“The Boys in the Boat” cast trained 'just like regular rowers'

George Clooney's producing partner Grant Heslov says they brought in "Olympic-level coaches" to prepare their stars, including "Fantastic Beasts" alum Callum Turner.

<p>Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures</p> Bruce Herbelin-Earle as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, and Jack Mulhern as Don Hume in

Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Bruce Herbelin-Earle as Shorty Hunt, Callum Turner as Joe Rantz, and Jack Mulhern as Don Hume in 'The Boys in the Boat'.

The cast of Depression-era rowing movie The Boys in the Boat (out Dec. 25) had been in England for several weeks, training to look like oarsmen on the river Thames, when director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov stopped by to see how they were doing. Turns out, they were not doing well.

"They looked terrible," the producer tells EW. "They looked like amateur rowers. We were like, 'Oh s---! We're in trouble.'" The problem? The actors were supposed to be portraying one of history's greatest rowing teams, an eight-man crew from the University of Washington who not only defeated all-comers in the US but went on to compete at 1936's Nazi-overseen Berlin Olympics.

Callum Turner from the Fantastic Beasts franchise plays rower Joe Rantz and remembers that day as, "a nightmare. "We wanted to impress and we couldn't," he recalls. "We tried but it just didn't work. I remember his face. You could see, behind the smile, the worry." Asked if Turner is talking about Clooney or Heslov, he replies, "Both of them!"

Fortunately for the filmmakers, their stars' sporting skills were much improved the next time the duo saw them on the water. "About six weeks later, we went back again and it was like night and day," Heslov says. "By the time we actually started shooting, they looked amazing."

<p>Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures</p> The titular boys in the boat

Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

The titular boys in the boat

The Boys in the Boat is based on author Daniel James Brown's acclaimed 2013 non-fiction book of the same name. Like Brown, the film’s screenwriter Mark L. Smith foregrounds the story of Turner's Rantz, a remarkable, self-reliant character who, as a teenager, was left behind when his family moved during the hard times of the '30s yet still managed to become a mainstay of the Washington University team. "He was abandoned when he was pretty young to fend for himself, and he did. He decided that he wanted to go to college," Heslov says. "Rowing was a way to go to school and get a step up."

When Heslov and Clooney went looking for their Joe Rantz, Turner fulfilled the requirements of being both a talented actor and large enough to convincingly portray an Olympic rower. "We saw him on tape and we were like, 'That's the guy!'" the producer says. "We didn't know how big he was at the time, but he's big. He's like 6' 3'' and he's strapping."

The film's cast also includes Joel Edgerton as the crew's taciturn coach Al Ulbrickson. Heslov calls Ulbrickson “a very stoic" and "very driven guy." Turner was joined for the production's extensive training period in London by costars Luke Slattery (NBC's New Amsterdam) and Jack Mulhern (Pet Sematary: Bloodlines), and the other actors portraying the Washington team. For months, the cast spent four hours a day on the water with an hour of fitness training thrown in for good, muscle-forming measure. By the end, Turner recalls, "It did feel like being part of a professional sports team. We were able to achieve things in the boat that were pretty spectacular."

<p>Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures</p> Director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov on the set of 'The Boys in the Boat'

Laurie Sparham/Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures

Director George Clooney and producer Grant Heslov on the set of 'The Boys in the Boat'

Heslov and Clooney, meanwhile, were learning how best to shoot the film's rowing races. "They say don't shoot with animals, don't shoot on water," Heslov says. "It's really hard because nothing will stay still. Even if you anchor something, it's still moving. The boys are moving in their boats, you're moving in your boats. We can't be in front of them, because we can't make a wake, so we have to be to the side or behind them. Then you've got to have a long arm with a camera on it, so it can swing around and get up close. It took us about a week to figure out what were the right lenses to use, how to compress the action to make it feel very exciting."

For Heslov, these exertions were made worthwhile when he started showing the film to real-life rowers. "They're all like, 'Well, finally! Somebody has captured rowing the way that it really feels," the producer recalls. "So, that's a nice compliment."

Heslov's next project is the Jon Watts-directed thriller Wolves, which finds Clooney back on screen and reuniting with his Ocean's Eleven franchise costar Brad Pitt. The producer is tight-lipped about the movie but teases, "It's everything you hope for in a movie with George and Brad Pitt." And, we're guessing, it doesn't have too many scenes set on the water.

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