(ATR) Just three months after the closing ceremony, the official film for the 2012 Games is on the big screen.
Titled "First", the film debuts in theaters in the U.K. this weekend, followed by DVD release Nov. 26.
"First" presents the London Olympics through the experience of 12 athletes from around the globe, all of them first-time Olympians, leading to the title.
The film is also a first Olympic Games for director Caroline Rowland, who was recognized for her work seven years ago creating the film for the London Olympic bid. Her London-based firm New Moon has also worked on the bids for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi and 2018 in PyeongChang.
The 103-minute film was privately financed, including support from businessman Keith Mills, bid leader and vice chair of LOCOG.
Rowland speaks with Around the Rings Editor Ed Hula about "First".
Around the Rings: When did you finish production?
Caroline Rowland: Oct. 15
ATR: That’s a very quick turnaround. Past Olympic films have taken some time to produce before they are ready for screening.
CR: I think that we are ready. That was kind of a key thing for me and for distributors. It really felt for me that it was important to have an official film with a degree of immediacy. The stories could be told and observed within a period of time that people remember the events.
I was very, very keen for it not to be a retrospective film, but then similarly distributors almost unilaterally wanted to get the film out into the marketplace before Christmas. And I think that was fueled very much by the success of the London Games and the desire for mementos, I guess, so that’s been very much a driving influence.
ATR: Now the film itself is the official film of the London Olympics, but it’s not really about the London Olympics per se, but seen through the eyes, through the perspectives of 12 competitors at the Games?
CR: It tells the story of 12 first-time Olympians in the six weeks leading up to the Games and their journeys through the Games, so I guess it really picks them up at the point where they are just starting to wind down their huge physical preparation and get into the frame of mind of competing at this event.
All of them are first-time Olympians, and none of them had any preconceptions of what to expect. And we do follow them through the Games, but it’s absolutely blind luck that half of them won medals and half didn’t. It was a study, I guess, of their aspiration and their delivery of that aspiration.
ATR: People will remember parts of the London Olympics such as the opening ceremony and the film segment with James Bond and the Queen and other highlights of the Games such as Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps. How does your film tell that story, or does it tell that side of the story?
CR: It’s definitely a film about what happened at the London Olympics. It’s intended to really express the personal experience of these young athletes. While the opening and closing ceremony featured heavily in the first part and the closing part of the film, and Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps appear in the film, we see those great moments in the eyes of those competing against them.
For example, the Michael Phelps story is told through the experiences of Chad Le Clos and his extraordinary victory over Phelps in the 200m butterfly, and the relationship of Phelps and Le Clos is explored. Chad really idolized Michael all of his childhood, and the victory was so much more sweet because he finally trounced the man who was his hero that became his rival.
In the case of Usain Bolt and the Jamaican sprinters, that story is told through the experiences of James Ellington, a British sprinter, and a French sprinter Christophe Lemaitre. It’s presented in a way, being a sprinter at this time in history is pretty hopeless unless you are Jamaican. Your aspiration is a different aspiration to that, that it may have been in any other generation because the Jamaicans are incredibly dominant.
So that part of the film explores what it is like to be a world class athlete who sort of is resigned to the fact they are unlikely to medal and achieve their great dreams at these Olympic Games. The big stories are told from a different perspective.
ATR: What did you think when Chad Le Clos beat Phelps in that race? Did you think you were on to something with this young man? Was that a shock to you?
CR: It was an absolute shock. I absolutely had no idea, the irony being I’ve been with his dad and had an interview with him earlier that day and he said to me at that time "you know if it’s a short lead and there’s 25 meters to go, Chad will win if it’s a short lead, you can put your cameras on him, he will win." And I walked away from that interview thinking he’s going to have a broken heart this evening. And his predictions were absolutely on the button. It's extraordinary. You can never say never in the Olympic Games. Anything can happen.
ATR: How did you select the 12 athletes to follow? Did you start with more than 12?
CR: Oh yes. We started with a spreadsheet in January with 4,600 athletes that could qualify for the Games. Of course, after qualifications and trials happened, an awful large amount of them fell away quite quickly, but we divided that huge number of athletes up into the five continents, then divided those continental people into the different sports.
Then finally when we got to the point where we had about 150, we started to really look into the stories and the motivations and the background, and then the final part of it was the access that we could get.
So really that process of distillation and access was much easier than I anticipated. Really, the people we wanted to feature that had the greatest stories we didn’t struggle too much to get access to them, so it was a pretty scientific start to it that became emotional. It became emotional in the latter stages.
ATR: A balance between men and women?
CR: Yes, very much so.
ATR: And you wanted to have all continents represented?
CR: To me, it needed to be a global portrait. It would have been wrong to say that any one part of the world over another, but of course it becomes very complex because it’s not just about continents, it’s about very specific cultural influences and at some point we needed to draw the line. I filmed with 16 athletes; 12 have become the lead characters.
ATR: You’ve seen past Olympic films, how do you think this compares? For example, the focus on the athletes – sort of telling their stories – reminds me of the technique that Bud Greenspan would use in his films. What did you draw upon from past films?
CR: Trying to follow someone like Bud Greenspan is no mean feat, and I didn’t want to compete – it would be pointless. His films were absolutely beautiful and really told the Olympic story in an evocative and emotional and intelligent way.
This film is different to those that preceded it because I wanted to aim this at a young adult audience. There is a lot of contemporary music in the film. There is no third party narrator. There is nobody who delivers opinions. The only voices we hear in the film are the voices we hear of the athletes themselves.
And also, there is nothing retrospective, so the very very last word in the film was recorded on the closing ceremony day. All of the interviews and all of the stories are actually from interviews recorded before the Games.
What I really wanted to try and achieve was a sense of immediacy and being in the moments rather than give anyone the opportunity or the chance to analyze or relive the experience with the benefit of time.
ATR: I read where you were trying to also provide a less masculine treatment of the Olympic Games than in other films?
CR: I think that’s true, and I think that’s inevitable. There have only been five directors of Olympic films, which isn’t very many thinking about how many films that there have been, and yes I think it’s inevitable that my take on Olympic stories will be less masculine than a male director.
And I’m sure it’s a film that skews slightly towards a female audience to be argued that it’s a bit more touchy feely than a conventional sports film.
ATR: Favorite moment of the film? What do you think people will love?
CR: Absolutely everyone seems to relate to a different one of the athletes. It’s impossible for me to have a favorite. I love them all and feel so incredibly privileged to work with them all and spend the time I could with each of them. I would say the names that keep coming up are David Rudisha, John Orozco, Katie Taylor, Laura Trott and Chad Le Clos.
Conducted by Ed Hula. Transcribed by Aaron Bauer.