SWING AWAY, Coming Soon to a Theater Your way
by Athena Efter
Swing Away, a feature film starring Shannon Elizabeth, John O’Hurley and Viktoria Miller, is a golf-themed movie set in a small village of Greece. When professional Greek-American golfer, Zoe Papadopoulos (Shannon Elizabeth), suffers a meltdown brought on by the spotlight pressures of the international golf scene, which leads to her suspension, she seeks refuge in her grandparent’s village. While there, she befriends ten-year old Stella, a young Greek girl who has heart set on becoming the next golf champion. It’s a film about passion, courage, determination, and the inspiration behind it all. On this journey, Zoe rediscovers her heritage, her love of golf, and her own capacity to love, as she leads the townspeople to a stand-off against an American developer.
Directed by Michael Achilles and produced/created by George Stephanopoulos, and just in time for Greek Independence Day, Swing Away is a PG rated film that offers a lot of heart, a lot of laughs, and a lot of entertainment for the whole family. Several advanced public screening dates have been planned throughout March: Chicago, IL-Pickwick Theater, Thursday, March 9 at 7pm; Boston, MA-Somerville, Tuesday, March 14 at 7pm; Salt Lake City, UT-Megaplex Theaters, Sunday, March 19 at 4pm; Houston, TX-Edwards Marq’E Stadium 23 & IMAX, Tuesday March 21 at 7pm; Silver Spring, MD (near WDC)-Regal Majestic Stadium 20 & IMAX, Thursday, March 23 at 7pm; Atlanta, GA-UA Tara Cinemas 4, Sunday, March 26 at 4pm; and Portland, OR-Regal Lloyd Center 10 & IMAX, Wednesday, March 29 at 7pm. These are advanced screenings, leading up to a larger theatrical market release, so don’t miss the opportunity to see these exclusive engagements. You can also view their website swingawaymovie.com for the dates and theater locations in the participating cities.
In the interview below, George Stephanopoulos tells us more about the film and its storyline, his experience, his plans for the future, and how this film, and other films like it, along with the support of our community, can play a key role in a struggling Greek economy.
“Swing Away” had its first screening at the Bentonville Film Festival in Arkansas. What was the response like? Have you had other screenings and what has the reaction been like?
BFF was the prefect venue for SWING AWAY to have its world premiere. The festival was started by Geena Davis (Thelma & Louise, A League of Their Own) in an effort to showcase films that promote gender equality and diverse voices in media and SWING AWAY is the ultimate female empowerment story. We were sold out and learned from that audience screening that the film had broad appeal as a family-oriented comedy-drama not to mention the value of Greece as a production location. Other festival screenings in 2016 included the Savannah Film Festival, NYC Greek Film Festival, Cyprus International Film Festival, and Bridges International Film Festival in Naplio, Greece. In Cyprus the film won Best Picture in the Veteran’s category that was awarded to Director Michael Achilles Nickles and in Greece the film won awards in three categories. The prizes there went to Shannon Elizabeth for Best Leading Actress in a Feature Film, Viktoria Miller for Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role in a Feature Film, and Yiannis Daskalothanasis for Best Cinematography in a Feature Film.
Your previous movie “Golf In the Kingdom” was also centered on the sport of golf. What attracts you to the sport as a movie subject?
Golf is both inspirational and aspirational and these two elements make for great storytelling. However, what interested me more than golf were the “student-teacher” relationship between MICHAEL MURPHY and SHIVAS IRONS that is the heart of the story in GOLF IN THE KINGDOM (the movie is based on Michael Murphy’s best-selling golf fiction novel of the same name) and the “prodigy-mentor” relationship between STELLA and ZOE that is the heart of the story in SWING AWAY. And in this sense the book Golf in the Kingdom with its famous dinner scene, based on Plato’s Symposium, informed the story of SWING AWAY as another meaning-focused and Greek-inspired film.
I know you have a background as an attorney. What attracts you to the movies? How did you get started in producing and what do you love about it?
