In September, the New York Times ran an article with the headline “Sony Altered Concussion Film to Prevent NFL Protests, Emails Show.” A supposedly damning account of how Concussion, starring Will Smith and directed by Peter Landesman, cut scenes from the movie to appease the NFL – a story, it appears, which based most of its findings from the emails obtained from the infamous Sony leak.
Then people started seeing the film, which seems about as “anti” a movie can be against one organization, in this case, the NFL. The film depicts the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu (Smith), the doctor who first diagnosed CTE, a brain condition found in many former NFL players that is brought on by concussion and Omalu’s fight for credibility against the powerful league.
We spoke to Landesman at his New York City hotel and he did not hold back on his feelings about having the credibility of his film questioned.
The New York Times ran a piece in September saying Concussion was altered to appease the NFL, but then I see this movie and I found it to be very anti-NFL. What happened there?
You should ask them. I think it’s a really great question. It’s an article by a reporter about a movie he’d never seen before and seeming to pass judgment on a movie he’d never seen before, which is questionable journalism at its best.
Do you think the NFL planted this?
I think it was a reporter looking really, really hard for a story that wasn’t there. And if he couldn’t find one, he was going to make one up.
[ED. NOTE: Uproxx reached out to the New York Times for a response to Landesman’s accusation. The paper declined to comment.]
Was anything taken out of Concussion?
No. Look, it’s just part of the normal editing process of the movie. My first assembly, with all the scenes cut together, was four hours long – how do you fit it inside of a two-hour breadbox? It was just part of the normal editing process. Things that came out made the movie slow, or wasn’t about the focus, or I took something out because of performance. There are all sorts of reasons a director takes stuff out of a movie.
Were you prepared for pushback from the NFL? Obviously Dr. Omalu received a lot of pushback from them in the film.
Well, you know, I wrote a movie a couple years ago called Kill a Messenger. And I wrote a movie I’m directing in the spring called Felt, which is about Mark Felt, who is Deepthroat in Watergate. Whenever you swim in the waters of whistleblowers, truth tellers, you’re usually writing about someone who is writing the truth about a large institution whose first priority is self-preservation. So, inevitably, you’re going to walk into the buzzsaw of conflicting agendas and interests.
True. But right now the NFL is more powerful than the Nixon administration.
What are they going to do? Take away my season tickets?
They can try to discredit your movie.
Well, they know they can’t. The irony is the NFL, of all people, knows how true this is. They executed a massive cover up for years and years. They knew this stuff years ago. They chose to cover it up in the name of economic interests.
In mid-December, Roger Goodell was seen laughing at a joke about concussions.
Well, look, businesses have tone deafness toward anything that doesn’t benefit their bottom line.
When you watch that video, what are you thinking?
I’m thinking that he might have been smarter.
Mike Webster’s CTE death and diagnosis play a large part in this film. I saw him play in person when he was on the Kansas City Chiefs.
While you were watching him play – he was actually a player-coach on that team – he was living in the attic of the team’s offices. He was already beginning to lose his mind. He was already virtually homeless was when he was playing for them.
What are the logistics of using actors playing real players who have died?
I got very close to Keana Strzelczyk, who is Justin’s widow. I got close to Tia McNeill, who is the widow of Fred McNeill. They were originally in the script, but I took them out for editing purposes. Fred just died a few weeks ago. These are people who are very, very supportive of the movie. There are a lot of players and former players who have seen the movie who really weep and shake during the movie and after. There are people connected to football who feel very powerfully about it.
From your experiences, where do most former players come down on the subject of concussions?
I don’t know if there’s enough data. I haven’t done any kind of survey. I know the one’s I’ve spoken to, to a person, are very moved by the movie and feel its truthful and important.
What were your thoughts when it was revealed Frank Gifford had CTE? How never really showed signs publicly.
Well, never showed signs to you, but he certainly showed signs at home. Look, my response is complete unsurprised. Dozens and dozens, if not hundreds, of former football players have died or committed suicide in the shadows and anonymously because of this disease. So Gifford was just the next guy, but there’s going to be a lot more after that.
In this movie we see a lot of real NFL logos. What’s are the rules for using NFL logos without permission?
It’s fair use. When you’re making a movie about a nonfiction issue that’s a public advocacy issue, you’re protected by fair use, which is the first amendment, to use logos and footage and all that.
You cast Luke Wilson as Roger Goodell. What were you wanting out of someone playing Goodell?
Well, I wanted him to come across as bureaucratic, institutional and the head of a bureaucracy that’s out for self-preservation. I thought Luke Wilson did a fantastic job.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.