Legendary Pictures CEO Thomas Tull Talks 42, the Film’s Authenticity, Harrison Ford’s Performance, PACIFIC RIM, MAN OF STEEL, GODZILLA, and More

     April 11, 2013


Opening tomorrow director Brian Helgeland’s Jackie Robinson biopic 42.  Starring Chadwick Boseman in the lead role, 42 tells the story of Robinson, the first player to break Major League Baseball’s color barrier by signing with the Brooklyn Dodgers.  Harrison Ford co-stars as Branch Rickey, the MLB exec who signed Robinson into the minors and ushered him along to the pros.  42 also stars Nicole Beharie, T.R. Knight, Christopher Meloni and Toby Huss.  For more on the film, here’s the trailer, 45 images, 7 clips, and everything we’ve posted.

With Legendary Pictures producing 42, I recently landed an exclusive interview with Legendary’s CEO Thomas Tull.  During our wide ranging interview we talked about the films authenticity, Ford’s performance, how he got involved with the project, how baseball’s status as an American pastime influenced the budget (might be a tough sell in other parts of the world), why they decided to focus on only two years of Robinson’s life, how much of the film was “Hollywoodized,” and a lot more.  In addition, we also talked about his Oscar worthy performance as the Gotham Rouges owner in The Dark Knight Rises, the coolest movie swag he’s got in his office, Nerdist Industries, Godzilla, Pacific Rim, his reaction to watching Man of Steel, his relationship with Guillermo del Toro, future projects, and more.

thomas-tullCollider: The most important question is going to be first. Your performance as the Gotham Rouges owner in The Dark Knight Rises was borderline Oscar worthy, were you a little bit disappointed that the Academy didn’t notice your performance?

Thomas Tull: I think it was more along the lines of Christopher Nolan wanting to fulfill the fantasy of blowing me up, that may have been the main point of that whole exercise, but anytime you can put Steelers football together with Batman it’s a pretty cool day.

You have obviously produced a number of geek friendly properties and you are very involved in the movie industry, what is the coolest movie swag that you have in your office, if you can identify one or two things?

Tull: The original maquette from our upcoming Godzilla movie and the original models of Gipsy Danger from Pacific Rim.

del Toro told me that when he’s making a movie he will often spend money out of his own pocket to make a second edition of everything being produced, the maquettes and everything else, so he has everything, and I think he told me that you were also getting a set of everything, is that true?

Tull: That is true. We have the same disease and I think our wives have a support group to complain about the amount of geek swag and maquettes scattered throughout the house. Yeah, it unfortunately is true.

[Laughs] That’s awesome. Jumping into the reason I get to talk to you today, which is for 42.  It’s based on an incredible story that I think a lot of people might not remember. The older people will know, but the younger people might not understand the significance of who he was, what he did, and why he’s so important. How did the project first land with Legendary? How did you first get involved?

42-chadwick-boseman-harrison-fordTull: I’m a passionate sports fan, principally with football and baseball, I have a number of friends in the baseball community and just serendipitously, all at once, somebody mentioned to me that the rights were available. They tried for like 15 years to make the movie, different groups, and then Ken Griffey Jr., a baseball player who’s a friend of mine, he was telling me that he’d recently done a clinic in Florida and most of the kids in this clinic didn’t know who Jackie Robinson was. He just kind of looked at me and said, “That can’t happen, that’s a travesty.” Then another hall of fame baseball player named Joe Morgan, who’s a great guy, knows Rachel Robinson and made the introduction to me. I just went to her and told her that I was passionate about her family’s story and promised her that we would make the movie, not just talk about it or develop it, but make the movie and put the best foot forward. We were able to get a world class writer like Brian Helgeland to write it and direct it, and a pretty amazing cast. I was extraordinarily passionate about doing this and we had the privilege of bring the story to the screen.

Was this one of these projects that had a fast development cycle or were you working on it for years and years?

Tull: No, fast development cycle, and that’s what you get when you bring in somebody like Brian Helgeland. You get his first draft and you’re like, “You got to be kidding me.” He wrote Mystic River and L.A. Confidential, he’s just a world class talent, and that’s what we wanted to make sure that we did. What worries me as a fan is if somebody took the tack that this isn’t going to be a big movie internationally, it’s a baseball movie, so you sort of get second tier power around it and then all the sudden that’s it, that’s the Jackie Robinson movie forever.  So we wanted to make sure that in this case that we brought all of our resources to bear, made sure that the story got its due attention, and had an incredible group of artists around it to bring the story to life, and I think we were able to do that. 

