The biggest story of the 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin was Black track and field star Jesse Owens winning four gold medals and putting the lie to Adolf Hitler’s theories of race supremacy. A less-heralded U.S. gold medal triumph over host country Nazi Germany glides onto screens this Christmas with The Boys in the Boat from MGM Amazon Studios, directed by George Clooney.
It was a technically grueling, on-the-water shoot with a group of young actors who had to learn the sport from scratch, Clooney’s longtime producing partner, Grant Heslov, said Saturday during a panel at Deadline’s Contenders Film Los Angeles event. At one point they feared they had made a terrible mistake, Heslov said in conversation alongside the movie’s editor, Tanya Swerling.
“So we cast these guys and we hired them for an extra three months to train — a solid three months of real rowing training with Olympic rowing coaches, the whole nine yards, two sessions a day, and on and on,” Heslov said. “So they’ve been training for maybe a month and a half, and George and I finally show up to the training facility … and we go out on these little boats, we watch them row and we look at each other. And we’re like, ‘Oh, [expletive], these kids are never going to get this right.’ I mean, we were worried.”
By the time filming started, however, “They were pretty good,” said the Oscar Best Picture winner for 2012’s Argo.
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The true story of a Depression-era rowing team from the University of Washington, The Boys in the Boat is adapted by screenwriter Mark L. Smith from Daniel James Brown’s 2013 book of the same name about the rise of the Huskies’ oarsmen and their no-nonsense coach — a ragtag crew that went from the backwaters of their collegiate sport to the pinnacle.
Newcomer Callum Turner stars as Joe Rantz, who was flat broke and living out of his car as an engineering student before he found a place in the sport of crew under a taskmaster of a coach in Al Ulbrickson (Joel Edgerton). In fits and starts, Rantz and his teammates cohered into a formidable racing team.
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The Boys in the Boat is the latest entry in a notable line of inspirational sports dramas based on actual events, with echoes of 2005’s Cinderella Man; 2004’s Miracle, about the scrappy U.S. Olympic men’s hockey team that bested the heavily favored Russians; 1984’s Hoosiers, about a college cycling squad; and 1981’s Oscar winner for best picture Chariots of Fire, about two British runners from very different backgrounds competing at the 1924 Olympics in Paris.
Heslov said that like other films in this genre, the movie is about much more than the sport it depicts. “Rowing was just a means for these kids to get a place to sleep, a place to eat and an education,” he said, adding, “The movie is about the heart, and the journey that they go on. And it’s a beautiful story.”
That said, Swerling — who has worked with Clooney on projects including the Hulu miniseries Catch-22 — took pains in the editing room to make sure the sport looked believable on the screen to people who know about crew.
“I did watch some documentaries about rowing just so I understood the lingo and I understood what the guys in the boat were doing,” Swerling said. “I wanted to keep some of the technical parts of rowing accurate for the fans that were rowers in real life.
“I have a very good friend who rowed in college and he’s like, ‘I can’t wait to see this movie. I’ve been waiting for years!’” she said. “So I wanted to make sure we were representing that properly.”
Check back Monday for the panel video.
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