It's been a long road for Duncan Brantley, who sold the script for Leatherheads to Universal Pictures in 1991. It was to be director Steven Soderbergh's second film after Sex, Lies and Videotape (1989), and Mel Gibson was originally tapped to play the lead role. But such is the business—films take a long time to come together. Brantley is thrilled to see Leatherheads in production at last—and coming to his home state, no less.
The idea for Leatherheads came to Brantley when he worked as a reporter for Sports Illustrated in New York, covering college football and sailing. He and a colleague, Rick Reilly, collaborated on the earliest version of the script.
After it was sold, Brantley says, "it went into a terrible period of being re-written for years and years. We had some brushes with production. At one point in 1998 we were two weeks away from going into pre-production when the head of the studio got fired. At that point, the new guy comes in and takes all of the old guy's projects and puts them at the bottom of the pile."
Eventually, Brantley went to Soderbergh and asked if he could take a crack at a rewrite himself. The new script ended up in the hands of George Clooney, who liked it. "George is a famous letter writer," Brantley says. "He doesn't like computers, he writes letters longhand. Around the time he was directing Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002), he wrote Steven a letter and said, 'If you're not going to direct it, may I direct it?' and Steven said sure."
But during the filming of Syriana (2005), the star's spinal cord was punctured during a fight scene. With such a severe injury, there was no way Clooney would be able to play the physical role of a football player. "We were crushed, because George is sort of the only man on the planet who can play this role." Then last May, word came that Clooney had recovered, and the movie got the green light.
Brantley lives in Los Angeles, which he says is a necessity. "I used to think that as a writer I could sit in North Carolina and lob them across the wall. The reality is, at the stage I am in my career, I have to be here—and that's the early stage." But he's still got North Carolina in his bones. He's sold another screenplay to Warner Bros. about a moonshine revenue agent from Down East. "To find the good stories, you have to dig deep."