EXCLUSIVE: Every year, fact-based Oscar aspirants from Selma to Zero Dark Thirty are torpedoed by spin. Today, the New York Times took all that in a new direction by publishing a Page One news story that slams a movie about the conspiracy over football concussions, before anyone has seen the film. Both the studio and its director are crying foul. Perched atop a slippery slope and relying on emails hacked from Sony servers last fall by cyber-terrorists, NYT marginalizes the hot-button thriller Concussion, which Peter Landesman wrote and directed about the discovery by forensic neuropathologist Bennet Omalu that the degenerative brain trauma CTE is a direct consequence of the concussions and collisions that occur every Sunday in NFL contests.
Clearly eyeing Oscar gold, Sony releases Concussion on Christmas Day, and this week placed its first trailer with Sports Illustrated and its gridiron guru Peter King. That trailer seems a close cousin to Michael Mann’s tobacco whistleblower film The Insider as Will Smith plays the Nigerian-born scientist who bucks up against a monolith in pursuit of a truth about brain injuries that has since become clear with lawsuits, the suicides of football greats Junior Seau and Dave Duerson, and the dementia suffered by many other former heroes. Landesman showed the movie to King and Bob Costas, the latter of whom issued this statement at the behest of the director: “I have seen the movie. As one who has followed, and commented on, this issue, it doesn’t appear to me many punches were pulled.”
Despite that, Sony today will consider an audible to its slow rollout after today’s NYT story conjectured that Concussion was neutered because of pressure by the NFL, something both Sony and Landesman categorically deny happened. Unchallenged, that article might fester for months. So while the studio might well decide to counter by moving up its release or being a last-minute entry to a tastemaker festival like Telluride, Deadline invited Landesman — who got into movies by adapting articles he wrote for the New York Times Magazine — to address some of the perception created by an article which jumped to the Times‘ Sports section, but has Hollywood buzzing.
DEADLINE: When Sony went through a similar hot-button situation on Social Network, back and forth between the studio and Mark Zuckerberg’s company ended when he wanted the name Facebook and main characters changed and Sony and the filmmakers went ahead and made its movie unauthorized. How much discourse or horse trading was done here with the NFL? Today’s report indicates it was considerable.
LANDESMAN: There was absolutely zero discourse between me or anybody at the studio with the NFL. None. The only exchange was one-sentence e-mails trying to arrange a meeting, before deciding to cancel the meeting. Period. End of story. That goes not just with the footage issue, but with any issue. There was absolutely no communication with the NFL. In terms of the footage, same thing. We had absolutely no communication with them. We had our methodology of telling our story, and we did it unapologetically, and with the utmost fairness and concern for all considerations, legal, artistic, and otherwise.
DEADLINE: Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday gave fictional depiction to the rough and tumble business of football on and off the field, and the players didn’t wear NFL uniforms. You tell a true story about NFL football, and without NFL cooperation, it would seem that visually you have one arm tied behind your back unless you can show familiar game-day action. How did you get around that?
LANDESMAN: Look, I couldn’t tell this story without the audience feeling, seeing and understanding what real football players go through on a daily basis, so we needed and wanted to use real footage. I’m not a lawyer, but we consulted with the legal team at the studio, and all I was told was, we’re on safe ground and I should go ahead and make the best, fairest and most incisive film we can. That’s what I did.
DEADLINE: To be clear, you’re saying there was zero lobbying by the NFL, zero capitulating to pressure, legal or otherwise?
LANDESMAN: There was no dialogue with the NFL on any issue. The salient point that puts to bed all this stuff: anyone who sees this movie, will understand that not only didn’t we soften this movie for anybody, the NFL or otherwise, but the opposite was true. The movie pulls no punches, compromises nothing.
DEADLINE: Was the NFL given a script or were they shown the film?
LANDESMAN: No one from the NFL has seen the movie. They most certainly didn’t get a script from us. When the hack occurred, there was an early version of the script that surfaced online, and no doubt they saw that. But again, we had no dialogue with them.
DEADLINE: The email that NYT uses as a smoking gun about positioning on the movie to placate the NFL came from Dwight Caines. He runs marketing for the studio. Did he have any editorial input into what went on screen?
LANDESMAN: I didn’t just direct the movie, I wrote it. Every word that comes from any character’s mouth came through my fingertips first. I didn’t know who Dwight Caines was until a couple months ago. The only editorial suggestions coming from the studio were about making the story better and the movie better. Again, the New York Times or anyone else who makes these statements, well, they just haven’t see the film. Once they do, this entire story evaporates.