42-nichole-behaire-chadwick-bosemanYou bring up an excellent point, I would imagine that playing a baseball movie in say the UK or China is definitely going to be a tougher sell, how does that impact the budget that you’re willing to spend on a film like this when you know that it is primarily an American movie?

Tull: Well, I have to be honest with you, this is the first movie we’ve ever done where I didn’t even look at the comps, all the financial modeling, and things that you run. We’ve had incredible success and been very fortunate as a company, and we’re in a position to say “Hey, you know what? We’re making this movie full stop,” and that’s what we did. We didn’t even run numbers. It was made responsibly, and we were also able to use assets from the Baseball Hall of Fame, which is how we did such accurate renderings digitally of Ebbets Field, Forbes Field, and all the old looks. Frankly we pulled every favor we could possibly pull to make sure it looks like tremendous value and size on screen, and it doesn’t hurt matters when you get Harrison Ford to play Branch Rickey, things of that matter. It was really about making sure it was best foot forward and using all of the resources that Legendary has to make this movie.

I have a funny story for you, I was at the screening last night and sitting next to me was Larry King with his kids. We were talking for a while before the movie started, talking about CG, he’d heard that they did a great rendition of Ebbets Field, and he was telling me how he was there on the first day Jackie Robinson ever played. He was in the bleachers as a 13 year old. When Ebbets Field first came on the screen he literally freaked out, he’s like “I cannot believe what I’m looking at.” Just letting you know he seemed very happy.

42-andre-hollandTull: That’s exactly what we were going for because, unfortunately, when you see the movie and you see how some people treated him, you can’t believe it wasn’t 200 years ago, that it was 1946. There are people who are certainly still alive and part of that generation, so it was very important for us to be historically accurate, as well as make you really feel that you are in that period completely caught in the moment. That’s why we worked with the Baseball Hall of Fame to pound those models down to the square inch, to make sure the signage and everything was correct in all of the stadiums.

I think one of the things you guys smartly did was you decided to focus on two years of his life rather than trying to tell a two hour movie encompassing his whole life, which is almost impossible. How was that decision made to just focus on those two years?

Tull: That decision was made at the very beginning. Brian Helgeland and I spent a lot of time talking about how best to capture this, and to be clear Jackie Robinson’s entire life, from what he did at UCLA, to some of the things that happened to him in the army, to his position as a civil rights leader post his baseball career are all worthy of a movie, but what we didn’t want to do is go an inch deep and a mile wide. We really wanted to go deep and give people a sense of what this man and his family went through to make this happen, what it was like in the country, what it was like to be in the locker room, and the only way to really do that was to go deeper and focus on a period of time. That was something we spent a lot of time talking to Mrs. Robinson about and got her onboard about why we wanted to focus on this period. Because that’s what happens sometimes when you see bio pics, you just sit back and it seems like you just skim the surface when it’s a long period of time that you’re trying to depict. That’s how the decision was made and it was something we felt strongly about. 

42-christopher-meloniI’m not familiar with his exact story, how much in the film was “Hollywoodized” and how much is exactly what happened? Did you try to make it as authentic as possible, but you still need some Hollywood moments?

Tull: Honestly it is as authentic as you can possibly get. We did extensive research, hours and hours spent with Mrs. Robinson, we consulted his teammates like Ralph Branca, who’s still alive today, baseball historians, looking at archives, and really just getting a sense of exactly what it was like. Because frankly, in this case, the story doesn’t need any dramatic license. I think the characters, the story, and his arc of a true hero, you just get out of the way and tell the story. Brian Helgeland did such an amazing job of bringing that out, and Brian was absolutely relentless about research and making sure that everything was completely detailed. 

I think Harrison Ford did a fantastic job in the film, how tough was he to sign on or was he surprisingly easy to get?

Tull: I had gone to lunch and met him for the first time probably six to eight months prior to that and for me, regardless of how much time I’ve got to spend with Harrison- and by the way he’s as cool as you think he is. He’s funny, and smart, and just this amazing guy. After lunch we kind of hit it off and said we want to work together, and when this came up I called Brian and said, “Look, Harrison Ford is interested in doing this.” And rather than trying to convince him, he was absolutely passionate about playing this role, and just said at this point in his career, with who Branch Rickey was and everything, he wanted to dive in and do this. I just can’t wait until people see his performance.

harrison-ford-branch-rickey-42It’s his best acting in a little while. He’s really good in it.

