BITB_11251_R Actor Joel Edgerton, producer Grant Heslov and director George Clooney on the set of their film THE BOYS IN THE BOAT An Amazon MGM Studios film Photo credit: Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Directing The Boys in the Boat, director George Clooney quickly discovered why it’s hard to make a dramatic film about rowing: “You can’t see speed from far back.”

“You have to be up close. And so, it doesn’t look as exciting when you’re watching it from far away,” he explained at a recent press conference for the film. “So, we had to come up with a way to make the rowing energetic and exciting, which we had to figure out.”  

The film, about a team of hardscrabble Washington state rowers who make it to the 1936 Berlin Olympics, has built-in drama. But making viewers feel the rush of paddling through the water was a technical challenge.

“We had to come up with a design to get in tight enough to make it exciting. You have to have some foreground action in the front,” Clooney explained. “You have to be on a super long lens. Meaning, we’re on an 80-foot arm on the boat with a 300mm lens, 200mm lens, down low, getting wet, trying to hold focus while you’re doing that.  So, there was a ton of math to try and find a way to make those things exciting.”

The film is based on Daniel James Brown’s best selling 2013 book The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. When it first came out, Clooney and his team tried unsuccessfully to get the rights — which Clooney joked that they’re “still mad about.” But when he and producer Grant Heslov signed a deal with MGM a couple of years ago, they discovered the studio owned the property.

(L-R) Bruce Herbelin-Earle as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz and Jack Mulhern as Don Hume in The Boys in the Boat, an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo credit: Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.

George Clooney on Adapting The Boys in the Boat

Like Clooney’s previous book adaptation, The Tender Bar, was based on J.R. Moehringer’s memoir, many of Clooney’s films focus on young men becoming their best selves. What attracted him and Heslov to The Boys in the Boat

“We’re just always looking for good stories, you know?  I think the first one we adapted was Ides of March from a play called Farragut North.  I think that it’s fun to see when you can see how they’ve written the book or the play.  It’s always interesting to try to find a way to make it a film ’cause the storytelling is very different.” 

Like Clooney’s 2008’s Leatherheads, The Boys on the Boat is another sports story. But that film is built around a Princeton football star, and the University of Washington athletes in the Depression-era Boys in the Boat come from scrappier backgrounds.

“These young men, out of necessity, out of hunger, out of having nothing else, too, they were lumberjacks.They got together and it’s sort of like The Beatles, you know?  You put together a group of men who actually could be good enough to win the Olympics,” Clooney said. 

“It’s like when your third-best songwriter is George Harrison. It’s sort of a magical group. And it’s sort of what happened with these guys was, they ended up having these incredible men who worked as an incredible team.”  

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The Washington of the 1930s was very different from the state today, known not just for rugged beauty but tech firms and coffee. 

“The truth is, you know, Washington was such a new state, was such a new part of the world that the idea that rowing was even on the map compared to these other sort of legacy schools is wild,” Clooney said.

The film stars Joel Edgerton as Coach Al Ulbrickson, Callum Turner as the main character, Joe Rantz, and Hadely Robinson as his love interest, Joyce Simdars. Clooney notes that in real life, the rowers were the size of “mountains.” None of the actors were experienced rowers, but they trained together almost every day for five months. 

What made the experience extra grueling for the young actors was rowing in a wood boat, which is more arduous than gliding smoothly in a fiberglass boat. They were given all the tools they needed to be a top-tier rowing team, including a gold-medal winning coach. 

“Yeah, it was like wagyu beef.  We were fattening ‘em up with all the things just to kill ‘em later,” Clooney joked. 

He noted that Edgerton’s character is no-nonsense and “grumpy” — and that the actor didn’t try to soften him for the sake of cheap sentimentality.  

“Remember Danny DeVito in Taxi? He played a jerk. And he never sort of cheated it. He never all of the sudden was kinda nice,” Clooney said. 

“And not that Joel played a jerk — he never gave us the idea, for such a long period of time anyway. He wasn’t always going, ‘Don’t worry, I really am a good guy. ‘ He let us get in slowly.  And you know, it takes a lot of nerve as an actor.  I remember, the studio would call after dailies and go, ‘Why is he so mad? Why is he so grumpy?’ And I was like, ‘Relax.’

The Boys in the Boat arrives in theaters December 25, from Amazon MGM Studios. 

Main image: Actor Joel Edgerton, producer Grant Heslov and director George Clooney on the set of their film The Boys in the Boat, an Amazon MGM Studios film. Photo Credit: Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc. All Rights Reserved.