DEADLINE: The article cites discussions that were had by you, the studio and Will Smith’s reps took place on how to avoid antagonizing NFL by altering the script. It cites a “top lawyer” at the studio as having taken most of the bite out of the film. What did you cut out at the behest of the NFL, and how accurate is what I read in The New York Times?
LANDESMAN: Sentence one, most important. I did nothing at the behest of the NFL, for the NFL, against the NFL. When I was writing and shooting the movie, the NFL wasn’t a single consideration, in any regard. Whether it was the portrayal of a character, or the story. In terms of what was cut or left out, any movie that’s about a true story, whether it’s Social Network, Zero Dark Thirty, or Moneyball to a slightly lesser degree, goes through a process of fair representation weighed against the power of the story you want to tell. There’s a constant dialogue going back and forth between the filmmakers and the producers. The one thing you don’t want to do is to be unfair or inaccurate. I had a very strong background in journalism, so it’s my instinct to try to be as fair and accurate as possible. We had scenes, dialogue coming out of the mouths of characters that simply didn’t happen. As a former journalist and now a filmmaker telling a story of this importance that has entered the zeitgeist in such a profound way, I wanted to simply tell a story in the most incisive and fair way possible. I can tell you this. The movie pulls no punches. In fact, anybody who see it would say exactly the opposite.
DEADLINE: Back when Sony first got hacked and those emails were dispersed to journalistic outlets all over, the New York Times didn’t build stories out of them, and all of us struggled with the moral implications. Until now, in the Sports section. This new article attributes them to an “unknown culprit,” which seems misleading based on all we now know. Beyond that these emails surfaced as part of a cyber-terrorist attack attributed to North Korea that culminated in threats to blow up movie theaters playing The Interview, some of these hacked emails seem one-sided bits of dialogue that give incomplete glimpses into the back and forth that go on in making movies. You worked for The New York Times. Is it fair that NYT has used them to discredit your movie before anybody has seen it?
LANDESMAN: It does seem to me like the New York Times is working for the NFL. That’s how it seems to me. It seems like a hatchet job has been done here, and came out of the NFL’s offices, that’s how it seems to me.
DEADLINE: In the same edition of NYT today, their movie reporters Michael Cieply and Brooks Barnes profiled Scott Cooper, director of another Oscar-season film, the Whitey Bulger pic Black Mass. He says that after his movie Out Of The Furnace failed because the storyline was too dark, here he avoided depicting some violence attributed to Bulger that included a man stabbed 38 times with an ice pick. Cooper played up Bulger’s loss of a child to disease, to raise his level of humanity. The reporters didn’t slam him, seeming to grasp the concessions made in narrative depictions of fact-based films if you want audiences to come. Your movie was slammed in the same paper, based on stolen hacked documents, and charges you kowtowed to the powerful NFL. We’ve seen Oscar chances on films from Selma to Zero Dark Thirty whither over this stuff, which doesn’t arise until people see the movie and react. Is there a double standard between those two stories? What perception created by the Concussion article would you most like to correct here?
LANDESMAN: I can’t answer the question about the motivation of the New York Times staff and its reporters, but I can tell you the biggest misconception is that there was any compromise in our movie, at all, given to anything but telling a great story and making a great movie. That’s it. When you are telling a true story about something this controversial, it’s incumbent on us, it’s our responsibility to be as fair an accurate as possible. We don’t want to defame anybody, we don’t want to injure anybody. We just want to tell the truth, and that’s all we’ve done. And anyone writing this stuff hasn’t seen the film. Once they do, the story evaporates.
DEADLINE: So you have this sh*t storm happening today that could fester until your movie opens December 25. That is a long way away. Any chance of altering that release plan, or taking this to a festival to show the buzz builders of Oscar season what you have here?
LANDESMAN: It’s Christmas Day, but clearly we’re thinking about sharing the film with certain people, just so this thing goes away. But we’ll try and figure all that out, today. Here’s the grand irony in all this. This movie is about an underdog, a David and Goliath story of telling the truth, against all odds. About a thing that is such a sacred cow to America, that in its core, on this particular issue, is corrupt. Isn’t it ironic that another American institution, a newspaper, seems to be trying to damage that effort? In a way, it seems to be a strange self-fulfilling prophecy, or a weird mirror of the reality of this film.