This week's row2k Interview is with Sarah Megan Thomas, Executive Producer (and writer, and star) of the upcoming film BACKWARDS. The film, shot on location in Philadelphia, follows the story of an Olympic hopeful who fails to make the Olympic team, but finds herself and a love interest--hey, this is the movies--when she starts coaching a high school team on the Schuylkill.
In addition to giving us a "behind-the-scenes" look at the making of the film, Thomas tells us that the film's release will be tied to the success of their Facebook campaign: the more "likes" the film's Facebook page receives, the more cities they will be add to the film's domestic release this fall--so head over to www.facebook.com/backwardsthefilm and "Like" the page if you want it to come to a "theater near you."
Okay, enough with the previews; on to the show:
row2k: What is your background in rowing, and how did you get into filmmaking?
Sarah Megan Thomas: I started rowing in high school -- in 8th grade actually. Growing up in the Philadelphia area, I would often see rowers out practicing on the Schuylkill River and rowing looked like such a cool sport. As soon as I had the opportunity to learn how to row, I jumped at the chance. I rowed at Shipley School and, later, at Williams College. My high school boat had the opportunity to row at Henley, where, by defeating the Welsh National Team, we made it to the finals. That was probably the highlight of my rowing experience.
In terms of filmmaking, I have been interested in movies for as long as I can remember. I was a theatre major in college and did my post-graduate work in acting in London. After working in plays, commercials, and independent features, a few years ago, I decided that I wanted to make a film myself. Working in the industry, I knew the basics about filmmaking, but I definitely learned a ton "on the job" while producing "BACKWARDS."
Do you prefer the acting or the producing and why?
SMT: To be honest, I love them both. It is really hard to choose since they are so different. Producing involves more multitasking and a broader focus (raising money, budgeting, hiring and managing personnel, looking at the "market" for the film, casting, etc), while acting revolves around creating one role to play in the larger story. Producing one film often takes years, while acting in one film rarely takes more than several months. I will say that I find producing more stressful because you bear the responsibility for the entire project! But, as a Producer, I also have a lot more control over the project as a whole: to create something I am passionate about and see my vision through. That said, there is nothing quite like the rush of performing a great scene!
row2k: How did the script come together? It is a romantic film, with rowing as its backdrop; did it start out differently (perhaps as more of a straight rowing film, or was it more of a romance story into which you later weaved the rowing)?
SMT: The script for BACKWARDS evolved as I worked on it over a one year period.
Originally, the script started as a sports film. I had this idea that I wanted to tell the story of an athlete who almost makes it to the Olympics, but ultimately doesn't get there. Rarely in a sports film do we see that storyline. I wanted to explore how that must feel; to give up so much in life and get that far, but not make it. To me, this is a theme that pretty much everyone can relate to on one level or another -- what happens when you have worked as hard as you can to achieve your dream, whatever that dream may be, and it doesn't work out as planned?
Since I was a rower, the natural sport to choose for the story was rowing! I thought a film would be a great medium to showcase the beauty of the sport to the non-rowing public.
As I continued working on the script, I decided I needed to add an element that made BACKWARDS more than a rowing film, because, for a film to succeed financially, it needs to have a broader market than any one sport. That is when I started to built up the romance element between Abi and Geoff (the two lead characters). We all know, romance sells!
In the end, I like to call BACKWARDS a "sports romance" (although technically that is not a genre). While there are many exciting race sequences and training montages to please the hard core athlete/rower, the film is also a romance on many levels. A traditional boy-girl romance, but also, in the broader sense, the romance of dreaming and striving to be in the Olympics.
row2k: What were some of the challenges in creating the rowing scenes?
SMT: Wow - there were so many!! In low budget film-making, time is money, so we did not have a lot of time to shoot the rowing sequences (the racing sequences were shot in one afternoon). So we had to get things right quickly. To do so, we mostly used real rowers. But still, getting all the necessary shots in a short amount of time was by far our biggest challenge.
Also, there is the obvious challenge of trying to shoot on the water. In many cases we mounted the camera onto the boat(s). There is a shot in the film of Abi, the lead character, rowing in a single. To get that shot, our Director of Photography mounted the RED camera onto the single, and I had to basically go for a row with the camera. We all know how key balance is in rowing, especially in a single. Try rowing with an extremely expensive camera (which is on loan) tied to the front of the boat. Then add in the fact that it was October and windy! I almost tipped twice!
row2k: Was it hard to schedule shoots around all the regular rowing activity in PHL?
