He grew up in Hastings-on-Hudson in New York State and graduated with a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, so it’s not much of a surprise that when Peter Callahan began to make movies he would do so by documenting and paying tribute to the Empire State. His first movie, Last Ball, made its round on the festival circuit in 2001, playing at the Los Angeles and San Sebastian Film Festivals and picking up awards from the Avignon, Northampton and Woods Hole Film Festivals. On Sunday, January 18, Callahan’s second feature, Against the Current, makes its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The story of a man (Joseph Fiennes) who confronts the demons in his life by swimming the length of the Hudson River, and the two friends who accompany and support him from the sidelines (played by Elizabeth Reaser and Justin Kirk), the movie is a testament to the human spirit. Callahan explained that and more to MM in the days leading up to the movie’s first Park City screening.
Mallory Potosky (MM): I don’t know many people out there whose dream it is to swim in the notoriously dirty Hudson River. So what drives the movie’s main character to aspire to that? Instead of, say, the English Channel?
Peter Callahan (PC): The character grew up on the Hudson River. Sure, it can be dirty, but it’s also an historic and gorgeous river, and it’s a part of his consciousness in the way the English Channel is not. Plus, swimming the Channel is an athletic event, while slowly swimming down the Hudson over a period of a few weeks is more of a psychological endeavor than a physical one. I think of this movie as a road trip on water.
MM: Paul, the main character, shows a resolve to swim despite all obstacles and setbacks. Do you think this is similar to what a moviemaker must go through to complete his or her vision?
PC: I think getting any film made, particularly an indie film, is an incredibly difficult process, and perhaps not all that different from the journey our main character makes down the river. You need incredible resolve and determination, but you also need luck. The stars really have to align—figuratively and literally. It’s a miracle it all came together so wonderfully in the end.
MM: Though your previous movie, Last Ball, screened at a number of festivals and won a number of awards, every moviemaker remembers the moment he found out his movie was accepted to Sundance. What were you doing when you found out?
PC: I found out via email on a Monday morning, right before Thanksgiving. It’s obviously great news, but I also loved the timing, and being able to say my film was accepted at Sundance during the Thanksgiving holiday when I saw friends and family, and just being able to relax and enjoy the holiday instead of obsessing about whether the film was going to be accepted or not. So that was a bonus.
MM: With the experience of all of those other fests behind you, do you think that there is a difference in what Sudance does? What makes the Sundance Film Festival stand apart from the others—even today?
PC: Sundance really remains the king of the hill in so many ways. It’s what we all dream of in indie filmmaking, and it really stands apart. They program a variety of films, from very artistic to fairly commercial, so it’s a great broad spectrum of American cinema. It’s also the one festival in America everyone has heard of. I’ve been surprised by how well known it is. I assumed only those who worked in films or were culturally aware knew of the festival, but it turns out everyone from your grandmother’s knitting partner to a newly arrived immigrant working in a deli has heard of Sundance. It’s amazing how well it’s managed to make a mark on America.