row2k Features
Rowing and 'The Social Network'
Part VII: Hollywood Comes to Henley
October 19, 2010
Dan Boyne

Armie Hammer, training in England.

Bob Wagner and I were having a beer. Not just any beer, mind you, but a "lager top," a warm British beer doused with lemonade. We were in the village of Hurley, just above Henley, at an ancient inn called Ye Olde Bell. It was late June, and it was unseasonably hot.

As our minds slowed down with each successive pint, Wagner and I discussed the ever-increasing speed of visual images in films and commercials. In my opinion, the visual shifts had accelerated to the point of being jarring (like a camera with attention deficit disorder). To take up the other side of the argument, Bob explained little about the theory of the development of moving images and their effect on the human brain.

The discussion took us back to the 19th century British photographer Eadweard J. Muybridge, who lined up a series of fifty cameras all connected to tripwires. Then he had a horse run past them. When he strung the fifty images together into a device called a Zoopraxiscope, he was able to produce one of the first motion pictures, which established for the first time that a horse has all four hooves off the ground simultaneously when running.

As Muybridge and others developed this new technology, one of the big questions that arose was how quickly to change from one image to the next. Intuitively, they came up with a change rate of about 2.6 seconds.

This pioneering work was done in the late 19th century, in a little place called Palo Alto, California.* This was well before scientific studies were done on people during REM sleep, where the brains’ ability to process changing images was discovered to be - yes, you guessed it - roughly 2.6 seconds.

"So what you are saying is that when we watch a film, it's like we are watching a guided dream?" I asked Wagner.

He nodded and smiled. Wagner was a very smart guy. I told him so.

"I get paid very handsomely for I do," he admitted, "but it’s a well known fact that -"

" - the average life expectancy for a 1st AD is fifty years old," I finished the sentence for him, just like in an Aaron Sorkin script.

"That’s right," he said. "And now if you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work."

"Okay," I said. "But what exactly do you want me to do? I mean, what’s my role here?"

He looked up impatiently.

"The main reason you were brought over here, other than your knowledge of rowing, is that you are a calm person. As you can see, none of the rest of us are."

He pulled out his laptop, and I finished my lager top. I left him alone and went to find Armie and Josh, who were lurking somewhere around the grounds of Ye Olde Bell. It was dangerous to leave a pair of actors unsupervised in a foreign country, as I was about to find out in the days that followed.

What Wagner and David Fincher were going to do at Henley was a little different than what Muybridge had done, but not entirely dissimilar. Roughly a dozen cameras were going to be positioned along the racecourse, showing different vantage points. Some would be fixed, while others would be on rails. The technology had come along way since the 19th century, but one challenge remained unchanged - the cuing of the cameras would have to be precise.

So how did Fincher and Co. even get permission to shoot at Henley? I not sure any of us will ever really know. There was definitely some money involved - several bags of gold were laid on the table - but more importantly, months of even-handed, steady diplomacy were required that winter, facilitated by Cean Chaffin and a UK producer named Rupert Smythe.

I read through Rupert’s lengthy proposal the Stewards and I was captivated. No, not just captivated. Enchanted. He described Columbia Pictures, David Fincher, and Aaron Sorkin as if he was describing a trio of fine wines ("a rich, oaken flavor, with subtle hints of blackberry"). He also listed their past work as if he was submitting their pedigrees. But of course having a pedigree was very important at Henley.

In his proposal, Rupert also laid out the plan of attack for the shoot, complete with diagrams and proposed timetables. There were really only two openings in the regatta where filming would be possible: the lunch break and the tea break. These were forty-five minute windows where we would have to hustle down the course and somehow do a few takes of the Dutch racing Harvard.

But wait. It took at least fifteen minutes to row down to the start, and ten minutes to row over the course. No, that wouldn’t work. There wasn’t enough time for the crews to complete the entire circuit twice. We needed...yikes...an extra set of Dutch and Harvard oarsmen...yes, that’s right...two additional eights. The second "seconds" would set up right after the first pair of eights and run down the course, just to get some further footage.

But that meant we needed thirty-six able bodied oarsmen. Impossible.

Enter Edward Bainbridge, a "gentleman" coach at the Leander Boat Club. Ted claimed he could get the guys, no problem. We had a conference call to figure out the details. Bainbridge had a cock-sureness to his claims that bothered me a little, but at least he wasn’t wishy-washy. It’s funny how an English accent can be ever so persuasive. It’s a wonder we didn’t just let the Brits continue run our country, really.

The next morning a chauffeur picked up Armie, Josh, and myself at Ye Olde Bell, and drove us out to Dorney Lake, the site of the 2012 Olympics and the home of Eton College Crew. The crews were training there, prior to the regatta. My job was to inspect the crews that Ted had assembled and make sure that they were up to snuff and ready for the Henley sequence.

"Hi Teddy Bear!" Armie called out to the Leander coach, drawing smiles from the British
oarsmen.

None of my guys had been re-enlisted from Boston, much to their dismay. Their English replacements seemed like a more subdued lot on first inspection, but that was soon to change. Long, hot days in the sun, would work wonders to break down the veneer of social propriety.

Ted and I watched the crews row by from the shoreline. They looked serviceable, although Armie’s catch was still a bit late. Dorney Lake is a rectangular, man-made lake, dug out to an even depth to ensure fairness among the crews. The New Zealand sculling team was also out practicing, along with some elite female kayakers. Surrounding the lake was a wandering herd of sheep, which could be heard at intermittent intervals, bleating in the distance.

"Where are the other two crews?" I asked Ted.

"Ah, they’ll be in place during the regatta," he assured me.

"You mean, during the day of the shoot?"

"Yes, that’s right. They are coming in to race at Henley on Wednesday for the heats, but don’t worry—they’ll get knocked out early and be ready to row for us on Sunday."

That seemed like cutting it close to me, but I remembered what Wagner had said - I was primarily on board to serve as a calming influence.

Back at Ye Olde Bell, Josh and Armie had some other ideas about how to calm down at the end of the day, to which I was not initially privy. Armie’s beautiful wife, Elizabeth, had also come along for the shoot, and she had taken it upon herself to find Josh a date or two, not that he needed any help in that area.

So began our evenings, which generally included a preliminary "nature walk" by the boys, and then an outdoor feast with David Fincher, his wife Cean, and Bob Wagner.

The talk at the table usually reverted to Hollywood gossip about folks like Brad Pitt, Edward Norton, Morgan Freeman, and others. I’m not going to repeat what was said here, for obvious reasons, but suffice it to say that those stories in People Magazine may not actually be far off the mark. Movie stars indeed lead complicated lives.

And then suddenly, after two days, Fincher and Wagner decamped to London. Apparently, the internet connection at Ye Olde Bell was not sufficient for their needs, and the ceilings of the rooms were too low - Fincher had knocked his head on a low beam twice, and he had suffered a mild concussion.

That left me unsupervised with Josh and Armie. I had now become, by default, their chaperone, a job for which I was well underqualified.


*Ironically, this is where Mark Zuckerberg developed Facebook.

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See and purchase Dan's books on rowing here:
  • Kelly, A father, a son, and American Quest
  • Red Rose Crew
  • Essential Sculling


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