A Look Inside Backwards: Shooting an Independent Sports Film

When I set out to make my first film, I knew exactly what I wanted to tell: a story about the ambition, sacrifice and choice confronting an athlete competing at an Olympic level.

Taking it even further, I wanted to share a story rarely seen in films—that of the athlete who almost makes it to the Olympics but just misses the cut. I wanted to explore how it must feel to give up so much in life and get inches away from personal goal, only to find oneself, ultimately, sitting on the sidelines. Many of us have experienced such personal setbacks in one way or another: what happens in your life when “the big dream” doesn’t work out? How do ambitions and goals change as life intervenes? How much are you willing to continue to sacrifice to reach a possibly elusive goal?

Women’s rowing is rarely seen in film (or television, for that matter), and I knew that rowing would be a great sport to choose for Backwards because it embodies all of the classical archetypes of the competitive spirit: grace, strength, teamwork, friendship, loyalty, and overwhelming ambition. Rowers devote their lives to a sport that has no stars or glitz; you win or lose because you are, or are not, an effective team.

Image via Dada Films

One of the biggest hurdles in creating Backwards was getting from an “idea” to an actual completed script. I had never written a script before (or book or play, for that matter), and the concept was daunting. I went online and started reading screenplay after screenplay. I went to Barnes and Nobles and purchased all the books they had on screenwriting. I read some of them dozens of times. Then I turned off Facebook and started writing.

At some point while working on the script, I realized that the summer Olympics, in which rowing is an event, was less than two years away. Knowing that this would be a great marketing opportunity for the film, I resolved to release Backwards, a film with an Olympic theme, immediately following the publicity surrounding the Olympics. This meant that I had to work quickly to make a 2012 deadline.

So I put together a business plan and started fundraising while still refining the script through various readings with my actor friends (something I highly recommend). I was lucky enough to find a group of investors who shared my dream in a relatively short time. We were going to shoot the film!

Shooting an independent sports film is tricky for many reasons. First, you need to find actors who can believably compete in the film’s sport without months and months of training. Two major roles in Backwards are high school girls who compete at a high level in rowing. These young women needed to know both how to row and how to act—a near impossibility. Casting auditions didn’t reveal anyone with this unique skill set. Our solution was to select an actress who had athletic ability and give her a crash course in rowing (several weeks of taking a bus from NYC to Philly for early morning rowing lessons from a high school coach who graciously volunteered his time), and to hire a serious rower and give her a crash course in acting (two lessons, to be exact).

Image via Dada Films

Image via Dada Films

Independent sports films are difficult to make because you aren’t filming actors in a room. You need races with spectators. For rowing, a major regatta typically has thousands of competitors using hundreds of expensive boats. From a Hollywood perspective, that easily translates into many millions of dollars! And we didn’t have millions of dollars, it probably goes without saying.

To make the sports scenes realistic with our film’s low budget, I went directly to the rowing community. I needed substantial “in kind” help wherever I could get it, and the Philadelphia rowing community was amazing. In the film, the dozens of boats on the water and hundreds of people along the shoreline we shot at the actual Stotesbury Cup Regatta, the largest high school rowing event in the country. The Regatta’s organizers kindly let us put three film crews to work shooting B-roll footage during the entire two-day event (editing that raw footage into a coherent movie was another Olympic effort in itself for our editor, Phillip Bartell). The clubs along Boathouse Row gave us access to docks, equipment, and rooms to shoot the indoor training scenes.

Still, we were not able to shoot all of the races in the original script. Unfortunately, we had to cut a prohibitively expensive Olympic racing sequence. However, it gave us a chance to get really out-of-the-box creative. Without giving too much away, know that we managed to shoot a short sequence with a green screen, and in post created our very own Olympics!

Like any independent filmmaker, I had to make many sacrifices to get my film made (from budget cuts, to changes in the script, to not seeing much of my family or friends), but I’m proud of the inspirational film we created in the end. And in that sense, my journey in making Backwards is similar to the film’s theme of how goals change as life intervenes: the finish line you cross may not be the same finish line you set out for yourself in the beginning. But perhaps that’s a good thing! MM

Backwards is the first movie from writer/producer Sarah Megan Thomas, who also plays the lead role in the film (opposite leading man James Van Der Beek). The film went from script concept to theatrical release in just over two years.

Backwards is now available on DVD at Amazon, as well as on iTunes and On Demand. Watch the trailer here. To learn more about Backwards, visit Facebook.

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