Seattle-on-Thames

This sign was on the river path at Henley-on-Thames, half-way down the regatta course, all last week. “BITB” stands for “Boys In The Boat.”

23 May 2022

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch is on location.

As many HTBS Types will know, the long awaited and much delayed filming of the screen adaptation of Daniel James Brown’s best-selling book on the University of Washington crew that won the Olympic eights in 1936, The Boys in the Boat, began filming in the UK at the end of March. At the start of this year, the website of the feature film “supporting artists” or “extras” recruitment agency, The Casting Collective, had a post looking for “real rowers” aged 18 – 30. It said, “Must have a good level of experience of rowing and ideally still be in a rowing club now… We also need coxswains” and added “Good rates of pay”. It further noted, “Filming in early 2022 in London and Bristol.” Interestingly, the ad also said, “Men and women can apply.” 

It seems that the producers are not planning to do principal photography in Washington state and there is some disappointment in the U.S. that the Boy’s home state will not be a location. However, the world of movie making is a strange one and finances often take priority over facts. For example, in 2011 I was in Glasgow when part of the Brad Pitt film, World War Z, was being shot. It seems that it made more economic sense to turn the Scottish city’s George Square into a block in Philadelphia than to actually film the scene in Pennsylvania. The remarkably American-looking and tartan-free result is here. With modern digital effects, you could remake Lawrence of Arabia in the Antarctic and, once CGI (Computer-Generated Imagery) had turned penguins into camels and snow into sand, the result would be perfectly convincing. 

It is not only London and Bristol that may stand in for parts of the US and possibly Germany, as HTBS has previously reported, the all-American “7” man, Joe Rantz, the major protagonist, will be played by British actor, Callum Turner (who has gone blond for the role).

In a further blow to American pride, on 15 January HTBS reported that the real star of the film and the book, the Boy’s boat, The Husky Clipper, will not be reproduced by the heirs of the original boatbuilder, George Pocock, in Seattle, but by Brits Bill Colley and Mark Edwards in Richmond, south-west London.

George Clooney, pictured here on location with some costumed extras at Henley, is co-director along with long-time collaborator, the multi-talented Grant Heslov. Clooney is also a co-producer. His British home is in Sonning, seven miles from Henley, and he is also using the Winnersh Film Studios in Wokingham, six miles from his Berkshire home. Picture: Twitter/@aina_17er.

Perhaps once dismissed as a handsome leading man-type actor, Clooney is nowadays recognised as a successful producer, director, screenwriter and independent filmmaker. He has received eight Oscar nominations of which he has won two. He is one of only three people ever to have been nominated in six different Academy Award categories: Best Picture; Best Director; Best Original Screenplay; Best Adapted Screenplay; Best Lead Actor; Best Supporting Actor. Of the eight films that he has directed, I have only seen the Oscar nominated “Good Night, and Good Luck” (2005), a historical drama about the journalist, Edward R. Murrow, and I thought it an enjoyable and intelligent production. 

Because The Boys in the Boat contains so many real-life dramatic cliches, there was a danger that a film based on it would take the easiest line and end up with a lazy and predictable “feel good” movie (spoiler alert: the Boys win, the Nazis lose). The ultimately victorious sporting underdog genre is a favourite amongst hack filmmakers but it seems likely that Clooney, in many ways an anti-Hollywood figure, will produce something more thoughtful. 

The attention to detail exhibited so far indicates that Clooney also wants to get the rowing parts “right”. As an example, at one stage the production investigated getting the actors taught to row in the style used in the 1930s. Also, the new “Husky Clipper” is not just a generic wooden eight, it is a near copy of the Pocock original.

Pre-production (the planning stage before the cameras start rolling: script, casting, location scouting, set building, etc) must have been going on for some time as, on 11 April, Sarah Harris, British Rowing Head of Education and Training, Tweeted that, “A new building has appeared on my village run route as filming of The Boys in the Boat starts soon.”

Sarah’s picture of the “new building”. It is a copy of the ASUW Shellhouse in Seattle, the old seaplane manufacturing  hangar that the Boys and many other University of Washington (UW) crews once rowed out of and which also housed George Pocock’s boatbuilding workshop. Picture: @SarahHa04980236.

I understand that the “new” shellhouse is an exact replica of the original, both inside and out. The Gloucestershire Live website reveals that it is sited at Cleveland Lakes near South Cerney in Gloucestershire. A Callum Turner fan Twitter account, @calupdates, has eight pictures taken on 6 May showing filming at this location. The final three pictures in the second batch of photos indicate that the actors have learned to row convincingly.

On 16 May, Henley-on-Thames temporarily became Georgetown when the whole film production circus moved there for a week. Part of the Henley Regatta course outside Upper Thames Rowing Club was to stand in for Seattle’s Lake Washington where, in April 1936, the Boys had their first real test at the Pacific Coast Regatta. The University of Washington Freshmen, Junior Varsity and Varsity all won, beating University of California crews. “Cal” had produced the winning US Olympic eight in both 1928 and 1932 so it was the start of the Boys’ journey to the Berlin Olympic Regatta.

A picture taken on 17 May when some of the race scenes were shot. I was not there but I am told that the actors rowed well. At “7” is Callum Turner who is playing Joe Rantz. Filming is also scheduled at Dorney Lake, presumably for in-boat close-ups (the rowing close-ups in the “Social Network” movie were done this way). Picture via Twitter/@calupdates.

