How do you make rowing look interesting? That’s one of the challenges George Clooney faced with The Boys in the Boat, the new film based on the Daniel James Brown book of the same name, starring Joel Edgerton among many others.

Ahead of the film’s Christmas Day release, the duo was kind enough to sit with The Film Stage to discuss the movie, how Clooney captured the speed of the rowing races on film, how Edgerton avoided (or leaned into) movie coaching clichés, and getting actors to learn how to row as well as Olympians.

The Film Stage: George, let me start by saying thank you for featuring Poughkeepsie so much in the movie. I’m from Poughkeepsie. 

George Clooney: Are you a Poughkeepsie man?!

I am Poughkeepsie man! So the Poughkeepsie Regatta sequence was a thrill…

Clooney: You know we went there and they still have the train tracks.

I was going to ask.

Clooney: They still have those. Isn’t that a cool feature? That they would follow the boats with these train cars…

That was a detail I was not aware of and that was one of the coolest elements of the film. Let me actually start with the rowing if I could, because I was fascinated, going into the movie, with how you were going to capture the racing. It’s one of those interesting things where even though it’s exciting from a visual perspective, on film I imagine it is difficult. It seems like you’re making a lot of use of close-ups using the zoom lenses and that it really ramps up throughout the film, catapulting with the Olympics. Can you talk through some of that?

George Clooney: When you watch [a crew race] from the sidelines or something, the horse race of it is interesting but the speed is not apparent. It really isn’t. It’s like watching F1, you know? If you’re sitting up on the stands, you’re like, “Well, yeah, they’re going fast I guess.” It doesn’t really look that fast. And then when you see [Drive to Survive] you realize how fast they’re going when they’re up close. So it’s about getting inside it. So we had to shoot everything on long, long lenses. We had to be far back because you can’t get close. The boats are so long and the oars are so wide that you can’t get close. So we’re on an 80-foot arm with 200- and 300-millimeter lenses constantly just trying to get the energy in it because, honestly, it’s called The Boys in the Boat and you needed to get in the boat.

And you can set it up by having everybody be really interesting characters. The book did that for us, the actors to do that for us––our job was to make sure that we represent rowing. I’d never seen it done… I’ve seen cool things like Fincher in The Social Network. It’s a really unbelievably cool montage. It’s not particularly great rowing if you watch it. Their paddles are going all over and it’s in slow-motion, so to get guys doing it right––the oars flipping and everybody rowing at the same speed––and try to shoot that in an exciting way was something I hadn’t seen before. And it was a real… it was a challenge to try to do. You probably have some idea of this: anything on the water is just an absolute nightmare.

Joel Edgerton: Every race has its own drama too. You’re not just talking about representing one race. It’s the build of these three big races. Each one has its own feeling.

Clooney: Moving in tighter.

Edgerton: It compresses as we develop through the film.

I think that it really comes through and it works. Joel, there’s an archetypal nature to your character, but of course he’s based on a real-life legend. Are you coming into it pulling from real life in the book. Is there anything you’re starkly trying to avoid as generic or trying to subvert?

Edgerton: Well, there’s a certain sort of archetype and tropes that you… I think it’s worth being courageous enough to go there. “Cliché” is a bad word, but cliché exists because it’s a truth of life in many ways. You could call “the angry coach” a cliché or more of an archetype, or the unhappy tough-love dad coach is a thing. It’s what [Al] Ulbrickson was described as, “stoic,” and there’s obviously not a huge pressure for me to… it’s not like I’m playing Frank Sinatra or Marilyn Monroe or anything.

Clooney: You do a very good Marilyn.

Yet! Yet.

Clooney: I would like to see it.

Edgerton: There’s a freedom to playing a real-life character that nobody really knows about. And I think what’s important for me is that you got to service the story first. And anything that’s true that goes in the basket that makes the movie better is worth bringing with you. I know the thing with an actor often is like, “I read this in the book or I read this in a news article. Can we incorporate in the movie?” And sometimes those ideas from an actor can be good, and sometimes they just…

Clooney: Derail things.

Edgerton: Yeah, “derail” is a good word. It was just important for me to service what was there in the script and not, you know, trip over the water.

So much of your performance is in looks and reactions. You have plenty of lines, but so much of it is non-verbal. I’m always curious how much of that is just trusting your director, how much is communicated, and how much is just instinct in the moment. Is there any fear there with that?

Edgerton: No, I love a non-verbal character. And in fact, sometimes it feels like you’re really acting if you’ve got lots of words to say and it can feel really naked and vulnerable when you don’t. The great thing with this is that I also think because of the methodology of shooting on long lenses… Jimmy Wolk and I were on a boat oftentimes unaware of where cameras were and that there was this sort of onus on us just to go, “Okay, we’ll just act at all times,” or at least for me, just grimace at all times and that everything will be usable in whatever order George cares to use it in in the edit room, doesn’t bother me. Because we didn’t have a camera [close up], it’s amazing how it takes away a self-consciousness. It allows you just to go, “We’re just going to behave in the way that we think we need to.” It actually makes me think it’d be nice to do more of that in the future. Don’t tell me where the camera is and then I won’t try and manufacture some pose and be vain about things.

George, this is such a classical movie in a lot of ways, but what’s interesting about doing something like this––and you’ve explored some of this throughout your directorial career––is you’re making this traditional story to some degree, but you have all these newer technologies like you talked about. How do you marry the two in prep and then on set? Is it easier said than done or the opposite maybe?

Clooney: Well, listen: the bottom line––particularly on water, because I did The Perfect Storm before, so I’ve been on water for a nine-month shoot––the one thing you know is you just have to be massively prepared. And we were massively prepared for everything. Because weather messes with you. Wind messes with you. There are so many things holding eight boats in line with seven camera boats around because you also remember: you can’t throw these [actors] fifty times a day. They fall apart. So everything has to be, “Okay, now let’s do it.” And then everybody has to perform. It actually made me really yell at the kids a couple of times… they’ve trained for five months to get this right and they do one take where they’re kind of “meh.” [Shrugs]

“Go out of your minds, you know––go for it!” And then, later, the fun part was all the other rowers are actually real professional rowers. I had to go to all the rowers and go, “You know, slow down a little bit, because our kids are actors.” And they actually did an amazing job. They got up to 46 strokes and everything. And then [the actors] came out and they were like, “We should go to the Henley [Royal Regatta] and compete.” And I said, “Yeah, yeah, you should.” And they go, “I mean, we were beating the shit out of those guys, those pros.” And I was like, “Yeah, I told them to slow down!” But they did get to the speed that the Olympic rowers were rowing at the end. They got to 46 strokes, which is unbelievable when you think they’d never rowed before. Look: it’s a lot of challenges along the way. But if you’re prepared and you get a little lucky… we got lucky that all those guys could row together. 

The Boys in the Boat opens in theaters on December 25.

No more articles