Tetris biopic was Noah Pink's passion project. He wrote it in a Toronto café
Halifax-born screenwriter inspired by le Carré and Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
In a year already full of them, Tetris might be one of the unlikeliest biopics being released.
Going up against everything from Oppenheimer, Napoleon and Maestro, to Blackberry, Air and Ferrari, an in depth look at the falling blocks video game may sound like the most bottom-of-the-barrel choice — other than maybe pop-tart biopic Unfrosted and, of all things, the upcoming Flamin' Hot Cheetos flick Flamin' Hot.
But when Noah Pink stumbled on the story behind one of the best-selling games of all time, he saw something different.The Halifax-born screenwriter behind Tetris saw it as a passion project — one that took nearly a decade to make.
"The moment I heard about it, I was like 'OK, I think there might be a seed for a movie here,' " he told CBC News in an interview. "I grew up on Tetris, took a big swing and, luckily, it paid off."
That personal payoff includes helping create a reported $80-million US budget film on one of his first attempts. Having just released on streaming, it's not certain whether Tetris will be an audience home run. But, at least in the opinion of critics, it's already a success for how close to the wall it landed.
Because for a story about something so ostensibly shallow, many assumed a movie about Tetris would barely hold together, let alone spin a John le Carré-inspired tale of Cold War drama. And according to some early reception, that's exactly what it's done.
"Like its namesake, this film is clever, crafty and shockingly entertaining," reads the New York Times review. " The Financial Times called it an "effervescent and entertaining account" backed by an "unexpectedly le Carré-ish back-story," while Time dubbed it a "surprisingly charming licensing saga."
Everywhere they write about liking Tetris, critics seem surprised to admit it — a feeling Pink himself had before researching and building his own version of the story.
The movie follows Dutch-born entrepreneur Henk Rogers as he attempts to navigate the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of Soviet-era Russia — where computer programmer Alexey Pajitnov invented Tetris, and where a host of shadowy government officials make it as difficult as possible to export the game at all.
While it all seems like a perfect recipe for a story now, it was hard for Pink to convince anyone to take a chance in the beginning.
"Tetris was the game of my youth when I was five or six, and so when I learned that there was this crazy stranger-than-fiction story behind it, I guess the sentimental part of me became, you know, obsessed with trying to get this made," he said.
This was before he had written Einstein-inspired Genius, National Geographic's first scripted series, and selling anyone on a video game project from a no-name writer proved to be borderline impossible.
"I tried to pitch it, and nobody really wanted to hire me because I had nothing produced at the time," said Pink. So he instead took a page from Henk Rogers' book "and decided to write it myself."
After a summer of research in 2015, Pink then wrote his first draft in a Toronto café. With his then-titled Falling Blocs — a reference to the dissolution of the Soviet Union — in hand, Pink managed to convince the real Rogers and Pajitnov to help tell the story in 2017. He said it was their input that really started to make it take shape.
"Henk was very kind, but also very determined to figure out … which movie star was going to play him," Pink said, with the honour eventually going to Welsh actor Taron Egerton. "And Alexey was more of the poet, who came in and had notes on my script."
That input could be general information about their relationship and respective journeys, or pointed details — such as Pajitnov pointing out that he did indeed own a car, in contrast to an earlier version of the script where he didn't.
While it seemed innocuous at the time, Pink said that specific change ended up having "large ramifications for the story" — including a car chase scene punched up by a Russian version of Bonnie Tyler's Holding Out for a Hero. Going by fan reviews, it's somehow already become iconic.
Pink admitted that song choice wasn't his own. It came about during later discussions with editor Ben Mills, which also led to the inclusion of a Japanese version of the song performed by Ren — a former racecar driver and brother to Ayane Nagabuchi, who plays Henk's wife in the film.
But that merging of voices is what helped create the story that Pink says was as inspired by le Carré as it was by the unabashed, globetrotting fun of Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
More than anything, though, Pink was inspired by long car rides.
"If you grew up in Halifax, you know that like the closest city is about 12 hours away — the closest big city," he said. "Shout out to Saint John, N.B., but whenever we did these summer road trips … it was always eight to 12 hours, no matter what."
That made the Game Boy — and, by extension, Tetris, which came packaged with the hand-held console— a fixture of his childhood. Because to his parents, it was "the perfect soother for four kids fighting in the back of a minivan."
And like Einstein's story in Genius, that fixture led to the exact type of story Pink has always wanted to tell.
"What attracts me to a lot of true stories are — to put it simply — the story you thought you knew, but you in fact had no idea."