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POLSON, JOHN: SWIMFAN

WAVING NOT DROWNING
Swimfan, a teen thriller about a college swimming champion’s dangerous one night stand, was dead in the water. Not a single US studio wanted to finance it, and director John Polson didn’t want to direct it. At first. But he was soon having lunch with his producer and telling him to bite the bullet. The film opened at No. 1 in the US last month. Polson tells Andrew L. Urban what happened in between.


John Polson – Tropfest founder, actor and director - went to Los Angeles with his debut feature, Siam Sunset under his arm, back in 2000. “I was seen as a dark comedy kinda guy. Then one day, via my agent, this script appeared, then called What About Donna (Amy, the girlfriend character, was called Donna). I didn’t know why they sent it to me – it was so far removed from what I did. I passed on it. I wasn’t there to make thrillers … I wanted to make Siam Sunset….again. But my agent urged me to seriously consider it; Michael Douglas is one of the producers, he said. Well, okay, that made a difference…” but Polson was still resisting the idea of directing a teen thriller. 

Douglas’ company had enlisted New York based Greenstreet Productions to act as the physical production company. “And when I was told they wanted to do something new with it, I thought that could be a challenge and interesting. Not so much about blood and guts, but a real thriller that happens to be about teenagers.”

"a smarter version of those teen thrillers"

The idea grew on him. The film grew in him. Many meetings later, Polson finally met with Michael Douglas. “I showed him photos of how I planned to do this – and by now I was very excited about doing it and had talked myself into it. I could see the potential of it. The hook for me was a smarter version of those teen thrillers that didn’t talk down to the audience. He responded to this and I got the job.”

But the project was not yet financed and it was not a big budget, Hollywood affair. “It was a modest, independent New York film. Nowdays it’s treated like a studio picture and feels like it cost $30 million or whatever!” he grins. “It’s a rags to riches story for the film. We took this script to every studio in town. They all said no. Didn’t want to do ‘the teen thriller thing’ – and I said to them, ‘but I don’t want to do that either’. They said it was too hard to cast: who can you cast at that age range who’ll draw a crowd?”

Polson’s enthusiasm was sorely tested. “By Christmas 2000, I was out of a job, and even Greenstreet was cooling off on the project. I’d invested six months of my life on the movie and it wasn’t going to happen. Then I had one of those critical turning point lunches with John Penotti [a young guy much like Polson], one of the film’s producers, the president of Greenstreet. We went to this little Italian place across the road from their office and I told him, ‘I understand if you want to walk away from this project, but it will be the biggest mistake your company’s ever made’. It was a tough lunch.”

When pitching to the studios, the budget for Swimfan was US$10 million. Re-costed as an independent production, this was reduced to US$6 million. Still more than Polson had ever spent on a movie (lunch included).

Did Polson really believe that it would be Greenstreet’s biggest mistake? “Aah…about 70 per cent! 30 per cent I needed a job,” he says laughing. Then, while still in a do-or-die mood, he told Penotti: “I want you to finance this, independently. I’m going to make a fucking great movie and anyone can see it’ll make money, it’s commercial.” Except the studios, he may have thought quietly to himself.

"flogging a dead horse"

There was still nothing but a script and him as director. No money and no cast. “I was flogging a dead horse. But I said I’m leaving New York tomorrow, I have to go back to L.A. on other business. My flight is at 5 o’clock. If I don’t hear from you before then, I’m going to assume we’re not making this movie and I’ll turn my attention to other stuff. But it would be a big mistake…And at that time, it was kinda true: they [Greenstreet] hadn’t had any hits yet. They’d made In The Bedroom but it hadn’t come out yet. I know it was a cocky thing to say, but I did believe it. I could see this movie: it wasn’t going to be Chinatown, but I knew it would get an audience.”

Next day, Polson’s at the airport, “feeling shithouse. I hadn’t heard from them. Then I get this call from Penotti and his head of production, Tim Williams, just as I’m literally going through security. I kid you not. They said they’ve talked about it and agreed to do it, putting up 50% of the money and partner with another company for the rest. So we did something unheard of, spending that kind of money, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but without US distribution it’s nuts. He even said at the time, ‘this could sink our company’.” 

Polson returned from Los Angeles shortly after, and started casting. “And suddenly, Jesse Bradford – one of the hot guys in that age range – came on board. And then, Erika Christensen, who I wanted to play Amy the girlfriend, had an inspired idea; ‘what about me as Madison?’ And I said wow, let me think about that for a couple of days. The fact I had NOT thought about that was what made it good. And then we found Shiri…”

The film was re-christened Swimfan, and the story was pruned and polished. Ben Cronin (Jesse Bradford) has turned his life around since he was busted for taking drugs. He has not only become the college swimming champion, but has a happy personal life with his beautiful girlfriend Amy Miller (Shiri Appleby). A one-night stand with new girl Madison Bell (Erika Christensen) turns into a nightmare, when she pursues him relentlessly, even though he has told her it was a big mistake. She is determined …. nay, obsessed.