Tull: People I’ve talked to who knew Branch Rickey have said to me that he had it cold, like it was almost spooky watching him up there, the mannerisms and everything. I think he did just a tremendous job.

You guys are launching or will launch at some point Legendary East with The Great Wall, how is that going?

Tull: We’re going to have a lot to say about that probably in short order and that’s a project that we’re very excited about.

You recently acquired Nerdist Industries, how did that come about and how is that going?

Tull: It’s going great, I’m a big Chris Hardwick fan and he’s somebody that gets it and is passionate about all things in the world that we live in. We acquired the company and the mandate was for them to maintain their voice, and to make sure that they got to do editorially what they wanted to do, and we just wanted to support Chris. They’re doing really, really well. They’re putting out some great stuff and as a business it’s doing well. We’re big supporters.

You guys have put out a number of movies, what was the biggest surprise for you, in terms of what you have released, and what was the biggest disappointment?

42-nichole-beharieTull: I think the biggest surprise had to be the first Hangover. We thought it was hilarious and I’m the biggest Todd Phillips fan on the planet. The guy is incredible at what he does, he’s a fantastic director, but especially internationally it was hard to think that the movie would be that big, so that was a tremendous surprise. In terms of disappointment it’s probably a lengthy list. Any time the Legendary logo in on a movie we are maniacal about making sure that it’s great. We have a little saying around our place which is, “commercial but elevated”, and it doesn’t always work, so any time we have something come out that doesn’t hit that bar it personally drives me crazy. No matter how good you are in this business you’re not going to bat 1000. That’s probably, I would say, is the biggest disappointment is when you have one that doesn’t work.

I recently saw the Godzilla footage from the first day of filming on YouTube, which I thought was really cool. I like that you guys were sort of lifting the veil of secrecy on the first day and saying, “Hey were on set and you’re going to get more of these.” Is that something we can be expecting for more Legendary films?

Tull: Look, we want to make sure that we’re connecting with our fan base. We want to make sure that you’re appropriately surprised and have something to look forward to when you go to see the movie. You don’t want to see all the way behind the curtain, but we want to make sure that we’re connecting with our fan base. We want to make sure our fan base knows how passionate we are and how important it is to us to bring these things to life and that were just as big of fans as you guys are. We want to connect, and in a world of social media and the outlets we have, we want to come up with all kinds of ways to have fans share the excitement and the experience as it builds towards launch.

42-harrison-ford-chadwick-bosemanI definitely want to talk about the fact that I’m tremendously looking forward to Pacific Rim, as you know, I’m also tremendously looking forward to Godzilla. You guys are making two really big monster movies, was there any concern on your part to make two movies that feature big monsters, or do you think the technology now has finally reached a place where you can tell these stories in a way that hasn’t been done before?

Tull: I think it’s a little bit of both. The movies are very different tonally. Pacific Rim is a big, giant world that was created, and when somebody sits down with me and says, “Look, we’re going to get to work with Guillermo and it’s giant robots versus giant monsters.” We’re in, we’re doing that. So that’s a movie where you obviously sit back and take all that in and enjoy the ride. Godzilla, it was very important for us to take it back to its original DNA in the first Japanese film, so just tonally it’s a much different movie. And with Godzilla, those of us who grew up with Godzilla, you kind of bring whatever pre-disposition you have to the movie and the experience. For us, all I can tell you is that were making the Godzilla movie that we want to see. So I’m not worried at all because they’re just completely different.

Even though Pacific Rim is near the top, my number one film of the summer, the one that I am counting the days until, is Man of Steel. It means a lot to me. I’ve heard that you guys have maybe shown the film on the lot to certain people and the reaction has been very strong. I’m definitely curious what was your reaction when you saw the rough cut or the first screening of it?

42-chadwick-boseman-andre-hollandTull: It’s the Superman movie I’ve always wanted to see. I think the job that Zack Snyder did along with Chris Nolan- I think that people are going to be very, very excited about the results. The acting, on top of all the incredible action- Kevin Costner playing Jonathan Kent, Russell Crowe, Diane Lane, just the cast, and I think the job Henry Cavill did, people are going to really be excited about it. It was a privilege to be a part of and Warner Brothers does a phenomenal job of bringing these things to life, Batman and Superman, and it really is a privilege for us to be a part of.

