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Local filmmaker’s first feature film is also a first for triathlons

Jai Jamison, a Virginia native, shoots a scene from his first feature film "Tri." (Red Zeppelin Productions)

WASHINGTON — They grew up miles and generations apart in Virginia, but their creative forces were fated to crash together in a journey of run, bike, swim.

Writer/producer Ted Adams III, 51, of Springfield, has funded the dream of writer/director Jai Jamison, 30, of Richmond, who rose from the halls of American University and the D.C. apartments of Ingomar Street NW to create the inspirational new movie “Tri” (2016). It screens Tuesday at the Angelika in Fairfax as part of The Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival (April 21-30).

The film follows Natalie (Jensen Jacobs), an ultrasound tech who becomes inspired by a cancer patient to sign up for a triathlon. As she trains for the Nation’s Triathlon in D.C., she is introduced to the unique world of triathletes and discovers just how far she can push her mind, body and soul.

“She’s famous for not finishing anything,” Jamison said. “So when she signs up for a triathlon, is she going to follow through? … The film follows her journey as she joins a tri team, meets some of the characters in the tri community, and we get to see her as she grows as an athlete and as a person.”

Working with a modest $1 million budget, the 90-minute flick was financed by Adams, who grew up in Springfield and attended what is now St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes School in Alexandria. He took over his father’s defense contracting company Unified Industries Inc. after his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Rice University, master’s degree from UCLA and graduate studies at the Yale-China Program at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Harvard Business School.

He has since co-founded the Stan Lee Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting literacy, arts and education, and founded his own filmmaking company Red Zeppelin Productions.

“Defense contracting work is not quite the same as making movies,” Adams said. “When I couldn’t play soccer anymore, I got into triathlons. The first triathlon I did was … the Nation’s Triathlon here in Washington D.C. … I heard some phenomenal stories from cancer survivors. … Hearing these stories just gave me an idea about doing a scripted narrative about triathlons,so I drafted one up.”

Producer Ted Adams III checks the camera during production of "Tri." (Courtesy Red Zeppelin Productions)
Producer Ted Adams III, a Virginia native, checks the camera during production of “Tri.” (Courtesy Red Zeppelin Productions)

With his draft written, Adams reached out to executive producer and American University professor Russell Williams II, who won two Oscars for his sound work on “Glory” (1989) and “Dances With Wolves” (1990), not to mention recording “If you build it, he will come” in “Field of Dreams” (1989).

Williams remembered Jamison’s work at American University and recommended him to Adams.

“I asked Russell, give me a list of some directors that you think we can work with, and he gave us a list of AU graduates,” Adams said. “I saw Jai’s work and I was blown away by ‘Speak Now.'”

“Speak Now” was Jamison’s master’s thesis, a 23-minute comedy short with a clever premise.

“‘Speak Now’ is a film about a woman who comes home for her sister’s wedding and she has this master plan of trying to get her divorced parents back together. She attempts to do so with the help of her new boyfriend — who is a mime. There’s the catch,” Jamison said, grinning.

Flash forward four years when a social media notification would change Jamison’s life.

“The whole thing was a whirlwind,” Jamison said. “I’m hanging out, I had just finished working as a visual effects assistant on Season 2 of AMC’s ‘Turn.’ I also worked on ‘Lincoln’ right when I graduated … Russell hits me up on Facebook. … ‘Hey man, where are you? There’s some folks in Northern Virginia who are looking for a director for their project. Could you send them some of your work?’ … A couple weeks later I get an email from the production team and I’m on the phone with Ted.”

Adams brought Jamison the script that he had penned with co-writer Monica Lee Bellais.

“When I showed Jai the draft, he had some ideas, so we went through some stuff. I said not only can Jai direct, but he’s a great writer,” Adams said. “He asked to make some changes, and the next thing you knew, we’re at a Page One rewrite and Jai’s redoing the script and doing a phenomenal job of it.”

“The thing that made this whole process so wonderful was how collaborative Ted was. This is his baby, it was his original idea, it’s based on stories and people that he knew, but he was also very aware of the necessity of collaboration … bringing other people in and embracing their ideas,” Jamison said.

It was a welcome challenge for Jamison, who knew very little about triathlons at the outset.

“I had never done a triathlon, I had never been to a triathlon,” Jamison said. “So as soon as I was hired, the first thing I did was I looked up where the nearest triathlon was that weekend. There was one in Hampton, Virginia, just by pure chance … my sister was home for the summer, so I grabbed my sister, we got up at like 4:00 in the morning, drove down to Hampton to watch this triathlon.”

He was immediately blown away by the good vibrations.

