'Leatherheads' on road to screen since late '80s

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Football filmmakers: It can take forever to get a movie green lighted these days, but when things finally do fall into place filmmakers suddenly find themselves changing gears and moving ahead at breakneck speed.

A case in point is Universal's romantic comedy "Leatherheads," opening Friday, directed by George Clooney and produced by Grant Heslov and Casey Silver. The Smokehouse Pictures/Casey Silver production stars George Clooney, Renee Zellweger, John Krasinski and Jonathan Pryce. Written by Duncan Brantley & Rick Reilly, it's executive produced by Barbara A. Hall, Jeffrey Silver, Bobby Newmyer and Sydney Pollack.

"Leatherheads," whose story revolves around the 1925 origins of America's pro-football league, goes back as a project to the late 1980s. Brantley, a reporter for Sports Illustrated, was researching pro-football's colorful early days and became interested John McNally, a pioneer star player. By calling himself "Johnny Blood," McNally found he could play for the Duluth Eskimos in the National Football League without losing his eligibility to continue playing college sports under his real name. Brantley decided the birth of pro-football had the makings of a movie and got started writing a screenplay. After a few years, he brought his Sports Illustrated colleague Reilly on board to add some humor to the script.

By the early '90s Brantley and Reilly had a screenplay to start showing around town. They brought it to Steven Soderbergh, through whom it then got to Casey Silver, who at the time was president of production at Universal. Having enjoyed a few good laughs at an early screening of "Leatherheads" and being impressed by how well Clooney directed a film that's not only loaded with gridiron action but where he's also acting, himself, in almost every scene, I was happy to have an opportunity to focus with Silver on the project's twists and turns on the road to the screen.

In "Leatherheads" Clooney plays Dodge Connolly, a pro-football hero and team captain from the early days when the sport had no rules to follow and games quickly turned into free-for-alls that were settled with fists flying. Connolly now finds himself having to adapt as pro-football begins changing into the structured, rule-driven government regulated big money professional sport it's become over the years. Krasinski's character, Carter Rutherford, is a college football star and World War I hero who's just what the struggling young pro-football league needs to start attracting fans. Both Dodge and Carter are after Zellweger's character Lexie Littleton, the fast-talking sexy Chicago Tribune reporter who's out to prove Carter's not the war hero he claims to be.

"Steven Soderbergh, fresh off of (the 1989 drama) 'sex, lies and videotape,' whom I had known from an earlier script writing assignment before he made it and whom I had a lot of respect for as a thoughtful young filmmaker-screenwriter, brought me this idea called 'Leatherheads,'" Silver told me. "I thought highly of Steven (who went on to receive an Oscar nomination for writing 'sex' and in 2001 won the best directing Oscar for "Traffic" while also being nominated for directing "Erin Brockovich") and I thought it was an interesting idea (that was) commercial. The world of the early days of professional football had been unexplored in Hollywood movies to the best of my knowledge. So that's how we started."

What was it about the project that resonated initially with Silver? "The character of Dodge Connolly was always a strength," he replied. "(He was) somebody coming to terms with the end of their run in a job and also having to move on in life at a time when the world and the culture around him was moving on. There was always a very strong triangle. There were problems with the story, but the characters were interesting. I think George brought a lot to the character that Krasinski plays. And also there was a screwball throwback style. Hollywood used to make those movies really well and I think that you can see the antecedents in the ambition of the material from the very beginning."

Given Silver's interest in the project, they started to develop a screenplay: "Over the years, I always liked it and we tried to perfect the screenplay -- there were always issues and tweaks that we were never quite satisfied (with) -- and we explored ways of casting the movie. It never got to a place where it came together in a way that was satisfying to either of us. In Hollywood they never die if they're good ideas and if there are people behind them. Steven, obviously, is a formidable person to have behind this.