I had moved to NYC in 1991 a year after I had graduated from law school hoping to start a career as a sports attorney. Instead, I ended up working as a TV and film lawyer for Broadway Video Entertainment, an independent production and distribution company founded by Lorne Michaels, the creator and executive producer of “Saturday Night Live”. This was my introduction to show business. While I did not set out to be a producer, my training is rooted in my entertainment transactional background in comedy and the creative arts and love of movies, in particular sports films (some my favorite films in this genre are those I remember watching as kid like BRIAN’S SONG, ROCKY, and THE BAD NEWS BEARS).
You came up with the story. How closely were you involved in the writing process? Have you worked with your screenwriters before?
I wrote the original story outline and drew from Greek history, literature (mostly from the writings of Nikos Kazantzakis), other golf movies, books, and TV coverage of the tour, as well as my own experiences. In terms of locations, I considered Corfu, Crete, Rhodes, Halkidiki, Peloponnese and Athens, which are the only places with golf courses in Greece. Cyprus was also an option. Though many details of the story changed during the course of development, as the creator and lead producer my notes and revisions were reflected in the script and script rewrites. This was my first film as a producer, so I had not worked with the screenwriters and creative team before this production. Still, we were all friends and had known each other for many years. This is what made SWING AWAY so rewarding and fun to work on. And, despite all the starts and stops and many years in between, we finally have a finished film to show for our efforts.
How did you go about choosing your director, obviously the most critical creative force behind a movie?
Michael and I meet as teenagers at the Ionian Village summer camp in Greece in 1982. We had both just graduated from high school. When our paths crossed again years later, with Michael having distinguished himself as a writer-director-producer and Hollywood actor, and me as an entertainment lawyer, Michael was quick to encourage me to get involved in the creative process. So, when I had the idea to make the movie, I immediately turned to Michael for his advice and direction. He explained I did not need to necessarily write the screenplay. Rather, it was more important to create a good story that had a beginning, middle and end — in no particular order — and then work with professional screenwriters to write and develop the script. I could then either look to sell the rights or produce the film myself. I eventually had Paul Robert Lingas write a first draft script based on my story outline. Paul is another close friend and screenwriter with a unique understanding of Greece and the Greek language having spent his summers in Patras, Greece growing up. The script went through many drafts and throughout this process we received countless notes and suggested rewrites from Michael and other writers and filmmakers including talent. I soon realized that to get closer to making SWING AWAY it would be necessary to establish myself as a credited producer on other films. And not just any film but films that would serve SWING AWAY in some way – which is how I got involved with other sports films like GOLF IN THE KINGDOM and other comedies like Second City’s BUZZKILL and GOYBAND. Eventually, we closed the financing and attached Michael as director and his wife Julia Wall as co-writer, and set a start date for principle photography in Spring 2015.
What was the casting process like? How did you go about attracting your cast? You brought in some well-known names such as Shannon Elizabeth in the lead and John O’Hurley.
It was combination of things. It started with the attachments of our two lead Greek actors Renos Haralambidis (Four Black Suits, Cheap Smokes) and Manos Gavras (Back Up Plan, Little Greek Godfather) and their involvement early on, as well as that of producer Statmatios Tom Hiotis, was absolutely critical to our success in Greece in terms of credibility. I was familiar with their films and had gotten to know them personally. Same with John O’Hurley. He and I meet in New York at the Waldorf Astoria where he was the MC at a charity event to celebrate 125 years of golf in America. I am a huge Seinfeld fan and knew immediately that John was the kind of comedic actor and golfer we needed for this part. In the case of Shannon, we saw this as the perfect producer-star vehicle for her and an unexpected departure from her other films like AMERICAN PIE. Shannon who is of Lebanese descent looks Greek and was also the right age and height with the physique of a professional athlete. Shannon committed to the film after meeting with Michael and her co-star Manos Gavras. Viktoria Miller and the other Greek cast (Christos Sougaris, Olga Damani and Alexandros Mylonas) we auditioned in Greece. British actor Karl Theobald rounds out the main cast and he was selected based his actor reel and headshot. We also cast Greek American professional golfer Nicole Dalkas Castrale (now retired) to play herself in the opening scene and to assist on-set as a golf consultant.
How many weeks did you shoot and was the whole movie shot in Greece?
