'Concussion' Director Talks Casting Will Smith and Having "Absolutely No Communication" With NFL (Q&A)

Peter Landesman Will Smith H 2015
Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP

Peter Landesman Will Smith H 2015

Football players are 'hungry' to see his new drama, Peter Landesman says, as he sheds light on the 'occupational hazard' of America's game.

With Concussion, Peter Landesman profiles ?forensic pathologist Bennet Omalu, the Nigerian-born doctor who discovered a disease in the brains of NFL players.

"I'd followed the strange deaths of pro football players for years, sensing something odd going on," says Landesman, 50, who spent most of his career as an investigative journalist and war correspondent. The Sony film (the writer-director's second after 2013's Parkland), which stars Will Smith, could gain attention both as an awards contender and?as a criticism of the NFL's efforts to reduce injuries.

Ahead of its Nov. 10 world premiere at AFI Fest, Landesman, a married father of two, spoke to THR about watching autopsies with Smith, dealing (or not) with the NFL and how being a journalist shapes his storytelling.

How did you first become aware of Omalu's work?
I only became aware of him when Jeanne Marie-Laskas' article "Game Brain" showed up in GQin 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?"

How much time did you spend with the doctor when you were 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.

Is the way you write a screenplay shaped by your work as a journalist?
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.

Did you have Smith in mind while you were writing the script?
Will 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.

What did Will do to prepare?
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.

Since the trailer came out, have you heard from former players or anyone else involved in football about the film that's surprised you?
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.

Are you frustrated that the conversation in some circles has become Concussion vs. the NFL?
I expected some people to initially see this film 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.

Have you communicated with the league since the trailer came out?
I've had absolutely no communication with the NFL.

What kind of discussion do you hope 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.