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Peter Callahan, “Against the Current”: Imagination, Stress, and the ’70s

Peter Callahan, "Against the Current": Imagination, Stress, and the '70s

EDITORS NOTE: This is part of a series of interviews, conducted via email, profiling dramatic and documentary competition and American Spectrum directors who have films screening at the 2009 Sundance Film Festival.

According to the Sundance catalog, Peter Callahan’s “Against the Current” concerns “Paul Thompson (Joseph Fiennes), a financial writer struggling with a tragic past who decides to do something special and unique to distinguish himself. Having always wanted to swim the 150 miles of the lower Hudson River, he recruits his best friend, Jeff (Justin Kirk), and new acquaintance, Liz (Elizabeth Reaser), to accompany him on a physical and emotional journey exploring friendship, grief, and how we cope when what we lose is greater than what life has to offer.”

Against the Current
Sundance Film Festival American Spectrum
Director: Peter Callahan
Screenwriter: Peter Callahan
Executive Producers: Jonathan Gray, Miranda Bailey, Matthew Leutwyler
Producers: Joshua Zeman, Mary Jane Skalski
Coproducers: Wouter Barendrecht, Michael J. Werner
Cinematographer: Sean Kirby
Editor: Michael Taylor
Production Designer: Tommaso Ortino
Cast: Joseph Fiennes, Justin Kirk, Elizabeth Reaser, Mary Tyler Moore, Michelle Trachtenberg, Pell James

Please intorduce yourself…

My name is Peter Callahan, and I’m the writer and director of “Against the Current,” my second film. I was born and raised in the Hudson Valley, the setting for the film, and live in the area again after some years spent in Los Angeles and New York City.

What were the circumstances that lead you to become a filmmaker?

I came to directing through writing, rather than film school or other means. I had hopes of being a novelist at one point, but soon realized film was a medium where I could express myself better. I like the combination of visuals and words, and would much rather write dialogue than prose description. But I remember as a kid writing and directing a home movie version of the film Walking Tall, so maybe I just re-discovered my first love.

“Against the Current” director Peter Callahan. Image courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

How or what prompted the idea for “Against the Grain” and how did it evolve?

“Against the Current” was born of a combination of experience and imagination. Certain events in my own life planted a seed that I combined with other aspects of growing up in the Hudson Valley. From there, imagination took over. After that, it was a question of shaping it into a narrative that would work as a film. On the surface, this is a story about three friends, and takes place as Joseph Fiennes’ character, Paul, is doing a challenging swim down the Hudson over a three week period, accompanied by his longtime friend and comic relief Jeff and new friend Liz. Paul is at a crossroads in his life, and has what most people would consider a somewhat unusual motivation for the swim. As more is revealed, the film takes shape as a story about a man taking destiny into his own hands. I had previously completed a shorter but rigorous swim across the Hudson myself. Though that swim took an hour or two, not weeks, the experience and the adventure and danger of it all stuck with me. When I wrote “Against the Current” those things just subconsciously emerged.

Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film…

I am most influenced by American movies from the 1970’s, the golden era, many of which I was lucky enough to see in a theater as a kid when they first came out. I loved how the best of them, like “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Dog Day Afternoon,” and “Midnight Cowboy,” managed realistic depictions of life and were stories that combined tragedy and humor, and were challenging films that stayed with you for a long time. That’s what real life is like, and those are the films that influence my own work.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in developing the project?

Much of “Against the Current” is set on the Hudson River, and filming on water, particularly moving water like the Hudson, was extremely difficult, particularly on a tight schedule and without a lot of money to throw around. It was hard, stressful, maddening, and sometimes a little scary. It was also fun, too, because we were attempting to do something that was so challenging, so crazy, yet so rewarding too. Many of our river scenes are visually rich and gorgeous, so there was a silver lining. It was like “what a pain in the ass that scene was — but look at the footage!”

How do you define success as a filmmaker, and what are your personal goals as a filmmaker?

From a commercial standpoint, you want the investors to make their money back and as many people as possible to see it. From an artistic standpoint, I consider a film a success if it moves people and stays with them. Many films don’t make a lasting impression, but if you can make one that people remember and think about days, weeks, or even years later, it’s a wonderful thing. Also, a film that gets better on repeat viewings, that offers more rewards the second or third time watching it, as all my favorite films do.

What are your future projects?

I have a couple of scripts of mine I’d like to direct, including one called “Halfway Home” which is also set in the Hudson Valley. It’s about three childhood friends who find themselves living in their hometown again as they turn 40, and reconciling their youthful dreams with their present realities.

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