I was in Henley on Wednesday, 18 May when I watched the shooting of the scenes in which UW crews carry their shells out of the boathouse to race and then the scenes in which they carry them back in again. Simple enough shots perhaps but, with multiple takes and resets, it took several hours. Normally, a location film set is made inaccessible but this one was very relaxed with the river path kept open save for the short time that the cameras were actually running. The production team seemed content for members of the public to stand on the path either side of the Upper Thames clubhouse watching and taking pictures. Possibly this is another example of Clooney’s lack of Hollywood self-importance. 

Although filming was on one of the world’s most famous rowing courses, Temple Island (in the background here) will obviously not be appearing in the Seattle based scene and the booms currently in place for Henley Royal Regatta will be digitally removed during the film’s post-production.
The comparatively new clubhouse of Upper Thames Rowing Club redressed by the film’s props people to pass as a 1930s boathouse.
Upper Thames RC in normal times. Picture: Facebook.
Waiting for the cameras to roll (though digital cameras do not actually “roll”).
Action: Washington supporters welcome back one of their returning victorious crews.
Action: Washington supporters cheer from a passenger boat.

As is the nature of film making, there was a lot of waiting around. However, this gave me the opportunity to picture some of the props, sets and actors involved in the whole complex process.

Extras and crew relax between takes.
The two wooden UW boats Husky Clipper and Husky Challenger, were specially made for the production. Justin Sutherland, chairman of Upper Thames RC was quoted by the Henley Standard as saying, “There is real canvas on the boat, brass gates where they put the blades and leather buttons on the blades themselves.” 
These two Cal boats, Golden Bear and Spirit of ’28, are modern carbon-fibre composite craft painted to look like wood. 
Some of the “real rowers” recruited for the film.
This Buick was one of a half-dozen period American vehicles waiting to be used in filming. The owner assured me that they all work.
Some Washington supporters suffering the Great Depression.
A Washington supporter not suffering the Great Depression (she can even afford a cell phone).
Extras relaxing on a prop supporters’ stand.
Between takes on the Upper Thames balcony.
Three of the Boys and their boat.
Two extras in front of the Upper Thames boat shed. Although new, the wooden building will easily pass as a 1930s boathouse (once the Upper Thames sign is covered or physically or digitally removed).
I think that this is the Canadian-Greek actor, Chris Diamantopoulos. He is playing Royal Brougham, a veteran journalist and sports reporter who wrote for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1910 until his death in 1978. He followed the Boys throughout their journey to the Olympics and the character is, no doubt, also a handy device to impart or explain information to audiences in an easily understood way.

While it is easy to romanticise a period of great hardship for many, the 1920s and 1930s were, as the extras shown below illustrate, a more elegant age when most people took the time and effort to appear their best in public. Not a tattoo, stained hoodie or pair of ripped jeans in sight. On a hot day, I was also impressed by the extras not taking off their heavy jackets between takes. Keeping in character perhaps?

The excellent and ever reliable Henley Standard reported on the first day of filming at Henley-on-Thames.

Will the film be any good? Famously, you should never judge a book by its movie, but equally, books are not shooting scripts. Asking if Clooney’s Boys will be as good as Brown’s Boys is not asking if the former will be a slavish copy of the latter. 

In January, the Seattle Times arts critic, Moira Macdonald, interviewed Daniel James Brown. Macdonald wrote:

(Brown) has no script approval or formal involvement with the movie. “We sold the movie rights the day after we sold the book rights, and we had no idea really how successful the book would become,” he said. “If I could go back in time, if I had known all that, I think I would have lobbied for script approval, or at least some formal script review…”

Clooney gave him a call about a year ago… “I was really impressed by how well he knew the book — he had not only read it but he really seemed to sort of get it,” Brown said. “I don’t know what’s going to come out of the sausage machine, but I was heartened by the things that Clooney had to say about it.”

(Brown has) had a few conversations with the current screenwriter, Mark L. Smith… Though Brown hasn’t seen the whole script, he’s hopeful. “I liked the way he was talking about the story.”

Author script approval is not necessarily a good thing. John Grisham, who has had ten of his novels turned into films, says that he does not get involved in the filmmaking process: “I know nothing about making movies and I stay away from it and hope for the best.”

Brown at Henley’s River and Rowing Museum in 2017 in front of a victor’s wreath such as was given to the “The Boys” when the Husky Clipper pulled into the dock after their winning in Berlin. This particular example was given to the only other non-German crew to win at the 1936 Olympic Regatta, Britain’s double scullers, Beresford and Southwood.

For better or worse, when can we expect to see the film released? Filming has only just started and then post-production (editing, music, effects etc) needs to be done. Even when a film is finished and ready, release is often held back for various commercial reasons. In January, the film review website, Looper,  wrote, “…it’s no stretch of the imagination to expect Boys in the Boat to be released in the next 2-3 years… and, while it is not clear exactly how long that process (will) take… many films complete … within that time frame.” So, don’t buy your popcorn yet.

One comment

  1. Lovely article, Tim, especially perhaps for those of us who still remember the use of wood, brass, leather, and canvas!

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