This time on Film Talk, I was able to chat with Theodore A. Adams III, co-writer of a new film called Tri focusing on the journey of a young woman inspired to sign up for a triathlon and the new adventure that awaits her. This will be the first-ever scripted feature in North America to focus entirely on triathlons and I eagerly await its release!
First of all, I want to thank you very much for joining me for this interview. Welcome to Film Talk!
Right off the bat, I’m gonna mention your new film that you co-wrote called Tri which is making the festival rounds? Could you explain the plot/story of the film and then maybe where people can check it out?
TRI is about transition, overcoming obstacles and looking beyond yourself.
Natalie, an ultrasound tech with a history of not finishing things, is inspired by a cancer patient to sign up for a Triathlon. Natalie is introduced to the strange (and aerodynamic) world of triathletes and meets a colorful cast of characters as she trains for the Nation’s Triathlon. With the support of her new teammates, she digs deep to discover just how far she can push her mind and body.
We are screening the film in select theaters, sometimes in connection with triathlons and running events, but also in collaboration with organizations and groups that want to use the film to inspire the local communities to get active in sports or to support fundraisers for various charities.
And from what I understand this is the first scripted feature fictional film focusing on triathlons? Why do you think a film with this subject matter is so rare?
There are many documentaries about triathlons because there are lots of inspirational stories that can be told about the individual participants. TRI is the first scripted narrative that we know of that is set for theatrical release in North America that focuses on the sport. We felt it was a great opportunity to tell a story rather than follow an individual journey so we can bring in elements that will touch people in a different manner, especially people who know little or nothing about triathlons. Also, we are able to explore how the characters interact with one another and examine how their individual journeys are affected when they come together as a team.
This particular story was inspired by triathletes who have lived with cancer, lost someone to cancer, is fighting cancer as a healthcare provider or is supporting a loved one who is fighting cancer today. I have had direct interactions with a number of inspirational people who are true “givers”, people who give all that they can without asking anything in return. The world of triathlon is abundant with these people.
TRI is about transition. There are two official transitions in a triathlon, T1 and T2. A triathlon starts with a swim, then a bike and then a run. Going from the swim to the bike is Transition 1 (T1) and going from the bike to the run is Transition 2 (T2). Some people consider the finish line as the unofficial third transition (T3) because you have completed your transition to becoming a “triathlete” or an “Ironman”. It is a sport that steeps of “transition” in many forms.
TRI is a celebration of that transition for each of the characters in the story. Each character’s story arc is dealing with or addressing a transition that is personal to them, much like we all deal with in our everyday lives.
Judging from the trailer alone, the vast amounts of actors/extras on this film is incredible. When you were writing the film was that ever in the back of your mind? Did you think that this would possibly be an almost impossible undertaking?
The film was written with a deep appreciation of where and how it would be filmed. The original budget for the film was unrealistically low. We decided to film at three live race venues, which required tremendous resources to get all the shots we needed in real time. Thankfully, we had the full support of the race organizers.
We did have to make compromises because we sometimes had to work in restricted areas that we could not have control of, but the story carries the viewer through much of these parts in a seamless manner.
In the end, we were able to tell the story that was true to the intended version.
We were fortunate to have a very experienced Casting Director on our team, Kimberly Skyrme. Kimberly was the regional casting director for the first three seasons of the critically acclaimed Netflix Series, House of Cards.
The casting process was interesting because we had certain actors in mind when we wrote the screenplay. As you can imagine, sometimes those plans work out and sometimes they do not. The key was making sure the actors could bring something to that character that would add to the story. Each cast member was able to deliver what we were looking for.
An issue that was very near and dear to my heart, as a professional triathlon coach, was whether the actors could be convincing as triathetes, particularly the one playing Christie, the professional who was in remission. Kelly Spitko did a fantastic job in this role. It was one thing to have a good actor, but the actor was going to be an active participant in an actual USAT sanctioned triathlon with thousands of athletes both professionals and amateurs who did not care who they were and what they were doing.
I was not about to put the actors or the actual participants at risk. People die doing triathlons. That’s a fact. In our case, four of the principal actors had to swim in the Potomac River with 4000 other racers. The day of the shoot was not the time to see if they were comfortable in the water, so I had each of them prove that they could safely enter, swim and exit the water and look convincing. The initial test took place during the casting call. Not all of the actors in consideration passed the test. I later worked with each of them to make sure they were prepared for the race. We had one chance to get it right. There would be no retakes.
In the end, each member was cast on her or his acting ability and how well they fit the character. No need to have a fantastic athlete in the film if they can’t act!
TRI received support from the three most important venues for the film. The Luray Triathlon, the Nations Triathlon and Johns Hopkins Sibley Hospital.
We filmed in Luray, Virginia at two triathlons that took place over the same weekend. The Luray Olympic Distance Triathlon was on a Saturday and had over 500 participants and the Luray Sprint Distance Triathlon (half the distance of the Olympic race) was held the next day with about 400 participants. There were another 400-500 spectators for each race which was critical to capturing the ambiance of the experience.
The Nations Tri is held in Washington DC right next to the Lincoln Memorial. It has over 4000 athletes with about 20,000 spectators. The challenge here was dealing with the National Park Service who not only dictated what equipment we could bring on the set, but also how many cameras and support crew would be allowed to film the race and our actors. We did not receive our permits until two days before the race!
Thankfully, the race organizers where extremely supportive and we were able to get some pretty spectacular shots.
What was your background before working on this film? Did you compete in any triathlons yourself?
