Row Hard No Excuses shows raw reality
January 27, 2007
In the Slamdance film, "ROW HARD NO EXCUSES," two friends set out on a voyage intended to test their abilities, but learn from a bigger test of the human spirit.
Rowers Tom Mailhot and John Zeigler have been rowing and paddling a long time one as a kayaker and the other a canoe racer and both have decided that they are ready for the biggest race of their life. This comes in the form of the Atlantic Rowing Challenge, a 3,000-mile race across the ocean from the Canary Islands to Barbados.
At about the time the two men were preparing for the race, Mailhot’s friend Bill Wolbach decided to become involved. At first, Mailhot was just hoping for a promotional video to help raise funds to complete the trip. But Wolbach had bigger plans. His son, Luke, was a filmmaker and they had both had been looking to work on a project together. The riveting story of the only American team to enter the race led to their decision to embark on their first feature-length film.
"It was sort of an underdog story," Luke said.
But make no mistake, "ROW HARD NO EXCUSES" is not all about feelings and friendship,
"Row Hard" is raw. Raw with emotions and raw with physical endurance.
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Once on the boat, the two men endure fights, skin sores in inopportune places and constant tests of fortitude. To capture these moments, the Wolbachs equipped Mailhot and Zeigler and other teams entered in the race with cameras on their boats. The on-board cameras allowed them to capture their experiences easily, and to keep those experiences as organic as possible. They also had footage from the team’s coach, Tori Murden, the first woman to row solo across the ocean, to offer insight for the undertaking.
"We wanted intimacy," Luke said. "The experience isn’t necessarily pretty. The closer we could get, the better."
And the intimate nature of the film meant that Wolbach neither knew exactly what the cameras would capture nor how the storyline would unfold. They did have a few themes going into the project. Both Mailhot and Zeigler had grown up with emotionally-distant fathers and saw the mission as a chance to prove themselves in their father’s eyes. Both had also made huge sacrifices. They had gone into deep debt to build the boat and make the three-month-long voyage. They relied on friends and family to make it happen and relationships became strained. The selfishness of preparing for the physical demands actually led to Zeigler’s divorce.
"The idea is a classic structure of an oracle that can add a perspective that characters can’t see until sometime after," explained Luke.
The result was nothing less than fascinating.
Zeigler soon develops a rash that makes rowing hard and drives a wedge between himself and Mailhot. The trip becomes trying and often grueling to the men who must face each day as a struggle.
"John was surprised at the emotional impact. We were prepared for the physical," Mailhot said.
Their experiences were juxtaposed against those of other teams from around the world. The Spainards using comic relief, the Kiwi women whose bond of friendship only grows as the trip wears on and many other twosomes who each deal with days on end on the sea differently and it is all on tape. The energy to film after a long stint of rowing, in itself, was a daily battle.
"I was concerned to have it come out and how it would portray us," Mailhot said. "I knew Luke and his dad wouldn’t do anything that would be hurtful and damaging."
When the Wolbachs reviewed the film they found that the unexpected frustration only added to the "real-life" feel of the film.
"I have seen other films that don’t seem like the truth," Luke said. "It seems unique."
In fact, Luke says that the adventure aspect of the film truly allows the plot to deepen. The unexpected became interesting. The human struggle became the story.
"That was the primary goal to have a strong story," Luke said. "That’s the fun of documentaries you have to adapt to what happens."
Much of the film’s plot is in whether Mailhot and Zeigler will overcome the daily issues they must endure. At many points seems like they might stop, but they push through to the next day, constantly putting their goal before the grueling test of their stamina.
"You don’t come through something like this stronger. You are totally depleted," Mailhot said. "I’m not used to not completing something. I’ve always been able to myself and complete what I must do physically."
They also struggle with being strong for their families and supporters, all the while silently pushing on to prove their prowess to their fathers.
"That was something we focused on early," Luke said. "They are similarities in the way they related to their fathers."
Bill said that the need to push themselves for approval is a theme he felt even in making the film. He grew up feeling that he was never good enough for his own father, especially where sports were concerned. So, the men’s quest was something that was easy for him to understand and feature prominently in the film.
Luke said that his father’s need to please his grandfather resonated even with him, and affected him so much that he wanted to see his father successful with the film and in life.
"I sort of felt like as we were writing this, that it allowed us to let go," Luke said.
Through it all, though, all parties involved, rowers, filmmakers and audiences alike, gain a new perspective on sacrifice, patience, camaraderie and the unpredictability of life.
"There’s always that success and failure," Luke said. "A lot of people want to try and find they are something special. Some teams find that there is something they are scared of and are struggling."
Mailhot now talks about the trip with school children, challenging them to take a risk and chase their dreams, despite the prospect of failure.
At the premier, Mailhot say that he had come full-circle from the race and the long road back to making peace with all the results it brought.
"It’s bringing closure to it," Mailhot said.
And for the Wolbachs, the journey is just beginning. This is their first full-length feature film, their first film festival and the next step in a process that has being ongoing for many years. Luke hopes that Slamdance will eventually open doors for them the film to be broadcast one day on PBS, the Discovery Channel or the like. This weekend, though, they are just hoping to be recognized at the Slamdance closing awards.
At first glance, though, audiences will be drawn to "ROW HARD NO EXCUSES" for the story of great challenge, but a lot like life, they will soon see that the real plot is in the journey, not the destination.
For more information on the film, visit http://www.lanternfilms.com.