row2k Features
Rowing and 'The Social Network'
Part IX: Dorney Lake Redux (or Down and Out in London and Dorney*)
November 9, 2010
Dan Boyne

Michael Coos's super rig that held two eights together

Michael Coos, the key grip in England, had the demeanor and overall bearing of an Eagle Scout. Still fit and trim at age fifty, he conducted himself around the docks at Dorney Lake with quiet confidence, assembling the camera set ups without a lot of fuss.

Most impressive, Coos had designed the super rig that David Fincher had always dreamed about: two eights linked together by two twenty-five foot, aluminum armatures. As I watched the Empacher eights get drawn together to form a giant catamaran, I was skeptical at first; I couldn't help but wonder if the whole thing would hold together when the Leander guys started pulling hard.

Coos assured me that it would. The rig had been tested back in LA, complete with oarsmen, and many of the Henley close-up shots were riding on its success. Remote cameras would be attached to the boats; these would then allow Fincher to capture any member of the crew, or move from one oarsman to the other while they were in motion. It would provide a sensational effect, and the audience would not be able to tell that we were no longer at Henley.

The rig had cost roughly fifteen thousand US dollars, Coos informed me, but I suppose this was nothing compared to the two million dollars that had recently been spent widening the bridge at Dorney for the 2012 Olympic Games, the one that led to the access channel. The media had demanded this opening be widened to allow them to get up and down the course. The UK marine coordinator, an affable ex-oarsman named David Shaw, pointed this out to me as we prepared to launch.

When everything was finally ready to go, we headed out to this access channel lake and began filming. There were roughly twenty different camera angles that had to be captured, and each one required a slight retooling of the rigs.

I got to ride in the main launch with Fincher and Wagner this time around, and it was fascinating to watch a true master at his craft. Fincher glued his eyes to the monitor and conducted the various camera assistants around him like a surgeon, barely looking up. Mostly what I noticed was the economy of his directives, and his ability to catch some small adjustment that they had missed. It was clear that he knew their jobs better than they did.

These assistants were the gaffer, responsible for determining the amount of light; the videographer, who sat at a portable video machine that allowed for instant playbacks; and the head cameraman. Each of them in turn had their own helpers who rode alongside us in a more portable skiff. Periodically the skiff would drive up close to the eights to readjust the f-stops or frame of the camera, or to switch the precious digital camera cards.

We were like fishermen, in a way, and these cards were our catch for the day. In between takes, we drifted around Dorney Lake waiting for the sun to disappear. Just as in fishing, you did not favor the sun - you wanted grayness, or diffused light, for an image captured in half-light was easier to alter later on.

It was the gaffer's job to read the sky, and for this he was equipped a darkly-tinted monocle. On sunny days, the clouds became our friends, but they came and covered the sun at their leisure, sometimes leaving us with gaps of time to fill. During these waiting periods I listened to the bleating of nearby sheep, or to the stories that came forward from the crew. They were mostly about other shoots they had done and actors who were interesting or impossibly difficult. I heard about a gaffer who had burned out his retina by looking too long at the sun, and about producers who were awful but made lots of money nonetheless.

For the first time ever, Bob Wagner seemed to relax. We were nearly done with the palate of camera angles that he had carefully laid out on his list; now we were capturing mostly extra footage as extra insurance against unforeseen errors. But nothing much had gone wrong this time around.

The dual boat rig creaked and groaned like the timbers of an old ship, but it never failed us. Michael Coos had done his job well. Both the coxswains Alex and Zoe had to compensate for inequities in power on the port and starboard sides (or stroke and bow sides, as they say in the UK) by having certain guys pull harder. They both did wonderfully.

It was, by and large, tedious work, particularly for the oarsmen who had to pull the huge rig around. Something had to give - if not the rig, then something else.

If you were in England last July, you know that it was hot. Really hot. And heat does strange things to people, particularly when they have to work all day on a Hollywood movie set.

In between takes, the Leander oarsmen began to amuse themselves with any available toy that they could find. First it was rugby ball, then a basketball. Then Armie found a children's plastic tricycle (a "Big Wheel," actually) and so began a series of time trials around a circular course on the blacktop next to the Eton boathouse. Sadly, the tricycle had a bum wheel, and various accidents ensued. After several crashes, the make-up ladies came over and broke up this enterprise, not wishing to have to cover up a bunch of bloody road burns.

When it got even hotter some of the oarsmen decided that it would be great fun to jump into the lake, even though this was not permitted. Boys will be boys, however, and several of them plunged into the forbidden waters anyway, led by a giant oarsman known as "Big Phil" (~6' 8", 270 lbs). Big Phil had been a swimmer prior to taking an oar into his hands, and was not going to be denied access to water.