From a professional level, I am a “serial entrepreneur”. I love to create businesses and discover various ways to add value to people’s lives and effect positive change on society as a whole. I am an engineer by training. I received by BS in Mechanical Engineering from Rice University, my MBA from UCLA and graduated from Harvard Business School. I am also an alumnus of the Yale-China Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
I’ve worked on every continent on the globe except for Antarctica. I am a licensed pilot and have studied numerous languages including Spanish, Mandarin, German, French, Japanese and Tagalog (I never say I am fluent in any language because I always have more to learn.)
I was a career soccer player and competed on an international and semi-professional level. When my legs could no longer take the beatings from younger competitors, I needed to find a new sport to stay fit, so I took a shot at triathlon. Since my first mini tri, I have completed dozens of longer races including my first Ironman in Lake Placid in 2013 and my second Ironman Wisconsin in 2014. I am currently training for my third Ironman which will be held in Chattanooga, Tennessee in September.
I was intimately familiar with the subject. Many of the mishaps that occur during the training and race scenes actually happened to me. My first Olympic distance triathlon was the Nations Tri that is featured in the movie. It’s held in a very iconic location, Washington, D.C., which make this film unique.
More importantly, the writing team was passionate in telling the story. I came up with the initial idea for the story and the film and collaborated with an experienced screenwriter, Monica Lee Bellais, to develop the initial draft. I then hired our Director, Jai Jamison. Jai is not only a talented director, he is a gifted story teller and I had him do a page-one rewrite of the script.
As a fellow athlete, it was great to work with him to bring out the true essence of the story. I may have come up with the story, but I’m crediting Jai with leading the effort in putting together a tremendous screenplay.
Congratulations on winning an award at the Boston International Film Festival. What was that experience like?
Thank you! The Boston International Film festival was extremely well organized. They staff was exceptional and it was great to collaborate and share experiences with fellow filmmakers and artists.
I was blessed to have worked directly with one of the greatest story tellers of the 20th century. Stan Lee, co-creator of Spider-man, Iron Man, the Incredible Hulk and over 4000 Marvel characters. As a mentor, Stan would tell me that the storyline is everything in determining the success of a book or film. For us to earn the Best Story Line Award in our very first film festival could not have been a more appropriate honor for our writing team. It was an independent affirmation that we indeed had a solid foundation on which to build our film.
After the Boston International Film Festival, TRI went on to win five awards at the NOVA International Film Festival for: Film of the Year; Best Actress – Jensen Jacobs; Best Inspirational Film; Best Family/Faith Based Film; and, the NOVA Award.
How did you end up collaborating and meeting with fellow co-writers Monica Lee Ballais and Jai Jamison?
TRI started out as a “fun passion project” that I was going to do with my friend and attorney, Tara Gorman. She and I were already working on a couple of other big budget films, and TRI started out as a production that would get us warmed up for the others.
That was a gross underestimation! This film definitely took over my life for the past year. I wrote the outline for the film and the initial treatment, then collaborated with a more experienced writer, Monica Lee Bellais, to complete a story. I then worked with Monica on a draft of the initial screenplay. We combined my experience in triathlon with her personal experience as a cancer survivor.
One of the mentors we were fortunate to have on our team was Russell Williams II. Russell is not only a celebrated professor at American University, he is also the first African American to win multiple Academy Awards, one for Glory and the other for Field of Dreams. I asked Russell for a few suggestions for a Director and he introduced me to Jai Jamison.
Jai had not yet done a feature film, but had demonstrated a true gift for story-telling in movies. He and I definitely hit it off from the first meeting. He was candid on what he liked and did not like about the initial script, and made a number of suggestions. As a leader in a collaborative project such as film making, I felt it was important to have an open mind to a different perspective. In the end, I hired Jai to not only be the Director, but also hired him to do a complete rewrite of the script and redirected the focus from cancer survival back to triathlon as I had in my very first outline.
There is, of course, a very emotionally upsetting background to the subject of triathlons and that is the horrible disease known as cancer. Did you experience loss of loved ones to cancer or have any first-hand exposure to the illness?
The tag line for TRI is, “When surviving cancer is not enough”. That can be interpreted in numerous ways. I originally came up with that line because it pays homage to my friends and athletes who are cancer survivors or who are currently undergoing cancer treatment, but still find the time and make the effort to help others or take on new challenges, like raising money for cancer research or by participating in a triathlons. But it can also be expanded to those of us who do not have cancer but are doing what we can to win the fight against the disease, even though we have lost a loved one and are pushing ourselves to move forward in their memory.
After completing my first triathlon back in 2011, I was hooked on the sport, so I went online and looked for another race. I saw the ad for the Nations Triathlon and when I went to sign up, it was full but found that you could get in through a program called “Team in Training” (TNT). TNT is a program that is organized by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society that raises money for cancer research. I found this to be an ideal motivator because I lost my father to multiple myeloma and this was a great way to not only honor his memory, but also support a terrific cause.
After doing four races with TNT, and serving as mentor the last season, I joined the newly established T3 Honu Multisport Team which was comprised mostly of TNT alumni.
It was from my experiences with TNT and T3 Honu that the idea of TRI was born. My time with both clubs exposed me to some of the most inspirational and remarkable people I had ever met. From health care providers to cancer survivors and in some cases, people battling the disease while training for a triathlon. Everyone brought a unique journey to the group.
On the day before doing my first Nations Triathlon, I saw a woman walking around with her race packet and wearing a tee-shirt that read, “If you think this is tough, try chemotherapy!” That was a humbling image that I will never forget and it defined the type of people I was training with while I was on this journey.
I want to thank you for your time and I wish you the best of success on your film, Tri!
You can also check out the trailer for the film right’chere!