“Water represents the spirit of life in ‘Swimmers’; it’s a place of freedom, danger, passion and ultimately hope. In order to live fully, you have to dive in,” says writer-director Doug Sadler about his film’s compelling motif.
“Swimmers” – which debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2005 and won the Grand Jury Prize for Best New American Film from the Seattle International Film Festival, among other honors during the year – takes place on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay where generations of “watermen” have made their living off the blue crabs, oysters, and striped bass that once flourished in the area.
At the core of the story is the Tyler family, who are suddenly facing a financial and spiritual crisis. “Each of the characters in the film has a relationship with the water and each is struggling in their own way to keep from being drowned by their emotions and circumstances,” Sadler explains.
The title and theme of the film was inspired by the Latin name for the Chesapeake Bay’s indigenous Maryland blue crab – callinectes sapidus – which translates to “beautiful swimmers.”
“The crab’s life cycle requires it to shed its shell in order to grow, during which time they are called ‘peelers.’ It’s a vulnerable and necessary time of transition, and it’s that moment of delicate transition that I was interested in exploring in each of these characters. The crabs are threatened, these people are threatened,” he explains.
The Sundance Film Festival – in making the film an official selection of its American Spectrum showcase and finalist for the Humanitas Prize – called “Swimmers” “a uniquely American story that combines an Arthur Miller sense of drama with emotive Edward Hoppersque photography. ‘Swimmers’ draws us in as naturally as the tide with the sharp reflections of its truth and humanity…”
Following its premiere in Park City, 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 most of his life in rural environments, starting with a quarter horse farm near New Orleans until the age off 12. After his family sold everything and moved onto a 51-foot sailboat to sail through the Caribbean, they settled in Easton – an historic town of around 12,000 established in 1711 on the Chesapeake’s Eastern Shore – where Sadler attended high school and returned summers during college to work on one of the ferries featured in the film. He also continues to live there with his wife and young son, when they’re not in New York.
“In both of those settings Nature was very important and I felt an intimate connection with it. And on the boat, I had a direct experience with the magic and power of the water – whether it was the joy of swimming or the humbling power of a storm at sea,” he says.
“I think that this awareness led me to be intimately aware of the way water moved in people’s lives in ‘Swimmers.’ It was a conscious choice to entwine the characters in ‘Swimmers’ with the water in terms of their livelihood and their inner peace. That was one of the things that drew me to the watermen of Maryland, because it’s one of the few occupations left where people’s livelihood is directly dependent upon the health of the natural world.”
“Swimmers” was filmed entirely on location in and around an authentic waterman’s town, Oxford, Maryland, where commercial fishing was once the lifeblood of the local economy – since replaced by an influx of wealthy newcomers building multi-million dollar weekend estates.
“I was always curious about these elegant workboats and the people who made their living on them,” he says of a profession on the brink of extinction as the health of the Chesapeake, the largest estuary on the North American continent impacted environmentally by five or more states, continues to decline. As an example, the female blue crab populations alone have deteriorated by 80% in just the past 12 years.
“One of the initial inspirations for this film came when we were living on the sailboat. There's an island in the Chesapeake – Smith Island - that we visited while learning how to sail. It’s one of the more isolated, deeply-entrenched watermen communities in Maryland. We were holed up there for a storm for like three or four days, and my dad and I went to a local oyster fry. The sense of a unique, tightly entwined community was palpable. It reminded me a bit of the uniqueness and depth of the Cajun culture of Louisiana,” he says.
As he became more involved in writing and filmmaking, Sadler kept returning to the subject of the watermen. “I knew some of these guys. There’s an awareness of those people, of watermen, all throughout that community. You meet people on the ferryboat, around the docks. You go and have a beer, and you're going to be sitting next to a waterman – though less and less at this point. I also read a lot of books about the watermen,” Sadler says. Among them was William Warner’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Beautiful Swimmers.
Writing and developing the script
“I’m interested in stories about how people live, love and negotiate their conflict between dreams and reality,” says Sadler, who began writing “Swimmers” in 1995, the same year he received his MFA from the American Film Institute in Los Angeles.
With over a decade of acting experience in regional theater, Sadler says, “Acting is the root of it all for me. Writing for me is ‘acting’ all of the parts. That moment-to-moment behavior, the subtlety, the believability of what people say and how they behave in a moment – I mean, it’s kind of how I do it, what I am. I wouldn’t know how to do it otherwise. That and pulling from my own life. The place that I came to Emma’s voice was from when I was ten and living on a farm in rural Louisiana where everything felt very alive. You know, that sort of imagination and dream kind of state that is much present when you are a kid.”
Indeed, he notes, “I was very surprised when I went to film school how few directors had any background or any real interest in acting. To me, it just seems like, ‘what the hell are you doing!’ You know, there is a technical seduction that occurs for new directors with the camera and suddenly everything becomes about that. But there is a balance to be struck there.”
Sadler also doesn’t believe in the auteur style of filmmaking. “I very much believe in collaboration – truly handing over the roles to the actors and letting them expand and deepen what was on the page. I’m not stickler for everything being just as I wrote it as long as whatever changes come are thought out and ring true,” he says.
