Going for gold on the silver screen: ‘The Boys in the Boat’ back on track for major motion picture

Already the subject of a top-selling book and PBS documentary, Joe Rantz and his fellow Olympic Games gold medalists are on their way to cineplexes, theaters and movie houses.

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM) and Lantern Entertainment announced on Oct. 30 they are partnering to develop, finance, produce and distribute “Boys in the Boat,” the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-man crew team that overcame nearly impossible odds to win the gold medal at what historians refer to as “Hitler’s Olympics.”

The film will be based on The New York Times bestselling nonfiction book “The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics” by Daniel James Brown, a story that revolves predominantly around former Sequim resident Joe Rantz.

Film rights to bring the period piece to the big screen had been purchased several years ago by The Weinstein Company and was considered to be one of its top projects before the company went into bankruptcy earlier this year.

Lantern Entertainment, an affiliate of Lantern Capital Partners, acquired The Weinstein Co. for $289 million in July. “Boys in the Boat” will mark its first production.

According to deadline.com, MGM will handle worldwide distribution of the film.

Jonathan Glickman, MGM’s motion picture group president, said, “The themes, characterizations and settings (in “Boys in the Boat”) make it a story meant to be experienced on the big screen, and we are honored to be part of bringing it to audiences around the world.”

Judy Willman, Rantz’s daughter, said the road to bringing her father’s story and those of his crew mates has been a bumpy one.

“At this point I’m optimistic; back in 2011 … (the way) that whole contract set up, there was no wiggle room. If something was not right about it, they weren’t including Dan or me,” Willman said.

“(We) had a chance to talk to new owners (at Lantern Entertainment); it was a very, very positive feeling. What they seemed to be saying was that it was extremely important to them to get the story right. That’s exactly what Dan and I wanted.”

In descriptions of the story, MGM and Lantern Entertainment representatives call “The Boys in the Boat” an “underdog” story — and few epitomized that more than Rantz, who struggled with changes to his family after his mother died and father remarried.

Abandoned by his family in Sequim to fend for himself while just a teenager, Rantz did what he could to make ends meet: cutting down cottonwoods along the Dungeness to sell at the Port Angeles pulp mill, pulling salmon out of the same river to supplement what food he could get at friends’ houses and playing various musical instruments to entertain and make money.

In his senior year of high school, Rantz joined his brother Fred in Seattle and finished his prep days at Roosevelt High School. There, University of Washington crew coach Al Ulbrickson discovered the 6-foot 3-inch Rantz on the school’s gymnasium high bar.

Rantz and fellow UW rowers battled each other, then the top collegiate outfits across the nation, to become the nation’s best eight-man crew in race after race. To top it off, the Huskies shocked the world by overcoming great odds at the 1936 Games to earn gold in the premier crew race.

Rantz went on to a successful professional career as a chemical engineer at Boeing.

He died in September 2007 at the age of 93, but not before a serendipitous meeting with Brown, a neighbor and author, that led to the author’s penning of “The Boys in the Boat” in 2013.

Page to screen

“The Boys in the Boat” has been featured on the small screen already: PBS’s American Experience produced and premiered “The Boys of ’36,” a documentary about Rantz — a former Sequim resident — and his fellow gold medal-winning crew, in August 2016. (The film is now available through PBS’s streaming video; see a trailer and more online at pbs.org/wgbh/americanexperience/films/boys36; it’s also available on DVD).

“PBS did such a great job with that,” Willman said. “I was at the point, I mentally said, ‘That’s OK if the movie never happens. That’s OK. We have a visual record that goes along with the book.”

But a full-length feature film is going to be different, Willman said — bringing some cause of trepidation for Rantz’s family.

“Knowing what’s happened to a lot of movies that come from books, they’re not the same,” she said. “I did not want to see this particular story get screwed with.”

And while Willman said she’s hopeful that the final product will come close to what Brown was able to convey in the book, she knows there will be some changes to the story for brevity’s sake.

“I hope they don’t change things that are historical …. (and) I hope they don’t change the character of these guys,” she said. “You can’t do that and keep true to who they were.”

Willman said she hopes to see several scenes played out on film: the moment her father, the last member of the UW crew is selected and everything falls into place; the 1936 intercollegiate finals in Poughkeepsie when UW climbed back from three boat lengths back to destroy the field, and, of course, the 1936 Olympic Games finals.

But Willman said she also hopes movie-goers will get a chance to experience the resiliency her father showed in what he went through to overcome the odds — not just in the boat, but in life.

“I think it’s important to give enough of dad’s history; if all you do is stick with (the) abandonment, you’re not going to have the audience feel this ache for him,” she said. “You’ve got to be able to see these things, to see his mom die, see he got sent away, banished, several times that he was just thrown away, to see what he was struggling with.”

As for how her father would have reacted to seeing his story on the big screen, Willman said he’d have been “guardedly excited” about the prospect.

“Initially I felt like dad would have been put off by so much publicity or adulation or whatever you might call it; it’s not something he sought or anything of those guys sought,” Willman said.

“(But the story) has been a very positive thing for a lot of people,” she said, noting comments made by book reviewers online that relate how Rantz’s story and the stories of the crew members changed their lives.

“It’s weird, but it’s beautiful,” Willman said. “People have been changed, been inspired.”

Odds and ends

Willman attended “Boys of 1936,” an Oct. 13 reunion bringing together family members of the UW crew of 1936 at the university’s restored shell house in Seattle. For years, the nine crew members (the eight-man crew plus coxswain) agreed to meet once each year for decades and did so nearly each year, until they started passing away. H. Roger Morris, the last surviving member of the U.W.’s legendary 1936 men’s crew, died July 22, 2009 … Jennifer Huffman, Willman’s daughter, is a top-flight rower in her own right, earning multiple golds and silvers at the World Rowing Masters Regatta in Saratsota, Fla., in September … Huffman narrates “Us Against the World,” a mini documentary that premiered at the Seattle International Film Festival … North Cascades Crew, a community of rowers in the Lake Stevens area, is nearing completion on the Joe Rantz Boathouse, being constructed on the west side of Lake Stevens at Wyatt Park.

Reach Michael Dashiell at mdashiell@sequimgazette.com.

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