A skilled filmmaker who focuses on character and emotionally driven stories, Jai Jamison has directed, written and edited a number of captivating films. These include Speak Now, Wheeler, Anthony Samuels and most recently, Tri, which Jamison directed and co-wrote.
Named the Best Narrative Feature Film at the Chesapeake Film Festival, Tri stars Jensen Jacobs and Chris Dyer garnering them Best Actress and Actor, respectively.
TRI follows Natalie (Jacobs), an ultrasound tech who is inspired by a cancer patient to sign up for a triathlon. With the support of her friends, coaches and teammates, Natalie digs deep to discover just how far she can push her mind and body. In this one-on-one interview, Jai Jamison reveals what drew him to this project and the many choices he made in making Tri such an emotionally moving film. (warning: contains a few spoilers)
Tri is so powerful on many levels. What inspired you to make this film?
Jai Jamison: I was hired by Ted Adams, the producer, to do this film. He’s a two-time Iron Man athlete and a certified triathlete coach. He used input from people he trained along with some personal stories from those he knew to do a story about triathletes. What drew me to the film was the inspiration: In triathlons, the community is so important in terms of pushing each other to do their best. It’s less a competition against each other and more about competing against yourself. It’s about the people supporting you—the volunteers, the other racers, the family and friends around you. I saw a lot of parallels between the Tri community and the people that surround cancer patients and their support groups. So I wanted to tell a positive story about inspiration.
The film accurately walks us through the steps and hurtles of a triathlon. Had you ever run the triathlon yourself?
Jamison: I had never done a triathlon and had never even been to one. So as soon as I was hired to direct the film, I attended a triathlon. I was struck by the community and such a positive vibe, the support, the volunteers, the racers, the family and friends—they were all there to push and help each other out. I left with a big grin and said to myself: this is what I want the movie to feel like. That was the broad, macro-vision of the film. In terms of depth, Ted was the hands-on consultant for how the steps played out. He was there to make sure we had the steps, and that those steps corresponded well with the narrative of the story.
You include not one but several people struggling with cancer. Why did you include so many in your film?
Jamison: When they came up with the story, they definitely wanted a parallel between those two struggles. Many people who do triathlons run in someone’s honor or they are cancer survivors who use the race to push themselves and reclaim their fitness and physicality. When Ted did the Nation’s Triathlon a few years ago, he remembered seeing a woman wearing a shirt that said, if you think this is hard, try chemotherapy. And that really left a mark on him. We thought that weaving together those two journeys—cancer and Tri—was a way to have each journey become a metaphor for the other. We felt that including more than one cancer patient would allow a broader swath of people to relate to what these characters were going through.
Why did you choose the Zeus character (Kenneth Simmons), a retired wrestler, to help Natalie overcome her self doubts?
Jamison: When doing the rewrite, we wanted to showcase the broad spectrum of people who compete in the triathlon. So we included an athlete from another discipline. The idea of including a big, hulking professional wrestler who is almost Zen-like with his views on the world and an ability to see things and motivate people in an unexpected way, that was something that really appealed to me. In essence, he became the conscience for the group.
I found the Mission Moments both inspirational and emotionally powerful—is that something often done in triathlon training?
Jamison: The Mission Moments came from seeing the team in training. It’s a way for team members to share what inspired them to compete before they go out and train. The Moments really stuck out as a true narrative device to get into the backstory of these characters.
It seemed that Natalie had enough to overcome, why did you have her crash and sustain an almost debilitating injury on her collarbone?
Jamison: That was based on many of the real struggles triathletes had to face. Ted was running a Tri race in Hawaii called the Lava Run. He passed a woman who was running, limping and crying. After finishing the race, she later learned that she had broken her hip. She was in remission from cancer and the chemotherapy had weakened her bones enough to break her hip. So I wanted to throw one last obstacle in Natalie’s path. The bike accident happened to Ted during training. He hit a tree, was dazed, but was saved by his helmet.
The Max character (Chris Williams) initially refusing to award a metal for just competing in the triathlon seemed to come from a political position that espoused winning not just competing as the ultimate goal.
Jamison: The idea behind Max’s character was a hotshot outsider who really didn’t understand what the Tri community was all about. It takes Candice (Shawn Pelofsky) walking him through the concept of getting a medal just for finishing the event. He represents the idea that symbolic measures can help you accomplish your goals. In the opening scene, one character says about Winston Churchill, he spent a lot of time being profound; it’s amazing he had time to fight the war. And the reply was, well maybe that’s how he won the war—being profound. Max’s character kind of represents the antithesis or foil to that thesis. Eventually, Candice brings him around and completes his arc. The metals aren’t participation trophies. I believe that finishing a triathlon is an accomplishment.