"It was grueling": "The Boys in the Boat" director George Clooney and star Callum Turner on rowing

Clooney explains why a sports film is like a rom-com, and Turner reveals what it took to achieve swing in the boat

Published December 25, 2023 10:15AM (EST)

The Boys in the Boat (Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)
The Boys in the Boat (Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Directed by George Clooney, and based on the book by Daniel James Brown, “The Boys in the Boat” is a sepia-toned feel-good inspirational underdog sports drama about “the most difficult team sport in the world” — rowing

"It was really important to us that that the rowing community actually had a film that captured the thrill of what that is, and the speed."

Set in 1936, it recounts the true story of nine young men from the University of Washington in Seattle who join the junior varsity crew team and end up competing in the Olympics in Berlin. The main character is Joe (Callum Turner) who has been abandoned by his father (Alec Newman) since he was 14. Broke, he tries out for rowing as a way to earn some money. Instead, he earns self-worth.

He also earns the respect of his coach (Joel Edgerton). Joe trains with his teammates and achieves swing — a term that means where rowing is more poetry than sport — which helps them break records in regattas and end up competing in the Olympics, overcoming the odds even as they face setbacks (financial and otherwise). 

Turner anchors “The Boys in the Boat” with his largely internal performance. The actor absorbs the emotional waves Joe experiences as he faces challenges, falls in love with Joyce (Hadley Robinson) and competes. 

Clooney and Turner spoke with Salon about rowing and making “The Boys in the Boat.”

I really enjoyed your film because I have been connected to the rowing community here in Philadelphia and I worked on a book, “Boathouse Row,” and attended regattas. We have the Dad Vail and the Stotesbury.

George Clooney: It was really important to us that that the rowing community actually had a film that captured the thrill of what that is, and the speed. It never looks that way. It was important for us for people who like rowing to get that part right.

George as a director, you are like a coach or coxswain. Were you a cheerleader or drill sergeant? How did you motivate or encourage the cast to perform, and well, have swing?

Clooney: Most of the time I’m a cheerleader in life. There were a couple of times when you guys were f**king off a little bit. 

Callum Turner: You didn’t veer far off from cheerleader very much. You were very generous.

"The unison you have to be in to succeed is fascinating."

Clooney: Everyone once in a while, though. These guys trained for five months to get to the final race. Their first crack at it, they were kind of moseying down that water. And I was like, “Are. You. Out. Of. Your. Minds?!” Remember that? But these guys made it easy. I didn’t really have to do anything. You cast the right people and sit back and let them do their thing.

Turner: They really set us up to succeed. We rowed for four hours a day, every day, for the first two months and then an hour after filming. I didn’t realize how special an experience it was whilst I was doing it. But in hindsight it was the most profound sport it is. The unison you have to be in to succeed is fascinating.

Clooney: Have you ever been to the Oxford or Henley races? It’s really something.

The Boys in the BoatThe Boys in the Boat (Laurie Sparham © 2023 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures Inc.)

Callum, Joe enters rowing with no experience. Prior to making the film, what knowledge and experience did you have with rowing? You look buff and like you know what you’re doing.

Turner: They gave us a physio and a trainer. It was so grueling that people were giving us massages. The only rowing I’d ever seen was the Oxford-Cambridge race on the Thames. I really didn’t know anything about it. None of us in the boat did. We came with fresh eyes. I played football or soccer, when I was a kid up until I was about 17, and understanding what it meant to be part of a team helped me. Nothing could help me for the sheer weight and pressure of being in the boat. We all got better at different rates. That was the hardest part. I had Bruce [Berbelin-Earle] behind me who looks like a Greek God . . .

Clooney [laughs] The guys kept saying, “Oh, he could really row!” That was demoralizing!

Turner: That was most challenging thing, but that also enabled us to push on because we were so competitive with each other. Jack [Mulhern] and I had a few arguments, some of the other boys clashed. It felt like being part of professional sports team, and I think that only gives the film more weight, because we were actually doing what you see on screen.

