Back-Tracking: How Films Reflect their Creators

I keep a lot of notes on my phone, mostly of things I see throughout the day that I take time to jot down with the intent of returning to and reading later on. There is one quote in particular that I have returned to over and over again during the four-year process of creating The Water Is My Sky. It states:

“The films you make reflect the person that you are.”

As I stated in last week’s podcast, this is the fourth year we have been working on this film and one of the most enjoyable things I have done in the first few months of the year 2016 has been to stop and reflect on how far we have come since we first started working and all of the steps that needed to come together to bring us to this point.

It reminds me of a phrase that my good friend and frequent collaborator Joe Clarke likes to use: “back-tracking.” Based on his definition, back-tracking consists of connecting the dots backwards from your present situation all the way back until the earliest necessary decision, event, or circumstance that was imperative in launching you along a path leading to the present day.

In the case of The Water Is My Sky, the back-track goes back very far and closely interweaves with my personal life’s journey. In fact, I can make the argument that WIMS is as much auto-biographical than it is a story about three high-level athletes pursuing greatness in the sport of swimming. Based on my back-track, I can confidently state that the phrase saved in my phone, is in fact true. The films we make truly reflect who we are, and all of the major (or sometimes minor) events that have shaped personalities.


The Water Is My Sky: A Back-Tracking Exercise. All of the necessary steps that lead to the creation of this film.

1. Joining, and not quitting, the swim team

I joined the swim team when I was seven years old, and it was not an immediate perfect fit. In fact, as my first swim coach likes to say, my first practice consisted of swimming one lap of the pool, climbing out, and crying for the next 30 minutes.The outlook was so bleak that my mom was going to let me quit–but not my coach. He convinced me to stick with it, at least for the summer, and if he hadn’t been so insistent, I would have been robbed of a lifelong passion and love for a sport that taught me more than any single person or activity ever could have about life. It taught me that success is built on a foundation of hard work and that often times the path to your final destination is riddled with many failures and very few victories. But it is more about the journey than it is about the end result. I have carried this lesson with me all throughout the making of this film, and it is what originally drove me to want to create a film that represents the sport that I love so dearly.

In a more specific sense, this decision has had an incredible impact upon the making of this film due to my presence within the swimming community. Swimming year-round from age 11 all the way through college lead me to many different parts of the country and allowed my network to grow to the point where it stands now, in which I feel confident being able to reach nearly anyone within the community that might be of help to the film.

2. Signing Up for an “iMovie” Elective Class in Middle School

When I was in eighth grade in Holland, Michigan, my school began offering elective classes based upon new and upcoming technologies. One of the classes that was offered was called “Hollywood Comes to Holland.” It was an introductory course about digital filmmaking and DIY software being rolled out by Apple at the time. My childhood friend, Kiel Nowakowski, and I found ourselves placed in this class with relatively no expectations. As the class went on we began making short films together and found ourselves having a great time doing so–in fact, our love for creating short films expanded beyond the classroom and this would become our main pastime all throughout high school (we were extremely popular kids). This passion that Kiel and I both discovered lead to our eventual courses of study in college and continue to inspire us to create together to this day.

3. Reading P.H. Mullen’s book, Gold in the Water

For more insight into exactly how profound of an impact of this book had on me, check out last week’s podcast, but it is worthy of bringing up once again for this back-tracking exercise. The story presented in this book, as told so masterfully as only Mullen could, proved to me that swimming is a sport that is full of not only compelling stories, but characters that are worthy of sharing with the outside world. This book gave me hope that given the right situation and right circumstances, there would be the chance to expose the international swimming community to the outside world and highlight the great individuals that it produces year after year.

4. Choosing to Attend the University of Iowa

I often refer to this decision as the best I’ve ever made. Within the greater context of my life, it’s affects on my personality are worthy of their own blog post, but for the sole purpose of The Water Is My Sky, I will outline each connection that contributed directly to the making of the film.

4. a.

Immediately after joining the University of Iowa’s swim team, I became very close with my group coach, who also had studied film and media in college. After my sophomore year, he introduced me to his neighbor, an independent filmmaker, who allowed me to intern with his production company and give me an inside look into the world of low-budget, small-team filmmaking.

4. b.

Working alongside Northland Films turned me on to the world of documentary film–both it’s possibilities and it’s advantages for up-and-coming visual story-tellers. This was right in the middle of the digital boom in which filmmaking equipment was becoming increasingly affordable and artists driven by passion did not need to turn to big-budget production companies to fund their films. Had I not witnessed the work of NF I likely would not have had the confidence to embark on this journey myself.

4. c.

While at Iowa, I had the privilege of being teammates on the swim team with one of Tom Wilkens’ cousins, a connection that continues to bring me pause to this day. What are the odds that this would occur? That I would meet someone with a direct connection to my childhood athletic-hero, someone whose story I desperately wanted to share to a new generation of swimmers? This, above all else, leads me to firmly believe that this whole journey was meant to be, that there was some masterful design behind it all.

5. Meeting Connor Jaeger

I mentioned above my residence within the swimming community and how years of connections lead to a long list of contacts and networking opportunities. A lot of people ask me how Connor ended up coming on board for this project, and how I went about contacting him to see if he might be interested in becoming involved.

The truth is, I had known Connor for about a year before I even had the idea for the film. My high school swim teammate, and still close friend, happened to be Connor Jaeger’s roommate in college at the University of Michigan. Connor and I met over Memorial Day weekend in 2012 when he was visiting my hometown with my friend. At that point, Connor was a solid swimmer, one who I had competed against in the Big Ten conference for a few years.

One month later, Connor was an Olympian.

When Connor and I first met, we talked about Gold in the Water and he mentioned how he and Tom Wilkens were from the same area of New Jersey. Had that connection not been made, the seed would likely not have been planted for an intriguing story about two swimmers from the same hometown, with eerily similar storylines, pursuing excellence in the most elite athletic competition in the world.


And so, all of these things combined: falling in love with the sport of swimming, finding a creative outlet and pastime with my close friends, making connections and combining all of them to help create a lifelong dream are what has lead me to this point.

Two seemingly small connections–my teammate at Iowa and my childhood friend, introduced me to the two individuals at the forefront of our story.

Never underestimate the potential effects of each and every decision you make and embrace the presence of your personality in the art you create.