'Backwards' Stars James Van Der Beek and Haverford’s Sarah Megan Thomas

The movie explores the pain and passion of competitive women’s rowing and spotlights the Schuylkill River, the Shipley School and other Philly landmarks. Look for a winter 2013 release.

Shipley School grad Sarah Megan Thomas and James Van Der Beek. (Photo by Fenn Hoffman)Gliding down the Schuylkill in a scull, Haverford’s Sarah Megan Thomas sees the river as most don’t—perched atop its surface as commuters speed by on I-76, perhaps catching a glimpse of her below. From most perspectives, it’s as if every stroke forward is pushing her back.

For Thomas and the rest of the rowing community, the sport isn’t just a pastime. It’s a culture—one with its own language, its own fashion sense and, now, thanks to Thomas, its own movie. Backwards tells the story of Abi Brooks, a 30-year-old competitive rower who comes to a crossroads in her life, following a bout of professional rejection and personal conflict. Knowing firsthand the sort of sacrifices required for a shot at success in rowing, Thomas hopes that Backwards will help fill a void in the sparse landscape of female-focused sports films.

“I really wanted to see another women’s sports film out there,” says Thomas, who plays the lead role. “I really wanted to tell a story that’s universal. A lot of people have dreams that they either get or don’t get, and then they have to readjust. This character almost gets to her dream, and then finds her dream in a new way.” 

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Shot in Philly and around the Main Line, the film has scenes with the Philadelphia Museum of Art, Fairmount Park, Elizabeth Maar Boutique in Haverford and the Shipley School (called Union High in the movie), of which Thomas is an alum. A rower since eighth grade and entranced by the beauty of Boathouse Row, Thomas cultivated Brooks’ character partly from her experience as a competitive rower in high school and with her team at Williams College in Massachusetts.

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“You don’t have a life,” Thomas says of competitive rowers. “The saying is ‘eat, sleep, row’ for the lifestyle. That’s a major part of the movie’s plot: Abi is 30 and living like she’s 20, with no job and no relationship.”

Brooks was partly inspired by one of Thomas’ college teammates, who served as first alternate for the U.S. rowing team at the 2000 summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. “It’s often difficult to tell who’s the best in the boat, so there’s also the conflict of whether or not Abi really deserves the chance she missed out on in the first place,” Thomas says.

Compelling story aside, the film’s also got star power. James Van Der Beek—of Dawson’s Creek fame—plays Geoff, a love interest and Abi’s boss at Union High. Margaret Colin (Gossip Girl), Wynn Everett (Charlie Wilson’s War) and Alysia Reiner (Sideways) round out the supporting cast. Directing is Ben Hickernell, who earned critical raves for 2010’s Lebanon, Pa.

Though Sarah Megan Thomas now lives in New York, her Main Line roots remain strong. A graduate of Gladwyne Elementary and the Shipley School, Thomas found her niche in athletics, excelling in cross-country, basketball and rowing. She captained all three sports and was the first student in Shipley’s history to reach the 1,000-point benchmark for basketball. She also led her boat to a pair of local Stotesbury Cup Regatta victories and placed second at the Henley Royal Regatta in England.

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With so many years of athletic highs, lows, injuries and so on, Thomas didn’t have to reach far to create the story for Backwards, and shooting here was a no-brainer. “The landmarks are beautiful,” she says. “And with that, you can see how rowing is a bit of an art in itself. It’s beautiful to see the oars dip in and out of the water, but the work behind that is grueling and painful. The contrast is the same for this city.”

Thomas has popped up here and there on the Hollywood radar, making appearances on the daytime soap Guiding Light, and alongside both Elisabeth Moss in 2010’s A Buddy Story and Sigourney Weaver in 2007’s The Girl in the Park. Upon graduation from Williams College in Massachusetts, where she majored in theater, Thomas spent a year at the Drama Studio London, where she honed her skills and developed a keener understanding of producing.

Backwards is her first attempt at both acting and producing. “I read a lot of books on how to write a script and what needs to happen scene by scene,” she says. “It took me a year to write the script, and shortly thereafter, the first investment check came and we started shooting.”

Recruiting Van Der Beek was surprisingly hassle free, thanks to a solid product he could get behind. “We sent him a script, and he loved it. I think he really liked the unconventional story line—how it’s not the typical sports movie we’re all used to,” she says.

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For his part, Van Der Beek does play the love interest. But, in an interesting twist, he’s actually a former flame who is Brooks’ superior at Union High.

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Even before the talent signed on, Thomas was able to acquire funds from the area’s rowing, arts and women’s sports communities with relative ease. That allowed her to begin shooting last January. With postproduction work finishing at the end of 2011, Thomas is hoping for a release that coincides with the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.

Until then, she and her crew are busy tying up loose ends and marketing the film to generate enough buzz among distributors for a winter 2013 release in theaters. Thomas also has other projects in mind once Backwards is put to bed. But, for now, the motto hasn’t changed: Eat, sleep, row.

For more on Sarah Megan Thomas and Backwards, visit backwardsthemovie.com.

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