Cast: Will Smith, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Alec Baldwin, Stephen Moyer, Luke Wilson, Bitsie Tulloch
Director: Peter Landesman
Running Time: 123 minutes
Synopsis: Will Smith stars in Concussion, a dramatic thriller based on the incredible true David vs. Goliath story of American immigrant Dr. Bennet Omalu, the brilliant forensic neuropathologist who made the first discovery of CTE, a football-related brain trauma, in a pro player and fought for the truth to be known. Omalu's emotional quest puts him at dangerous odds with one of the most powerful – and beloved – institutions in the world.
Release Date: February 18th, 2016
'I identify with whistleblowers, truth-tellers, people working against the system, David versus Goliath stories," says Peter Landesman, who writes and directs the new film Concussion, the journey of Dr. Bennet Omalu, a doctor who makes an important medical discovery. 'The idea that it is this man who is left to tell the truth, our truth, about us, about a thing we love, is poetic and astonishing. All he wants to do is be an American, tell the truth, and be good."
'Peter Landesman has a really unique skill set," says Will Smith, who stars as Dr. Omalu. 'Peter is an investigative reporter. He's used to going into the minutia of a circumstance and a person – he's used to going broad and deep with things in a way that you generally wouldn't do with a movie. Yet he's also a painter, so he takes all of that and he translates it into imagery, which is a really rare gift."
'At the center of this film is a man who was delivered a truth about a game that he had no connection to, but he had to deliver painful information to a group of people that he had a deep desire to be accepted by," adds Will Smith. Just as Dr. Omalu, an immigrant from Nigeria, yearned to become an American, his discovery would lead to his being smeared.
'For myself, in this process I don't think about football – my focus is on Bennet and the pain and triumph of the story of an immigrant who came to America, suffered what he had to suffer, and ultimately was vindicated," Will Smith continues. 'I look at this film as the close of a chapter for Bennet. This is a man who was born during an air raid in Nigeria. His mother was hit by shrapnel when he was being delivered. To go from there, to go through the suffering of bringing this story to the American public, and then to have your life story told through a Hollywood film – that's a beautiful hero's journey."
For writer and director Peter Landesman, the film is about much more than football. 'Professional football is more than a sport. More than a business. It is a cultural and national institution. Much is at stake – culturally, socially, and economically. And like any gigantic business, there are powerful interests invested in keeping it going, no matter the cost. When Dr. Omalu made a discovery that threatened not just business as usual, but the very fabric of the game – the hits, the violence – those interests went into high gear. But Dr. Omalu was focused only on the truth, and the spirit of the dead, and was determined to make the facts known. I hope the film does that too. The stakes couldn't be higher."
Producer Giannina Scott adds, 'Concussion is a powerful and uncompromising film about an issue that was ignored for far too long and continues to play out today. It's a story that had to be told, and we were determined to tell it right. No one wanted to touch it, being such a hot subject. Ridley and I were turned down everywhere, including writers, until Peter was suggested. He clearly was the perfect writer and director. We then pitched to Amy Pascal, who bought it in the room."
Producer David Wolthoff, who with producer Larry Shuman first saw Dr. Omalu's story as a potential film, with Shuman's company originally optioning the rights to Jeanne Marie Laskas' article in GQ, says, 'At its core, Bennet's story is the story of this genius doctor – an Erin Brockovich kind of character – who perseveres in the face of all adversity."
'Concussion gives us a window into the larger-than-life spirit of Dr. Omalu, and fortunately, we have Will Smith to capture his essence," says Shuman. To this day, it's hard for Dr. Omalu to believe that it was he who made the discovery. 'This cannot be – a poor African boy like me, coming to America, where you have the largest concentration of brilliant minds – I'm the first to see this? It's not possible."
After his discovery of chronic brain injury in sports players, Dr. Omalu published his findings. He expected to begin a serious discussion of a safer way to play the game. Instead, he found himself and his family in the crosshairs, the subject of a vicious and nerve-wracking campaign to discredit him by some of the sport's most powerful interests. 'Twelve years later, I can't believe how bold and audacious I was in that paper," he says. 'For twelve years, I've been bruised and burned. That paper was very idealistic. But there was nothing that I said in that paper that has not been confirmed by independent researchers."
