Film

Tetris director Jon S Baird: Tragically, this story is timely

Tetris is a riveting Cold War thriller and a rousing underdog story. Director Jon S Baird explains why now's the right time to tell the tale.

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in "Tetris," premiering March 31, 2023 on Apple TV+.

Taron Egerton, Sofia Lebedeva and Nikita Efremov in Tetris. Photo: Apple TV+.

Just say the word Tetris and your head’s probably already seeing falling blocks, and hearing that catchy theme tune. It’s one of the most long-lasting and ubiquitous video games the world has ever seen. But you very nearly didn’t play it at all.

In his new movie, Filth director Jon S Baird tells the incredible story of how that addictive puzzle got into your hands. It’s a wild story set against the backdrop of the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the early days of gaming innovation.

Tetris is based on the true story of how entrepreneur Henk Rogers (Taron Egerton) discovered the game and risked everything by going to the Soviet Union, where he joined forces with its inventor Alexey Pajitnov (Nikita Efremov) to bring the game to the masses. It’s a riveting Cold War thriller, a rousing underdog story, and a touching tale of friendship and family.

For anyone who remembers the arrival of Tetris on the Gameboy, it will trigger a rush of nostalgia – and then propel you through the secret corridors of power that were always operating beyond your bedroom walls. Baird explained why he was drawn to the story, and why it’s frightening relevant now.

Were you a fan of Tetris before you started making the movie?

It is incredibly addictive. I had a Gameboy, and I wouldn’t say I was a huge gamer, but it was one of the few games I did play I quite a lot when I was a kid. I play a hell of a lot of it now, too. My daughter is 13. I got her into it. Within like, two minutes, she was better than me. And I’ve been playing it for like 30-odd years.

What is it about the story of Tetris that makes it worth telling?

For me, it was less about the game itself and more about the struggle for the game, and the time period and the era it was set in. I was a politics graduate, and was very aware of this time, when the Berlin Wall was falling, and the Cold War was coming to an end and you had Gorbachev and perestroika and everything. I remember it vividly. When I first got the script, it was not called Tetris, it was called Falling Blocs – a play on the words for the dissolution of the Soviet Union. So that was the element that interested me.

The ridiculousness of this one guy travelling into the Eastern Bloc, which we were told at the time was like going into the deepest, darkest sort of hell, basically. The propaganda at the time was coming both ways across the Iron Curtain. And we were told these people over there were not to be trusted.

And the fact is, probably the most heroic person in the film is Alexey, who’s the Russian inventor. He had more to lose than Henk, actually. It could have ended really badly for him. So that’s what I really liked, it wasn’t that the heroes are coming from the West and the baddies are from the East. It was very much like a case of there’s good and bad everywhere.

Henk and Alexey both come out of the film well, but how do some of the other real people feel about their portrayal? Robert Maxwell gets a less kind portrayal, for example.

We did speak to Kevin Maxwell and showed him a script out of respect. He was very candid about the whole thing. He said, you know, you’ve got most of it right. I think, going by his description of his dad, we probably could have gone a little bit harder on Robert Maxwell.

Do you expect people of a certain age to have a nostalgic reaction to the movie?

I hope so. But also I’m really hoping it brings in a younger audience as well, because I think a lot the kids at the moment are quite keen on knowing about the fashions and the music and the politics from the 80s and the 90s. And these ‘retro’ games are part of that, these games that we thought were cool and cutting edge at the time.

Does the story of the collapse of the Soviet Union feel relevant again, given everything that’s happening in Russia and Ukraine?

It’s a horrendous situation, but, ironically, it probably has made this made this film more timely in that people are more aware or have more knowledge of what’s going on in the former Soviet republics. Where countries want their own identity, but Russia is trying to expand, and maybe trying to take some of the former republics back under its control. So, tragically, the film is more timely because of the current political situation. I just wish it wasn’t, to be honest.

Tetris is on Apple TV+ from March 31.

Read the real story behind the movie, in our exclusive interview with Henk Rogers and Alexey Pajitnov: the real-life heroes who outran the KGB to bring Tetris to the world. Available in this week’s edition of The Big Issue, on sale from March 27. If you cannot buy from a local vendor, copies can be bought via The Big Issue Shop

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