"After 'Out of Sight,' (Soderbergh's 1998 romantic comedy thriller from Universal and Jersey Films starring George Clooney) where Steven made his first studio Hollywood movie, which he was concerned about -- it worked out well and Steven did his job extremely well and without interference from on high at the studio -- we discussed ('Leatherheads') briefly again. In a way, I think we weren't really happy with the script but we were discussing it with George because those guys obviously met on that movie. Again, the script didn't quite come together and as things happen in Hollywood that moment passed. And that led to another sort of dormant period where there were a couple of other whacks at the script that were taken by the studio."

In October 1999 Silver shifted from running Universal Pictures to heading his own independent production company, Casey Silver Prods., and "Leatherheads" was one of the projects he liked enough to take with him to develop. But even then years still passed before things fell into place.

"Steven had asked me to produce it for him when I was no longer a studio executive," Silver said. "We didn't quite get it right until I got a phone call from George in September of '06 saying that he had looked at the script and had done some work on (it) and he was interested in directing and starring in the movie. (He) asked that I read the script. So obviously (with) a movie that had had such a long road to get to the starting gate, when you have a very talented director and movie star saying, 'I do,' I read the script.

"I thought he had done really good work on it. He's uncredited (as a writer), but it was substantial and important work. And coming off of 'Good Night, and Good Luck' (for which Clooney was a best directing Oscar nominee and saw his film receive a best picture nomination), on the turn of a dime a movie that had been sort of floating was really moving forward."

Suddenly, things were starting to happen. "The chronology was George asked me to read it. I read it. I met with (George) and Grant Heslov, his partner, who did an excellent job on the movie as my partner who produced the movie with me," Silver recalled. "The first thing we did was we discussed the script and we discussed casting and the first person that George suggested for the part of Lexie was Renee. And obviously that wasn't a hard sell. She read the script. They had a meeting and she said, 'I do.'"

And now it was really full speed ahead: "It took forever until the phone call from George and the evidence of the script that he worked on and the passion and commitment that he was bringing to it. And from that moment forward in the balance of the universe it went from 'it never got going' to immediately getting going. And it went very quickly and very smoothly."

When I observed that it must have been particularly challenging for Clooney to have directed the film since he also appears in so much of it and there's so much physical action in his scenes -- plus, he's covered from head to toe in mud in many of the gridiron scenes -- Silver replied, "I have to say that George is an incredibly prepared filmmaker. He really does his homework. He looked at a lot of movies, studied a lot of the work of fine filmmakers that preceded us and that were relevant for the movie. He had a very definite idea about what he wanted.

"(It's great) when you have a filmmaker who shows up on the set and is prepared and has a definite idea and obviously knows how to work with actors and had a crew that he's had experience with. Tommy Sigel (cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel, whose credits include such films as "Superman Returns," "X-Men," "The Usual Suspects") shot his first movie (Clooney's 2002 biographical drama 'Confessions of a Dangerous Mind') and a lot of the key people are people who are on the 'George Clooney Crew.' So there's a shorthand below-the-line (and) there is experience and confidence above-the-line. Grant Heslov (who produced 'Good Night, and Good Luck' and also played the role of Don Hewitt) is his partner and confidante who he relies on and who gives him excellent advice and does very good work. So the process of moving the movie forward in general took a ton of work, but it was well managed largely because George shows up ready."

Although the movie's supposed to be taking place in the frozen Midwest, it actually was shot in the Carolinas -- first in Greenville, S.C., and then in North Carolina, moving from Charlotte to Winston-Salem to Statesville over the course of about 45 days. "Finances always are relevant (when it comes to choosing locations)," Silver explained. "And there's a lot of history down in the Carolinas with the architecture and the look. Jim Bissell, a really top-notch production designer who worked before with George (when he was directing 'Confessions' and 'Good Night'), scouted.

"There were tax incentives in the Carolinas and the look was really good. We wanted to shoot where it would be winter and gray and cold, but not so bitter cold that the camera would freeze. Bissell scouted thoroughly and then we all went down to look at the locations and I have to say that it fell into place very quickly."

