Finding the beauty in everything

Adam Kalderon on his own sporting past and The Swimmer

by Jennie Kermode

The Swimmer
The Swimmer Photo: Peccadillo Pictures

The story of a young professional athlete facing tremendous pressures as he trains in the hope of gaining an Olympic opportunity, The Swimmer was a hit with viewers when it screened at BFI Flare earlier this year, and it’s now screening in selected cinemas across the UK. It’s directed by Adam Kalderon and based on his own experience as a young gay man with a promising sporting career. The day after the Flare screening, Adam and I found a moment to discuss it and to talk about the unlikely career path which led him to the festival.

“I was a professional swimmer since I was nine years old until I was 21,” he tells me. “When I was 17, I left home to [go to] the special facility for young athletes. The film is based on my personal experience in this facility. I wanted to with this film to give her a unique opportunity to peek into the very Hermetic world of elite sport and then to really to use the knowledge I have from my film directing and also from my actually being a sports person.”

As a former swimmer myself, I really related to the film, and especially, I tell him, to the moments when he used a surrealist approach to explore the sensation one gets near the end of a race when one is mentally almost detached from one’s body.

“In the early stage of writing the script, I realised that I wanted to tell the story 100% through the POV of the main character of Erez, so he's appearing in 100% of the scenes, and every time that the audience is looking at something on the screen, it's through his eyes and how he will look,” he explains. “And every drop of sweat in his eyes becoming slow motion, like, is finding the beauty in everything. So for me, the final race, I felt that it will be seen through Erez, because for me, it's a moment that we are transforming 100%, like the transformation is done. This is how he now sees the reality. And also, in a way, the gold medal is winning is the medal of choosing himself and what he likes, and not necessarily the gold medal that will take him to the Olympics, so I use the scene to show what really matters to him.”

We discuss The Novice, also screening at the festival; I note that it is about somebody who loses herself in sports and loses her way, whereas The Swimmer seems to be about somebody who starts out seeming as if he's lost in that way, but gradually finds out what is important to him, like a reverse of that journey. This prompts him to share a memory.

“A moment that I remember that I had when I was nine years old, that in a way is related to the end of the film, was, I've been laughed at for being to feminine, and I realised that I needed to find a sport and to be really good at and then people will leave me alone. And somehow I just got into swimming. Now I know it’s because it was the most beautiful sport, but back then it just felt right. And it saved me, basically, because I was so full of fear and anger, and I used it as fuel in the water to show the world that I have a place. So if I'm jumping to the end of the film, it's exactly the moment that he realised that he doesn't need to prove or to show anybody anything.

“It’s the moment that he unites with his inner self and chooses how he wants his life to look from now on, which is free from all these restrictions. Basically, as a swimmer, all the time you lose. Because even even if you win, you're a winner until the next competition, then you can lose again, so basically it's like a never ending cycle of failure. Which now, from my age and as a filmmaker, I can see really clearly, this journey I took. And it was a hurtful one because there was no light in it. I mean, the light came when I actually stopped pretending to be something that I’m not. So this is what I hope the audience will take with them in the end of the film: that you should choose, yourself, what is important to you. Life is too short. So basically just show the song, push play and dance to your own beat. And yeah, I hope people will see.”

And in this case in this case, it's Madonna who is the inspiration. Was a particular reason for choosing her?

“Yeah, I love Madonna. As a person that grew up as a gay kid in the middle of the desert, literally, with no access to the culture, I remember the moment that I heard Madonna, actually less the songs, more the spirit. She's one of my mentors. It was so important to me to find an organic way to put her into the film, because I remember that when I was swimming, you know, six hours a day, three in the morning, three in the evening and basically, swimming is such a solitary sport, you're spending so much time just with your thoughts. So I used to think about Madonna, I used to think about her video clips. And I used this time to prepare my kind of approach. And then till today, I adore her. I love her. I hope to meet her one day to tell her this in person. But I'm very proud to be a fan, actually, especially today, when there is a lot of hate and ageism. I'm still there, supporting.”

So did that influence his directorial style and the colour schemes he used?

“Basically, when I stopped swimming, I had nothing. I mean, I didn't have friends, I didn't have anywhere to go. And then I moved to Berlin and I started to write music. I released an album and then I went more into art. And then when I realised that film is the place that I can combine everything together, I didn't know how to enter film, because I didn't have any background. I didn't have friends who were filmmakers. But I knew costumes. I was very good with customs since I was young kid, it was a way for me to develop my own language, to use my outfit to show my opinion. And then I started to be a costume designer. And this is how I learned how to direct.

