The first time Judy Willman saw “The Boys in the Boat,” she couldn’t help but view it as a documentary. It was, after all, an epic tale of Olympic Games heroes centered in large part around her father, Joe Rantz.
The second time she saw it, Willman said, she was able to watch it as a movie — laughing and crying and all the emotions in between.
The third time, she and a theater full of Sequim youths and local dignitaries were able to celebrate the story at an advance screening of the soon-to-be-released film at Deer Park Cinemas in Port Angeles on Friday.
That was followed by a tapas gala in a tent in the parking lot of the Sequim Museum & Arts as “A Tribute to Joe Rantz.”
The tribute was a fundraiser for the Sequim Sunrise Rotary’s Joe Rantz Rotary Youth Fund centered on the George Clooney-directed film that’s based on Daniel James Brown’s book, “The Boats in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Olympics.”
Amazon MGM Studios, which provided the rotary club with a courtesy screening of “The Boys in the Boat” in response to requests from Sequim High School students, will release the film to the public on Christmas Day. It specified that “neither MGM, its affiliates, nor anyone connected with the film is involved in any of the Joe Rantz Rotary Club’s fundraising efforts.”
The Rotary club aims to raise $750,000 to build a home for homeless teens, so they can have stability in safe living quarters to finish high school (see joerantzrotaryyouthfund.org).
Brown’s bestseller details the story of Rantz, a former Sequim resident, and fellow University of Washington Husky athletes emerging as the nation’s best eight-oar crew team that went on to take the Gold Medal at the 1936 Olympic Games in Germany.
Dozens of Sequim High School students with the Rotary-sponsored Interact Club enjoyed an advance of the advance screening with a viewing in Seattle on Thursday, where they rubbed elbows and took photos with Clooney and Brown.
“It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for them,” Rotarian/student advisor Colleen Robinson said.
The next day, Willman and her husband Ray joined the Interact Club members, dozens of other students from the Sequim Boys & Girls Club and event sponsors for a viewing, as well as the party in Sequim.
Willman said seeing her family’s story on the big screen was a joy, in particular the love story between Rantz and his Sequim sweetheart, Joyce Simdars.
“I love what they did with mom and dad; they brought out the romance,” she said. “Now that they’re gone, especially.”
Though she said the majority of the film’s deviations from the book are enjoyable instances of artistic license, Willman said she was a little disappointed not seeing some of her father’s early life, a recounting of the rending of relationships that formed his stoicism and fortitude that shaped who he became and how it melded with other oarsmen on the gold medal-winning crew.
“That’s part of what makes his story so compelling,” Willman said.
Still, she said, the film adaptation of the film captured the spirit of her father’s story.
Friday night’s events also saw a bit of local sports icon worlds colliding: Willman got to share some words with gala attendee Matthew Dryke, the Sequim skeet shooting legend who won Olympic Games gold in 1984.
Born March 31, 1914 in Spokane, Rantz lost his mother at the age of 3. He at times lived with his father Harry and his older brother Fred, as Harry sought work across Western states.
Rantz recalled in a 2006 Sequim Gazette interview the struggles with his stepmother Thula that led to various difficult living situations. In 1925, the family moved to Sequim; Harry had purchased the Sequim Tire shop and Rantz was brought back to live with the family in the apartment above the shop. There was a sort of uneasy truce between him and Thula for several years, but his family eventually left Sequim, leaving Rantz — then a teen — to fend for himself.
It wouldn’t have turned out so well, Rantz recalled in that 2006 interview, without the help of the McDonald family, who lived on adjacent land and took him in for meals and get-togethers. Rantz did what he could to make ends meet: cutting down cottonwoods along the Dungeness River to sell at the Port Angeles pulp mill, pulling salmon out of the same river to supplement what food he could get at friends’ houses, and playing various musical instruments to entertain and make a buck.
By his senior year, Rantz was hoping to attend college. His brother Fred, a teacher at Seattle’s Roosevelt High School, said no university would look at Rantz if he had a diploma from Sequim — there was a question, Willman recalled years later, of whether Sequim High would be accredited the following year — so his big brother convinced Rantz to move in with him.