SMT: Actually, it was incredibly easy. It was early August, and we would shoot in the middle of the day when it was very hot, so the water was empty. Most importantly, we had the support of the entire rowing community in Philadelphia (special thanks to our Rowing Coordinator, Tony Schneider, who expertly managed the rowing aspects of the film). Everyone was amazing, and really rallied around the film. The Stotesbury Regatta even let us shoot B-Roll footage of the entire two day event. In between races, a motorboat carrying our Director and Director of Photography went down the race course filming the crowds. The challenge in the editing room was to find crowd shots where people weren't waving to the camera--many people waved at the camera, often at the end of a shot, ruining the entire shot. This happened over and over and over again. Finally, we had to use a megaphone several times and ask the crowd to kindly not look directly into the camera. I think we ended up with 2 useable shots where no one was waving or staring at the camera.
row2k: What did you have to do in order to make the rowing in the film realistic?
SMT: We worked really hard to make the rowing in BACKWARDS realistic. Being a rower myself, that was a top priority. That said, there were times when the technical logistics of making a film and telling a story made it impossible to have everything one hundred percent accurate.
To make the film realistic, we used as many experienced rowers as we could, including National Team rowers in the Olympic sequences. In the high school sequences, 95% of everyone you see in a boat is an accomplished rower. The biggest hurdle was casting the two lead high school girls in the film who compete in a double. In addition to needing these two girls to row, they also needed to be good actors as they are in numerous scenes in the film. We auditioned many rowers and many actresses with no rowing experience for the parts. Ultimately, we cast one real rower, and gave her acting lessons, and cast one actress, and spent time training her as a rower. In the end, it really worked out well.
Also, we shot real races at the Stotesbury Regatta and were able to cut some of the footage from these real races into the film. This added realism to the film that would have been impossible to create on set.
row2k: Did you get the established actors out rowing at all? What was their impression of the sport?
SMT: Yes! James Van Der Beek really wanted to go out in a boat and row while he was shooting (he plays the role of Geoff. "Dawson's Creek" lovers will remember him as Dawson on the hit show). We took him out in a quad and he had a lot of fun. We even did some power 10's!
James does not have any rowing scenes where his character has to row. He plays an Athletic Director, who has rowed in the past. So, for him, we got him out in a boat really more for fun -- and he had a blast!
row2k: How about the non-actor rowing folks; how did you train them to become actors on short notice?
SMT: This was tricky. We did hire an acting coach who worked with our non-actor high school lead for several sessions. The most important thing with acting for the camera is to be natural. The camera will pick up if you are "acting." So we encouraged the non-actor rowing folks to just be themselves -- they are rowers, so just row! And breathe. Relax and breathe when the camera rolls!
row2k: Was there anything that just did not come off as planned (i.e. major outtakes, bloopers, unexpected intrusions of real life in the scenes filmed at public regattas)?
SMT: In terms of something not going off as planned -- that definitely happened:
There is one scene in the film where the four main characters jump into the Schuylkill River after a win. We had to get this shot in one take, since more than one take would be prohibitively expensive. In a big budget film there would have been many takes and for each take, all four characters would need new clothes and a redo of hair and makeup. Since time is money on set (not to mention the expense of buying numerous dry duplicates of the same outfits), we simply had to get this shot in one take -- stressful, to say the least.
In addition, it was the last shot of the day and our last day on set at that location. We had to get the shot with the right amount of daylight to match the scene that comes before it and were running behind. As soon as the camera was in place and we were ready to shoot, major storm clouds rolled in. We all looked at each other, and were like, "It's now or never." The three girls jumped in first.
Then, James Van Der Beek did an unexpected cannonball into the water. He didn't come up for a good 5 seconds and we were all worried he hit the bottom and was hurt!! And we still needed James to shoot for another week (not to mention we would not have wanted him hurt of course)!! Luckily he was fine, But, then, as soon as he popped up, there was a huge burst of lightening! We all rushed out of the water. Thank god we got the shot. A few minutes later and we would not have been able to get it.
As a side note -- before all this happened, everyone was a little nervous about jumping into the Schuylkill River. To make the actors feel comfortable, our director jumped in first! Nice guy!
In terms of unexpected intrusions of real life at the regattas: filming movies and races often don't mix. One poor quad starting up the river for a major race ran into our crew's motorboat. It all worked out okay in the end, but there was a lot of angst and jitters until the situation was resolved.
Also, a walkie talkie was lost somewhere in the depths of Schuylkill (and you just don't know how expensive walkie talkies are until you have to replace one).
row2k: Any other interesting story in terms of "the making of" the film?
SMT: One is how we shot a scene in the film where the two lead girls stand up in the boat -- as a trust exercise. Well, we couldn't have the girls stand up in the boat and say their lines without the risk of them flipping the boat. Since one camera was mounted onto the double, if they were to flip the boat, the very expensive camera would be ruined! In order to get the shot, two kind crew members, waded into the cold Schuylkill water, chest high, and held the boat at each end as the scene was shot, which took hours. Perhaps this is how Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio felt when they were shooting in water in "Titanic!"
BACKWARDS will be distributed internationally as well as domestically, opening in multiple cities in the US this fall. In addition, BACKWARDS will have a presence at both Dad Vail and Stotesbury this month, and Thomas invites folks at those regattas to come and visit their booth/tent to say hello.