Tetris Director And Real Life Subjects Break Down How Accurate The Movie Really Is [Exclusive Interview]

In Apple TV+'s upcoming film, "Tetris," we're presented with the true story of Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov, the two men most responsible for the worldwide takeover of one of the most addicting video games ever created. Pajitnov was the creator of the game and Rogers was the businessman who negotiated the rights with the very anti-capitalist Soviet company that Pajitnov worked for during the height of Cold War tensions between Russia and the U.S.

The resulting movie is filled with humor, tension, and even some 8-bit surreality. When I was offered the chance to talk with director Jon S. Baird and the two actual guys this movie is based on, Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov, I knew I had to ask about how close to the mark the movie actually is to what happened and what incorporating those 8-bit surreal elements added to the movie.

"It wasn't really in the script, you know?" Baird explained. "There were elements of it, like 'level one,' 'player one,' and stuff like that. Little chapter breaks. But in terms of buildings or exteriors turning into that, it came in post-production, sometimes through creativity and sometimes through necessity — the exterior of Henk's apartment in Tokyo or some stuff we couldn't get without using archive footage and it would have ruined the look of the film. Those were ideas that came later as we were doing the 8-bit graphics and they all fit in with each other, so it was an organic process."

Rogers called that stylistic flourish "an incredible little trick of moviemaking," while Pajitnov pointed out that the 8-bit touches helped bridge the gap for audiences. "The game content is rather difficult and unfamiliar for many people, and with 8-bit graphics, they explain it so clearly and obviously a very complicated thing," he said. "And they definitely give you a hint as to whether it is a truthful change or just a game."

The big negotiation scene

One of the centerpiece moments of the movie is a big negotiation scene where the excitable Rogers (played by Taron Egerton) is meeting with the Soviet company ELORG's higher-ups without realizing all of his competition are in other rooms and working on their own negotiations.

When speaking with Baird, I asked him about that sequence and, to my surprise, he said it was "some of the most boring [scenes] on the page, if I'm going to be honest."

"It's reams and reams of dialogue, right? Just about the rights for a computer game! I think maybe I said this last night at the Q&A, which was the overriding thing you've got to do is cast your movie right. If you get great actors, it doesn't matter what they're saying. If you get great actors being funny, like Toby Jones, or being serious like Oleg Stefan playing Belikov, or being energetic, like Taron [Egerton] is with Henk, it's all about the performances. That's what's making the tension or drama or comedy. You can shoot it in a certain way and you can put in some music and cut it in a certain way, but ultimately it comes down to believing what the actor is saying."

It seems like made-up movie BS that there were multiple parties in Moscow trying to hammer out this same deal, but when I asked the actual guys on the ground what this was like to experience (and re-experience in the movie), the predominant response is that it was right on the money. ELORG representative Nikolai Belikov was indeed bouncing back and forth between negotiations, trying to hammer out the best deal.

"I knew [Robert] Stein was going to be there, but I didn't know Kevin Maxwell was going to be there," Rogers recalled. "And I didn't know until, mid-week, Mr. Belikov asked me, 'Why should we choose you instead of Kevin Maxwell?' And I was like, 'Holy s***! Kevin Maxwell is here.' My answer was, 'Well, I don't have as much money as Kevin Maxwell does, so I can't pay you as much up front, but I can give you an honest share of the profits.' That was the thing. They had done a previous deal about a percentage of a percentage of a percentage, which meant zero, so I said, 'I will give you 25 cents per unit. No matter how many hands it goes through, you'll get 25 cents per unit.'"

There's no such thing as lost hours

I then asked Pajitnov if he was actually in the room for these negotiations as he is shown to be in the movie. "Absolutely," he confirmed. "I was behind the scenes and I met Kevin Maxwell and I met Robert Stein as well. I can assure you that the general content was very accurate in the movie. While there was some exaggeration and Hollywood-ish arrangements, the content of the story was very accurate."

"He was the only one in ELORG, in that entire organization, that understood anything about what is a game," Rogers added. "Everybody else were bureaucrats, so they needed him to know if the guys on the other side actually knew what they were talking about."

And it's a good thing Pajitnov knew what he was talking about, because ultimately that resulted in Tetris being packaged with Nintendo's Game Boy and the rest is history.

On a personal level, I made sure to show these gentlemen that their efforts were not in vain, because I am indeed of the Nintendo generation and played the hell out of this game. In fact, I was able to share a photo of a 9-year-old me holding up my newly acquired Game Boy (with Tetris), complete with a bad haircut and acid wash jeans that definitively set the time period as the late 1980s.

Both Pajitnov and Rogers reacted with a fist-pump, big smiles, and some wise words when I tried to be a little self-deprecating and told them I subsequently lost many hours to the game.

Henk Rogers: "Don't say 'lost'!"

Alexey Pajitnov: "Was it good hours?"

"They were the best hours," I answered.

Alexey Pajitnov: "So it was gifted hours, not lost ones!"

Mr. Pajitnov is correct there. Enjoying yourself is never wasting time, whether it's getting absorbed in the never-ending falling puzzle pieces world of Tetris or watching a highly entertaining movie about a wild businessman negotiating the rights for said game in the heart of Soviet Russia.

"Tetris" debuts on Apple TV+ on March 31, 2023.