A chance encounter with University of Washington crew coach Al Ulbrickson during Rantz’s senior year at Roosevelt High led to a chance at rowing crew at UW. In 1934, UW’s eight-man freshman crew — Rantz, fellow oarsmen Don Hume, George Hunt, Jim McMillan, Johnny White, Gordon Adam, Charles Day, Roger Morris and coxswain Bob Moch — was so good that Ulbrickson promoted the whole team to varsity in 1935. How good were they? In the collegiate four-mile races, they simply got stronger as the race wore on while others didn’t; Rantz and company never lost a collegiate race.
At the U.S. Olympic trials, UW’s Huskies pulled away from runner-up University of Pennsylvania, earning the right to represent the United States at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin.
The UW crew followed that up with an unexpected, come-from-behind victory at the Olympic Games, defeating the world’s best and giving hope to a nation struggling to emerge from the depths of the Great Depression.
Rantz, who went on to a successful career as a chemical engineer at Boeing, died in September 2007 at the age of 93, but not before a serendipitous meeting with a neighbor that led to “The Boys in the Boat.”
By fate or providence, the way the book came to be was quite remarkable, Ray Willman noted. Rantz rarely talked about his exploits and it wasn’t until the 1970s, decades after his collegiate and Olympic Games experiences, that he began to detail his stories and his painful upbringing, Judy Willman said.
“I didn’t hear this from my dad; it was my mom who talked about it,” she said.
Willman’s daughter one day found boxes and chests filled with memorabilia, sparking an interest in constructing Rantz’s story. By the late 1990s, Willman said she realized his story needed to be compiled before those stories were lost.
“He and I started to document this journey, where he was at various points in time,” Willman recalled.
In the mid-2000s, Willman recalled that Brown — who happened to be a neighbor — let folks in their homeowner’s association he had just released his first book, “Under a Flaming Sky: The Great Hinckley Firestorm of 1894.”
Willman had compiled the lion’s share of her father’s story into a nine-page treatment, so she sent Brown an message along with the pages, asking if he thought Rantz’s journeys were worth being in print.
“Maybe a half hour later I get this email,” Willman recalled. “He said, ‘This has got to be a book.’”
She said Brown’s “Under a Flaming Sky” — the personal stories of a fire that burned an area of up to 250,000 acres, including the town of Hinckley, Minn., and killed hundreds, including Brown’s great-grandfather — seemed to fit the tone and style that Rantz’s story needed.
“I thought, ‘This (kind of story) was a way to have dad’s story live,” Willman said.
“All I knew about Joe,” Brown recalled at a book signing in Seattle in 2014, “was that he rowed in an Olympic race. Over the next hour Joe began to spin a tale … it mesmerized me.”
Brown noted in a presentation in 2016 at Port Angeles High School that when he heard Rantz’s story of growing up alone in Sequim, “That really got to me. I was just transported as he told me this story.”
Brown’s “The Boys in the Boat” was released in 2013, and the 404-page story has since received high praise and earned several awards, including the 2014 Washington State Book Award.
A collaboration between the Sequim School District and Sequim Education Foundation has put the book into the hands of students with 500 copies of the publication; 250 copies of the Young Readers Adaptation went to Sequim Middle School, and 250 copies of the original edition to Sequim High School.
The rights to “The Boys in the Boat” movie were purchased but a feature film was shelved for years. The Willmans said they saw some proposed drafts of the story, and they were far from what they’d hoped.
Those scripts, Ray Willman said, tried too hard to make Rantz an out-sized hero rather than who he was.
Instead, Judy Willman said, she hoped — and worked with Brown for months to get across — that her father’s story was much like Lauren Hillebrand’s seminal work “Seabiscuit”: a story of disparate people in desperate times coming together.
The film develops
In an interview with The Seattle Times art critic Moira Macdonald, Clooney — in Seattle for an advance screening of “The Boys in the Boat,” along with many of the family members of the 1936 team — said he read the book when it first came out.
“He’s a beautiful writer, and he wrote a beautiful, emotional story,” Clooney said of Brown.
Film rights to the story were initially purchased by The Weinstein Company in 2011 but the film’s future languished for years. In October 2018, Lantern Entertainment — successor of The Weinstein Company — contracted with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to distribute the film worldwide.