Despite being vilified and smeared, Dr. Omalu persevered, says Giannina Scott. 'The time frame of Concussion is from 2002 to 2012, and it took all that time for the information to get out to the public," she says. 'By the time we began making the movie, there was a recognition of concussions and a settlement. It was all a vindication of Dr. Omalu."
For Giannina Scott, that perseverance is the reason why Dr. Omalu is a hero. 'He could have given up, but he didn't," she says. 'Why did he put himself through this? Because he felt a sense of duty to tell the truth."
'I never wanted this to be about me, but about the players," says Dr. Omalu. I believe it is the spirit of people like Mike Webster, like Terry Long, like Andre Waters, like Junior Seau, that was pushing this forward. This is about love and light, saving lives, and enhancing the lives of others."
Dr. Omalu's story was told in depth in a GQ magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, which became the basis for Peter Landesman's screenplay. 'Her article is the best I've read on this topic," says Dr. Omalu. 'She humanized me. Remember, everything about me in the media was negative – I was this alien who worked to destroy the way of life in America. That article was a game-changer. Suddenly, people started opening their hearts and minds to me."
Dr. Omalu approaches his work with a dignity and reverence for the dead. 'I'm Roman Catholic by faith," he says. 'My faith teaches us that when the body dies, your spirit and soul progress to eternal life. I believe the spirit is still with us, just like the spirit of God is with us. So, I talk to my patients – not verbally, but in my heart."
Will Smith was able to observe Dr. Omalu in his practice. 'Bennet is a forensic pathologist and he performs autopsies daily, so he spends a lot of time with dead bodies. But he's also a deeply religious man," says Will Smith. 'He thinks of his job as a forensic pathologist more as a deliverer of souls – the last threshold guardian between this realm and the next. He's a deeply spiritual man, and when he's performing an autopsy, it's a spiritual experience for him. He has a wonderful sixth sense about trying to figure out how a person died. He'll go through their clothes and look and he's trying to get them to help him figure out how they died. It's a beautiful thing to watch."
One of the patients that Dr. Omalu figuratively spoke to was Mike Webster, the football hero, in whose brain Dr. Omalu first found CTE. During the initial autopsy, 'I asked Mike to guide me," he recalls. Though Webster's brain looked normal at first, Dr. Omalu was aware that Webster had suffered from severe neurological problems, and he made a critical decision to preserve Webster's brain for further study – an unusual choice, and one that led directly to his eventual discovery of CTE. 'I could have put it back in the body like every other organ, but I believe the spirit of Mike guided me."
The film chronicles not only Dr. Omalu's discovery, but the campaign that followed to sideline his findings. Bringing Dr. Omalu's story to life is Peter Landesman, who wrote the screenplay and directs the project. Years ago, Peter Landesman – a former investigative journalist – had researched and met with Dr. Omalu. So, when the Scotts approached Peter Landesman to write, it was destiny. 'I already knew about Bennet, had met Bennet, had thought about Bennet, had metabolized what his life story was," he says.
'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," says Peter Landesman. 'Once I'm inside the beast of the truth, then I can find the shape and architecture of the movie. It was more true with this film than any other. I listened hard to what the movie wanted to be – its shape, its focus. There is a version of this movie that is as much about the NFL as Bennet. But Bennet – his journey, his task, his burden – was utterly unique. Compounding that with the idea of Will – writing this for Will, with his voice and physicality in mind – made me feel I was writing as much a piece of music as I was a screenplay."
In creating his film, Peter Landesman shot on location in Pittsburgh, choosing to work with some of the most acclaimed creative personnel in the business – Salvatore Totino, who has collaborated on seven films with director Ron Howard; production designer David Crank, an Emmy winner for his work on 'John Adams," a collaborator with Paul Thomas Anderson, and art director on such films as Lincoln, Water for Elephants, and The Tree of Life; editor William Goldenberg, a five-time Oscar® nominee and winner for his work on Argo; costume designer Dayna Pink, who previously teamed with Will Smith on Focus; and eight-time Oscar®-nominated composer James Newton Howard.
