This week marks the release of a major Hollywood movie called “The Social Network.”
Just as its creators intended, this will be a film as unavoidable as its subject matter: Facebook.
More specifically, the film focuses on the blood, sweat, and tears (and brilliance) that brought this cultural phenomenon into being.
It also involves rowing.
Woven into the film are three scenes that will delight oarsmen and non-oarsmen alike. The clips are beautifully staged, including a Harvard varsity pairs practice on the Charles River in the late fall; an indoor tanks scene; and a Henley racing scene between Harvard and the Dutch National Team, circa. 2003.
For all of their beauty, these scenes are ever-so-brief, amounting to less than five minutes of film. Yet weeks of preparation and many hours of filming were spent trying to create the footage. The goal? To render rowing in a realistic, yet visually stunning way.
Like the genesis of Facebook, the production of this footage was equally tedious at times, but there were also many humorous moments mixed in with intense challenges. I became involved with this project in bits and pieces, so this is a story behind the story, and one that only oarsmen may appreciate.
The first challenge was to find the right locations for the rowing scenes. A Hollywood scout named Steve Mapel came knocking on the door of Harvard’s Weld Boathouse last summer, having heard that I’d worked on other film projects before. Like all of the locations people that I’d met, Mapel was easy going and personable.
A scout has to be friendly, of course, because they are the initial point person for the barbaric Hollywood hoard that will soon follow.
I took Mapel on a launch tour of the Charles River and he explained that the directors wanted an early morning, bucolic shot. We went upstream, past Cambridge Boat Club, where the banks were tree-lined and the river was narrow. He quickly filled his up his digital cameral with hundreds of shots that would immediately get set back to LA for review.
We also discussed the possibility of finding a local body of water that would resemble Henley-on-Thames, in England. The next day I took him to the Malden River, near the Tufts Boathouse, and introduced him to coach Gary Caldwell. Caldwell knew Henley, and was pretty certain that the stretch in front of his boathouse would work. But the directors, it seemed, disagreed.
We then canoed up the Concord River into places that I’d never seen before. In desperation, Mapel began to use Google Earth. The big problem with most of the rivers he found, however, was that they were too hard to access. And so, after a week, Steve Mapel was called back to LA and a new scout appeared in his place.
Bill Doyle was even more fun to be around than Mapel, and he had better stories. Doyle had scouted films all over the world, sometimes in remote and dangerous places. He was an ex-cameraman, and when I ferried him the same stretch of the Charles that I had shown to his predecessor, he came up with the idea that they should stretch a cable across the river in order to suspend a sliding camera—much like they did in football games.
It all sounded very interesting, but was I on board? “That’s entirely up to David Fincher,” Doyle explained. “But you’ll get to meet him next week, he’s flying in with the art director and he wants to see the river for himself.”
The big fish were finally coming to town.
See and purchase Dan's books on rowing here:
Kelly, A father, a son, and American Quest
Red Rose Crew