Getting “Swimmers” made
In June 2001, Sadler hired Melanie Backer, a well-known producer’s rep, to handle the release of “Riders,” which ultimately debuted on the Sundance Channel.
Backer was so impressed with his script for “Swimmers” that she alerted Filmmaker Magazine, which featured him as one of the “25 New Faces of Independent Film” to watch. Indeed, the Sundance Institute saw it and invited Sadler to apply for their January 2002 Screenwriters Lab, and “Swimmers” was one of only 11 projects accepted.
“It’s a five day workshop where your script is read by high-profile writers who then meet with you in intense feedback sessions,” he says of the experience. “So you have like six or eight of those meetings and they pull you apart, and they don't really put you back together necessarily. Then you go off and you rewrite.”
Sadler returned to Los Angeles, where he was living at the time, completed another draft, and applied to the Sundance Institute’s annual Filmmakers Lab that June. This time, only six projects were accepted, “Swimmers” among them.
So he returned to the Sundance Village in Utah and spent four weeks collaborating with professional actors and video production crews, shooting and editing scenes from his own script. Among the advisors he got to work directly with were Sundance founder Robert Redford, actor/director Ed Harris, director Alfonso Cuarón (“Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban”), cinematographer Robert Elswit (“Syriana”), editor Curtiss Clayton (“Mrs. Harris”), and actress Sally Field.
“The Sundance Labs gave me the opportunity to go over the script and the story with a fine-toothed comb in the presence of some very established and generous filmmakers. It also afforded an invaluable opportunity which I don’t believe exists anywhere else: the opportunity to rehearse, shoot and edit portions of your film with the knowledge that you’re going to throw it all away,” he says.
“Since you’re shooting then editing right away, the moment when you say ‘why didn’t I shoot x, y or z’ is nearly immediate. So the filmmaking lab brings the needs of the cutting room into sharp focus. Because of the costs of shooting a film, it’s the kind of freedom to explore and experiment and immediately see the results (and get criticized for them) that is unheard of. It was very rewarding and also not just a little confusing in that you get twenty or so perspectives on the story you’re trying to tell. Ultimately, I had to consider everything everyone said, then go back to my own root instinct and rely on that.”
This time, after returning to Los Angeles, Sadler and Backer (who was now a producer on “Swimmers”), began looking for financing. The process took them to New York to the Independent Feature Project’s annual Market & Conference known as “No Borders” – and that’s where they ran into David Leitner, someone Backer had known for years. Leitner told her he had formed a partnership with real estate developer Michael Yanko. They read the script and agreed to find the funding necessary to get it made, becoming producers with Backer in the process.
The Hollywood Reporter wrote: “It’s the wonderful performances that make these people come alive. Gallagher, in her film debut, is soulful without being sappy, and Jones as her mother turns in her usual nuanced work. She can show more with a crease of the brow than most actors can with a page of dialogue. Veteran character actor Knott captures the darkness and light and quicksilver personality of a man at his wit’s end. Beautiful work all around.”
Ellen Parks, the casting director on 25 independent films to date, as well as the New York aspects of “Sideways” and “Election” for director Alexander Payne, scoured the talent pool in Los Angeles, New York and the eastern shore of Maryland.
“Ultimately, casting is about instincts – knowing when someone is right and following that instinct. Since my background is in acting and theatre, I feel I have a pretty good eye for casting actors who will bring variety and depth to their performances as well as an ability to collaborate with them effectively to allow them to do their best work once they are cast,” says Sadler, who spent a decade pursuing an acting career before studying for an MFA degree at the American Film Institute.
Casting “Swimmers” was a particular challenge, he explains, because “we were putting together a family, so obviously we not only needed gifted actors, we needed to build an ensemble which would be believable.
“As for having actors in mind – I can’t say that I did. Sometimes in writing the film I would imagine certain actors, but that was more as a means for facilitating my writing process – not for actually pursuing those actors for the film, because in most cases the ages were off. How would Robert Duvall handle this moment? Emily Watson?”
For the role of 11-year-old Emma, they even held a local casting call in Maryland, “since the film requires a mature and open-hearted performance from an eleven year-old – which is not necessarily the easiest thing to achieve,” says Sadler.
“We found Tara Gallagher through the New York sessions and she just blew me away. We did an improvisation based around one of the voice-over sections, and she was really alive in her imagination, able to respond to imaginary circumstances – rather than reciting lines by rote in a set way, which is what you often get when auditioning kids.”
For the role of Julia, Emma’s mother, Parks recommended theater legend Cherry Jones, the two-time Tony Award-winner for Best Actress for “Doubt” (2005) and “The Heiress” (1995), among a slew of other top Broadway honors.
“She’s simply an amazing actress and a wonderful human being,” says Sadler, who met her after a play she was appearing in at the time. “Cherry is just completely solid and deep and subtle, but I think I came to appreciate her subtlety more once I was in the editing room. I knew she was delivering the goods when we were shooting, but the fact that there were other layers at work, I didn’t quite know to that degree at that time. She brings an innate strength to that character which is not necessarily the easiest thing to do given the material.”
