Director Jeremy Teicher on making Olympic Dreams a gold medal reality
Olympic Dreams is the first feature-length fictional motion picture allowed to shoot inside the Olympic Athletes Village. Filmed during the 2018 South Korean Winter Olympic Games, the story follows cross country skier Penelope (Alexi Pappas, a former Olympic athlete who competed in the 10,000 meters in 2016 in Rio) and volunteer dentist Ezra (Nick Kroll) who make one randomly make one another’s acquaintance and then wander around various Olympic venues and the streets of Pyeongchang after her event has concluded.
Directed by Jeremy Teicher and featuring a mostly improvised script written by the filmmaker and his two stars, this is a fascinating dramatic achievement that plays a little like a cross between Before Sunrise, Once and The Cutting Edge. It’s a rambunctious independent production that has a heck of a lot more on its mind than initially meets the eye, this look behind the Olympic curtain a universally enthralling human journey where a litany of stark truths are explored with intimately empathetic understanding.
I had the opportunity to connect with Teicher to learn more about Olympic Dreams and the guerilla nature of its production. Here are some edited excerpts from our brief conversation:
Sara Michelle Fetters: So. First things first. As a longtime Winter Olympics fanatic, I need to thank you. I finally feel like I now know how they somehow control the Skeleton. That’s always both fascinated and driven me crazy.
Jeremy Teicher: Ha! That’s great. I mean, absolutely, it’s what we do, show the inside world of the Olympics. [laughs]
Sara Michelle Fetters: I couldn’t believe how charmed and captivated I was by this film. At what point did you and Alexi realize Olympic Dreams was going to happen? When did you know you’d actually be heading to South Korea and shooting a motion picture inside the Olympic Village?
Jeremy Teicher: We first started by getting the idea while Alexi was competing in Rio in 2016, as a long distance runner. I was wondering if we could do something for the 2018 Winter Games when we suddenly got a good note that opened a lot of doors. The president of the IOC had seen our previous film Tracktown on an airplane and really liked it. When he looked into who we were and what we did as athletes, he ultimately invited us to do an artist-in-residence-project in PyeongChang. This germ of an idea suddenly grew into a featured film.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As a Summer Olympian, what was the transition like for Alexi to go from long-distance running to portraying a cross-country skier? What was that process like?
Jeremy Teicher: In addition to being an athlete, Alexi is also a great actor and a terrific improviser. She was able to be her character, Penelope. She wasn’t being Alexi.
However, as an athlete, there was some overlap between Alexi as an actor and Alexi as an Olympic competitor. Cross country skiing is an endurance sport, and it seemed like the most like long distance running. She connected with some of the skiers ahead of time and was just smoking to learn the ins and outs of the sport. We also had a terrific stunt double, Anne Hart, a cross country skier for Team USA.
Sara Michelle Fetters: How much of this did you script beforehand and how much were you, Alexi and Nick Kroll improvising while you were shooting? As you said, Alexi’s a good improviser, and we know Nick is a fantastic one.
Jeremy Teicher: We had an outline. The arc of the story was all planned out, even the different emotional pieces within a scene. I’ve been to the Olympics before, so I knew the uncontrolled situations we would need to work around. We did as much prep as we could ahead of time and then set ourselves up to embrace the unexpected.
There were definitely times where we would see a really cool location and get out of the car and just start shooting. I would look back at the script schedule and figure out what scene we could potentially set in this cool place. After that, this was more than enough to give us the freedom to improvise.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Because of this renegade filmmaking style that filming in the Olympic Village pretty much demanded from you, it seems like you ended up wearing a heck of a lot of different hats on this film. Director. Screenwriter. Cinematographer. Sound technician. Even Costume Designer.
Jeremy Teicher: Yeah. [laughs] I was a one-man-band.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What was that like?
Jeremy Teicher: It was exhilarating. There was a learning curve, for sure. The whole core team was Alexi, Nick and me. Alexi and Nick would light themselves up and do their own makeup. I would prepare the camera setup and get everything set for sound.
We know what the constraints were going to be well in advance. I worked in Los Angeles on a lot of preproduction. But there was still that learning curve in getting comfortable with the equipment and everything. Once that happened, though, it was actually incredibly freeing. There was no delay between having an idea and being able to go out at once and shoot it.
Sara Michelle Fetters: That had to be pretty freeing in some ways for all three of you I would imagine. No boundaries. No barriers.
Jeremy Teicher: I feel very grateful that I got to have this opportunity to go back to my roots at this stage in my career. I think a lot of filmmakers didn’t have that experience of making something with their friends and a camera out in the backyard or wherever. Or when you’re in school, or something like that. To be able to go do that with collaborators like Nick and Alexi on a stage like the Olympics? That felt like a gift. It was a reconnection with that total freedom. It was incredible.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Outside of the filmmaking aspect, what is it like to be able to just wander around the Olympics like this? To be given this behind-the-curtain access so few will ever get a chance to experience for themselves?
