It’s tempting to compare the tortured 17-years-in-development backstory of the “Leatherheads” script to the infamous climax of the 1982 Stanford-Cal football game, otherwise known as “The Play.” It has the same number of blocks, laterals and even the triumphant, if controversial, ending.
Duncan Brantley and Rick Reilly first wrote their gridiron farce in 1990, when they were covering the college football beat for Sports Illustrated and stumbled across the story of John “Blood” McNally. A future Hall of Famer who was also celebrated for his off-the-field exploits, the charismatic McNally played for the Duluth Eskimos in the 1920s just as the National Football League was forming. Reilly and Brantley built a period comedy script around McNally and sold it to Universal.
Over the years, the ball was pitched to Jon Favreau (“Swingers”), Paul Attanasio (“Quiz Show”), Scott Frank (“Out of Sight”) and Stephen Schiff (“The Deep End of the Ocean”). George Clooney, who stars in and directed the April 4 release, finally took it into the end zone. (But not without slamming into his own trombone player when the Writers Guild denied him a co-writing credit; Brantley and Reilly retained sole credit after Clooney filed, then withdrew, an appeal with WGA arbitration.)
Here, Brantley, a drawling Rutherfordton, N.C., native, and Reilly, who’s gunning for his 12th Sportswriter of the Year Award (a distinction that he likens to “being the world’s tallest midget”), provide color commentary on all the excitement and heartbreak of a long championship game that, in sudden-death overtime, finally went their way.
Much of the script was originally written at Reilly’s home in Denver and Steven Spielberg’s house in East Hampton, where Brantley was a caretaker. Despite Reilly’s pleadings, Brantley refused to leave a copy of the script on the back of the Great One’s toilet (Spielberg had just finished directing “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade”).
Reilly: “It was kind of like making a sandwich at Emeril’s house. Emeril isn’t there and you’re making a bologna and Velveeta sandwich going, ‘I wish Emeril was here. . . .’ [Duncan] wouldn’t do it. I begged him. My knees were bloody from begging this guy.”
Brantley: “I saw immediately how many people approach him for things -- ‘Give my kid a job,’ ‘Come talk to my club,’ ‘Give money to my cause.’ He’s bombarded with that stuff. And for better or worse, I felt that I needed to respect his privacy that way.”
Brantley had less of an ethical issue with having his sister, Betsy, pass it to her then fiance, Steven Soderbergh, who decided he would make it his follow-up to “sex, lies, and videotape.” As Soderbergh developed the script and scouted locations around the Southeast, Mel Gibson became attached before moving on to “The Man Without a Face.” Michael Keaton and Alec Baldwin were then targeted to star and director Jonathan Mostow got involved, but it kept falling apart.
Brantley: “It got to a point where I would call Rick up all excited about it because the script had gone out to some big hot-shot actor, and he said, ‘Duncan, you gotta quit calling me and telling me this stuff . . . I’d just rather not know.’ It really hurt my feelings.”
Reilly: “After a while your heart just gets walled over with sadness.”
Brantley: “About a year or two later, after I’d been kicked in the teeth a couple more times, I was like, ‘Yeah, I get it. . . .’ ”
Years later, when Clooney was gearing up his directing career, he and Soderbergh, still a producer on the project, revived it a few more times as Favreau, Attanasio, Frank and Schiff were brought on to rewrite it.
Reilly: “It’s kind of like the girl at the bar. They really made good eye contact with us, and then, ehhh . . . they went and played foosball. Whatever.”
Brantley: “That was what I call the Dark Decade. Once Rick and I were removed from the project -- it’s a classic development mistake -- each subsequent draft went further and further down the wrong road. It starts to get dramatic and it starts to get unfunny, and it starts to get, worst of all, important. It’s not an important movie. It’s entertainment. Poor Favreau, I think his instructions were to turn it into the ‘Braveheart’ field of battle or something.”
Reilly: “I did see a script that Jon Favreau rewrote, and I’d like to say for the record: That sucked.”
Brantley: “The problem with the movie is that we wrote it for Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell. In 1990, the closest thing to that was Mel Gibson, and there really wasn’t anything again until the modern-day Clooney.”
Brantley got himself hired back onto the project again briefly. Then, in summer 2006, Reilly heard that Clooney had taken all the drafts with him to Lake Como.
Reilly: “God knows, he probably had hot and cold running Swedish blonds peeling grapes for him as he wrote, but I don’t care. In fact, I don’t care if he set the whole thing on a sub. If Clooney’s involved, I’m loving it.”
Sure enough, Clooney -- now an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for “Good Night, and Good Luck” -- turned it in on a weekend in September, and it was greenlit Monday morning. When Reilly and Brantley visited the North Carolina set after all those years, they were astonished to see their characters walking around in period garb, including Renee Zellweger as the fetching journalist Lexi.
Reilly: “It’s like having a baby. You knock up a girl, you see the baby being born and then you never see her again until 15 years later. You get a call, ‘Hi, Daddy!’ I don’t know what this baby’s gonna look like! . . . [Upon seeing Zellweger] I’m like, ‘Oh, my God, we thought of you after 10 Miller Lites one night. How weird is this?’ It was like walking around inside your own imagination.”
Scriptland is a weekly feature on the work and professional lives of screenwriters. Please e-mail any tips or comments to email@example.com.