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Doug Sadler Mines His Own Life Around the Bay For His Second Feature

Waterman: Doug Sadler brings the eastern shore back to movie screens with Swimmers.

By Wendy Ward | Posted 3/29/2006

Writer and director Doug Sadler walks up to the café talking on his cell, and he has the courtesy to stand outside in his vintage-y mustard Western shirt thick enough to withstand the climate until the conversation ends. Once inside, he asks if ordering a cheeseburger would offend, a consideration as cute as his receding blondish hair sticking straight up. Sadler, 38, is passionately eager to talk about Swimmers, his second feature film, which opens at the Charles Theatre March 31. He slows down his own rush of words only to chew or listen—he really wants to know what you think of it.

Swimmers tells the story of 11-year-old Emma Tyler (Tara Devon Gallagher), who has an accident and needs an operation that her parents can’t afford, while illustrating the weaknesses and strengths of the people that make up a family—and a community—living off the water. It’s a lifestyle Sadler knows well. He lives part time on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in Easton and part time in New York with his photographer wife. He grew up on a horse farm in Louisiana and moved to the Eastern Shore with his family as a teenager, where everybody lived on a boat for a year and a half. Since then he’s lived in Seattle and San Francisco, and gone to school in Nashville and Los Angeles, yet retains a bit of the accent specific to the place he keeps coming back to.

Many of the Swimmers’ details of living on the water are inspired by Sadler’s own life. The story “started as journal entry called ‘The Sloop of the Summer,’ about Emma and her brother Clyde,” he says. “And over time other characters poked their heads up. Each of the other characters, in a way, come from places I’ve been at different times. At least that’s what I used to feed it.”

He started with the voice of Emma, who narrates the movie—an element that never changed throughout the filmmaking process. He “recalls that age when your whole family is kind of mythic,” Sadler says. “Events in your family feel like your whole world.”

And when that whole world is in crisis, Emma turns to nature, which “becomes her touchstone when swimming is taken away from her,” he says. “It becomes the place where she has enough peace to really see, to speak to us.”

Parts of characters come from Sadler’s life as well. Emma’s brother Clyde “is some portion of my uncertain self in high school,” Sadler admits. “He’s sort of a romantic idealist in a way and he’s not really sure how to confront the world.” Clyde is played by Frederick actor Shawn Hatosy, and although the downy-ocean accents are subtle in the movie, Sadler jokes that Hatosy’s was the most difficult to work with. Sadler’s own slight twang updates the tide, weather, and Oriole scores in his cameo through Emma’s dad’s truck radio.

Clyde’s love interest, Merrill (Sarah Paulson), is an outsider returning to the little town a bit like a feral kitten. “I wanted the sense that this is a person who’s lived a life that we have to imagine,” Sadler says. “And clearly, it’s been a mess.”

Although Emma is at the core of this story, Sadler’s fascination and acute understanding of male/female relationships fill out the story—especially since Emma stands at the gate of teendom. “I think the film’s really about crisis and how people respond to it and how it shapes who they are,” he says. “It’s about the human heart. And that’s why the relationship between Clyde and Merrill is a hidden element in the film that I enjoy. I mean, unrequited love, everybody’s had one—a unique and bittersweet experience that I get back in touch with when I see these two maneuvering and circling one another.”

Emma’s parents circle not just each other, but also their responsibilities to her and the family as a whole. Cherry Jones expanded the role of Emma’s stressed-out mother, Julia, and created a multidimensional woman, something Sadler hoped the actress would do. “I really believe in handing a role to an actor,” he says. “You’re not playing a character I wrote, you are that character. [Jones] brought a lot of depth and truth to that character, who in other hands might have come across as a shrew.”

Emma’s father, Will, is played by Robert Knott, an actor Adler says has “done that kind of work, not as a waterman, but gone and worked like hell for 12 hours. The thing is [Will] is a tough guy in a classic sense. He’s in a bit of a box, he can’t do that thing that defines him. He doesn’t know what to do with himself.”

Sadler reports that, although Swimmers isn’t an environmental movie, he is focusing on a community that lives off the Chesapeake Bay. “It’s a uniquely American way of life,” he says of watershed living, a lifestyle rarely seen on screen. “It’s a subculture that’s dwindling. There aren’t as many watermen making a living in the same way that they used to be . . . and ultimately all of our lives are in some ways connected to the health of the planet.”

And now that this little movie about the Eastern Shore is opening, Sadler’s got some other projects brewing. “The one I’m most invested in right now is a dark comedy about a guy going through his midlife crisis,” he says. “It’s about passion, love, infidelity, and a charity golf tournament. It’s sort of in the country-club set, also in Maryland, hopefully—unless I have to shoot in Canada or something.”

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