The challenges of helming high turnover reality TV like Big Brother, Love Island and I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here braced Hayley MacFarlane for her jump into feature films with Swimming For Gold. “It can get really intense, and I don’t crack under pressure,” the Queensland-based director tells FilmInk. Aimed squarely at the young teenage market, Swimming for Gold stars Peyton List (TV’s Jessie, Bunk’d and Cobra Kai) as champion American swimmer Claire Carpenter, who is suffering from a major case of burnout. Her father (Martin Dingle-Wall) thinks the answer to reinvigorating Claire’s love for the water is a trip to Australia to take a coaching position at an elite swimming camp. Once there, the privileged and indifferent Claire clashes with past rival Mikayla Michaels (Lauren Esposito), but finds fast friends in nice guy swimmer Liam (Daniel Needs), goofy fan-girl Annabelle (Olivia Nardini) and unconventional fellow coach Bodhi (Ray Chong Nee).
How did your journey on Swimming For Gold begin?
“The producers actually contacted me. They’d been meeting with a number of Queensland based filmmakers. The film had Screen Queensland funding, so there was a real push to have a Queensland director. I went in for a meeting, and to be honest, I thought it was more of a director’s attachment role, because I’ve been trying to get a director’s attachment for a while. But once I was in the meeting, I was like, ‘Oh shit, this is actually to direct the film!’ I was like, ‘Oh.’ I just acted like I knew that all along. The meeting went well and they obviously chose me to direct the film.”
What do you think sold you to them? Are you into swimming and sports? What was the hook?
“Growing up, I did a lot of sport, and I did gymnastics particularly. I actually coached gymnastics for about eight years before I got to uni and went down that path. I had to kiss it goodbye. So I think the whole idea of it being about athletes and what they’re going through and that whole side of it, was definitely something that I could relate to. I don’t know exactly who else they were meeting with, but sometimes being young can really work against you, but I think that they saw that as an asset for this film. I’m a little closer to the age group of the characters, and I understand them. There were things in the script that made sense to me and that I really wanted to delve into.”
Do you think that your experience in reality television informed what you were doing?
“Yeah, definitely. I’ve done reality TV for five years, so I had so many skills that I’ve taken away from that, like a high pressure environment. It can get really intense, and I don’t crack under pressure. In reality, we have to know within ten seconds which three shots are going to tell a story, and we have to be able to communicate that to the crew within about ten seconds. I’m used to that pace of working, and I’m used to working fast under pressure and knowing what I need to tell a story. That’s ingrained in me now. So when I’m on set and we’re running behind and we haven’t gotten any money and all the dramas of filmmaking, I can make decisions quickly on what shots I can afford to lose and things like that.”
Were you tempted to go off script at all?
“Oh, I do that a lot. I always say to my actors, ‘Read the script and then throw it in the bin.’ If I ever rehearse anything, it’s more about what the scene is about and what the characters are going through. And if any words aren’t sitting with them well, even just dialogue in general, just throw it out. You know what the scene’s about, so just convey that. Think about that, and put it in your own words. You know this character, and we’ve worked through it. So I’m a really big fan of working in that way, in a real fluid way.”
How did the experience turn out for you? Are you going to make more features or are you going back to reality TV?
“I definitely want to stay in drama. That’s where I’ve always wanted to be. I didn’t even really mean to get into reality TV, it just kind of happened. It’s good bread-and-butter work in between drama jobs. So I’ll probably do a little bit of both, but my passion certainly lies in drama.”
Did you have different ways of working with the various cast members in order to get what you wanted out of them, depending on their levels of experience? Peyton List was obviously your most seasoned cast member, for example…
“No matter what the project is, you have to understand your actors individually. That’s what’s so important about having a rehearsal period before you shoot something. You don’t really rehearse scenes in that time, but you get to understand each other. I threw a lot of improv situations at them in rehearsals, so I could find out pretty quickly who was good at that and who wasn’t. Some people just want to be told and other people want to figure it out for themselves. Every actor is slightly different in that regard. With Peyton, she’s really intelligent. We would talk things out a lot, and we would talk about what the character was going through, and she could just take it from there. But oh my God, the poor girl. She was literally in every single scene. She was there 24/7.”
Were you involved in the casting process for the supporting roles, or did you just come in to shoot it?
“I was very involved. I got to cast all the supporting roles. It was a long process, and it always gets scary when you’re close to shooting. We didn’t cast the role of Bodhi until a week out or something, which was nerve wracking. Whenever I meet with actors, I always say, ‘What do you have in common with the character?’ I want to see part of the character in who they are to some degree. It doesn’t have to be spot on, but they’ve got to be able to relate to that character quite heavily for me.”
You’re creating an Australian film in Australia, but the teen film is very much a staple of the American market. Where did you find inspiration?
“It was definitely something that I had to do a lot of research on. The short films and the stuff that I’d made to date are certainly not in that teen saturated happy market, so to speak. So I definitely went back and visited all my favourites, like Bring It On, and all those great films. I watched every gymnastics film growing up! It was a matter of finding films that stylistically looked like this world, because it’s not the style that I generally shoot. I would normally shoot in a more handheld style, for instance. It was about getting my head into the stylistic world of these teen films.”
Have you got anything lined up hopefully after this?
“Yeah. I’ve got two features in development and I’m directing some episodes of a Netflix drama.”
Do you write?
“I’ve actually always written what I’ve directed. But not because I actually would call myself a writer at all, it’s just because I didn’t have writers to work with. I’m open to writing and working on other people’s scripts. But I don’t really write much these days…I’m not disciplined enough.”