Interview | Peter Landesman on ‘Concussion’ and Investigative Journalism

Writer/director Peter Landesman began his career as a painter, which somehow, in a circuitous fashion, led to many years as an investigative journalist. Landesman wrote multiple exposés on weapons trafficking and sex trafficking and other hot-button criminal issues before moving, maybe less circuitously, into the world of fictionalized feature films. The man’s career is nothing if not varied. Perhaps next, he’ll take a crack at being an Olympic gold medalist before moving into celebrity cooking, eventually ending up in pop stardom.

Landesman’s latest film, due in theaters on Christmas Day, is Concussion, a biopic of Dr. Bennet Omalu, the doctor who discovered the medical dangers of too much head trauma, a too-common occurrence that was causing retired NFL stars to essentially lose their minds years after the fact. This condition was, for many years, hushed up by the NFL, who didn’t want to lose face. Omalu is played by the always gregarious Will Smith, so we naturally sympathize with him.

Crave recently talked to Landesman about Concussion, and how a life in investigative journalism can transfer easily into a life of feature films. He also has a few words on the politics of Christmas releases, and how much ease and autonomy he had making his movie.

CraveOnline: Your career is astonishing. How does one become an investigative journalist?

Peter Landesman: You have to be really nosy, really curious, have no boundaries, and forcefully ignore your own best interest sometimes. It’s really about being insatiably curious about a thing, and following it to the end in the faces of whatever forces come your way.

When did you first realize you could make a career of that?

I first realized I could make a career out of it with my first story which was written for The New Yorker. It’s like I was bit by a vampire. I knew there was no going back. It just fit my personality and my lifestyle. Who I was as a person. I know that was for me.

And when was the first time it got you into trouble?

The first time it got me into trouble, I was in Odessa in the Ukraine. And I was doing an investigative article on arms trafficking that was taking me through Eastern Europe and the Middle East. And after I had interviewed a helicopter pilot who had been ferrying weapons into Liberia, I realized as I left the restaurant that I was being followed and set up for an ambush. And I ran like fucking hell, but I got out of there with my life just in time. And that was just the first of a series of experiences where I thought “You’re asking the wrong questions, and the wrong people could get you done with.”

How does one parlay a work of exposés of criminal activity into a career in film?

I was a painter before I was a writer, so I was always a visual artist. And my writing, to me, was always visual. In fact, for me, writing was just an excuse to tell a visual story. Even as a novelist, and even as a journalist to some degree. But the way I got into it was that feature stories I was writing for the New York Times Magazine in those days were being optioned by studios and production companies. And I watched from the sidelines for a while, and I did want to become a filmmaker eventually, because it would sort of close the circle on my life as a painter. I started writing screenplays myself, and eventually directing.

Columbia Pictures

But not documentaries? That seems more logical, given your journalism background.

You know, documentaries for me always felt kind of limiting. I wanted to go bigger. And I also love actors and I love performance. So feature filmmaking was always the intent. I did produce a documentary film early, and I still produce documentary films, but my focus is on features.

Did you have a moment when you saw filmmakers making your stories wrong, and you felt the need to step in?

Oh yeah! Right at the very beginning. That was definitely part of what got me into it. I optioned an article to MGM and to Michael Douglas about art forgery. This was 1999. A great story. And I watched them develop that into a mountainside and crash and burn, and it was very frustrating, because it would have been a fantastic film. Since then, I’ve wanted to get more and more, and I desire, more and more control over my own work. And not just writing film, but directing what I write. I feel it closes the circle in terms of responsibility. And I feel that cuts both ways, because if I fail, I have that too.

So you have many new avenues to get in trouble.

Well, I don’t do journalism anymore, but a lot of the screenplays I write are based in truth, so I research them like a journalist. But yes, I suppose that’s true. I wrote an article for the Times Magazine about sex trafficking that was very, very controversial, and it was a very difficult experience. And then there was a movie made out of it, and it had a very similar effect.