Jeremy Teicher: Having been in Rio, I had a rough idea of what to expect. But the Winter Olympics is quite different than the summer games. I do think I was prepared to be blown away by what I saw and then to take our story and mold it around being able to take advantage of all we were experiencing.
Sometimes there was a seed of an idea and we were like, that’s pretty cool, but where we can set it so that it would be even cooler? There’s this argument piece towards the end, and I knew we wanted to set that in a really cool, dramatic place. I had a few ideas that I thought might work, but then we got to the Olympic Games and the idea of where we could possibly set this scene just grew even more amazing. I connected with this venue manager, and each place as you might imagine has its own set schedule when it is going to be in use.
Because I’d made that connection, we had access to that schedule. We were in touch throughout. I learned that the Olympic Stadium used for Opening and Closing Ceremonies was going to be sitting empty on a particular day and I knew immediately this scene just had to happen there.
And that was what it was like. Sometimes it was overwhelming in all the best of ways. There was just so much possibility. When you’re just in the zone and in there with your camera, you have to take the opportunity to trust your eye as a filmmaker. I tried to capture being there as best I could.
Sara Michelle Fetters: What point did Nick become involved with the project and what do you feel like he brought to the project?
Jeremy Teicher: Nick was a third of our team. He brought so much to the project. We were looking for an actor who not only could be this character, but also someone who would be comfortable being on a three-person crew running around the Olympic Village having this guerrilla filmmaking-style experience. We needed someone who could think like a producer. Nick really brought all of that. Coming from the improv and standup world, he was just so great to have as a part of our team. He fit in right away. We were all very proactive collaborators.
There were moments when Nick would see a cool place and he would be like, “Let’s shoot something over there!” It never felt like we were having to shelter him from the intensity of the production. He fully embraced all of it.
While we were still casting, and we knew we had this pretty crazy set of requirements that we needed any actor who was going to play Ezra, and Nick’s agent was immediately like, he is your guy. He is 100% your guy. And he was right. After our first meeting, I knew right away that was true.
Sara Michelle Fetters: You’ve got a lot of athletes in the film, most of them in brief cameos but a few around for a significant amount of time. What was their response to your film?
Jeremy Teicher: It’s been wonderful. Watching NBC reruns doesn’t capture what it is like to be a part of the Olympics. The experience of actually being an athlete. To be able to hear from people who were in PyeongChang and competed, to be able to realistically show what their experience was like, this was personally fulfilling.
We were the first fictional film to ever have access to the places that we could go, but it’s still the Olympics, so there’s always a fair share of camera crews constantly running around filming stuff. Because of that, we were actually able to blend in pretty easily, and after a while I think the athletes just got used to our presence. Occasionally people would also recognize Nick and ask us what was going on. Once they learned that we were there shooting a movie, I don’t think they could really fully wrap their minds around it, because you don’t think of shooting a movie with a three-person team.
Alexi would often start conversations with athletes. We have a lot of athletes who are actors in the film, pretty much playing themselves, so we would strike up conversations with people who didn’t look like they were too busy at the moment. There’s a lot of downtime for athletes in the Olympic Village, whether it’s after their competition or if they are between competitions. Because of that, we would often find people who were just excited to be part of something fun and unique.
Sara Michelle Fetters: Alexi has this line about halfway through that I don’t want to ruin, but it’s the core scene between Penelope and Ezra where she talks so matter-of-factly about the differences between goals and wants. It’s a pretty incredible moment, and really speaks to a certain type of mentality that I think is universal whether or not one is an athlete.
Jeremy Teicher: It’s pretty great. It’s a good example of Penelope being so razor-focused on a goal that she is lost after her event has ended versus Ezra who is never quite fully able to commit to a goal but has a lot of wants that he constantly dreams about. That’s a dynamic that we wanted to play with. You don’t have to be an Olympian to identify with Alexi’s character. For that matter, you don’t have to be a dentist to relate with Nick’s. For me, I feel this kind of questioning between the two of them is about what’s next, about what it is like to feel lost.
Even though the story is about an Olympian, which is an ultra-rare achievement to be certain, I think that this story is relatable to just about everyone, that people everywhere can take away something from it. I think we all have a little bit of Penelope and a little bit of Ezra in us.
Sara Michelle Fetters: With that in mind, where do you go next? What is the next goal on your checklist?
Jeremy Teicher: We are just starting to put together the coalition to get a new movie made. Alexi also has a book coming out in August, a memoir. As a filmmaker, though, you always have a lot of irons in the fire. I can’t say exactly what will be next but we have a lot of cool stuff that we are currently cooking.
Sara Michelle Fetters: As for general audiences, what do you want them to take away from Olympic Dreams? What do you hope they’re talking about?
Jeremy Teicher: I feel like the glitziest thing is that people will get a chance to see inside the Olympic Village and get a feel for the athlete experience like nothing ever before. The IOC has never allowed anything like this, and that’s pretty incredible. It’s just such a rare glimpse inside this world.