“Swimmers” is director-writer Doug Sadler’s second feature film. A former professional actor, he received his MFA from the American Film Institute in 1995, the same year he began writing “Swimmers.” In 2001, he was chosen by Filmmaker Magazine as one of “25 New Faces” to watch. The following year, Sadler’s first feature, “Riders,” debuted at the Los Angeles Film Festival, then premiered on the Sundance Channel. In 2004, he was invited to refine “Swimmers” at the Sundance Institute’s prestigious Writing and Directing Labs.
“Swimmers” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2005, where it became a finalist for the distinguished Humanitas Prize. It went on to win the Grand Jury Prize for “Best New American Film” from the Seattle Film Festival, “Best American Independent Film” from the Festroia International Film Festival in Portugal, “Best Actor” (Robert Knott) from the Cartagena Film Festival in Spain, and “Best Director” and “Best Narrative Feature” from the Savannah Film Festival. The film has also been an official selection at over a dozen international festivals during the last year, including in Germany, Ireland, the Czech Republic, and Portugal.
Following its Sundance premiere, James Greenberg of The Hollywood Reporter, wrote: “ Before Miramax brought independent film to the multiplex and Sundance made it a national sport, American independent cinema was about regional filmmaking. Small, well-told stories rooted in a specific time and place. A rocky coming-of-age tale set along the Maryland coast, ‘Swimmers’ is that kind of film.”
It’s not surprising that Sadler says: “I personally feel the more interesting stories are the ones that are rooted in a place.” He has lived much of his life in rural environments – including on the eastern shore of Chesapeake Bay, where this inspiring story of human frailty and individual strength in the face of a fracturing American dream takes place.
Sadler was born in New Orleans and spent his early years on a quarter horse farm on the northern shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Louisiana. When he was 12, his parents – a Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance general agent who had built one of the company’s top three offices in the country and a psychotherapist – opted to change their lives, sold the farm and bought a 51-foot sailboat, on which the Sadler family (including two dogs and a cat) would spend the next year and a half on the water.
During the first six months, they learned to sail on Chesapeake Bay (his mother had grown up in the Washington DC area). “My dad had been in the Navy, and he sailed as a kid, but the rest of us were pretty much learning,” he says. Then they headed south to the Bahamas and eventually made it all the way down to Grenada, stopping in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands, before returning home a year later.
Back in the States, they learned for the first time that the Louisiana warehouse, where all of their possessions had been stored, had burned down. So they decided to return to the Chesapeake area and settled in the historic Maryland town of Easton, where Sadler started his freshman year at Easton High and now resides part-time with his wife and son. His parents still live in nearby Oxford, where principal photography on “Swimmers” took place.
Looking back, Sadler says that the time on the boat “was great. I really flourished out there. We did a lot of windsurfing, a lot of spear fishing. I'm not sure it really set me up for high school very well, because I was used to being treated more or less as an adult. So I really wasn't used to having to say, ‘Yes, sir, yes, ma'am.’ ‘Can I go to the bathroom, please?’ All that stuff seemed very stupid to me when I got back.”
He ended up finishing school a year early to attend Vanderbilt University, where he created his own interdisciplinary degree in theater, film, and writing.
There was no grand career plan at the time, he says. “I was pretty focused on acting initially, but I'd always been writing. In retrospect, it's all worked out fine, but coming out of there I was a little unsure what I was going to do. I knew I wanted to continue exploring theater, but I was always interested in films. When we were on the boat, the bars in port would show movies and I’d take the dinghy in and watch whatever they were playing - Bond movies, “Streetcar Named Desire,” “On The Waterfront,” “All That Jazz”– that sort of thing.”
During two summer vacations, Sadler returned home and worked as a deck hand on the ferry that is seen in “Swimmers,” as well as in one of the local restaurants. The one thing he never got around to doing was picking crabs for a living.
Sadler graduated from Vanderbilt in 1989, and spent that summer in an intensive acting workshop at the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco. “I was debating whether to go to grad school for acting,” he says. Instead, he returned home to the Chesapeake Bay, where he spent the next four months “not sure what to do with myself.”
He finally decided on a move to Seattle, where he would remain for several years. While varnishing boats for a living, among other odd jobs, he acted in experimental theater, wrote and directed two one-act plays, and made an experimental short film that no one ever saw. While still in Seattle, he was cast in three plays at the Spokane Interplayers Ensemble in Spokane, Washington. “They paid well enough to actually live, so it was a good gig,” he says with a laugh.
Meanwhile, a friend from college had started a theater in Atlanta in conjunction with Seven Stages Theater, and invited Sadler to take the lead in a production of “Hamlet.” About the same time, he was accepted into the graduate program at the American Film Institute.
“I’d always been interested in film. I may have been a bit disillusioned with theater in terms of my place within it. I still love theater and still like to be involved in it, but film held a certain magical draw. It seemed like the most powerful medium of communicating about the human heart. I think theater is powerful, too, but this felt more like a place that I could put my energies that would be more fruitful over the long haul.”
Sadler graduated in 1995, the same year he began writing “Swimmers,” but stayed in Los Angeles another five years. He survived by penning CD reviews and features on musicians for the House of Blues website, and served as an assistant director on independent films and commercials shooting in the area.
Meanwhile, he thought he had “Swimmers” set up, but the financing fell through. So, in 2000, Sadler returned home to Maryland and wrote “Riders,” his first film to be shot.
“I wrote it over three months and just immediately started raising money. I’d gotten to a place where I needed to make a film. If I was going to do this, I needed to go ahead and do it – that I was not going to get permission. There was not going to be a moment where someone put their hand on my shoulder and said, ‘You’re great, go forward.’ It was either time to step over the cliff and make something happen or not.”
The LA Weekly praised Sadler for displaying “courage that’s rare in American films,” while The Baltimore City Paper called “Riders” “a quietly stirring road movie reminiscent of Wim Wenders’ 1974 film ‘ Alice in the Cities.” Both feature a vagabond hipster saddled with caring for a little girl after the youngster’s self-centered mom ditches her, but the resemblance ends there. Whereas ‘ Alice’ is bittersweet, hopeful, and sticks to the road, ‘Riders’ evolves into a brooding, dark comment on the disintegrating American family.”
Sadler is married to Linda Farwell, a professional photographer who shoots for major magazines and corporate clients. They have a three-year-old son, Emery, and divide their time between New York and Easton.
“My creative juices seem to flow more here,” he says of his decision to stay rooted on the Chesapeake, where they live in a converted warehouse. “I find the rural element of it interesting, talking to people who work with their hands, the openness of the landscape. It feeds me creatively.”