“The thing that struck me instantly was the sense of support, the vibe, the community. There were so many people that were running for causes, that were running for their own personal challenges. The volunteers that were there who were helping these people achieve these things. It was fun, it was positive and it made me feel good. I left that triathlon with this big, goofy grin on my face and I said this is what the film needs to be. I want people to leave the theatre with a big, goofy grin,” he said.

After doing this vital firsthand research, Jamison began planning the visual look of the movie.

“The world of triathlon is very bright,” Jamison said. “You have very bright colors, all the jerseys, all of the paraphernalia is neons and bright colors. Having that juxtaposed against our main character, who spends her life in a dark room to start. So getting her out of the dark room, into the world and nature.”

He also tried to create visual parallels that would bring the film full circle.

“We have scenes that parallel each other at the beginning and at the end,” Jamison said. “So you can see, oh wow, this character was sitting on the couch eating pizza and drinking wine at the beginning, and now she’s sitting on the side of the road taking a break from biking and training, eating a granola bar out in the world and looking at the sky. You can feel that. There’s something very subtle that you can feel when you’re able to make those connections and make that throughline thematically.”

Overall, he kept a guiding principle to the film’s tone.

“I didn’t want the film to look like a documentary … so we were very careful to try to limit those sorts of techniques. When we used handheld, we used Steadicam. We would frame things in a way where it looked cinematic,” Jamison said. “Flip side, I didn’t want it to look like a Nike commercial, where I didn’t want it to be overly stylized. So finding a sweet spot between a naturalistic, cinematic look.”

As for the cast, the duo brought in Kimberly Skyrme, regional casting director for Netflix’s “House of Cards,” to help them find their actors. The “Tri” cast hails from D.C., Philadelphia, New York and Los Angeles, including Tim Reid (“WKRP in Cincinnati”) and Chris Williams (“Dodgeball”).

“We filmed three live races and we embedded our own actors, who are not triathletes, into real triathlons,” Adams said. “People said, ‘Do you get great triathletes to become actors, or actors who become triathletes?’ We went with the latter … but as a coach, I wanted to make sure they know how to swim, for example, because these people are gonna be jumping into the Potomac River on an active race with 4,000 other racers! It’s not the time to jump in the water to let me know can you swim.”

The shoot took a total of 25 days, including four days in mid-August at two early triathlons and one massively complex shoot at the Nation’s Triathlon in Washington D.C.

“We had a whole side production unit just for the one day of shooting at the Nation’s Triathlon … because we had one shot at everything,” Jamison said. “It was really like a military operation: we had maps, we had plans, we had spreadsheets, we had schematics … we had cameras all over the place.”

Adams said portable digital technology was crucial on such a hectic day.

“We had swimmers actually swim the whole route with a GoPro on their heads. We had bikers biking around. We had folks on boats. It was a massive, massive [undertaking],” Adams said.

The shoot wrapped in October, just four months after the initial June meeting between Adams and Jamison, starting a postproduction process that produced a locked final cut by mid-February.

Now, the film is hitting the festival circuit, including the Best Storyline Award at the Boston International Film Festival, and now the Northern Virginia International Film & Music Festival.

Not only is it Jamison’s feature directorial debut, it’s an important first for triathlon cinema.

“It’s the first narrative, scripted film about triathlons. There are a lot of documentaries … there was a made-for-television film … this is the first American, theatrical [version],” Jamison said.

“There was one that was done in France years ago, but it never got distributed,” Adams added.

So being a cinematic first, what would the filmmakers like us to take away from it?

Jamison summed it up best in a recent interview with film critic Kevin Sampson of “Picture Lock.”

“[In] the first scene, one of the characters sees a poster … It says, ‘Attitude is the little thing that makes a big difference.’ It’s a Winston Churchill quote. They have a little back and forth: ‘It seems like every quote is Winston Churchill’ … ‘He spent a lot of time being profound’ … ‘It’s amazing he found time to fight a war.’ Then the other character says, ‘Maybe that’s how he won the war.'”

This is the message of “Tri,” an underdog thesis on inspiration, gloriously enabled by an AU thesis.

“That to me is the thesis of the film, the idea that being inspired, being profound, having art that moves you, whether it be a picture or a word or a quote, all of that stuff matters,” Jamison said. “Be it a finishing medal when you cross the finish line, having a symbol of that achievement, all of that matters … It helps us finish the race, it helps us finish the screenplay, it helps us finish the film.”

Editor’s Note: Jason Fraley and Jai Jamison graduated American University’s M.F.A. program together.

Listen to the full “Tri” interview with Jai Jamison and Ted Adams III below:

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