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George Clooney’s ‘The Boys in the Boat’ tells story of rowing team’s unlikely journey to Olympics. Here’s how the director can relate to underdog tale.

George Clooney steers the ship as the director of the inspirational true story The Boys in the Boat, about the incredible rise of the University of Washington rowing team as they compete for gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

Clooney told Yahoo Entertainment that the team’s unlikely journey from junior varsity to the Olympic stage is one he can relate to.

“I grew up in a small town in Kentucky and the idea to absolutely, completely surpass any dream I could have ever had as a career [was unthinkable]. So I can always relate to the underdogs in that way,” he said.

George Clooney directing The Boys in the Boat.George Clooney directing The Boys in the Boat.

George Clooney directing The Boys in the Boat. (Laurie Sparham/MGM)

Joel Edgerton, who stars as rowing team coach Al Ulbrickson in the film, echoed the director’s sentiment.

“When talking about underdogs, I really never imagined that I would amount to a hill of beans, ever,” Edgerton told Yahoo Entertainment. “I often think that people’s greatest obstacle is themselves. One of the great things about the film is it obviously speaks a little bit to how privilege provides an avenue for certain people that other people don’t have and these guys sort of were lucky to be part of the school even though they were so bottom of the barrel, so access is a big conversation.”

The film is based on the 2013 nonfiction bestseller, The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Written by Daniel James Brown, it spent 117 weeks in the top 10 of the New York Times nonfiction bestseller list, including 15 weeks at No. 1.

Clooney read the book when it first came out, but it took years to bring it to the screen.

He and his producer partner Grant Heslov “chased the book 10 years ago, we lost out, didn’t get it. Then we went over to MGM three years back, and they had this in their library. We brought on a writer (The Revenant co-screenwriter Mark L. Smith) and put a script together that we liked, and then it was just about trying to get it made,” Clooney told Entertainment Weekly. “The budget on this is not a very high budget — this isn’t a Marvel film. In fact, the studio came to me 10 days before we started shooting and asked me to give my salary back to make the budget, which I had to do.”

Learning to row

The film also stars Callum Turner as University of Washington rower Joe Rantz. While Turner had no rowing experience prior to shooting, he told Yahoo Entertainment that the actors trained for five months as teammates to get the strokes right.

“What I learned, without sounding too sentimental, is that I learned to surrender myself to something greater than myself,” he said of the experience. “You do it every time you do a movie, but this was so specific, it was within a movie. And I created this bond with these guys and I actually went through what Joe went through in the movie and so did these guys and their characters. We set ourselves the target of 46 strokes per minute, which is what the real guys did in the final race.”

Turner said the film made him fall in love with rowing.

“I think rowing is a deeper team sport than any other,” he added.

‘A beautiful love story’

Clooney had to be methodical about what he adapted from the novel to the screen. One plot point that needed to be kept was the love story between Turner’s Rantz and Hadley Robinson’s character Joyce Simdars.

“They were married for 64 years, 65 years, something like that. It’s a beautiful love story, ” Clooney said. “Seeing the two of them together … it’s important when you see people who are loved. That helps. It helps put things in perspective.”

Robinson told Yahoo Entertainment that “they have such a beautiful relationship in real life and it’s all there in the book. They’d known each other since they were kids and they were sort of each other’s support system as friends growing up. Then she sort of followed him to school and they rekindled things and it’s just this slow, beautiful building of trust which you can hopefully see in the movie.”

In addition to love, the film also speaks to learning from adversity.

“I would also make the argument that you learn nothing from success. Never. There’s nothing you learn from success. You learn everything from failing and fear of failing is what holds people back from doing anything,” Clooney said. “And when you don’t try and you wake up at 65 years old, you’re a lot angrier than if you’d failed. It’s really easy to be 65 years old and go ‘I tried to do that. Just couldn’t do it.’ You’ll really be mad if you go ‘I think I could have done that. But I didn’t try.’”

The Boys in the Boat premieres in theaters on Dec. 25.

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