'There was a choice: you could make this movie very cold and scientific, with people moving through the story of the brain study, or you could make it about the people," says Giannina Scott. 'And that was a decision that Peter made and that Sal has brought to the photography. It's the best kind of moviemaking where you can identify with the characters."
'Bennet's prime relationships were with the dead – the dead in a city that was economically on life support," Peter Landesman continues. 'Pittsburgh citizens clinging to their game, football, that Bennet found was damaging – in some cases killing – its players. Not just in the photography, but in the writing, on the page, the cityscape was the external mirror of Bennet's journey."
Casting The Film
Two-time Oscar® nominee Will Smith stars in Concussion as Dr. Bennet Omalu. The actor is no stranger to bringing the dramatic stories of true-life people to the screen, having famously portrayed Muhammad Ali in Michael Mann's Ali and Chris Gardner in Gabriele Muccino's The Pursuit of Happyness.
Giannina Scott recalls that when she, Ridley Scott, and Peter Landesman initially pitched the story of Bennet Omalu to Sony Pictures, Amy Pascal, the former studio chief said, 'Oh my God, I know who's perfect for this!" Scott adds, 'And, at the same time, Ridley had already said, -This is perfect for Will because he has the sensibility and the kind of innocence that Dr. Omalu has.' So Ridley spoke to Will to read, and it was so fast. Will was in. When he read this he just knew that this was a role he had to play."
Will Smith says the deal was sealed when he met with Dr. Omalu. 'He talked about being a young boy growing up in Nigeria. He said, and we used this in the film, when he was growing up, Heaven was here – holding his hand high – and America was here – holding his hand just slightly lower. America was the place where God sent all of his favorite people, and he never wanted anything more than to be accepted as an American," says Will Smith. 'For that man to be the person who discovered CTE and had to bring the information to America about their favorite sport, that conflict was so powerful, I was deeply intrigued as an artist. He's a beautiful, sweet brilliant honorable almost wonderfully naïve man, that he believes that the truth will set you free."
'What was beautiful is even as he was telling me the story, he's a man of science, so he couldn't understand how knowing could be a bad thing. And even today he struggles with that – how more information could be a bad thing. What would make you reject knowing?" Will Smith continues. 'For me – I was looking at his eyes while he was telling that story – I knew after that meeting that I would be telling his story to the world."
'I specifically wrote this movie for Will," Peter Landesman states. 'There was never anybody else in my mind, from the first word to the last. 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 Ridley called Will, and Amy Pascal gave it to him."
But it was not only that Will Smith found Dr. Omalu to be a unique and inspiring character with a unique journey. The larger story was also one that Will Smith felt needed to be told. 'I'm a football dad," he says. 'I have two sons – my oldest (Trey) was a big time football player. I think the thing that impelled me most to make this movie is that as a parent, is I actually had no idea. I was concerned about my son breaking his leg – my greatest concern when he was playing was spinal injury. But there was not one conversation, not one issue about long-term neurological repercussions. How could I possibly be a parent and have four years of football and have no information? For me, as a parent, I just felt I had to make this movie. As a parent, I had to put the information out for parents and players to be able to make an informed decision."
To prepare for the role, Will Smith immersed himself into the life of Bennet Omalu, reading his medical papers and watching his interviews. Prior to production, Will Smith also traveled to Lodi, California to meet with Dr. Omalu and his family, and was also able to watch the doctor perform an autopsy at the San Joaquin County Coroner, where Dr. Omalu is currently Chief Medical Examiner.
For the three months leading up to production, Will Smith also worked closely with noted film, theatre and television dialect coach Diego Daniel Pardo to help perfect his performance of Dr. Omalu's Nigerian accent. Ridley Scott points out, 'A Nigerian accent is very soft and musical and sweet. Will did that beautifully and with great reserve."
Will Smith and Peter Landesman closely collaborated to create the character of Bennet Omalu. 'People are going to watch this film and not recognize for a while that it's Will at all," says Peter Landesman. 'Partly it's because we changed Will physically in superficial ways – Will and I worked very hard on a number of elements to bring this character to life, including his accent – but mostly because this character tapped into something in Will. The performance is so honest and truthful and powerful that I think Will is almost unrecognizable. Will is so good that within a couple of minutes, you just stop thinking you're watching Will with an accent. You're watching Bennet Omalu. You're seeing this character come to life."