“So moving forward couple of years, when I finally reached to the point that I could become the director and not the costume designer, I realised that this is my strength, that I can tell stories, and I can almost direct the costumes. Because costumes for me, it's the personality. It's the ‘Who is this person? Why does he want this?’ So in The Swimmer I felt that this is the right platform for me to really tell the story through this fetish of sportswear and shiny bathing suits and sports equipment, and when I'm showing the film through his point of view, of course he is always looking for the colours is and is always looking for, like, a drop of water in the desert. He almost feels safe when he when he see this beauty. He is always looking for the beauty in things.

“So yeah, I'm happy that they turned out that way that you can see in the film, because it was really intentional. It was also the costume designer, Keren Eyal Melamed, she made it. The first step she did is to dive into my private collection of swimsuits and sport outfits that I'm collecting since the Nineties. Most of the things you see in the film are originals, like bathing suits I used to wear 20 years ago, and so, you know, it was like a complete circle, because I kept collecting. Though I kept those items, even 20 years after, I didn't know what I'm going to do with them, but I knew that I was so specific back then. And probably, I'd still the same person. And one day, I will use it for all of this stuff.

“In the 90s, it was those shiny colours, you know? I wanted to create this parametric universe where you can really see who you are, according to the specific sports equipment you have. When you see a person with a shiny car, you know something about them – even what they don't want that we would know about them.” He laughs. “So we took it all the way and it was a great platform, because as a sport it is really shiny.”

But then there are also a lot of people in the film who are not wearing very much, and with swimming, there's a really distinct way that people's muscles look. How did he cast the film to get people who looked right for those parts?

“The casting director of the film is Roy. He’s also the choreographer of the film and he’s also my husband. The casting process was a very long process that was a kind of a 24/7, never ending thing, because we had a mission to find a team that, first of all, will be the best actors we can get. Second of all, that they look like swimmers; and also that they will have this aura, a snobbish kind of elites aura. And they need to know how to dance. In Israel, which is tiny. And I will add something else: it was very important to me that the main character will be gay, because this is what I'm fighting for and this what my story is about.

“So with this in mind, it was a process of a couple of years, because we found good actors but they didn't look like swimmers and then we find good actors that looks like swimmers but they don't know how to dance. Roy went to film schools. Basically, we were just spreading the rumour all over the country and checking dozens of candidates, but in the end, you always find what you're looking for. And we were so lucky to find Omer, the main actor. He told my story without almost doing nothing, because of who he is and his talent and the way he looked. He was training one year for this to change his body, to work on his diet, to take swimming lessons, so it was a long process, but I cannot be more happy.”

But then he is in almost every scene, so it must have been an exhausting shoot for him.

“Yes, he is appearing in 100% of the scenes. We were shooting this film in 10 days which is less the time that your body takes to digest a hamburger actually. But I was happy for it because life imitates art. The training camp in the film was the same training camp that we had during the shooting because it was so intense and we needed to move so fast. We filmed it in my kibbutz where I was born because it was aesthetically exactly what I wanted, and also they welcomed us and we stayed there in the kibbutz. We never left the characters actually, because it was like a real preparing for a competition. So we worked really well in this intense way. We had no privilege of actually even breathing between things. So was good because he was ready for the mission as an actor, as a swimmer.”

He’s thrilled by the way that audiences have reacted to the film, he says.

“The response were really amazing. Yesterday was a killer screening. It was an LGBTQ Film Festival. It was the first time I was surrounded with the crowd I love and I feel comfortable with. There were a lot of small details that the crowd yesterday noticed, and that was great. In other screenings people could relate to other subjects in the film, but yesterday it was like a circle for me. I loved this festival for many years. I love London. I used to live here for many years. I think the responses that you get are very good.

“I guess what I love to hear is that it's a combination between my two favourite genres, which is a gay films and a sport films. For me, I wanted to create the film I always wanted to see and couldn't find. And I love when people also relate to the story, to the gay part. But also, a lot of people are surprised with details about real sports, day to day life that they didn't know. And I love this combination. You know, yesterday, somebody told me ‘Wow, we always see the winner on TV but I never thought about actually what it takes to get there.’ So I love this combination. And for me, talking about homophobia in sport is so, so close to my heart, and this is why I'm so happy to invest my life in putting the spotlight on this stuff.”

“I cannot promise that anything will be easier, but I hope the gay athletes that watch this film will remember what is the real meaning of being the champion or a winner, which is not connected to the gold medal. You win or don't win. So I cannot promise you it will be easier. But I hope that if somebody will watch it, he will know that he's not alone. He might see similarities and have some strength to go on and to push, because it's true that things are getting better, but there's still so much work to do.”

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