They also faced challenges associated with the film's 1920's period setting: "I think Jim Bissell and the costume designer (Louise Frogley) did a spectacular job. There was tremendous attention paid to the detail of the period. Between looking for the right architecture and having the ability to build the occasional set and being very attentive to the detail in wardrobe we were able to capture it."

It was the kind of picture that clearly gave Silver and Heslov plenty to do as producers. "I think that I obviously carried a lot of it before we started photography," he said, "and just sort of getting it all into the starting gate and was there when we made it. But Grant (was able to play a key producing role) because he and George have a lot of history and I think they're close friends. Grant loaned George money for his headshot when George was a starving actor. Those guys go so far back that there's a shorthand. And, again, (it's great) when you have the kind of top notch crew (we had) and all of them have experience with each other and a director who knows what he's doing and prides himself on being efficient, which is a great thing.

"He's uncompromising with regard to what he's looking for, but he's the sort of director where if he feels he gets it in the first take we don't need to do three other takes, we just move on. And if it takes 20 takes, then it takes 20 takes. But it really informed the whole feeling of everybody on the movie from the production assistants to the movie stars. Everybody was sort of pulling together with a sense of confidence and purpose and an understanding of what we're trying to do."

Reflecting on the project's long history, Silver observed, "I took it with me (when he left Universal to enter independent production) because at that point Steven was still considering directing it. And Steven is somebody who I would love to (applaud here). He didn't take a credit. He certainly deserves one for all of the work he has done. He is an unsung hero -- not from the moment George said 'I do' to direct because he had absolutely nothing to do with it from there, but from just getting it first and keeping it alive for a decade-plus or whatever it's been.

"And then, of course, he was very gracious and stepped aside and said, 'I don't want any credit' even though in my opinion he deserves one. I think that my greatest contribution was up to getting the whole movie off and going and keeping an eye on it over there, but it was not that challenging because I had such a well oiled machine and such a responsible director and actors who followed his example. I just think that Krasinski came in, won the day and gives a really nuanced and strong performance and deserves, I think, all of the recognition that I hope and assume his performance will merit."

Filmmaker flashbacks: From Jan. 3, 1991's column: "While ringing in the new year, Hollywood might also want to do some hand-wringing -- and, perhaps, even wring some necks -- given the way things went in the old year.

"Looking back at 1990, it's clear that the film industry did not sail the boxoffice course it thought it was charting. If any word best sums up the year gone by, it's 'surprising.' 1990 was a time when few things went according to plan.

"It was, after all, a year in which all five of the top grossing films were surprise successes. Paramount's 'Ghost,' the biggest of all, opened July 11 when the conventional wisdom was that the summer would be dominated by high profile superstar vehicles and sequels. 'Ghost' had no superstars, wasn't a sequel and didn't spring from a best-selling novel, but still became 1990's only $200 million grossing film.

"Buena Vista/Touchstone's 'Pretty Woman,' the year's second biggest hit, was another surprise. It, too, had no superstars, wasn't a sequel and hadn't been a best-seller. When it opened March 23 the conventional wisdom was that it would disappear from theaters by Memorial Day. Instead, it played through mid-October, when it went into home video.

"20th Century Fox's 'Home Alone,' 1990's third biggest success, was another blockbuster straight out of left field (and out of turnaround, as well). Once again, no superstars, no sequel and no best-seller. The conventional wisdom was that after its Nov. 16 opening it would be overwhelmed by the glut of higher profile holiday films...

"In the midst of all these surprise successes Hollywood was also finding some very unhappy surprises. It discovered that many big budget projects that had looked like surefire hits on paper weren't translating into boxoffice gold despite having big star names on their marquees or being sequels or having been best-sellers..."

Martin Grove hosts movie coverage on the broadband television channel www.UpdateHollywood.com.
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