'I haven't seen Will Smith like this before," Ridley Scott declares. 'He has this great power and dignity, yet he's very contained and elegant. It's the best I've seen him." 'Dr. Omalu is already larger than life – he's so charming and so smart and so funny, and Will has done an amazing job interpreting a character that has the quality of Dr. Omalu, but also has Will's charisma," says Elizabeth Cantillon, one of the film's producers. Rising British actress Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who earned critical accolades for her title role in Belle and as a superstar singer in Gina Prince-Bythewood's romantic drama Beyond the Lights, plays Prema Mutiso, a new member to his church from Nairobi, Kenya, who later becomes Dr. Omalu's wife.
Mbatha-Raw was immediately drawn to the fact that Concussion was a true story. 'The film has so many contemporary resonances with American culture, about truth, about standing up for justice and what you believe in, and not being bullied," she says. 'This one man, Bennet Omalu, held onto something while people were trying to discredit him and tear him apart. It just shows the value of sticking to your guns."
'When Prema comes into Bennet's life, he's a bit of a workaholic," Mbatha-Raw continues. 'He doesn't really have a personal life. And I think Prema brings a lightness and warmth into his life, and a bit of a woman's touch into his very sparse, bachelor-y apartment. They also bond over them both coming from Africa, both being somewhat foreigners. Even though he's adopted this American air about him, I think they definitely understand there's a meeting of souls there in terms of their cultural hurdles that they've had to overcome."
As the story progresses, Mbatha-Raw explains, Prema becomes Bennet's spiritual anchor, encouraging him to do the right thing, inspiring him and giving him the courage to tell the truth. 'Even though she's quietly spoken and sort of demure, she definitely has this inner core of strength about her, which I think really gives him so much support," she says. 'She really is the heart of the story and brings so much heart and humanity to Bennet's very scientific world."
When Will Smith met with Dr. Omalu, he was also able to meet with his wife. It was such a beautiful thing to see them together," says Will Smith. 'They are so beautiful and sweet and so completely unprepared for what the circumstance that they found themselves in, with the machinery that they were bumping up against. She is deeply spiritual as well, and through the process she kept Bennet connected to the spiritual purpose of what he was doing."
Like Will Smith, Mbatha-Raw did her own research into the part and worked with dialect coach Diego Daniel Pardo to master Prema Mutiso's Kenyan accent. On the final day of production, she would meet Prema and Bennet Omalu.
Academy Award® nominated film and television actor Alec Baldwin takes the role of Dr. Julian Bailes, who becomes a key early ally for Dr. Omalu. A surgeon, former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers, and lead neurosurgeon for the Players Association, Bailes is also a friend of Mike Webster who has seen the ravages inflicted upon the player. Bailes' intimate knowledge of the Steelers and professional football players leads him to become one of the first believers and champions of Dr. Omalu's research into concussion-related deaths.
When Dr. Omalu is being vilified because of his work with Webster and the disclosure of CTE as the cause, he gets some unlikely support from Dr. Bailes. Baldwin explains, 'Dr. Bailes worked with the Steelers and began to understand the protocols of what Dr. Omalu was doing. He became a convert. He cared about the facts, and the facts pointed towards concussion-based encephalopathy. He knew what he had to do. So my character is an inside guy – one of professional football's own – who leaves the fold."
Peter Landesman says that, to some degree, Bailes is the most complicated character in the movie. 'He grew up in a football culture in the deep south, played college football, was a Pittsburgh Steelers' team doctor, and was the head neurosurgeon for the players' association. So he was deeply conflicted. He's a man who understood that football was killing its players, but it was not until he met Bennet that he found the proof to step forward and give his face to the cause. But to this day, he remains conflicted. I think he's in great pain about what he's doing. Every bone in his body is telling him to deny what Bennet's saying, except the science takes precedence over everything else about him."
