Screenwriter, producer, and actress Sarah Megan Thomas has “The Social Network” to thank for giving a Hollywood sheen to “Backwards,” her debut film, a just-opened love letter to the sport of rowing.
Thomas was impressed with the rowing scenes in “Social Network.” When she learned that they were shot on the Charles River by cinematographer Harlan Bosmajian, who teaches filmmaking at Emerson College, she hired him as her director of photography. He came with a raft of invaluable knowledge.
“I learned how to set up rigging on the boats,” says Bosmajian of his work on the 2010 David Fincher film. “We had two weeks and a big budget. But I was able to re-create it for ‘Backwards’ with a smaller camera and a smaller rig for a fraction of the cost.” The non-union shoot meant that Bosmajian could also use “Backwards” as a teaching tool for three of his Emerson film students. Tyler Weinberger, Bryan Rogers, and Silas Robinson worked on location last year in Thomas’s native Pennsylvania, where the six-week shoot offered them experience in the camera, grip, and electrical departments, respectively.
They also saw that time is money, especially on a low-budget film. With limited takes, the crew had to shoot all the rowing scenes on the scenic Schuylkill River over just a few days. Thomas remembers a chilly October morning when “I had to go for a row with a very expensive RED camera mounted to one end of the boat. Balance is key in rowing, especially in a single,” she says. “Here I was, rowing in the wind, looking into a $100,000 camera, and trying not to tip over.”
Thomas drew on her own background as a rower for her story about Abi Brooks, a competitive rower who quits the US Olympic team when her coach tells her that, for the second time, she’ll be going to the Games only as an alternate. Abi (Thomas), about to turn 30 and her driving ambition suddenly gone, moves in with her mother (Margaret Colin). She takes a job at her old high school as coach of the girls’ rowing team and rekindles a romance with Geoff (James Van Der Beek), now the athletic director. After a bumpy start, she finds renewed passion for the sport as she trains a pair of promising young rowers (Alexandra Metz and Meredith Apfelbaum) for the fabled Henley Royal Regatta in England.
Thomas started rowing at the Shipley School in Bryn Mawr, Pa. — her team competed at Henley and narrowly lost — and later rowed for Williams College, where she earned a drama degree in 2001 before heading off to graduate school at the Drama Studio in London. She lives now in New York.
“I love sports films but most are about winning,” she says. “I wanted to create a sports film about what happens when you don’t quite reach your dream. I remember a woman in college who had been an alternate at the Olympics and I wanted to explore how it felt to be that close, at that level.”
Despite its beauty and physical demands, rowing is rare in sports films. Two exceptions come to mind, “Oxford Blues” (1984) and “The Boy in Blue” (1986), but both center on male athletes. Thomas says that, from the start, she wanted to make a family-friendly film that saluted female rowers. “Backwards’’ is directed by Ben Hickernell.
Bosmajian, who moved from Los Angeles to Boston three years ago to teach at Emerson, was eager to do another sports film when he met Thomas. “I’d done ‘Coach’ [the 2010 Hugh Dancy film about a kids’ soccer coach] and enjoyed the technical challenges,” he says. “I like Sarah’s energy. I knew the film would get released; she’s a force of nature. She has a ton of enthusiasm and she was open from our first interview to giving me creative freedom. She trusted me.”
“The Social Network” notwithstanding, Bosmajian has honed his craft mostly on modestly budgeted dramas including the highly regarded “Starting Out in the Evening” (2007), starring Frank Langella, and Nicole Holofcener’s “Lovely & Amazing” (2001). These films taught him how to work creatively under time and budget constraints, he says. This proved fortuitous on “Backwards” when Thomas at the last minute got permission to shoot inside the Philadelphia Museum of Art for a scene where Abi shows her students Thomas Eakins’s luminous paintings of rowers on the Schuylkill. Bosmajian says he wasn’t going to leave the museum without a shot of the majestic central staircase. “I knew I could brighten it in post-production which would hide the fact that we didn’t have great lighting,” he says. “I pushed for that shot even though it wasn’t in the script and Sarah had no lines written.”
A Seattle native who switched from a career in still photography to cinematography and earned his master’s degree from New York University, Bosmajian laments that mid-budgeted dramas have become increasingly scarce. “I was competing with more and better cinematographers as the economy changed,” he says. “Suddenly I was doing non-union jobs just to make ends meet. I had a 1-year-old son and I was losing my health benefits. It just wasn’t fun.”
Working on the 2006 film “Ira & Abby,” he met actress Jennifer Westfeldt’s boyfriend, actor Jon Hamm, who told Bosmajian that the new TV show he was working on needed another cameraman. Bosmajian ended up working on “Mad Men” for its first two seasons. But even a job on one of the best series on television left him wanting a new challenge.
“I’d taught workshops at the New York Film Academy and liked it,” he says. “I knew teaching would be more fulfilling as long as I could still do the one movie once in a while.”
Fortunately for Thomas, that movie was hers. She made it clear to Bosmajian that she wanted “Backwards” to look like a mainstream film, not an indie, despite its modest budget. “I didn’t want dark or edgy,” she says. “I wanted fathers to be able to go with their daughters. My goal was to create a film about female athletes that would be an example for young women.”