On Friday, Sony’s Concussion will be released in theaters. Directed by Peter Landesman and starring Will Smith, the movie tells the story of Bennet Omaru, the Nigerian neuropathologist who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE)—the brain disease believed to be caused by repeated concussions in professional football players—while working in Pittsburgh. The film is based on a 2009 GQ article by Jeanne Marie Laskas.
Predictably, Concussion has already generated controversy. In September, a New York Times article accused Landesman and Sony of working with the NFL to “soften” the film, charges which both Landesman and Sony have vehemently denied. The accusations were based on emails pulled from the Sony hack, but Landesman told Deadline that the NYT scribe had never seen the film.
The NFL has yet to release a statement about Concussion, except to tell the NYT that “We are encouraged by the ongoing focus on the critical issue of player health and safety…We have no higher priority. We all know more about this issue than we did 10 or 20 years ago. As we continue to learn more, we apply those learnings to make our game and players safer.”
But news about the NFL and CTE continues to roll out. Yesterday, ESPN reported that the league pulled funding for a potentially groundbreaking CTE study at Boston University, after finding out that the lead researcher was critical of the NFL in the past.
At the very same time, Time released an interview yesterday with Omalu, in which the groundbreaking doctor estimated that 90% of NFL players suffer from CTE. “I have not examined any brain of a retired football player that came back negative,” he told the magazine.
Here, Landesman discusses his movie as well as the NFL, truth-telling, and working with a living legend.
What made you interested in this topic?
What interested me was the story of Bennet Omalu. You hear his narrative: Immigrant from Nigeria, landing in Pittsburgh, only to learn and tell the truth about this most American—and sacrosanct—cultural institution; the NFL. Add that to the idea that CTE in football is so in the zeigeist; it’s everywhere. How do you not tell that story?
How long were you working on this idea?
I met with Ridley Scott two years ago, and I spent a great deal of time with Bennet. I am an old journalist, so I always do a lot of research and dive deep into people’s character, who they are, and their motivation. So I spent days and days with Bennet, then when Will came aboard we spent more time with him. Bennet was committed to telling his story.
How true were you to the facts of Bennet’s story?
It’s a feature film, not a documentary. It’s a character. But the truth sometimes is good enough when you’re making a movie.
Did you hear anything from the NFL while you were in production?
I never dealt with the NFL. I never approached them, I never asked them for permission for anything.
I was just surprised that you took this on, because it’s an issue that’s still ongoing. The NFL still contests that CTE is as big of a problem as it is.
I don’t agree with you. I don’t think the NFL contests the disease anymore. They have embraced concussions. They have wrapped their arms around it. They have embraced the truth of their game. They don’t contest it any longer. They are very up-front about the power [used in the game].
So, you heard nothing at all from the NFL?
I never talked to them. We never applied for permission for anything.
Have you heard anything from them more recently, since the movie is coming out this week?
Not one thing. Unless you know something I don’t know. I’ve heard a lot from the players.
You were a journalist before getting into film. Did you switch careers because you felt you could reach more people with your stories through film?
Films reach millions and millions, tens of millions of people. I used to write for the New York Times Magazine; on a good day, that would be seen by 500,000 people. To me, film is the most complete method of storytelling. I’m a painter and a novelist as well, and I’ve always been a very visual writer. Film brings together framing and light and color and performance and music and all of that. To me, everything I’ve done in my life has been preparing me for filmmaking.
Why do feature films instead of documentaries?
Well, I’ve done documentaries. But the narratives I deal with are big and sweeping and emotional. You can achieve that in a documentary, but I love actors and performances. When you do journalism or documentaries, you are constrained by the facts. I didn’t want to be constrained by the facts.
As a journalist by trade, do you feel any guilt about deviating from the facts when you’re telling a story that’s based on true events?
I feel obligated most to the story, and people always have multiple agendas when they tell you the story. Nobody likes the way they’ve been portrayed [in Concussion], except maybe Bennett. But the truth is, I want the entire canvas. I want to be factual when it’s called for, I want to be emotional when its called for. My only obligation is to the audience.
Why take on CTE instead of some other issue?
Well, I have taken on other issues. But I love sports; I love the power and the grace of the game. But I also see the wizard behind the curtain. It’s a spectacle and an entertainment platform, and so [the problems] are much more insidious. And I love piercing through mythology.
Are you working on anything else at the moment?
I have no limitations. I’m interested in whatever interests me at the time. I’m in prep on my next film, so I’m divided right now. I feel like I’ve done my job here in terms of telling this story.