Growing up on Long Island, New York, Baldwin was a high school quarterback, so the sport is very close and dear to him. Professional football remains his favorite game. He also doesn't think that anybody in the NFL acted out of malice. 'I think it's fair to say that everyone in the NFL, as well as those in the medical community that worked with the NFL, wanted what was best for the players," Baldwin said. 'I don't think that you could say that anyone wanted the players to suffer or wanted to sacrifice them. I believe that people chose to underestimate the impact that this had on players. Underneath that was an idea, even among the players themselves, that they knew what they were getting into when they play this game."
Of how Dr. Omalu was able to discover CTE – to see what no one else could – the real Dr. Bailes says that 'chance favors the prepared mind." 'I think the fact that Bennet was from Nigeria gave him a certain naïveté in terms of the social meaning of football and how the game is played," Bailes notes. 'And I think that it helped him to have an objective look at a man for whom something was not right with this picture."
The legendary comedic actor, writer and director Albert Brooks plays Dr. Omalu's boss and mentor, pathologist Dr. Cyril Wecht, the Allegheny County Coroner and Medical Examiner in Pittsburgh.
Although Brooks is best known for his classic comedic works such as 'Lost in America" and 'Defending Your Life," the Oscar® nominee for 'Broadcast News" has more recently embraced drama in roles in films such as Nicolas Winding Refn's 'Drive" and J.C. Chandor's 'A Most Violent Year."
'Cyril Wecht is a very opinionated man," Brooks expresses. 'I find him a delight every time I've heard him speak. He's smart and very no-nonsense. He's doesn't suffer fools, he's knowledgeable, and very good at what he does." In the film, according to Brooks, Dr. Wecht looks upon Dr. Omalu as the next Cyril Wecht. 'There's a little mentoring going on there. And a teeny bit of jealousy and great respect."
Dr. Wecht, one of the country's foremost forensic pathologists, is known as much for his opinions on famous cases as for his medical talents. Wecht lives in Pittsburgh, where he has been a nationally acclaimed forensic pathologist for over 40 years. Having authored or edited dozens of books, Wecht has been involved in many famous forensic inquiries, including the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F.
Kennedy, the death of Elvis Presley, the O.J. Simpson case, and the JonBenet Ramsay case. His expertise has also been utilized in high profile cases involving Mary Jo Kopechne, Sunny von Bulow, Jean Harris, Dr. Jeffrey McDonald, the Waco Branch Davidian fire, and Vince Foster.
'I wanted Albert to play Wecht from the beginning because Albert brings his incredible warmth to the role," says Peter Landesman. 'Among other things, Cyril is a warm, generous soul, and he's the kind of guy that looks at Bennet Omalu – this Nigerian dude – and understands that they're kindred spirits."
Beyond that, Will Smith says that Dr. Wecht becomes part mentor and part inspiration. 'For Bennet, Cyril Wecht represented the image of the successful American," says Will Smith. 'Bennet was doing everything that Cyril Wecht was doing – the suits that he was wearing, the type of car that he had, the way he dealt with people, Cyril Wecht became an image of the American dream."
At the heart of Concussion are the players who fell victim to the ravages of CTE. The film touches upon the lives of several well-known football players who suffered from dementia and depression, eventually leading to their early deaths – some accidental, some self-inflicted. Those players include Pittsburgh Steelers center Mike Webster, offensive linemen Justin Strzelczyk and Terry Long, as well as Philadelphia Eagles defensive back Andre Waters, and Chicago Bears defensive back Dave Duerson.
Esteemed character actor David Morse ('The Green Mile," HBO's 'John Adams") portrays Mike Webster, the Pittsburgh Steelers' Hall of Fame center, known to fans as 'Iron Mike." Webster, who died at age 50 from a heart attack, suffered from severe dementia brought on by repeated blows to the head over a lifetime of playing football. After Webster's passing in 2002, he became the first football player in whose brain Dr. Omalu diagnosed the presence of CTE, leading to Dr. Omalu's quest to bring the issue to the public.
Morse's approach to the iconic real-life character was to be as full and alive as he could. 'I had to imagine what he went through," Morse says. 'I always feel responsible for the character, but this is unique, because Mike is a man who was so important to a community and to that world."
Morse has played real people and historic figures before, notably in his Emmy-nominated role as George Washington in HBO's award-winning miniseries 'John Adams," so he was aware of the responsibility in getting it right. 'Mike Webster is still alive in people's minds right now, certainly for his family, so you want to honor that as much as possible. It was a responsibility to Mike and to the people who loved him."