“Our job as storytellers,” Clooney said, “was going to be, number one, to get the rowing right and make it interesting, and, number two, to care about and understand who these young men were. If we got those two things right, we would be representing the incredible work that Dan did.”
Brown told The Times he was surprised at how emotional he was seeing his book on film.
“It certainly touched me,” Brown said. “I didn’t really expect that, because obviously I know the story. But it’s a different thing, seeing it on the big screen.”
Willman, for her part said the first time seeing the film “was not real emotional: I was looking at it from the point of a documentary.”
Some scenes that were shot — including a few involving Rantz’s early life in Sequim, and his abandonment by his father at the age of 13 — were cut from the film to get the running time close to two hours, according to The Times.
“If we were doing a six-hour television miniseries, all of those would be really powerful scenes,” Clooney told The Times. However, he said, they couldn’t be abbreviated enough to fit into feature-film length, and “we have to focus on the story.”
What mattered most, he said, were the scenes of racing, and the “old-fashioned love story” between Rantz and his girlfriend Joyce — the Sequim High School sweetheart who became his wife.
“They were married until they died, and they were in love with one another, and it’s important to see that and understand that, so we had to focus on that,” Clooney said. “You start to run out of space to cover everything.”
Said Brown, “Obviously you make a movie from a 350-page book, there’s going to be story lines that don’t get in. I remember saying to my agent at the beginning, all I care is whether the spirit of the story gets across. For me it works, it get the spirit across. That’s a really happy thing.”
Helping their peers
Sequim High’s Interact Club got the attention of Clooney’s Smokehouse Pictures production partner Grant Heslov online with a 47-second TikTok video they made in early 2023, lobbying filmmakers to consider having a premier of “The Boys in the Boat” in Sequim.
Taking the reins, the Sequim Sunrise Rotary Club members turned the screening into a fundraiser for the Joe Rantz Foundation Fund, with its goal to construct a home for homeless students.
The Joe Rantz Rotary Youth Fund was conceived in 2018, several years after the release of “The Boys in the Boat.” Club members realized Sequim was not honoring Rantz in his hometown, Rotarians note on their website describing the fund’s inception.
Around the same time, club members committed to the fund after hearing at their 2018 fundraising auction that two high school seniors had formed a pact to commit suicide the day after the graduation senior party because they didn’t see a future after high school.
“Fortunately, the SHS counselor got wind of their plan and got the girl’s help,” the Rotary website noted. “However, their story was a huge red flag for our club.”
Over the past three years, Sequim High School has had between 170 and 300 homeless students, McCauley said. The count is probably low, she added, since students have to register as homeless to be counted and many do not want to register out of fear of being bullied.
Last year, the high school had 50 unaccompanied teens, McCauley said.
“Our goal is to get them to graduate from high school” and get a good start in life, she said.
“The biggest issue has been housing stability for them,” McCauley said. “If teens are bad, they go to juvenile detention or drug rehab. If they are just normal kids in bad circumstances, they have no options.”
The Joe Rantz Rotary Youth House would house 12 teens with room for three emergency drop-ins. A social agency would manage it, according to the Rotary website, and teens would have counseling, mentoring and internships.
About 10 months after their TikTok ask, Sequim’s Interact students got to take part in screenings in both Seattle and on the Olympic Peninsula.
It’s a bit of payoff for a lot of hard work the youths do in the community, Robinson said, noting that when a call goes out for a community need, they come out in droves.
“Whatever it is, they’re there and doing it,” she said. “Interact is all about leadership … we have all the grades represented. Upperclassmen, freshmen. They are really proud to be part of this club.”
Seeing “The Boys in the Boat” will hopefully give local students some perspective on life, Sequim schools Superintendent Regan Nickels said at Friday’s screening.
“The movie was beautiful and inspiring,” she said. “I appreciate the references to Sequim. It helps the students to connect (with the story). The messages resonate with them. That’s what’s next in their lives.
“(And) the students got their day in the sun.”
For more about the Joe Rantz fund, visit joerantzrotaryyouthfund.org.
Michael Dashiell is the editor of the Sequim Gazette of the Olympic Peninsula News Group, which also is composed of other Sound Publishing newspapers Peninsula Daily News and Forks Forum. Reach him at email@example.com.