Tetris director on how Argo influenced movie’s finale
Tetris, starring Taron Egerton, tells the unlikely tale of the world’s biggest game. We sat down with director Jon S. Baird to dig into “the game you couldn’t put down, and the story you couldn’t make up.”
More than 520 million copies sold, all built on the foundation of a BASIC piece of black-and-green code and brackets doubling for blocks. As primitive as it may be, it was once the “most beautiful thing” gamers had ever seen; a multi-colored math-and-art fix like no other.
Its absurd path to becoming a phenomenon is the subject of Tetris, chronicling how a humble 8-bit game became one of the closing beats of the Cold War as the Soviet Union crumbled beneath its brickwork. There are two heroes: capitalist “swindler” Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) and the game’s creator Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Yefremov).
While a quote-unquote “epic” sci-fi Tetris trilogy was once floated, this is a (mostly true) story of deal-making, nice guys going up against some right b*stards, and “good ideas having no borders.”
How Tetris landed Taron Egerton
Egerton has enjoyed a singular rise to fame. He’s known to the masses as Eggsy, the nimble, smart-mouthed chav-turned-superspy at the heart of the Kingsman franchise. While likely ruling him out as a future James Bond candidate, he’s an actor whose made his range appreciated quickly, winning a Golden Globe for his spectacular performance as Elton John in Rocketman.
Seeing him pop up as a mustachioed game designer in an ’80s Tetris biopic may seem like a strange next step, but in doing so, he’s shown off his everyman charisma at its most normal and likable.
Speaking to Dexerto ahead of the movie’s release, Baird discussed meeting Egerton during the development of Kingsman 3 before he even received the script. “We were working together and then that got put on hold for various reasons… and this thing came along and it was a simpler decision to make. We all just jumped onto the Teris movie instead,” he said.
“It was as simple as that. We kind of had been working together already and we just transferred over onto Tetris… I thought he was a really great actor and I thought he could do it and it was just an easy decision really.”
Tetris’ thrilling ending was inspired by Argo
We’re now firmly in spoiler territory: Tetris ends with Henk and his two Nintendo men fleeing Russia with the KGB on their tail. When they get to the airport, there’s a nail-biting wait to get through security, before they try to give them the slip.
If it’s familiar to you, that’ll be because it’s almost exactly the same as the climactic, nerve-shredding moments of Argo. In the 2012 Oscar-winner, set during the Iran hostage crisis, hostages narrowly escape Tehran under extremely similar circumstances: they’re held at the airport, manage to get on the plane, and fly off as they’re still being chased.
When we referenced Argo in our interview, Baird said: “That’s amazing you said that. It’s exactly what I was gonna say.”
As for other influences, despite Egerton’s own comparisons and a host of articles branding it “The Social Network for gamers”, Baird doesn’t see it that way. “I don’t think The Social Network was really one for us. I don’t know where that came from, but it was always Argo, Bridge of Spies, and The Big Short to a point as well. Particularly Argo… that was the one I always sort of had in in mind,” he said.
“I don’t know if it’s come up like any of those films… it feels like its own kind of thing now. But those were the ones we kind of looked at before.”
Tetris and its Robert Maxwell fat suit
The main villain of the movie isn’t the USSR – it’s Robert Maxwell, the late, vastly disgraced British media mogul. He owned Mirrorsoft, a gaming subsidiary of the Daily Mirror group, and his treachery thickened the mess of the Tetris rights for everyone involved.
He’s brought to life by The Thick of It’s Roger Allam in a brace-bursting fat suit, barking things like “commie b*stards”, puffing cigars, and generally being quite ghastly.
Coming off the back of Brendan Fraser’s Oscar win for The Whale, a performance bolstered by the intricate horror of the prosthetics, Allam’s look is sillier and cartoonish – but “Roger was absolutely always first choice,” according to Baird, and he “didn’t consider anybody else for that part.”
“That was the first thing. He is, I have to say, the most delightful person to work with and I’ve now became really good friends with him, and see him on a social level as well. I can’t say enough good things about Roger Allam.”
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Baird leaned on a heavyweight prosthetics talent for the fat suit: Mark Coulier, who won Oscars for his work on The Iron Lady and The Grand Budapest Hotel, as well as collaborating with Baird on Stan & Ollie. “It was a very easy decision to make and a very similar time process,” he said, with Allam sitting in the makeup chair for around three hours each day.
“I actually think Mark might have even used the same fat suit for Maxwell as he did for Oliver Hardy as well. We had the same guy doing that, so it made life a lot easier for me.”
Robert Maxwell’s son said Tetris went easy on him
Beyond Robert Maxwell, there’s radioactivity among his family too: his son Kevin Maxwell, played by Anthony Boyle in the film, declared bankruptcy in the ’90s with debts of more than £400 million, although he was later acquitted of fraud charges from his work with his father. And then there’s his daughter Ghislaine Maxwell, the socialite sentenced to 20 years in prison for sex trafficking alongside Jeffrey Epstein.
Tetris doesn’t take a deep dive into the Maxwells’ history. “There were never any other scenes. All the scenes you’ve seen the film with the Maxwells are intact. We didn’t add any, we didn’t take any out,” Baird said.
However, according to Kevin himself, the movie could have been tougher on Robert. “In the tone that we’ve gone for, we could have gone harder on them, I think – way harder,” he continued.
“I spoke to Kevin Maxwell before we shot the film to get his kind-of thumbs up that he was okay for us doing this. So, we had to let him read the script and to my surprise, he was supportive and said, ‘Yeah, go and do it… the only thing I would say is you could have gone way harder on my dad.’
“He actually used more colorful language than that,” but Baird left the specifics open to the imagination.
8-bit visuals and ’80s music galore
Tetris is a globe-trotting movie, yo-yo-ing between Moscow, Tokyo, London, and the US. For each shift between locations, there’s a nifty 8-bit transition, evoking the arcade aesthetic of Netflix’s High Score docuseries.
It feels integral to the movie’s charm, but “the first cut didn’t have any of that stuff” at all, Baird revealed.
“We obviously had to make it in post-production, so we needed to get some in. We then had a cut where there was too much and it felt gimmicky. And then we sort of like balanced it out over a year. There was a lot of tweaking – it had to feel like one movie, you know? If you had too much, it would feel as though it was just about a computer game. If it didn’t have any, you would feel it wasn’t at all about a computer game.”
As for the music, there’s a head-bopping, zesty mix of ’80s tracks and covers, as well as new-age “BRAAAM” master Lorne Balfe on the score. Many of the ideas for the film’s songs, such as ReN’s Holding Out For A Hero, were in the script.
“The script had music there that was like, ‘Russian version of such and such song, or Japanese version of that’, so they were in there. I think you always fight when you get to post-production that the ones that are in the script don’t exactly match up, but you take the idea anyway,” he said.
“Lorne really sort of went off on his own at the beginning. He was driving all that music stuff, and he wrote a lot of the score before we’d even started shooting, so that really helped in terms of tone as well.
“I’ve known Lorne for a long, long time and we’ve always nearly worked together, but we never quite had. Now he’s become this huge composer, but he still has that sort of desire to do these sort of medium budget movies as well, if they’re interesting.
“We were lucky to get him, I think, but a lot of that score was done off the bat. He was very clear from the beginning what that sort of tone should be. It sounds like such a wanky thing to say but it’s like a character in the film, because there’s so much music in the film.”
Tetris is available to stream on Apple TV+ on Friday, March 31.