AGAINST THE CURRENT’S PETER CALLAHAN By Alicia Van Couvering
Peter Callahan’s Againt the Current is road movie that takes place in a vehicle that “couldn’t out-run a turtle.” It’s a story about Paul Thompson (Joseph Fiennes), a man in his mid-30’s who is still grieving for his wife five years after her death. Emotionally adrift, Thompson decides to make it literal by enlisting his best friend (Justin Kirk) to man a boat as he swims the entire length of the Hudson River. The pair are joined by a pretty, single barfly named Liz, played by Elizabeth Reaser, and they all stop briefly at Liz’s Rhinebeck house, where her mother (Mary Tyler Moore) and niece (Michelle Trachtenberg) are waiting to stir up trouble. Thompson keeps swimming and the city gets closer as a subtle and restrained human drama unfolds between the three of them. This is Callahan’s second feature (he toured the festival circuit with Last Ball in 2001) and his first time at Sundance, where the film premiered last week in the Spectrum section.
Filmmaker: I mean this in a good way: Against the Current is the slowest road movie I’ve ever seen.
Callahan: Well it is, it’s a road trip movie on water. They’re not moving fast; they’re swimming. And it’s just kind of this… lazy trip down the river. Like Huck Finn or a Mark Twain-ish journey down the river. Some of the elements were inspired by events in my life, my own experience with loss and grief, and from there it was just a springboard into fictionalizing them.
Filmmaker: Were you trying to talk about male friendships, was that a conscious theme?
Callahan: I wasn’t trying to say anything about friendship particularly — it was just the natural result of trying to write genuine honest people. You know, I don’t think subtlety is reserved for novels. I hope it’s still alive in film. And I think there are a lot of us who want to preserve it. I think we’re programmed by seeing so many Hollywood mainstream movies that we forget that film is not limited to just simplistic stories and characters.
Filmmaker: Were you ever tempted to change the ending?
Callahan: That was the ending I wanted to write. It was the only legitimate ending for me, as someone who likes interesting, thoughtful films. I could give you a Hollywood ending, which we’ve all seen before. It goes in one ear and out the other and you forget about it and that’s that.
Filmmaker: What were some of the challenges of shooting on water?
Callahan: It was really tricky, because you’re shooting from a boat – or a so-called ‘boat’ we were shooting on, it was really a raft — filming another boat, and a swimmer, and then you’ve got some support boats around, and all the boats are moving. The Hudson has a strong current, and the boats had a mind of their own. Try and set up a shot and you’d look back and it would be like, ‘oh, it just moved 10 feet in 30 seconds. Meanwhile you’re drifting the other way. You’d also get an almost sea sickness. At the end of the day we’d come back and walk through the hotel and things would still be moving. The boat would still be rocking.
Filmmaker: Did anyone fall in?
Callahan: Amazingly, nobody fell in. My personal goal before the shoot was not to be the first person who fell in. Once some lens cases went sliding and got close, but somebody caught them.
Filmmaker: How did you communicate with the actors from across the water, and how did they cope with it?
Callahan: Communication was a combination of yelling and Walkie Talkies. There’d be a walkie below the seat and Justin or Elizabeth would operate it, or we’d have somebody stashed out of view. Sometimes, for the closer shots, we could get on their boat so I was there with them. I think they had a chance to bond more than people might on other movies, because a lot of time it was just the three of them out on the water. They were alone out there, so they needed to rely on each other. I think that helped strengthen the bond between them.
Filmmaker: How did you come to filmmaking?
Callahan: I came to it from writing. I studied journalism for a while and then realized I liked making things up more. I moved towards fiction for a little bit, and then realized screenwriting and movies was more what I was drawn to and more suited my talents and my goals of storytelling. I like the way films tell stories. Novels are great, but just not quite the best fit for me.
Filmmaker: What are some of your favorite films?
Callahan: I just want to make a film that means something to people and moves people. I don’t like mainstream movies, and I don’t like art movies, really. I like movies that are a happy medium between the two, the ones that really just are trying to tell an interesting story but don’t fit into a particular formula. They’re not trying to please every person in the theater, they’re just being true to life. I think the 1970’s were really the great period for American film. Because it was Hollywood itself taking chances – big stars in big movies that were great. Not only were they interesting and challenging but they were successful. My favorite films were all box office smashes.
Filmmaker: What are your hopes for Sundance?
Callahan: I hope people like it and realize that there is an audience for it. I have faith in the film that people will like it. It’s not gonna please every single person but it wasn’t intended to. To me that’s the whole point of independent film – trying to say something meaningful instead of asking yourself, ‘how can I appeal to everybody in America ages 12 -90 to come, how can I get teenagers to come see this again and again and again?’ I was trying to write something for thoughtful adults.