I was happy to speak with Adams about his film and the process it took to bring it to fruition. We also talked about how the film shines a light on how triathlons are one type of outlet many cancer survivors utilize to celebrate life. TRI will hold screenings at many major triathlons and triathlon communities around the country and Canada. Triatlons in the US and Canada and locations with huge triathlon communities. Visit the film’s site for full details and how you can request TRI to come to your area. TRI will also be available this fall on iTunes, Amazon, VOD, and other digital outlets.
How did you Jai Jamison come to work on TRI?
Actually, I had the idea of TRI January 2015. I used to go to triathlons myself…I’ve been a part of a tri team [Team in Training] that raises money for cancer awareness. Because of that, I’ve met a lot of phenomenal people who have done very well, not only with raising awareness for cancer research, but cancer survivors or people who have lost loved ones who are doing the races in honor of someone who had cancer. Even myself–my father passed away from multiple myeloma, so I joined the Team in Training group because they raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. So my interactions with these people…inspired me to do a…scripted narrative. I worked with another writer named Monica [Lee] Bellais…and we worked together to write the first draft. Our mentor, Russell Williams II, the first African-American to win two Oscars, he recommended a number of former students he had…and one of them was Jai Jamison. I met Jai through Russell and we hit it off from the get-go. Jai had some great ideas to make [the film] even more enticing…that’s when we turned it into a new script and then we turned it into a movie.
You mentioned being inspired by people who are facing cancer and have been able to overcome odds. What was it like during the creative process to take those stories and mesh them together to make this film?
The main character of the story is Natalie, and she works for a…hospital as a technologist who does scanning for transvaginal examinations. In the story, she’s examining a patient named Candice, and Candice actually works for a group that organizes [a] triathlon. Part of Natalie’s backstory is that she also never finishes anything. She stays in this very dark room of scanning equipment; you typically see her in this dark, cave environment. Candice actually connects with her because a lot of these folks try not to get to connected to their patients because they might see someone who looks pretty bad and they can’t say anything because they’re not the oncologist. But Candice is able to break through that barrier and connects with Natalie and tells her [she] should give [a triathlon] a shot. Natalie does agree to do it and she enters this world of triathlons. She’s basically brought out of her shell and into the world of not only to triathlons but to trying to complete things[.]
Getting back to your original question, when I did these races earlier on…I met one of my very close friends who’s on my friend. I raced her in Hawaii during the Lavaman [Waikoloa]. The Lavaman race is an Olympic distance race, which means you swim for .9 miles, you bike for 25 miles, and you run 10K. This friend of mine is a cancer survivor; she’s been in remission for 10 years. But during the race, she somehow broke her hip and didn’t realize it. I saw her and she was crying; I went to ask if I could help her and she said “No, it’s okay.” I finished my race and I waited for her. Turns out, when she returned to Virginia, which is where we live, she found out her hip was broken…That’s the kind of people you meet in the world of triathlons…Triathletes by their very nature are type-A people who are determined to finish something and complete something.
I’d say that 95 percent of triathletes are not trying to win the race, they’re trying to complete the race and fulfill their own personal goals or records; it’s not about competing with someone else, it’s about competing with yourself. So the tie-in with cancer is that if you have cancer, you want to get through it. But there are also some people who not only get through it but then they [think], “What else could you do to inspire other people?”. By the way, no triathlete would compare triathlon training to cancer. But being in that realm of pushing through very difficult challenges, that’s the tie-in.
TRI is the first scripted narrative about triathlons made for theatrical release. How does it feel to make that kind of cinematic history?
It’s fun because this world of triathlons is one that not many people know about…The intriguing part of [triathlons] are the stories of the people behind it. The triathlon itself sets the stage for people with like-mindedness to get together and do this crazy journey. The race itself is more of a celebration. It’s the training that really defines what a triathlete is. Do you want to get up on a Saturday morning when you don’t have to to train with a group? Do you want to go swim in the middle of the week? Those are the things triathletes do; they don’t look for a lot of accolades, they just do it…Being able to expose the rest of the world to these types of stories is fun. There have been a lot of documentaries [about triathletes] and they’re phenomenal documentaries about triathletes, but really, how do you put this together to touch a lot of people in a meaningful way? That’s what we tried to do with TRI.
The lead of this film is female; how important was it to have the leading character be female, especially since Hollywood is currently coming to grips with creating more leading roles for more women?
It’s funny–I’m African-American, Jai’s African-American, the other writer is female, but I honestly make the female protagonist on purpose other than that the character we developed was inspired by the female triathletes I knew. I mean, there are certainly many male stories that are intriguing and inspiring, but when we did the original story, it was based on private stories of some female [triathletes]; the female that the protagonist is inspired by is Julie Moss, one of the Hall of Fame inductees who…in the Ironman World Championships in 1982, was about 20 yards away from the finish line and she completely fell apart. She lost all faculties and was crawling, and this lady passed her and was about 10 yards away from the finish line. But that story of her completing it and going on…transcends gender, but in this case, it happens to be a woman who is breaking into this world.
Another thing to keep in mind for the target audience is that it’s not just for triathletes; it’s for people who do endurance events like running. And…60 percent [of finishers in running races] are women. So again, this is a story that will resonate not just with men, but with women who want to overcome something. It’s something that I think a lot of people are going to identify with. We also had a very diverse team that put this movie together. That’s also something that you do but you don’t really think about it. Our director of photography, Jendra Jarnagin, who is a phenomenal director of photography; we chose her for her skill and her being a female really didn’t play into this at all. But when we found her, she was the best person for the job, so we chose her.
You mentioned that you and Jai are African-American; there are a lot of people of color who want to break into films, but are also looking at the state of Hollywood and the problems pointed out by hashtags like #whitewashedOUT and #OscarsSoWhite. For those who still want to break in after weighing all of the hardships, what’s your advice?
I have an engineering company that does quite a lot of work with the federal government, particularly the Navy. So my engineering background and business background played a lot in how I put the whole story together and how I put the plan of telling this story together and getting [the film] out[.] A lot of this wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t put together a great team. Jai is a first-time director. I’m a first-time producer. But as an engineer, I’m very good with logistics, and my job as a producer is that the tools are there to make the best possible production. Jai’s got a great eye for storytelling and directing, but I surround him with the best possible people I can get…everything we could possibly do to make it the best film we could possibly have. So what I tell anyone making a film or anything is to get the best possible resources you can. Thankfully I was able to put together the financing myself, which I think it is the biggest obstacle for folks…but the key was making sure we did the best quality possible for [the budget] we had.
When people say they want to be actors, try to be a producer or director so you’re not just going in asking to play a role. If you can write a script, write a script. You can be part of the whole process. That’s where people miss the boat when they say, “Why aren’t I getting a break?”—create your own break. Create your own business. I started my own production company…if you can set the stage for your own success, then that’s how you do it. Just like Sylvester Stallone. When he wrote Rocky and before he sold it, he said, “The only way I’m going to sell this to you is if you put me in the lead.” And he did, and that’s how… he built his career. So always add value whenever you can and in as many places as you can, and that’s how you can control your own destiny as much as you possibly can.♦
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity