When I started seeing Nick Kroll post on Instagram from Pyeongchang, North Korea during the Winter Olympics last year, I’ll admit I wondered what he was up to over there. Not once did it ever occur to me that it could be for a movie; it’d never been done with the level of access that he seemed to have, or with the level of authenticity it would need. But as a packed ZACH Theater learned in Austin over the weekend, a revealing, intimate and funny movie can come from the Olympics: Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas’ “Olympic Dreams.”
Originally conceived as a short film, the project’s unprecedented access came through the International Olympic Committee’s Artist-in-Residence Program. Track athlete Alexi Pappas developed, wrote, and starred in the project, and praised the IOC for their “pretty carte blanche, pretty open-minded” attitude about her filming in previously unexplored places during the Games. In a chat the morning after the premiere, Pappas explained how the project evolved from a short film into a full-length feature: “Jeremy and I are totally the types where you give us a little pile of sticks and we’re not just gonna build a fort. We’re gonna make the best treehouse ever.” And their treehouse hits upon something most Olympic themed movies or documentaries rarely do- the humor that can be present in competing in the games.
The film will inevitably draw comparisons to limited relationship films “Before Sunrise” or “Lost in Translation,” and Pappas acknowledged that as we spoke. But in its moments tracking her character, cross-country skier Penelope, there are also shades of Bo Burnham’s “Eighth Grade.” The humor in those moments comes from trying to negotiate the discomfort inherent in the situation. Pappas seemed genuinely flattered by the comparison, elaborating on why that tension is both so relatable and so funny:
When you’re an Olympian, you can’t possibly prepare for what it’s gonna feel like when you get there. You can imagine it your whole life, but not matter what, you’re always gonna have that feeling of ‘will it, won’t it live up to my expectations?’ ‘Will I, won’t I, fit in?’ ‘What will it be?’
As an Olympic athlete, I couldn’t resist asking Alexi about where the funny parts of the Olympics and being an Olympian are. Her take? “It’s an amusement park. It’s a circus. It’s chaotic. If you keep your eyes up, you’re going to find the most amazing things.” Given that, the film needed no outlandish plot twists or shifts in reality to tell a compelling story. The funny notes, Pappas said, came from a deep understanding of their characters and gained steam through the largely improvised acting process. “Nick knew [his character, volunteer dentist] Ezra really well, and I really knew Penelope, and letting that play out created its own story.” That approach plays out with beautiful tension in the film’s final moments, as an emotional crescendo was interrupted – more than once – by outside forces. “All the interruptions are real, because Nick was wearing a volunteer jacket, so athletes were asking him all sorts of [questions]. ‘Where’s this? Where’s that?’ Jeremy just instructed us not to break character […] we just hung in there.”
What resulted was an authentic and unprecedented look at the life of Olympians, in all its skill and emotion- and yes, in all of its small funny moments. And Pappas feels confident that you won’t see another take on the Games like this. “I don’t imagine you’ll see another fiction film shot at the Olympics like this, ever again.”