In preparation for the role, Morse started reading as much as he could and watched documentaries and ESPN, to glean some insight into Mike Webster and the story of his life and untimely death. Mike Webster was known as one of the strongest men in the NFL, and even in his later years, when he was in the throes of dementia, he was still physically imposing. 'Even when he died, he was still amazingly strong, considering he wouldn't eat for days," says Morse. 'And if he did eat, it was junk food – potato chips or candy and soda – that was his diet. But at the same time he'd be out there in the woods, in the snow, in his bare feet and bare chest for days, lifting a log for strength." Physically, Morse tried to approach some of that in his portrayal. 'I put on twenty pounds," the actor says, 'trying to get some of that strength. In a way, it was pretty tiring, but I also had the responsibility of playing this man."
To portray Webster in his post-retirement period, filled with all the scars of a lifetime of playing football, Morse worked with the special effects makeup artists of KNB EFX Group, who fit him with several prosthetics. Morse reveals, 'One of the things Dr. Omalu actually talks about is the amount of scar tissue that built up on Mike's forehead from all those years of just hitting, hitting, hitting, hitting. You know, smashing his head it was just thick with scar tissue. And if you look at his hands, they were so swollen and broken; every knuckle on his hand. So we had to do some special work to build up all that scar tissue in his hands from broken fingers. It was literally four and a half hours every day in the hair and makeup chair."
Actor and comedian Paul Reiser portrays Dr. Elliot Pellman, the New York Jets' team doctor and Chairman of the NFL' s Mild Traumatic Brain Injury Committee. Pellman is the NFL's medical expert involved in the effort to discredit Dr. Omalu and refute his findings published in Neurosurgery. 'He's a good guy who was perhaps tapped for the wrong job," Reiser suggests about his character, whose specialty is arthritis and joint pain. 'He's a rheumatologist, but for some reasons was put in charge of the concussion committee."
Veteran character actor Arliss Howard plays Dr. Joseph Maroon, the Pittsburgh Steelers' team doctor and Chief Neurosurgeon of the NFL. Brought together by Dr. Julian Bailes, Maroon tries to warn Bennet Omalu of what the repercussions could be if he persists with his studies linking concussions to brain damage.
Luke Wilson plays NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who, following his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, orchestrates the NFL's response of defending professional football. Wilson says that football is the sport he watches the most along with golf, so playing Roger Goodell was really interesting for him. 'It's always cool to play a real person, no less somebody that's in the news," he says.
To prepare for the role, Wilson watched Goodell's press conferences and appearance before the Senate. 'He definitely has to measure his words," says Wilson. 'These are things he will be held accountable for."
Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje portrays Dave Duerson, the former four-time Pro Bowl NFL safety who played for the Chicago Bears, the New York Giants, and the Phoenix Cardinals, whose life ended tragically in 2011 after battling debilitating symptoms caused by football-related brain injuries.
'Dave was really one of the first footballers who came off of the field and went into the boardroom and actually represented a lot of his fellow players in the National Football League Players Association," Akinnuoye-Agbaje says. The actor explains that Dr. Omalu's discovery puts Duerson in a tricky position. 'He was a player for eleven years, and seemingly nothing had really happened to him. So when he was looking at the evidence, it was like, -Well, look, how many players do we have in the NFL? What are the allegations? The only players cited early on were Mike Webster, Justin Strzelczyk, Terry Long and Andre Waters – and in my character's opinion, some of their lifestyles were questionable, so it was quite reasonable for him to say, -Well, some of the circumstances of their deaths could be attributed to the way they lived, not necessarily to the game that they played.'" Later, tragically, Duerson himself begins to suffer from the effects of CTE.
About The Production
To help him achieve the visual look of the film, Peter Landesman teamed up with director of photography Salvatore Totino, whose credits include several collaborations with director Ron Howard, including Frost/Nixon, The Da Vinci Code, Angels & Demons and Cinderella Man. Totino has always been interested in real stories. He notes, 'It's easier for me to relate to a character who's a real character. That's my passion; real people." Totino also has a background with football-related films, citing Oliver Stone's 1999 sports drama Any Given Sunday as his first film as director of photography. Totino says that he focused on the film's story and avoided getting caught up in flashy visuals. 'My inspiration is in keeping it real," he says. 'Never be over the top. Trying to keep it natural and real like you're there. Working on a true story, the challenge is trying to stay very true."
