Exclusive Interview: “TRI” director/co-writer Jai Jameson

 

Late last week, I debuted my interview with TRI co-writer/producer Theodore Adams III, and this week, the TRI interview fest continues with my discussion with the film’s director and co-writer Jai Jameson. During our phone conversation, Jameson and I discussed how he came to work on TRI, as well as his personal reasons for investing in inclusion and diversity in entertainment.

TRI, starring Jensen Jacobs, Shawn Pelofsky, Jaylen Moore, Chris Williams, Kelly Spitko, Walker Hays, and Tim Reid, will be shown at triathlons and in triathlon communities around the U.S. and Canada. In the fall, the film will be available on digital outlets and a TV broadcast deal is in the works. Keep up with the film and find out how you can request the film to be shown in your area through triforcure.com.

How did you and Adams come to work together on TRI?

I went to grad school at American University; I got my MFA in film from there. One of my mentors at American University is Russell Williams [II], who is the artist-in-residence there and is a two-time Academy Award winner. [Adams] contacted Russell just for advice on doing his first film and having him as a mentor to him as well. When they were looking for a director for the project…Russell recommended me and sent some of my work to him, and [Adams] really responded to the films…I’d done.

I think the one that really spoke to him the most was “Speak Now,” which is my thesis film…and he got me on the phone, sent me the script, and started talking about how we would approach the material. We really bonded early on. We had a very similar aesthetic. We very quickly got on the same wavelength in terms of the type of movie we could make and what we thought the project could be.

I had spoken to Adams earlier about the film, and he said it was about beating the odds and how a lot of people in his life had been able to beat cancer and the triathlons they participate in. How did that storyline affect you as you were working on the film?

I think for me, the process of making the film and the themes within the film quickly started blurring together for me. The ideas and themes of perseverance and pushing yourself and getting things finished, those were definitely inspirations that meta-structurally informed the themes within the film. I was definitely able to draw upon a lot of personal experience just in terms of my own struggles and my own pursuit in the film world.

I’d been trying to get [another] feature made for over four years when Ted gave me the call [to do TRI]. It was one of those things where it was greenlit, we were ready to go, and this actor dropped out. Or, we were greenlit…and this financing that we thought we had we didn’t actually have. We went to various producers and people were attached and then people weren’t attached. There were four years of that where it’s just like, “Is this going to happen?”, and one of the first things that one of my first mentors told me about the film industry that it’s based on perseverance. So those were all themes that was able to personally, emotionally connect to that I transmuted into these characters who were going through these physical and mental challenges of overcoming what you think your body’s limitations might be.

I say that, for me, there’s no more fitting film to be a first film than a movie about triathlons, because filmmaking in itself is an endurance sport. It’s just hanging on and getting to the end and getting something in the can…I think the mental aspects of perseverance and what that means was something I was able to bring to the project.

As you said, this is your first feature film, and it’s already making history as the first scripted narrative about triathlons made for theatrical release. How does it feels to have that marker on your resume already?

It’s really amazing. This is such an amazing project, and in terms of what a first feature could be, this is more than what I could ever hope for, in terms of the team we were able to put together, the film we were able to make, and the response we’ve been getting to the film. I think it’s accomplishing its goal…Our goal was to inspire people with this film. We wanted people who had done a few triathlons, people who were thinking about doing a triathlon, and just random Joe Schmo off the street who only vaguely knows what a triathlon is, to watch the film and be inspired to leave the theater with a good, warm feeling, ready to attack the world…That’s what our goal was with the film. …Being able to do something that’s accomplishing its goal and getting feedback from people across the world just based on the trailer…the response has been overwhelming and extremely humbling. It makes all of the last few years of struggling to get things made worthwhile.

The film’s protagonist is a woman and I asked Ted this too, but I’ll ask it a little differently this time. As you know, Hollywood is going through a transitional period when it comes to being more inclusive to everyone. What do you think TRI adds to the conversation about having a diverse range of leading roles, particularly leading roles for women?

