Tetris: Directing Apple TV+ film 'ticked all the right boxes' for Jon S Baird

Two 'buddies' changed the face of video games during the Cold War. Forty years on, Baird couldn't wait to give it the blockbuster treatment

Nikita Efremov as Tetris creator Alexey Pajitnov and Taron Egerton as Dutch entrepreneur Henk Rogers. Photo: AppleTV+
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When Apple announced it was making a film about Tetris, it perhaps wasn't the most tantalising cinematic offering for fans.

After all, the famed Nintendo Game Boy game literally involves players simply organising differently shaped descending pieces into horizontal lines. However, the story of how Tetris became so popular, and the legal battle to secure its intellectual property rights, is a global rollercoaster ride of emotion and drama that was ripe for adaptation.

That’s exactly why screenwriter Noah Pink, who created and produced the National Geographic anthology series Genius, wanted to tell the true story of how Alexey Pajitnov created Tetris and Henk Rogers distributed it to the masses.

And, his blockbuster work helped to sign up director Jon S Baird.

“I loved the script,” Baird tells The National.

He had been working on a third Kingsman movie alongside Taron Egerton in the months before he was hired to make the biopic. When it was shelved, producer Matthew Vaughn quickly suggested that they make Tetris instead.

Scroll through the gallery below for more images the Tetris film

“We all just jumped over from one project to the next,” says Baird.

One of the main reasons he was so attracted to the script for Tetris, which at the time was called Falling Blocks, was that it was set during the Cold War and it involved Rogers and Pajitnov having to expertly navigate the frosty relationship between the US and Russia in order to release it.

“I’m a politics graduate," he says. "So the script just ticked all the right boxes for me. It was a true story, a buddy movie and a political thriller, and it just had an element of fun all the way through it. It was my kind of thing.”

Baird immediately saw that Rogers and Pajitnov had a similar dynamic to Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, who had been the subjects of his 2018 biopic Stan & Ollie, starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly. At the same time, though, he wanted to make sure that Tetris was influenced by classic "buddy comedies" such as Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Midnight Run.

He says he was inspired by films in which the two main characters start off far away from each other, in terms of who they are, but ultimately end up close friends. “I also used Bridge of Spies, Uncut Gems and The Big Short as reference points, too," he adds. "Not that our film is like those, but it was just so we could show the crew how we wanted to increase the jeopardy and stress.”

Tetris director Jon S Baird. AFP

The person responsible for embodying this intensity was Egerton, who was hot off the huge success of the Elton John biopic Rocketman as he headed into work on Tetris.

“That was one of the reasons I wanted to work with him,” says Baird, who believes Egerton’s performance as Rogers eclipses his turn as the singer.

“I’m biased. But I think this is his best performance so far. It’s really grounded and he’s able to show his entire range as well. That’s not something that he’s had the opportunity to do so far in his career.”

More than his work in front of the camera, though, Baird was hugely impressed by just how smart and professional Egerton was behind the scenes, too.

“The best actors are always intelligent and smart people, because they’ve got to make the right choices and understand the script," he says. "He really reminded me of James McAvoy, Steve Coogan and Michael Macfadyen in that regard. They’re all into acting for the right reasons, plus they’re dedicated and professional. As the number ones on the call sheet, they really set the tone for the rest of the crew.”

From left, Togo Igawa, Nino Furuhata and Taron Egerton in a scene from Tetris. Photo: Apple

But while Tetris will make movie audiences aware of the lengths Rogers and Pajitnov had to go to so that we could all whittle away hours playing their game, Baird openly admits that a lot of the story has been embellished to make it more riveting.

“You always have to remind yourself that you’re not making a documentary,” says Baird.

“It’s a movie. We have taken artistic license with car chases and used that as a metaphor for the jeopardy that was around them. You have to be guided by the fact that you’re making a piece of entertainment. But you also have a responsibility to the subject and you need to balance it out to make sure they’re happy.”

Thankfully, both Rogers and Pajitnov, who are executive producers of Tetris, are delighted with the results. The pair helped Pink during the development of the script, providing minute details on what happened. But, as the film was being shot in Scotland during Covid-19 restrictions and they live in the US, they were unable to be on set.

After seeing Tetris, when they were asked about how truthful it is, they responded: “The film was 100 per cent emotionally real.”

Ultimately, Baird is hopeful that audiences will feel the same, which will allow them to connect to Egerton’s Rogers and Nikita Efremov's Pajitnov, while being taken on a journey that’s more entertaining than they expected.

“I hope people have fun. This is a fascinating true story of another wise dull subject, in terms of it being about the rights of a computer game," he says.

"We need fun films right now. There are a lot of movies getting made about serious stuff. This is one that’s fun and will hopefully educate you at the same time.”

Tetris will be released on Apple TV+ on Friday

Updated: April 03, 2023, 2:52 PM