The film's production designer is David Crank, who collaborated with Peter Landesman to create the overall look of the film and highlight the Pittsburgh landscape where the story is set. As an art director and production designer, Crank has worked closely with director Paul Thomas Anderson on films such as Inherent Vice, The Master and There Will Be Blood, and with director Terrence Malick on To the Wonder, The Tree of Life and The New World. As supervising art director, Crank won a Primetime Emmy award for Outstanding Art Director for a Miniseries or Movie for HBO's 'John Adams."
As a specialist in period piece historical dramas, Crank was intrigued with working on a picture set in current day. He had also gone to school in Pittsburgh, so working in the city was also a draw. 'Pittsburgh is fascinating because it's made up of an incredible number of layers," the production designer explains. 'Places have been altered over time, without removing the original architecture, so it kind of mutates into something new. A lot of it is not what you would say is pretty, but it's always incredibly interesting and slightly rough around the edges, but it has a real distinct character of its own and a real sense of style, in an odd way. I never get tired of going out and looking at things." With the vast majority of the film being shot around the Greater Pittsburgh area, Crank's work designing the film started with choosing the locations. He says, 'We began by trying to find as many of the real places from the story as we could, whether we were going to use them or not, we just wanted to see them. We went through what was left of the old morgue, and we visited the new morgue and watched some autopsies being performed."
For Peter Landesman, observing Dr. Omalu at work was a key part of the preparation. 'It was interesting taking Will to autopsies," recalls Peter Landesman. 'What interested me was watching the skill set and the mechanics of performing the autopsy. It was crucial for me that Will was able to watch Bennet's methodology, and to capture it as closely as he could. 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. Bennet's lab and table was immaculate. If he got a speck of blood on his mask or sleeve, he'd immediately change his uniform. I wanted Will to understand how important it was that Bennet's pristine methodology matched the investment he had in these bodies as souls. He had a relationship with the dead."
The film's costume designer is Dayna Pink, who had recently worked with Will Smith on Focus. In addition to his groundbreaking scientific discoveries, Bennet Omalu is known as a very stylish man, usually wearing pinstripe suits and cuffs of his own design. Pink adapted that style onto Will Smith. 'The inspiration for Will Smith's costumes came directly from the closet of Dr. Omalu," Pink says. 'He has always worn custom tailored suits and French cuffed dress shirts. I had the privilege of traveling to meet him in Lodi and talking about what he wears and why he dresses this way. Dr. Omalu says his feeling is that what we wear influences the way people perceive you, which is something that inspires me every day in my job. He chooses to wear suits every day and we did the same for his character."
About The Locations
With a story rooted in Pittsburgh, it was essential to the filmmakers that filming would primarily take place in Pennsylvania's second largest city. Many large productions have come to Pittsburgh, but the city frequently doubles for other cities; with Concussion, Pittsburgh finally gets to play itself. 'A lot of times when you film in Pittsburgh, you're looking to emulate another city like New York or Boston," says locations manager Kent Jackson. 'This was a unique challenge, but at the same time, it opened up, from a scouting perspective, a great deal. The rivers and the hillsides and all the things that make Pittsburgh cinematically unique can be seen."
'It was the only location I looked at, for a number of reasons," says Peter Landesman. 'Spiritually, this is a movie as much about Pittsburgh as anything else; it's a movie about urban America at a very specific time, when industrial America was dying, if not dead. And Pittsburgh is the locus for that demographic and that economy. There was no place else to go. Pittsburgh is as much a character as Bennet, as Bailes, as Wecht. I tried very hard to make Pittsburgh a character in the movie without romanticizing the grit and destruction of the economy; it's just Pittsburgh for what it is at face value." 'When people are in a real place, a real space, I think you get better performances, better light, the scenes feel real, and the imagination becomes more concrete," adds Jackson.