I think diversity in storytelling is very important. It’s one of my number one goals in terms of lending  my voice to film and the types of stories I want to portray and the types of characters I want to put out to the world. I think with TRI, there are three leads. There’s the lead of Natalie, and there’s a 1A and 1B in Candice, who is going through cancer treatment, and Christy, who is competing in her first triathlon since finishing cancer treatment. I think what we’ve been able to do is showcase levels and layers of various women who are exhibiting strength in different ways. What I really wanted to do was create well-rounded characters that have depth to them.

I take this from a very personal standpoint in that my sister is an actress. She just finished her first year [of grad school] at Yale School of Drama. And I look around and the opportunities for her as a woman, in terms of roles, and beyond that as a black woman. There aren’t a lot. I’m from Richmond, VA, and we get a lot of production in Virginia, but it’s a lot of historical production. It’s Civil War and Revolutionary War stuff. The two big productions in Richmond right now are Turn and Mercy Street. And it’s great to have them there, because you bring in amazing crew, you’re building the film infrastructure there in Richmond, everyone who works on those projects are amazing people. The film community in Richmond is fantastic. But the thing that’s frustrating to me as a filmmaker is that because of what those projects are—they’re both television shows—the only roles that are available are slaves or freed slaves. That’s frustrating. And there are really interesting things they’re doing with women, but in terms of black women, there aren’t a whole lot of juicy roles.

Beyond that…I’ve talked to a lot of women who have said that the only roles that [they] have are slaves or sassy best friends. I look at that in terms of being very cognizant of representation and telling stories that are more inclusive, more diverse, because that’s more interesting to me. Those are the types of stories that I respond to. There are plenty of stories that are about men. That’s not to say that I’m not going to tell stories about men as well, but I was very cognizant [of having complex female roles], especially for TRI, because it is a sports drama, but it stars mostly women. I was cognizant of wanting to pass the Bechdel Test, which I’m pretty sure we do. It’s such a low bar, but it’s amazing that so many projects don’t pass that simple test. So…with TRI and future work going forward, that’s been my focus. From a purely selfish standpoint, I want to create more and more roles for my sister and for people like her that are just talented actresses who are not given the opportunities to shine like I think they could.

That segues into my next question—for those who want to be in film, particularly people of color, and they see all the discrepancies in Hollywood and all the hashtags and movements and they still want to be in film, what advice would you give them to start them on their journey?

I think…the marketplace and the medium is opening up at a rapid pace and it’s being disrupted. The networks and the agencies—everyone is being extremely reactionary right now. The one good thing about #OscarsSoWhite is that it shown a spotlight on what was happening. The issue wasn’t the Academy; the issue was that they didn’t make enough movies with interesting roles for non-white actors and the movies that they did make they didn’t market correctly or didn’t get them into the public consciousness. The response to that is that Hollywood is a pendulum. They kind of overcorrect a little bit.

I think in the next couple of years, you’re going to see a lot of stuff. The key is to not let them overcorrect back in the other direction. The way to do that is to utilize this new marketplace that’s opening up and using this foot in the door that [the #OscarsSoWhite] movement has created to generate more and more content and build up more and more stories. We’re telling stories about all kinds of people, and there’s a marketplace for it. It’s just finding your market, your audience.

What I’ve learned with TRI is that there’s a very dedicated social media audience that we have hit upon that is really interested in the world of triathlons. Runners, cross-fitters, people who are really into fitness, overcoming things, and inspirational sports movies. We’ve engaged that audience. That audience exists for all other people and subject matter and themes. The key is finding that audience and telling a stories that are true to your experience because there are going to be people who are going to respond to that and what to see what you’re saying.

The key is to not try to be someone else. We already have Spike Lee, we already have Tyler Perry, we already have Ang Lee. We already have those folks who are telling their own stories. That’s great; we just need more people who are telling stories that are true to their experience and their point of view. The medium is opening up, whether it’s through television or independent television now where you can make a series and sell it directly to Amazon or Netflix, or whether it be a web series or independent film. The key is being true to yourself and your experience, and finding the audience that might respond to that.♦