Recent NYU graduate Brian Blum cast 2016 Olympic diver Steele Johnson as the lead role in his thesis film, “Blood and Water.” Johnson will open his Olympic program on Monday in the synchronized 10m platform with partner David Boudia and they will compete individually on platform starting August 19.
The short film follows the journey of an Olympic diving hopeful, played by Johnson, as he suffers a horrific accident at practice and struggles to get back on the boards. We caught up with Blum to learn behind-the-scenes secrets, what Johnson – a budding cinematographer himself – is like as an actor and how fans can see the movie for themselves.
How did you come up with the idea for the film and why did you want to make it?
I had another script idea that I was originally gonna do for my thesis film, but then I came up with the idea for this film and it was a very intensely personal story for me. Four years ago, I was diving at NYU and at practice one day I hit my head on the 3m board during a reverse two and a half. That ultimately is what inspired me to write a film about going through that experience. This was the kind of film that I wanted to do right now as my calling card to Hollywood because it was something I was really passionate about. It’s something that everyone can relate to, even though they’ve never gone through it. Everyone universally understands that if you hit the platform, that is horrifying and terrible.
How did you recruit Johnson for the role of Garrett Delaney?
I was at diving practice with [former NYU assistant swimming and diving coach and 1992 Olympic silver medalist] Scott [Donie] and we were talking about the film. I said “Scott, I think I really need an actual diver to play the lead role in my film because I want to stay true to diving. I want to film real diving. I don’t want to do that digitally or superimpose my actor’s face onto a diver’s body.” Steele does vlogs all the time and is into film and Scott and Steele know each other. So he reached out to Steele on Twitter and I made a Twitter account specifically to reach out to Steele! At first, I said hey I want to talk to you about your experience with hitting your head because I’m making this movie. Once I finished the script, I reached out to him. I said hey, would you have any interest in acting in the film? He was really, really excited about the film. There’s literally only one person in the universe who could play this role, and that’s Steele, because I need an Olympic diver who’s comfortable with acting and he’s the only one. I’m so amazingly grateful that he decided to do this.
There's literally only one person in the universe who could play this role, and that's Steele... I'm so amazingly grateful that he decided to do this
I’m really amazed that he found the time to do this, between everything that he has going on.
That was a major issue actually. We shot the film mid-August, last year, 2015. He was competing at Worlds; he was competing at all these international meets. Then, he had two weeks of free time in August. It was literally the only time he was available. We had to rearrange the entire schedule.
Donie plays himself in the film. How did you recruit him? I also remember seeing his medal as a prop!
I dove for Scott for four years. Scott was there when I had my accident; he was holding my head together on the side of the pool deck. He was there and went through that whole ordeal with me. When I told him I wanted to make a film about it, he was entirely supportive. I asked him if he would be an executive producer on the film and he was really excited. He was happy to play himself in the film. When I asked him if I could use his Olympic medal as a prop he also was like absolutely. Not many people are gonna know that that’s a real Olympic medal but for those who do, it’ll be an extra nice little moment.
How did you create the pivotal scene in the film, where Garrett hits the platform?
It was one of the most important shots of the film. I knew that I wanted it to be really visceral. If you were watching it, I wanted you to feel A) how suddenly that happens and how unexpectedly that happens and B) I wanted you to see it in real time. I wanted people to feel what I went through when I hit the board. We had Steele just do a reverse three and a half from the platform like normally. We recorded him doing that. We digitally extended the platform an extra foot and we essentially cropped him out and changed his flight path so that he went more up and down. He would end up closer to the end of the platform. Right as his head came to where the platform is – but wasn’t really, because we extended it a foot – we chopped his head off and replaced it with an animated version that we extended inward as it collided with the platform.
Was there any point where either you or him were worried about triggering those old memories of both of your accidents?