Jackson notes that one of the factors in choosing locations in downtown Pittsburgh were sites that had an eyeline to Heinz Field, the home of the Pittsburgh Steelers and situated along the Ohio River in the city's North Shore neighborhood. 'When the filmmakers came into town to scout the movie, some of the first things they wanted to see were vantages of Heinz Field from different parts of the city," Jackson says.
Crank recalls, 'At the beginning when we were choosing locations, we made an effort to try and include Heinz Field as a background element so that you didn't forget that it was a story about football. We didn't want it right in your face; it had to be subtle."
With a majority of the crew Pittsburgh locals, over the course of production nearly 2500 local extras were hired to populate a multitude of scenes set in hotel ballrooms, nightclubs and bars, and football fields.
To coordinate the football scenes filmed at Pittsburgh's Phillip Murray Playground and George Cupples Stadium and, later, at Rio Mesa High School in Oxnard, the production enlisted football coordinator Michael Fisher, who has worked as a technical consultant on dozens of sports films, including 'Draft Day," 'Moneyball" and 'The Blind Side." He was assisted by Scott Fujita, who was a former linebacker with Kansas City Chiefs, Dallas Cowboys, New Orleans Saints, and Cleveland Browns. Together they worked with the hundreds of local high school and college-aged football players who were cast after several open casting calls.
The exterior of the Allegheny County Coroner's facility was filmed at the former site of the Medical Examiner's Office, a gothic, three-story marble and stone building which housed not only the morgue, but also a chapel, a courtroom, and staff offices. Dr. Omalu worked from this morgue until 2007. However, as the building had been gutted in the process of renovation, the filmmakers had to recreate the interior of autopsy chamber on a soundstage.
Drawing from photos and research of the original which no longer existed, Crank and his team recreated it while expanding it accomodate filming. 'The chamber was quite tiny, with very small windows; the technicians and doctors were really right on top of each other all the time," says Crank. 'In the original building, the morgue was located immediately behind the chapel, a large two-story space, filled with light. Peter had talked with me from the start about bringing a more spiritual feeling to the chamber, so I chose to combine some of the elements from the chapel's scale and detail within the morgue itself, to open it up."
Peter Landesman says, 'I wanted the windows in the autopsy chamber to look like chapel windows because where Bennet was doing his autopsies was his church. It was an uncomplicated idea that I think seems beautiful and some people will grasp it and some won't."
'They did a wonderful job recreating the autopsy room," Bennet Omalu observed during a set visit. 'I thought moviemaking was all about the arts, drama, theatre, but I realize there's so much science behind it too. It's truly amazing."
Dr. Omalu served as a technical consultant on the film as well, so during some of the autopsy scenes he was on hand to make sure that the autopsies depicted maintained a 'perfection to code." From procedures, instruments, to medical attire, Dr. Omalu says he 'helped keep things to the professional standards of the College of American Pathologists, to make it as close to reality as possible."
Producer Elizabeth Cantillon says that having Bennet Omalu as an advisor was an amazing resource for the filmmakers. 'He helped put us into his mindset as things were going on," she notes. 'He was also very touched by the level of authenticity and detail in this telling of his story."
'Authenticity is important and verisimilitude is important and I want to make sure it feels real, so who better to have on set than Bennet Omalu," Peter Landesman says. 'I also wanted him here to karmically and spiritually connect the dots."
The filmmakers strove for authenticity with every last detail, from the medical equipment used in the autopsy room to the football paraphernalia used in the film, especially keeping in mind that the items had to be true to the years in which the scenes take place. 'We had to find footballs that went back to the seventies for Mike Webster and then through to the end of his career in the late eighties. We also had to have period helmets and even Gatorade," says property master Matt Cavaliero.
Cavaliero also spoke frequently with many of the real people depicted in the film, allowing him to add authenticity even in the smallest corners of the film. 'They were willing, able and anxious to talk to us about the things we needed to know," he recalls. 'I spoke on the phone with Dr. Omalu and asked him what he eats, what snacks does he keep in the fridge, what kind of briefcase does he carry, what kind of cell phone does he use, what umbrellas does he like. It seems immaterial, but we wanted to get in place to help make it as accurate as possible, and they all bent over backwards to give us the information we needed."
Release Date: February 18th, 2016