Presentation vs. Re-Presentation: Who is this film for?

Someone recently asked me how I would define “success” in terms of this film project. This is a question I have been grappling with since the film’s inception, and is one that often pulls me in two seemingly polar opposite directions.

On the one hand, first and foremost it has long been my goal to create a film that is true to the international swimming community–one with deep credibility for my knowledge of the swimming “language” and journey, and a story that is representative of the greater experiences of the majority of elite competitive swimmers. When we first began working on this film, there were very few examples of media that accurately depicted the sport. Hollywood movies have long been filled with characters who are supposedly dedicated swimmers, yet they appear on screen swimming without goggles on. Documentaries at the time had not yet tackled the sport either. This is partially why since reading Gold in the Water and finishing a long and enjoyable career in the sport, I have made it my personal mission to create a film that accurately represents the sport I owe so much to.

Yet despite having an amazingly supportive and passionate niche audience that I am willingly working for, I would be lying if I said that my secondary mission doesn’t involve drawing in people outside of the swimming world to see our film. This is because Kiel and I have agreed from day 1 that the story we are telling reaches well beyond the pool.

Certain swimming-specific details may tend to be unappealing to someone with no background in the sport–but what about sacrifice and dedication? What about pursuing excellence for the love of what you do, with no regard for external validation? What about going through your junior and senior years of high school, deciding where to go to college and which path your life might take as you grow into a young adult? What about starting a family and looking back on a tough and challenging journey from your youth that helped shaped the person you are now? These are all complex and deeply evocative themes that our film offers, well beyond simple framework of a story about a sport that measures its victors in the simple manner of who swam a certain distance the fastest.

So, how do we go about satisfying both sides of this potentially divided audience? How do we provide the credibility needed to keep swimmers interested without going too in-depth at the risk of losing the interest of non-swimmers?

Let’s say we have someone in the film say “back in those days, we were training insanely hard. In the morning we would swim about eight-thousand, with a heavy focus aerobic capacity work and some pulling and kicking thrown in. Nothing too hard in terms of the intervals, lots of two-hundreds and four-hundreds, some hypoxic work as well. Then in the afternoon we would shift to more anaerobic work–typically we would hit twenty fifties on a minute-thirty, all at best average. We’d end the workout with some negative split work to emphasize finishing strong.”

Anyone with a high-level swimming background hears this, nods along and thinks “wow, yes, that is some very hard training.” On to the next point.

But for anyone without experience in elite swimming, about one sentence into that quotation, their eyes have most likely glossed four times over and are completely disjointed from the film experience.

Yet, while this is clearly something we want to avoid, if we feel the need to have someone available explain every single tedious detail about the sport of swimming, down to something like the length of the competition pool and the difference between “short course yards” and “long course meters,” we instantly lose a strong portion of our swimming audience who feel the film is too dumbed down for them and not a true representation of their sport.

Kiel and I have probably had this discussion more than any other in relation to how we hope to go about telling this story. How much swimming lingo is information-overload to our assumed non-swimming audience, and how much explanation can we endure without losing the faith of our swimming audience?

For us, it has all come down to balance. Further, we resort to explanations anytime both members of the audience, swimmers and non-swimmers, need to be aware of the stakes for the characters.

For example, in two weeks we will be traveling to film the events of the 2016 US Olympic Swimming Trials meet in Omaha, Nebraska. This is the most high-pressure meet for any American swimmer at the highest level of the sport.

But, how many people know that? Most swimmers do, but why would the casual sports fan have knowledge of the exact qualification process for the US Olympic swim team?

This is a spot where Kiel and I have decided that it is simply not good enough for an interviewee to say something like, “the US Olympic Trials is unlike any other meet in the world. The pressure is unmatched and every athlete is on edge hoping that they can perform up to their potential in the moment.”

This is a fairly good summation of the event, and non-swimmers have a general idea of the stakes of this event. But, if they are not clear on the specifics of the event, they may be asking themselves why is the pressure of this meet unmatched? And without that knowledge, they cannot properly understand or appreciate the level of intensity of this meet, both for our characters and for our story.

This is why we find it necessary to take our explanation of this event one step further and clarify that any swimmer wishing to qualify for the US Olympic team must finish first or second in their specific event, in the championship final of this one specific meet.  Once that becomes clear, the stakes of this event have been raised by an infinite amount and all members of the audience are clear of the implications behind these singular races, ones that swimmers train over four years to get to.

Now, most swimmers are aware of the first-or-second-only implications of the US Olympic Trials, but the casual sports fan most certainly is not. Will swimmers roll their eyes at us for taking time to point out this detail? Maybe. But what have we gained by doing this? All audience members are acutely aware of the pressure of this meet, and the vague quote three paragraphs above is validated.

And so it is this balance that has to drive our storytelling, because at the end of the day, Kiel and I have always believed that this story should reach well beyond a swimming-only audience. We have no problem reaching for the biggest audience possible, because we believe in our story and the fact that people who are not swimmers can take something positive away from viewing our film.

After all, when did appealing to a mass amount of people become so unbearably uncool? In the day and age of hipster culture and the “you’ve probably never heard of them” generation, our aim is to get this film to appeal to the largest audience possible–and we believe that we can do it.