George, how did you approach the material as a director — and lean into or away from inspirational sports movies tropes in the racing sense? I did find them exciting.

Clooney: A sports film is kind of like a romantic comedy. You figure out how it is probably going to end. We need to enjoy the journey and be entertained along the way.  What was interesting was if it was not a true story, they really would be tropes — like the guy gets sick before the race. He really did! There were money issues. There was the photo finish. All of these things really happened. We shot it like old-fashioned film; I’m a fan of old-fashioned sports film. I loved “Hoosiers” and “The Natural.” It’s weird to call them old-fashioned films, but they are more than 30-year-old sports films. We dealt with it that way even to the romance parts of it. The kiss at the train is shot like a 1940s musical. We really wanted it to feel like it was old-fashioned. Of course, there are some stereotypes, but that is the story that were telling, so that is the fun of it.  

What about creating the tone of the film? You take viewers on an emotional journey over the course of the film.

Clooney: When you see it in a big theater with people it is a fascinating thing. People sit in their chair and do this [Clooney rocks back and forth]. They are rowing, going back and forth. There is an unbelievable energy. People felt patriotic!

The film is about teamwork. Callum, can you talk about starring in the film, and building a relationship with your costars as you training and prepared for the role?

"These guys, and people who take chances in their lives, won’t have regret. They stuck their necks out."

Turner: We spent seven to eight hours a day trying to improve this new skill we were learning. As you know, rowing lends itself to teamwork. If you are not on it, you are going to let everyone down and the boat is going to slow down. That competitive spirit was the thing that drove us on. That is a wonderful thing to have when you are trying to achieve what we were trying to achieve. After three weeks you [indicating Clooney] and Grant [Heslov, Clooney’s producing partner] came to see how far we got along . . .

Clooney: It was terrifying. They literally looked like eight blind men paddling. It was crazy. I just smiled and put my thumbs up. 

Turner: You could see the pain through this smile.

Clooney: Grant and I got in the car afterwards, and looked at each other and then looked at the ground, and wondered, “How much would it cost to do head replacements with Olympic rowers?” It was a disaster. But they got it together in the best possible way.

Turner: Our goal was to get to 46 strokes a minute. We eventually managed to do that, but the up-and-down nature of it really brought us together. I remember doing the 46, there was a euphoria in the boat. This disbelief we managed it. When we rowed back, it was almost eerie knowing this was the last time and what we achieved together and the time we spent together. It was such a bond.

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What observations do you have about Joe’s character? He’s proud, stubborn, determined. Joe is very sensitive about his background, getting angry about it. What do you think the film says about class and privilege? How did you each identify with him?

Turner: I am a working-class kid from an estate in Chelsea. I love watching films that depict working-class people as normal and not villains or thieves in this dark world. It was The Depression and a scary time for everyone. Joe lives in a car. But we didn’t show them in that way. We showed them as human beings. One thing about working-class people is that they are aspirational and want to better themselves no matter what. He was really down in the dumps for a lot of his life and what he managed to do was really remarkable.

Clooney: He had a great career afterwards.

Turner: He went and worked for Boeing

Clooney: I am a big believer in all of those things. I grew up in a small town in Kentucky, I cut tobacco for a living. The career that I have is not something I foresaw. I suppose one of the things I look back at and think of is that the worst thing that can happen in your old age is to have regret, and to have not tried to do the thing that you loved. Because I know people who are old now and have regret, and it is a pretty bitter thing. These guys, and people who take chances in their lives, won’t have regret. They stuck their necks out.

“The Boys in the Boat” opens Christmas Day in theaters nationwide.


By Gary M. Kramer

Gary M. Kramer is a writer and film critic based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter.

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Callum Turner George Clooney Interview Movies Rowing Sports The Boys In The Boat