It was a 26-day shooting schedule – 24 in Greece and 2 in the States. The opening sequence and scenes with the sports agent were filmed at the Stockton Seaview Hotel and Golf Club near Atlantic City. This is the site of the ShopRite LPGA Classic and tournament that is featured in the film. Our locations on the island of Rhodes included the Afandou Golf Resort, St. Paul’s Bay and the town of Lindos, The Church of the Archangel Michael in Archangelos, Rhodes and The Monastery of Filerimos. We later had to schedule an additional 3 days of photography for pickup shots in Rhodes and at the golf course in Glyfada while the editing of the film in Athens.
A lot of the key creatives, like the cinematographer, composer, production designer, and editor in the film are Greek. Was it important to hire many Greeks in both cast and crew?
Absolutely. I wanted SWING AWAY to be a film made by and for the Greek community with Greeks in front and behind the camera. I also wanted it to serve as an example of the kind of cross-boarder collaboration that is possible between the Greek and Greek American creative communities. Except for British actor Karl Theobald and American actors John O’Hurley, Shannon Elizabeth, Gino Cafarelli and the US background performers, the entire production team, are all Greek, including the investors (Peter J. Pappas, Sr. and Mike Angeliades of New York and Paul Carkonen of Seattle, Washington are three in particular that also have ties to golf in Greece). This is something I am especially proud of and the fact SWING AWAY stands today as one of the few non-Greek language films to be shot, edited and post produced within Greece is significant.
Obviously, the country can use more business, and film production, as a medium, can do that to promote the country. Connected to the 2 questions above, was it important to showcase Greece and its filmmaking talent as part of your larger goal?
The movie is a 90-minute commercial for Greece and for that reason I am hopeful it will have a positive impact on tourism and film production in Greece not unlike MAMA MIA, SUMMER LOVERS, SHIRLEY VALENTINE, or any of the other foreign films that came before. This was a remarkable experience and of course I am grateful to have worked with so many talented people in Greece thanks to our team at CL Productions and View Master Films and those in Rhodes – from the Rodos Palace Hotel to the Afandou Golf Course to all the extras and local cast – who supported our efforts to make this film and promote the island.
From soup to nuts, how long did it take you to develop the story, procure financing, go into production, shoot it, and finish it?
I had the idea to get involved with golf in Greece in some way after attending the Athens 2004 Olympics. In 2005 that idea morphed into a movie project. The story took approximately 18 months to develop as I had been working full-time then as a lawyer. While the first draft script was completed in 2006, it took another 8 years before we were able to close on the financing and actively commence pre-production. We eventually shot the film in April-May 2015 and started post-production in mid-July. The final edited film and original music were completed in early December. Days later the NYC Greek Film Festival, The Greek National Tourism Organization, and The Dean C. and Zoe S. Pappas Center for Hellenic Studies at Stockton University, among other sponsors, hosted our first private invitational screening at the Museum of the Moving Image in Astoria, Queens – New York.
The film seems to have a universal appeal that just happens to be about a Greek-American woman’s journey, but really it can be about any woman’s journey in any culture. I would want to see it, even if I wasn’t Greek, but many of the readers of NEO magazine are of Greek background. I want to ask what we, as a community, can do to support the film?
The Greek American community is known to support Greek cinema and other movies filmed on location in Greece or about Greeks so I am hopeful SWING AWAY will be widely promoted and talked about within Greek circles as a “must see” film. What’s most important in the short term is that people go to see the film when it is in theaters and help to create a demand for the movie to open in more markets and on more screens through favorable word-of-mouth and social media.
Do you have other projects down the pipeline? What are the future plans for George Stephanopoulos, the film producer?
I am working on two new projects – both book-to-film adaptations. “S.O.B.E.R. (Son of a Bitch Everything is Real)” written by Anita Baglaneas Devlin and Michael Devlin Jr. is an addiction story told by a mother and her son and how faith and hope lead to their family and individual recovery. The other book is based on the underground CIA/LSD novel “Wisdom’s Maw” written by Todd Brendan Fahey. The book ties, conclusively, the CIA’s Project MK-ULTRA to the origination of what is known as “the Sixties” in what is otherwise a “factionalization” of events. Suffice to say, neither project will have anything to do with golf.