What brought you to Concussion? Were you attracted by the opportunity to uncover malfeasance in the NFL?

What brought me was the story of Dr. Omalu. The NFL is, in a way, just the context or the excuse. But Bennet’s story is the driver for me. Giannina Facio and Ridley Scott, my producers, brought me an article they had purchased about Bennet, and I recognized in him the ultimate whistleblower. So, in many ways all the stories I had written until then was a rehearsal for telling that story.

How is the Will Smith version of Dr. Omalu different from the real-life man?

If you can believe it, Bennet is even more idiosyncratic and eccentric, a personality even bigger and more joyful than in the film. He’s just a very rare creature built on purity of mission and spirit. The reality is even bigger. Usually it’s the other way around, but in this case it’s not.

Now that the movie is nearly out, have you been getting nasty letters from the NFL?

Nope. I have no idea what the NFL thinks. As far as I know, they haven’t seen it, and I haven’t heard from them. I know it’s on their radar because they’re talking about it all the time, and they seem to be bracing for a tidal wave of recognition that this issue is problematic. Mostly because Bennet’s story is irresistible. This isn’t a little documentary about the issue. This is a major motion picture with the biggest movie star in the world playing a fascinating and incredibly sympathetic character. That’s a big fucking problem for them.

What was the process like? Is this all based on interviews from Omalu? What sort of investigating did you do?

I did not speak at all to the NFL, there was no communication. But I did speak to a number of players and former players. I spoke to many people, interviewed dozens of people. Bennet for days and days. Alec Baldwin’s character Julian Bailes. Albert Brooks’ character Cyril Wecht. Spent days with these people. Really understanding their part in the play. And wove it all together in that way.

Were there any stories they told that you had to cut from the movie?

The process of making a movie is editing a movie. There’s always things you have to leave out. There are story elements that I didn’t include in the final cut of the film, but nothing powerful or intrinsically necessary. What I left out of the movie didn’t belong in the movie…

I was hoping for a juicy detail about the villainy of the NFL or something.

I know lots about the way the NFL works, but that wasn’t the movie we were making. It wasn’t a takedown or a “gotcha” piece. No, I’m well aware of things going on inside of the NFL that are not in the movie, but that wasn’t fascinating or juicy to watch.

Columbia Pictures

How much of the casting had been done when Ridley Scott brought the piece to you?

When Ridley brought me the movie, there was no screenplay, so how could there be a cast? He brought me the idea, and I spent a few months writing the screenplay. I have to say, the studio and Ridley gave me tremendous autonomy when casting. I’m trying to think if there was even a first choice I wanted and didn’t get. There are always conversations, but at the end of the day, Sony’s a very filmmaker-friendly studio, and their executives really protect the filmmaker and their vision. Ridley clearly protects his directors’ vision because he’s a director himself. So it’s very collaborative. But I have to say, I can’t even think of a single actor that I wanted that hey didn’t want me to cast.

I’m glad you thought of Albert Brooks. I love that guy.

Albert’s brilliant. He’s one of a kind. Because he gives a comedic spin to even the driest dramatic turn. So you’re getting, effectively, two performances at once.

How do you feel about your movie being positioned as an Oscar bait Christmas release? Do you think that may change the perception of your movie?

I learned it was going to be released on Christmas Day back in the early summer. Which to me, signaled the studio’s confidence in what they had and the film that I showed them. It was an enormous vote of confidence, and it was very gratifying. In terms of awards, you never work for those kinds of consequences. If that were to happen for Will, no one would be happier than me. I was at the beginning of this journey with him. But that’s certainly not why we made the movie. It wasn’t on our minds as we were making it. We were doing the best job we could with the resources we had.

What was the first record you bought your own money?

I think probably Boston. “More Than a Feeling.” That’s probably the right answer. It might be Peter Frampton.

Top Photo: Getty Images

Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and co-host of The B-Movies Podcast. He also contributes to Legion of Leia, The Robot’s Voice, and Blumhouse. You can follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.