‘Tetris’ Director Jon S. Baird Improved His Game While Making the Movie: ‘I Am Now Much Better’

The filmmaker takes TheWrap behind making the true story Apple TV+ film


Starting today you can play “Tetris.”

Not the game of colorful blocks falling from the sky, but the new feature film about how the rights to “Tetris” were maneuvered out of the former Soviet Union by an American programmer and game developer named Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton). It’s a wild and deeply compelling story, the kind of Cold War caper that is even more incredible because it really happened. (Also, anyone who ever spent time with “Tetris” on the original Game Boy will be even more taken with the story.)

Produced by “Kingsman” mastermind Matthew Vaughn, the movie has a decidedly poppy tone and visual aesthetic (embroidered with 8-bit flourishes) that makes it even more fun to watch. And you can watch it right now, on Apple TV+.

TheWrap spoke to “Tetris” director Jon S. Baird (who previously brought the story of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy to the big screen in “Stan & Ollie”) about how the project came about, whether or not he was a “Tetris” die-hard and whatever happened to his “Kingsman” movie.

How did “Tetris” come about?
I was working with the production company on a completely different project. And then that had been put on hold. And at the same time, Noah [Pink, screenwriter] had this script and it was almost there. It needed a bit of finessing and development. For the next six months or something we were developing and trying to go into production, because the other thing is we got caught in the middle of COVID. But it gave us time to refine the script, and in particular the ending, to have a more fast-paced conclusion. That’s what we really worked on. But the idea was fully there. And it was always from Hank’s point of view.

I had no idea this totally bizarre story existed. And obviously I knew the game well enough but I didn’t know the story behind it. It just fell on my lap, really. I’m a politics graduate, so I’m very interested in that time period and that geopolitical situation at that point, so it was a no brainer. I’m really attracted to these true stories and I thought that, coupled with the politics, it already has that built-in sort of random thing. It wasn’t called “Tetris,” at the time it was called “Falling Blocks,” but we thought that “Tetris” was probably a title that would get people in a bit more, just kind of fool them into thinking it was a film about a computer game but it’s not really at all.

What is your relationship with Matthew Vaughn and his production company Marv?
I was working with them on one of the “Kingsman” scripts before and worked quite closely with him on that. But when it came to “Tetris,” Matthew was probably busier with the “Kingsman” prequel at the time. We were up in Scotland in a vacuum and we were left alone to go and shoot it. He got involved more in the edit stage. But in the scripting and production stage he left me to my own devices, which is great, because it’s what you want to do and then present your film and then you see how it organically takes shape from there.

Were you obsessed with “Tetris” when it came out?
I wasn’t at all, I have to be honest with you. I’m not a gamer. I am now much better at “Tetris” than I was when I was a kid. I can’t meet up with Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov and not say that I’m any good at the game so I’m a lot better at it now. I used to play it but I wasn’t that good at it. Now I appreciate it more, I think, because I know the story and how hard it was to get to the world you know. I appreciate the game a lot more. And I think the compelling thing about the “Tetris” game itself is the simplicity of the game. Which is ironic, because the crazy story of how the game became was brought into our living rooms is not simple at all. It’s such a bizarre tale, but the game is so successful because of its simplicity.

Can you talk about the visual aesthetic of the movie? There’s all sorts of fun 8-bit graphics and animation that is so fun.
The photography itself, the meat of the film, the dramatic narrative of the film that you see, we did a lot of testing with lenses with Alwin H. Küchler, who’s our German cinematographer. And he’s a genius, a real genius. Lovable uncle Alvin, we called him. And he really pushed for the anamorphic lenses and was behind the decisions for the color palette for the USSR compared to what Japan was like, and what England was like, and what Seattle was like. There’s a lot of prep that went into that and a lot of testing. And the production designer, it was a guy who did my very first film back in the day, Dan Taylor, and he’d been doing lower-budget features and high-end television. And we just thought that it was the right time to give somebody a chance at this and we started together 23 years ago. We’ve sort of came up through the ranks at the same time, and we’ve both got the opportunity to do this film at a higher budget at the same time. That was something that was really neat. And he did such a great job that they brought him on to “Argyle” as well. What else can you do in COVID apart from do a lot of prep, you know?

In terms of the computer graphics stuff, that was in a script. But I hadn’t paid that much attention to it because I thought that’s really something you just will work out in post. And then the visual effects guys come in and they give us loads of options on stuff. And then a lot of it went in, and we probably found it was a bit too much so we pared it back. Because we couldn’t go to Moscow, we couldn’t go to Tokyo, we used the graphics for some of our establishing shots as well. The idea was that it doesn’t overwhelm. There were versions of the film where it was overwhelming and it was too much and almost like was pulling out the thriller into more of a gimmicky thing. We had to really pull back on that but I think we found the right balance there. It’s hard. It’s a, you know, it’s a fast-paced, fun thrill ride.

What’s next? Is your “Kingsman” movie dead?
I haven’t heard anything about that. The next thing I’m looking at is a smaller movie I’ve loved for years. It’s with two of my favorite actors ever. And I’m just waiting to hear that we’ve got the financing. I can’t say too much about it. But it’s kind of in the vein of “Little Miss Sunshine.” It’s a lovely story. But the cast is just off the charts. Unless there’s anything else that comes in before, but that’s the thing I hope I’m hoping to do next.

“Tetris” is on Apple TV+ now.