I had issues with the last Superman movie, and I think for me it was because I never got to see superman punch anyone in the face. I wanted to see Superman be Superman, and when I interviewed Zack before filming started I asked him point blank, “Will we see superman punch someone in the face?” He smiled and sort of wouldn’t answer because he said it would be a spoiler, but I’ve heard he punches someone in the face. Can you confirm this?

Tull: [Pauses] I can tell you that I think you’re going to enjoy the movie very, very much.

[Laughs] I like that answer. I know you guys have done a test screening of Pacific Rim, same question. What was your reaction when you saw the first rough cut or the first screening?

42-blake-sanders-chadwick-bosemanTull: Euphoria, honestly, just because… look, its gets thrown around way too much in our business that “you’ve never seen this before. This is something completely different.” And that’s the other side of things, audiences are constantly online and so forth talking about how Hollywood just recycles things and there’s truth to that, but audiences keep rewarding those things by going to them. So I think what I’m excited about is this is something different on a size and scale you haven’t seen before, and Guillermo del Toro is truly a genius. I’m in love with the movie and I cannot wait until people get a chance to see it.

Something that I think a lot of fans have been waiting for is the first kick ass video game movie. You guys at Legendary have partnered up with Warner Brothers to deliver some of the best comic book movies that have ever been made, so what’s it going to take to make the best video game movie that’s ever been made?

Tull: I think first of all is to lose the fact that it’s a video game movie and just concentrate on do you have a story that’s worth telling? Because if you look back to the 80’s, comic book movies were not anywhere near what they are today. They weren’t given the resources and you didn’t have the level of directors that you have today working on these things. I think with video games it’s just become much more sophisticated storytelling, hard to do a movie off of Pong, but today when you have stuff like Mass Effect, you have things like Warcraft, you have things like Skyrim where very cool worlds have been created, that’s what we’re attracted to. We took our time with Warcraft because just saying “How many people play the game? Well then that means X number of people will buy a ticket.” That’s a death trap, that’s the surest way to make a crap movie, and that’s not an option. So we took our time wanted to make sure that we used all the canon that’s been built up over years and years by Blizzard. We’re huge believers in Duncan Jones, and I think what we’re going to bring to screen and to bear with Duncan, he is going to break that mold because it’s going to have the resources, the talent around it, and a Field General in Duncan Jones. It’s, again, the reason we took our time, made sure we had the right guy, the right person to make the movie, and then it will speak for itself when it comes out.

42-movie-posterI agree with everything you said about Duncan Jones, I think he’s an extremely talented filmmaker. Where are you guys in terms of the preproduction status? Do you guys have a script that you’re happy with? Do you have a date you want to see this thing in theaters?

Tull: We do, and we’ll have a lot more to say on that soon, but we’re in a really great place and we’re excited about it. I think you’re going to hear a lot more this year with definite answers to that, but it’s in the near future.

You’re obviously in development with Guillermo on Crimson Peak and I know everyone is really high on Pacific Rim. What’s your feeling on, if Pacific Rim is a huge worldwide hit, on the sequel versus say Crimson Peak or, you know, Guillermo is attached to five different things- how are you going to keep him locked down, if you will, at Legendary?

Tull: We have a great partnership and plan on continuing to work with him for a very long time. It’s like with sports in a playoff game, you better to win today and make sure you’re focused on that rather than worry about what the next one is. We got to make sure that the movie comes out, connects, and people love it worldwide and then I think it will take care of itself with what we do with Guillermo.

Thomas-Tull-imageObviously I read on IMDB and I look in the trades about all the stuff that Legendary is getting ready to do, or producing, or developing, what do you think are going to be the next few projects that Legendary will be announcing in the future that fans can be looking forward to? What’s on the fast-track?

Tull: One of the things were realty excited about is a film called Spectral and the directors are these guys from Kon-Tiki [Joachim Rønning and Espen Sandberg] that was up for an Oscar this year. They’re just incredible smart filmmakers. We also have movie with Michael Mann that’s going to come out that we’re really excited about. Michael Mann is one of the best filmmakers on the planet. So these are some of the things that we’re going to be talking a lot more about and that are on deck and getting ready to shoot besides the big ones that you’ve already covered.

42 opens in theaters tomorrow.

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