Echoes of Fatal Attraction, and perhaps that’s why Douglas was involved. “Yes, it’s kind of a nod to Fatal Attraction. But there is a whole generation of people out there who don’t even know the film, or for whom it’s just a vague reference. And for those who do know it, it’s a great brand name association.”

Douglas was profoundly involved, says Polson, not on a day to day basis, but at the right moments. His company had found the script, and partnered with Greenstreet Films. “I think his personal reasons were that he saw potential in it and an element of nostalgia, perhaps,” Polson says. 

Working with Douglas was “…nerve-wracking! He’s one of the smartest guys in Hollywood. I mean, he was executive producer on One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, which is the one film that really turned me on to cinema, when I was about 12. He’s awe inspiring and intimidating, but all those things are things you project on him. He doesn’t generate that. And after a while it’s like anybody, he becomes a colleague you’re working with, and you talk on the phone like he’s my producer on the movie.”

The biggest help Douglas provided to Polson was “with the pacing of the movie. His strongest note when I showed him the first cut – he loved the performances – and best advice was, he felt I could get into many scenes a bit later and get out a bit earlier. Keep it moving. Based on that, we cut 20 minutes.” 

It was great and exciting to have Michael Douglas as Executive Producer, but Polson also pays tribute to one of the other producers, “the legendary Joe [Joseph M. Caracciolo, of Greenstreet Films] who assembled a great crew for me in New York, a crew I probably would never have been able to get without him.

“When it came to Erika, for example, Michael Douglas was a great help, because they’d worked on Traffic. He knew about her before anyone else. Traffic hadn’t come out, and he could pick up the phone and tell her about it. Then Traffic came out just after we signed her.” 

And then finally, some of the studios started to get interested, but it was too late; they were told they’d have to wait until the film was finished. “We had four or five of them wanting in on it, and we ended up auditioning them! Fox seemed to have got the movie the most and had a great track record for the sort of movies that hit this audience – and were clearly very excited about it. Then I found out, off the record, that there was a huge amount of internal excitement at Fox about the movie. And that’s what I wanted to hear. They’ve spent three times the budget on marketing.”

After it’s strong US opening weekend (Sept. 6-8, 2002), Polson was on a high; the film took $22 (US$12.4) million, and the number one spot – an important milestone. But he was not always that confident, lunch with Penotti notwithstanding. “It’s not unusual during filming to get the sense that you’re responsible for the worst film ever made in history…it’s a normal feeling for a director, through exhaustion as well as other things,” he says now.

It was never easy, with a budget regarded in America as tiny. For example, the swimming pool which features in a few scenes, including the crucial sex scene, could not be built as a set for cost reasons, and most real school pools are “like concrete with water on the floor and horrible,” says Polson. “So we found this pool on 135th Street in Harlem, built in 1910, tiles everywhere. We shot the sex scene in the actual pool, and with great difficulty. We started at 9 am and were still shooting at 4 in the morning. It was a very big day. The actors were troopers: they were prunes, but you can’t tell. And it was about as sexy as a road accident for them, but it looks sexy.”

The overall experience of making Swimfan was “fantastic…I learnt thousands of things,” Polson says. “I think I was very lucky with the actors; I found three people who were right for the roles and got into the spirit of it. They knew we had limited time and they worked hard. American actors at that age have enormous amounts of experience. For example, Shiri had spent 5 years on a tv show, and knows where the camera is, she knows all the basics. But she also has performance experience, so I never felt I was directing teens…”

The film’s appeal is that it does differ from other teen thrillers, in that it never lets us think that the issues are less momentous or ‘just teen issues’. “My logic was that when I was in high school and I fell in love, and if this person leaves me I’m going to kill myself – I’ll never get over it. That’s what I wanted to the movie to say. I had to establish the Ben and Amy relationship as critical.”

"a thriller kinda guy"

For a dark comedy kinda guy, Polson is now seen as a thriller kinda guy: for Miramax, he’s about to direct a remake of Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs (1971), which starred Dustin Hoffman and Susan George as an American couple who move to England, are bullied and harassed – until they retaliate, with extreme prejudice! 

Still pending, too, is another Michael Douglas project, The Up And Comer, set in New York’s legal world, “a sort of dark comedy/thriller, so it combines my dark comedy interest with my newfound thriller experience,” about a lawyer without a soul. “We’re shopping it around to the studios…” This time, the studios are less likely to knock back the project.

Published October 3, 2002

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John Polson

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