For the part of Merrill – the mysterious stranger who arrives in town and forms an unlikely bond with Emma – Sadler remembers reading about Sarah Paulson in a review of “Down With Love” in Film Comment and having “a very strong instinct that she was the Merrill we were looking for. It was odd.” Then, within a day or two, Parks called, saying that Paulson had read the script and loved it.
Because a number of major actresses were vying for the role, Paulson was one of many being auditioned in Los Angeles. “Sarah blew me away at the audition,” says Sadler. “She brings this really deep wound and a complexity to the role. There were other actors who gave me a read as ‘I’m angry and sexy’ for that part and you’d give them notes and then you’d get ‘I’m messed up and I’m in pain’ – but the Merrill character constantly has this seduction and control game going on.”
Robert Knott – who plays Will, a waterman struggling with the reality that his beloved livelihood is slipping away forever – was recommended to Sadler by Ed Harris, one of Sadler’s creative advisers at the Sundance Filmmakers Lab. Knott and Harris had remained close friends since playing brothers in “Pollock” in 2000.
“Robert worked on an oil rig for a number of years in Kuwait during the 1970s. He came to the L.A. auditions and had a strong grasp on the mixture of pain and pride that so isolates Will in the course of the film. Robert was able to walk the delicate line of holding interest and sympathy by keeping the humanity and heart of Will present, even when he’s doing things that are less than admirable.”
Shawn Hatosy, who grew up in Maryland, received the script from his agent, who told him he was really going to like it. Hatosy read it and agreed. In fact, he became relentless about getting the part – going so far as calling “Swimmers” producer Melanie Backer and dragging her to a screening of his latest movie. Backer was so impressed she arranged a private meeting with Sadler – who offered Hatosy the role the same evening. A week later, Hatosy was reading with the actresses hoping to play Merrill.
“Shawn is an incredibly instinctual actor and in ‘Swimmers’ he had the courage to be raw, vulnerable and true to Clyde’s uncertainty and confusion in ways that many young male actors would not,” Sadler relates.
Shooting the film
“One of the more valuable things we did during pre-production was to let the actors soak up the area and the people,” says Sadler.
He began by bringing Gallagher to location a week before the rest of the cast “to give her a strong sense of what her life would be like if she were Emma. I think that helped her performance in the film a great deal because it gave her imagination the ammunition it needed to really step into the role.”
Soon after arriving on location, actor Robert Knott (Will) arranged to borrow a boat from one of the local fishermen and “spent a lot of time out on the Chesapeake Bay” with fellow cast mates Cherry Jones (Julia), Shawn Hatosy ( Clyde) and Michael Mosley (Mike). To prepare for their roles, he says he and Jones, who plays his wife, also went through the entire script, asking themselves, “’What can we do in this script without saying a word?’ Because this is how families are.”
Sara Paulson, who plays Merrill, felt Sadler’s background as an actor “totally made a difference to me, because often directors have no idea what the process is. So they’ll say something well intentioned, but it just comes off as enormously unhelpful. It happens a lot, and I always feel like the best directors are the ones who not only understand the process, but respect it. They sort of understand that it may take a minute to get somewhere. And with a movie like this – where we didn’t have a huge amount of money to do many, many takes – it helps for someone to really understand before he rolls the camera that we can have a little bit of a conversation about the inner life of the character or the real goings on of the scene.”
Like all independent films, “Swimmers” was made on a limited budget and stringent shooting schedule. One can only imagine then the challenge it presented to adhere to both when Hurricane Isabel made landfall nearby during the first week of production and flooded both the town of Oxford and the film’s sets. The dirt road leading to the set used for the Tyler’s house in Bosman, Maryland, had to be rebuilt after resting under three feet of water. Nevertheless, there were no injuries, the sets eventually dried out and only several days of production were lost.
“Swimmers” is one of the first low-budget films made in the U.S. to be completed 100% digitally. Undergoing a process called “Digital Intermediate,” each frame of its entire 35mm negative was scanned into a digital file, which was then color corrected and digitally enhanced under the supervision of Director of Photography Rodney Taylor at Post Logic Studios in Los Angeles, a leader in this new technique. When finished, all of the digital files were recorded back to 35mm film for conventional projection.
Careful thought and planning also went into the cinematography, as Sadler had decided to tell the story largely from the perspective of 11-year-old Emma.
“Rodney and I were conscious of texture and detail in framing shots,” he says. “We also wanted to find a look for the film that held a certain imaginative quality while maintaining a grounded style. So both in shooting and color correction, we were conscious of not allowing things to become too saturated in terms of color. In terms of specific shots and the progression of the look, we begin the film very close on Emma at the pool and find specific moments throughout to share her fascination with living things – close-ups of ants, the delicacy of putting her hand in the water, her moment with the injured squirrel in the empty pool. These were some of the moments I chose to emphasize her connection with nature.”