The head manager of the Eton rowing program did not react kindly to this violation of protocol, and he began a spate of yelling and screaming that was much louder than any human ear should have to tolerate. Wagner and Fincher did a duck and cover, and Rupert, the locations manager, got stuck with the role of playing diplomat. The first time it happened things were unpleasant; the second time (ten minutes later) things got ugly. As Rupert and the boathouse manager bantered, big Phil hid himself behind one of the eights, bobbing happily in the water and submerging like a turtle when necessary.

Meanwhile, I had my own problems to worry about.

Prior to my trip to the UK, I had the great misfortune to be bitten by an nasty little insect known as a deer tick and subsequently contracted something even nastier called Lyme disease. It is an insidious infection that must be dealt with immediately, with a full barrage of antibiotics, or you will suffer various maladies for the rest of your life. These symptoms can include joint aches, headaches, and immune disorders (plus a rare form of delusion in which you experience inflated visions of your own self-worth.)

I think the antibiotics took care of most of these symptoms, although I can't be certain. I do know that the drugs had serious side effects, the worst of which was a hypersensitivity to the sun. Sun block didn't help, unfortunately, and so after a few days of filming at Dorney, my face and hands were beet red and riddled with the tell tale spots of sun poisoning. I had to get out of the sun, or I was going to end up in the hospital with an IV stuck in my arm.

I wasn't the only one with health concerns. David Fincher was in fact rushed to the hospital one day, complaining of intense stomach pains. It turned out that he was suffering from severe dehydration, and part of his intestines had actually become necrotic. But the very next day he was back on set, drinking ginger tea and carrying on like a true commander-in-chief.

Luckily, that weekend, we had a few days off, and Armie, Josh, and I decided to decamp to London for the remaining few days of the shoot. The guys checked into the posh Soho Hotel, and I was installed in the servant's quarters, a four star hotel only a block away. My room was affectionately called "the broom closet" by the hotel staff, but it suited my needs perfectly. I stayed out of doors during the day, and went out only to watch World Cup soccer games at night.

One night Josh and Armie decided to invite a few of their Leander pals to the hotel, including Ray, the member of the "Dutch" crew who had nearly missed the Henley shoot. I don't believe I will ever know everything that happened that night, but I did hear that at one point they decided to have a pissing contest out of the window of their third floor suite. Only crew people can come up with such depraved behavior, which probably stems from a lack of freedom during the main of their existence.

There are some scenes in The Social Network that show Harvard students partying with a magnificent sense of debauchery. For the record, every Harvard student that I've spoken with has laughed at these scenes, knowing that they are by and large a wishful fabrication of some Hollywood producer's mind. In London, however, during the shoot some of these scenes may have actually taken place. Enough said.

In the city Armie and Josh frolicked about with even greater abandon than in the country, and wisely ditched me as an unnecessary third wheel. Of course I always got the recap highlights the next morning in the limo back to Dorney, whether I wanted it or not. Josh, in particular, was having great success with the ladies of London Town, not to mention the date who flew all the way from Denmark just to spend twenty four hours with him. While Josh was no threat to Casanova, I had to admit that I was impressed. I decided that in my next life I would come back as a male model.

How does a film shoot end? Not with a bang, or a big cast party, but with a long, slow sigh of relief. Everyone was completely exhausted, and excited to get at least one night of undisturbed sleep.

Some in the gypsy caravan of the crew were immediately heading off to other gigs. David, the marine coordinator, had a reality TV show to set up in Scotland; Gavin, the cameraman, was off to Cornwall. Rupert, the locations manager, invited me to stay on in London to help film a music video with five pop musicians who had gotten it into their silly brains to fabricate and row in a quintuple scull (you can see the video here). I passed, but Ted Bainbridge and some of his oarsmen eagerly signed on for another stint of insanity. It was good money, after all.

Fincher and Wagner had to fly to Sweden to set up for their next film, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, but Wagner joined Armie, Josh, and I for dinner that night, compliments of Sony Pictures. As Armie and Josh bantered with the ladies at the table, Bob and I discussed the challenges that lay ahead for him in Sweden; apparently, it was more difficult to get permitting and supplies in that country. He also needed some ideas about the type of motorcycle the heroine of that story should ride.
"I know something about motorcycles," I told him.

"Really?" Wagner said. "Send me some ideas when you get back home."

Briefly, but only briefly, a ridiculous thought entered my mind: maybe I could get hired on as a motorcycle consultant. Luckily, it passed quickly, and I finished my dinner. I safely made back to my room and fell fast asleep.

*With apologies to George Orwell


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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    Log in to comment
    11/10/2010  7:25:35 AM
    When I saw the movie, there was a strangely static, processional quality to the rowing. It captured neither the grace or the violence of racing. This strange rig explains why.

    [email protected]
    11/10/2010  8:31:03 AM
    Good eye. I felt the same way, actually, because you don't get the "surge" without boat-to-boat camera work. Although I think the directors did a great job, they have certainly left the door open for improvement!


    11/09/2010  7:49:54 AM
    In all honesty, I found Dan's series of stories a heck of a lot more interesting than the movie. Thanks, Dan.

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