We had a lot of conversations about that beforehand. Steele, being the amazing diver that he is, had this horrible accident and now the reverse three and a half is his favorite dive. It’s one of his best dives, and that’s mind blowing to me. I did not react the same way. I hated the dive; I did it again eventually, but I hated it. I still hate it. It really was never a problem for him. For me, the process of making this film was really my kind of personal journey of acceptance. This whole movie was really personal to me because I was coming to the end of my diving career, an 11-year-long diving career. I felt like it would be such a poetic and special way for me to retire from the sport with this film that’s a combination of the two things that I love: filmmaking and diving. This movie is in a lot of ways my farewell to the sport.
Moving to a lighter note, I heard it took a few tries to get the shot in the mirror just right when Johnson’s character looks in at a mirror in his locker. What was that about?
Haha! This is so embarrassing. There was a scene in the movie and Steele is sitting in the locker room and mulling over his situation in his head as he was about to try his dive again for the first time. In the original script, he got up, opened his locker and inside his locker door there was a little mirror. And he looks at himself in the mirror, tosses his stuff in, when the camera pans back to the mirror, his reflection has him covered in blood. It was supposed to be a kind of vision, a fantasy of what could become of him trying to dive again. What he had to do was open the locker door in a way that the tiny mirror reflected his face. If he didn’t open it enough it would miss his face, and if he opened it too much it would miss his face on the other side. He had to open the door to the perfect amount. It took like 28 tries just to get it right. And then we cut it from the film!
Steele was a wonderful team player. Really good attitude on set. If we needed to get something he was like yeah let’s do it. The one time he got frustrated was that shot. That was the one time; it was the last shot of the day. We were two-thirds through the shoot. Everyone was really tired and it was the end of a 12-hour day and he had just had it. I don’t blame him for it at all. It’s a really frustrating thing to be made to do.
What was it like working with Johnson?
I flew Steele into the city two days before shooting and we spent those two days in rehearsal. Steele had never really acted for film before. The first day was just him and me going through his scenes doing acting exercises. The second day we brought the other actress, Kaili Vernoff; she’s Scott’s wife. [Editor’s note: Vernoff plays Johnson’s mother, Tracy, in the film.] He was a little hesitant at first, he was a little anxious. It took a little bit, those two rehearsal days, for him to get into it and feel comfortable taking direction from me and listening to what I had to say. Getting him to let himself be vulnerable, which is the biggest thing for non-actors. It was really interesting to watch him grow as an actor.
What impressed you most about Johnson as an actor?
One of my favorite moments and the moment in the film that I was most impressed by Steele’s performance was actually also a moment where he was the most uncomfortable. There’s a scene where Garrett the character gets out of the pool and lies on his back. He has to smile and then laugh to himself because he’s realizing the irony of his situation. Steele was like, “I don’t know how to laugh. I don’t feel like I can laugh. I don’t know how to do that.” That seems like a silly thing to say but when you’re acting in front of a camera it really isn’t. It’s hard. The first take he did he just kinda smiled and didn’t laugh. He told me he didn’t really know how to laugh. I said, “you’re gonna feel really stupid. I just want you to laugh. Make it bigger. Seriously, smile, laugh. You’re gonna feel stupid but I promise you it’s gonna look great and come off great on camera. Trust me, it will work out.” He trusted me; he did it and it came out perfectly. If you watch the film, he’s got this big smile and he’s laughing to himself. It’s not awkward, it’s not weird. It’s really good acting. That’s because he said, “I don’t care. I’m gonna feel stupid but I’m just gonna do it.” That’s what you have to do when you act. That was probably my proudest moment of him as an actor. He really let himself go and stopped caring about how he felt or if he felt awkward.
What are next steps for the film? If people are interested, where can they go to seek this out?
We’re sending out to film festivals all across the globe. If you want to see the film, follow us on Facebook. We’ll be posting updates about the festivals that we get into so that if one of the festivals are in your area, then you can come to the festival, probably meet the team. After our festival run is over, which will probably be toward the end of 2017, we’re gonna look into releasing it online somehow, maybe via iTunes. I’m hoping to get it made into a full-length feature film. I already have ideas about a more-expanded version of the story. Hopefully when we submit to festivals, someone will see it and be interested in funding that, so we can make it into a serious full length feature with a national release. That’s the end goal!