With two full days of filming still left on “Backwards,” the indie drama she wrote, produced, and co-stars in, Haverford native Sarah Megan Thomas is already looking ahead to what’s next.
“I would absolutely love to do this again,” the 1997 graduate of The Shipley School told Patch between scenes on a rainy day of filming Tuesday, in a rowhome along the Schuylkill.
“I was talking to a friend of mine, and she asked ‘What’s the next one?’ I told her I don’t know yet, but I have three days to figure it out.”
It took two years to figure this one out. Though the germ of the idea for “Backwards”—a Philly-centric tale about a rower who comes within a whisker of her Olympic dream—came from Thomas’ days as a rower at Shipley and later at Massachusetts’s Williams College, it wasn’t until recently that the young actress began working in earnest on her first writing project.
The only stumbling block was the actual writing. Though the theater major had a clear vision of the story she wanted to tell, her sense of how to tell it was a bit more muddled. Thomas didn’t know how to write a screenplay. So she learned.
“I had no idea how to do it,” admitted Thomas, who’s stayed at her parents’ Cheswold Lane home during filming. “I knew what had to happen in a scene from an acting perspective. I knew conflict and structure and all those basic points, but not how to actually write.
“So I bought twelve books on it and I read them all. And I spent a year writing it. And then I spent a year raising money.”
Oh yeah, she found financing for the project too—and Amazon didn’t have quite as many books on that topic.
“It was really hard, especially in this financial environment,” she said. “But people liked the script. It had a niche—rowing in Philadelphia—that I could pitch, and so a lot of the investors are former rowers.”
Thomas said the first half-million was the hardest to raise, but after that the project gained momentum. Her confidence helped it along too.
“I just said, ‘This is happening.’ There was no doubt it was getting made. I was very strong about it.”
Thomas added that while some of the film’s backing came from local sources, much of it came from major financial centers like London and New York. She cast a wide net. She also cast some top-notch talent.
“One of the things that’s happening right now in this country is that a lot of people have dreams that don’t really work out. Most American movies tell us, ‘You’re going to be the rock star! You’re going to be the champion!’ and it doesn’t always work out like that.” — Ben Hickernell, director
In addition to on-screen romantic interest and “Dawson’s Creek” star James Van Der Beek, the rest of the lineup is filled out by Margaret Colin of “Gossip Girl,” Wynn Everett, “Sideways” supporting actress Alysia Reiner, and a handful of other solid veterans.
While Thomas confessed that, as a teen, she didn’t watch “Dawson’s Creek,” she said she enjoyed working alongside its title character.
“I have to say [Van Der Beek] is a really nice guy. He’s very professional, and I really enjoyed working with him.”
“Backwards” found its director a little closer to home. After catching a screening of his 2010 directorial debut “Lebanon, Pa.,” Thomas tapped Haverford College graduate and Bryn Mawr Film Institute manager Ben Hickernell to helm the project.
“It was great timing,” said the boyish 30-something director, who filed his walking papers at the theater after being offered the job. “‘Lebanon’ had already come out, Sarah was about to make this film, had the money raised, and just needed a director. I was really lucky to have been asked. ‘Backwards’ is a Philadelphia story and she needed a Philadelphia director.”
She got one. Though Hickernell is a Baltimore native, he came to the area for college and swooned. In Philadelphia, he found a home both for himself and his characters.
“I’m writing something set in Philadelphia right now,” said Hickernell, who says the creative pull the area has on him is no mystery: he likes writing about the city for the same reasons he likes living here.
“There’s a great diversity—not just people, but the geography and activities. There’s an amazing park with a rowing culture, a vibrant downtown, and a great theater scene,” he explained.
In addition to the city, “Backwards” has been filmed at seven separate Main Line locations.
While the nearly four-week shoot will wrap August 11 in Haverford, Hickernell’s work is just beginning. Between editing and other post-production duties, he expects his time on the film to extend through the new year.
The plan, at the moment, is for a July 2012 release that coincides with the London Summer Olympics. Hickernell thinks the timing will be right in more ways than one.
“One of the things that’s happening right now in this country is that a lot of people have dreams that don’t really work out. Most American movies tell us, ‘You’re going to be the rock star! You’re going to be the champion!’ and it doesn’t always work out like that,” he said.
“So I think this is a story that will resonate with a lot of people. It’s someone who has this big goal, works their ass off, is very good at what they do, and just doesn’t quite make it,” Hickernell said.
“And what’s next? How do you have a fulfilling life moving forward?”