sort of film did you set out to make? 

“To be honest, I never gave the NFL a second thought. When I was a journalist and war correspondent, I was dealing with real battlefields, real bullets, real murderers. The NFL’s a powerful, corporate institution, but ultimately, it’s about entertainment. And more importantly, we were protected by the truth, and we stayed focused on that — and what’s even emotionally true when it comes to performance. I wanted to make a complex film, and to avoid one infused with self-importance as that’s so boring and self-righteous. I wanted to wrap a thriller and sense of suspense around a serious issue that also informs and entertains.”

Most of the blame obviously belongs with the NFL, but aren’t the media and fans also partly complicit?

“Absolutely. We’re all like silent partners in this scandal. No one wanted to hear the truth because of the game’s popularity and all the money involved.” 

Will Smith’s character is based on the real-life Dr. Omalu. As the writer, did you feel an added sense of responsibility because of that?

“I spent a lot of time with the real Dr. Omalu, but I feel my responsibility as a writer and director is really to the most honest version of the character, whether it’s real or imagined, and the larger obligation is to the whole movie. You can be paralyzed by feeling you have to ‘do right’ by someone, and sometimes movies about real people disappoint those people. But that wasn’t the case here. Everyone involved loved the film.”

Ridley Scott produced this after being set to direct it. How involved was he and how did he help you?

“He was shooting The Martian simultaneously to this, so he had his hands full, but he created this protective bubble around me. He was my mentor watching over the whole production, and he injected great passion and had the foresight to see that this was a story that had to be told. And he’s so experienced as a producer and taught me so much.”

What were the main technical challenges of pulling all this together?

“At the start I had scheduled shooting all the football scenes in the film with real players, which would have been great in some ways, but at the end of the day I decided to just go with the real footage, as you can’t top the real thing. And I think it was the right decision. How tough was the prep and shoot? It’s always tough, and by the end you’re all so exhausted. It was a 56-day shoot, which is fairly long, but I had a great DP and crew, and everyone kept the energy up.”

Do you like the post process? 

“I absolutely love it. Look, you make all these different movies on one single film — the one you write, the one you prepare, the one you shoot, the one you edit, and in post it’s you with a whole new partner. Instead of a big cast and crew, it’s just you and the editor, and then the composer and sound guys and colorist. It’s a far more intimate experience. You take the hope you take into the shoot, and the footage you got, and then you sit down and find the film you really have — not the movie you hoped to make but the one you actually shot. And sometimes you’re surprised in post, sometimes you’re disappointed, but it’s completely within your control to start molding it. It’s far less brutish than shooting, which is almost blue collar work, and far more intellectual and refined.”

Where did you do the post? 

“We did all the editing at Ridley’s company, Scott Free, in LA. And then we did the mix and score and the rest on the lot at Sony.”

The film was edited by William Goldenberg, who cut another whistle-blowing expose, The Insider. How did that relationship work? 

“He worked for three weeks on Parkland, and I knew him before that, and he really understood my sensibility and the story I wanted to tell. We shot in Pittsburgh, and he was there cutting while I was shooting, and I’d go in and look at what he’d cut each night after we wrapped. And there are a couple of scenes that I almost didn’t touch at all, from the first time he put them together. He’s so fast that my director’s cut was done in just six weeks instead of the usual 10. And it wasn’t over-confidence — he just grasped exactly what was needed right away.” 

The scenes juxtaposing pumped-up TV announcers with young kids going head-to-head are very effective. Were they always in the script or did they happen in the edit?

“No, that whole jacked-up sequence was one of the central inspiring discoveries in the writing process for me. In some ways, I actually built the entire script around that concept, as in those images you get a number of things; you have football at its best, football at its most violent, and then you also have the added complicity of the audience and the TV entertainment aspect of it all, which glorifies the violence. And that, in a nutshell, is what the film’s all about.”

Were there many surprises during post?

“There were a few. There were various storylines that we left out in the end, so we could allow the rest of the movie to breathe. I think that’s very typical. And there were takes I loved and entire scenes that once I lifted out of the movie, also helped the movie breathe more. You mourn the things you lose like that, but ultimately it’s a relief. For me, it’s like chiseling a figure out of a block of marble. You’re freeing that figure and cutting out all the extraneous elements you don’t need.”

There are some obvious visual effects shots, such as the brain sequence. Talk about how you used visual effects shots in the film. How many are there?

“There are a lot more than you might think. Of course the big one was the interior brain shot — and what exactly is happening inside it when it’s hit hard by another helmet in a game. That sequence was a very difficult process to do. It’s something I imagined, but when you write it, it’s quite easy to write something down and not worry about how you’ll actually create it. It’s a whole other thing dealing with the VFX involved to make it work, and we actually ended up going through three different houses before we found one that could pull it off — Sony Imageworks, who were fantastic. They really understood what I wanted to get and created a sequence that was so intense that I actually had to pull it back a little, as it was nauseating. And there was another big VFX sequence at the end of the film, where two players get in a head-to-head collision, and obviously I’m not going to ask two players to actually smash into each other like that for the shot. So I misaligned them so that when they dive they actually miss each other by inches, and we used Hammerhead VFX to push and pull them onto the same plane. And there were a lot of other smaller things we did.”

Can you talk about the importance of music and sound to you as a filmmaker?

“For me, the music in some ways adds a subliminal proxy for the soul and emotions, and you don’t want to indicate what an audience should feel by themselves, but it really can help so much in creating this emotional background that’s humming at all times. And James Newton Howard wrote a very powerful score that’s not at all heavy-handed. And then the sound design and mix, by Mike Minkler, who won Oscars for Chicago, Dreamgirls and Black Hawk Down, was crucial too, as there’s a lot of football in it, and we didn’t want to over-cook and over-play the sound of helmets smashing into each other. But at the same time, we wanted to approximate what it actually feels and sounds like to be in the field, and Mike has a great ear for balancing all the competing elements. All told, we spent about three months on the sound.”

The DI must have been vital. How did that process help? 

“We did that at Sony too, with colorist Doug Delaney, who’s so good — like a painter. I really like the DI. It’s more fluid than editing, as you literally have everything at your disposal. I wanted a muscular, almost ‘70s feature look that was slightly desaturated, and Ridley was so helpful about the look and DI. He has so much experience and a great eye for the power of desaturation. He really encouraged me to take it too far, and then pull it back, which is what we did, and the final look was exactly what I wanted.”

Did the film turn out the way you hoped it would? 

“I have to say that — almost frame by frame — it turned out exactly as I’d hoped while I was writing it. It’s the movie I imagined, and that’s rare I think. When I wrote Kill the Messenger, I had this picture of it in my mind, but it turned out vastly different. And for writers, that’s probably the norm.”  

What’s next? Do you want to direct again?

“Absolutely, and I’m already in prep and casting for my next film, Felt, a domestic spy thriller about Mark Felt, the Deep Throat source of Watergate. It’s a very powerful, emotional story, and we’ll start shooting in March.”