We’ve all heard the quotes from those who’ve risen to the apex of their professions, especially in sports, espousing the virtues of doing whatever it takes to reach your goal. But what if relentlessly giving your all means sacrificing some of your humanity along the way in order to assure your ascent to the top? Set in the unforgiving world of competitive swimming, LA based Director Verner Maldonado’s Swim grapples with this very question as a naive, yet driven, young swimmer fights for a spot in the nation’s top swim team. DN caught up with Verner to discover how the pool location influenced the short’s stylistic approach and why unanticipated discoveries and open ears are key tools in a filmmaker’s arsenal.
What was the source of inspiration for Swim and were there particular aspects of human nature that you wanted to explore in the film?
Swim started off in a room with our writer Matt Schlissel and I trying to explore a world that people would be familiar with, but probably have not explored on an emotional level. I started to think about my own personal struggles and realized that, at our core, we all want to go above and beyond and strive for something bigger than ourselves. Swimming was something that taught me that early on and it was a trait I carried with me into filmmaking. But there was always a concern that comes with that kind of drive – how far is too far? Sometimes there is no limit and you do whatever it takes. I believe all of us struggle with that concern, so I wanted the film to be a reflection of that dilemma.
At our core, we all want to go above and beyond and strive for something bigger than ourselves.
A.J. is a character driven by his passion. However, he’ll soon find that it is not so easy to go after what you want without sacrificing a little of who you are. It is tough to accept a situation like that because we all want to stay true to our values, but life can be tricky. When things get heated, we learn a little more about who we are.
I wanted this film to explore that moment: finding out who we really are when our time to shine finally presents itself. The film deals a certain level of harshness, but in that, I also hope people will appreciate the effort one gives to showcase their class, it’s about confronting that challenge head on and not backing down.
Originally the ending was much more open-ended and we didn’t know what happened to our friendly swimmer but after our test screenings and some feedback we went back and shot the ending you now see and that process was all the more impactful and made us better understand that a movie is never really done but can be guided in the right direction with proper collaboration and open ears.
Swim comes out swinging from the very beginning was that approach present from the initial writing or something developed over the refining drafts which followed?
This answer comes from our Writer Matthew Schlissel: “We started off with a lot of ideas but with each draft (and there were many) we would discuss things and continuously whittle it down to its core, until we got to a very tight scene which had all these core elements that we both really liked. Also, I’m a big believer in short films that Start Late, End Early. So, that’s what we aimed for.”
How did the location and of course water stunts required by the narrative affect the way you shot Swim? Also, in what ways did the pool location itself feed into your stylistic choices?
Given the nature of the stunt, safety was our number one priority so we enlisted a stunt coordinator and a proper underwater operator for the sequence, we had rehearsed the sequence prior to filming so that helped pave the way for the actual shooting of it. We shot the movie over two and a half days with a Red Dragon, capturing all the water work during our first day of shooting so that we could take our time the next day for all the proper beats in between.
The location fed into our choices based on the actor’s actions and movements, I would block everything out in a general direction to give the actors the freedom of moving around and creating their own space within that direction. I had been to the pool a few times before the shoot to truly inhabit the space in my mind and make it an instinct of knowing where some of the best shots would be. The pool, because it was constantly heated and because it was during winter created a bit of steam so it gave it a very naturalist atmosphere. I can’t acknowledge the foundation of the style of the film without acknowledging my DP Chris Herr and Production Designer Aaron Kelly, everything from color and shot frame to lighting was an ongoing conversation between all of us and helped lead to what you see in the film.
You deploy music effectively here to build and intensify the film’s tension, what was your approach when creating the score?
My approach to the film was to follow a similar style from Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with a little Michael Giacchino from Lost, we wanted to feel a sense of anxiety and anticipation. Composer Paul Meredith and I decided to work with some basic elements and try to flip them, distort, crank up or down. You name it, we did it. Then once we found a sound we thought was great he would go off and build a composition based on that.
Those are my favorite moments in filmmaking when you discover something you weren’t even looking for.
After he had something to show we would sit down frame by frame together and tweak as we went, the greatest part was the final sequence when they drag our friendly swimmer out of the water. We had music but we knew it needed to get crazy and by just messing around we accidentally slowed down the tempo to what was there and both just looked at each like two kids who cracked a code. Then we played off of that and created that really crazy music of just dread for our protagonist thinking he may have just drowned another human being. Those are my favorite moments in filmmaking when you discover something you weren’t even looking for.
Can you reveal anything about the feature you’re currently developing?
The feature I’m developing at the moment with the same writer from Swim is about the aftermath of dealing with a school shooting. No politics, just an empathetic story over the dealings of the aftermath of a traumatic experience. I really hope to get this off the ground sooner rather than later but we want to make sure the script is in enough of a shape to know what we need to make it happen. In the meantime, I am working on a short film dealing with the cultural confrontations of Hispanic women and abortion, it is such a taboo subject and there’s so much to understand in it that I find it a personal mission to make.
Swim is one of the many great projects shared with the Directors Notes Programmers through our submissions process. If you’d like to join them submit your film.