A free screening of the film, based on Redmond author Daniel James Brown’s best-selling story of the 1936 UW crew team, is set for July 29 at Seattle Center.
The story of the University of Washington rowing team that triumphed at the 1936 Olympics in Nazi Germany gets the “American Experience” treatment in a 52-minute documentary film this week on PBS. It’s timed to capitalize on both the 80th anniversary of the underdog story and interest in all things Olympics thanks to the summer games kicking off in Brazil on Aug. 5.
Inspired by Redmond author Daniel James Brown’s best-selling 2013 book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics,” the “American Experience” film includes both archival footage and newly shot scenes of the current University of Washington rowing team slicing through the waters of Union Bay.
“Boys of ’36” producer Margaret Grossi said her production team filmed the rowing scenes last October, with current UW rowers coming out in the early morning and at sunset.
‘American Experience: The Boys of ‘36’
• 8:30 p.m., Friday, July 29, Mural Amphitheatre, Seattle Center; free but RSVPs are encouraged at KCTS9.org.
• 9 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 2, on KCTS 9.
The modern-day scenes, in color, complement the archival footage, and Grossi said producers got lucky with the weather.
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“I had done an interview with Daniel James Brown the day before and it was pouring, and the forecast was for bad weather,” she said. “Then we got up and got this beautiful sky, this really messy, beautiful sky with the sun peeking through. It was gorgeous.”
“The Boys of ‘36” recounts the story of the nine rowers from UW who seemed to come out of nowhere and capture the world’s interest.
“Seattle was this frontier town back in the early part of the 20th century. These weren’t Ivy Leaguers, they were struggling guys,” Grossi said. “At that time in Seattle, your options were [to work in] the lumberyards or on fishing boats, it seemed, and so I think they knew they had to have a very strong work ethic in order to succeed and I think that made a difference. That kind of work ethic was just automatic.”
A climate that allowed the team to row outdoors year-round also made a difference, Grossi said, as did the involvement of racing shell builder George Pocock, who pioneered the use of Western red cedar in his shells.
But the film’s focus, as the title suggests, is on the boys, the rowers who made up the UW team. With limited time, producers chose to focus on “the real spark plugs of the team,” Grossi said, including Joe Rantz, whose daughter, Judy Willman, was instrumental in getting the rowers’ story retold. She’s also on camera in the documentary.
Willman is a neighbor of Brown’s. Before her father’s death in 2007, she began putting together the pieces of his Olympic story and eventually solicited advice from Brown to see if the tale had merit. He thought it did and offered to help, but he also expressed an interest in making the story the topic of his next book.
“So many things about it were coincidence, or serendipity, as Dan likes to say,” Willman said.
Now that the book’s story has been adapted as a documentary, could a feature film be far behind? Willman said on the same day publishing rights to the book were sold in 2011, The Weinstein Company optioned the story for a film adaptation. But after at least two scripts were written based on Brown’s book, the film remains stuck in development.