Filmmakers Jeremy Teicher and Alexi Pappas are proud to say they made a movie where no one else has ever made a movie before: backstage at the Olympic Games.
“You could never reconstruct the Olympics, even if you built the physical structures,” said Teicher, director of the romantic comedy “Olympic Dreams,” which opens Friday at the Broadway Centre Cinemas in Salt Lake City. “In the background, knowing you’re seeing dozens and dozens of Olympians — that’s something that you can’t replicate.”
The movie stars Pappas as Penelope, a cross-country skier competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. She competes early in the 17-day Games, so she has lots of free time to hang out in the Olympic Village and consider what to do next with her life. While she’s pondering her next move, she befriends Ezra — played by comedian/actor Nick Kroll — a New Jersey dentist volunteering at the Games, who has just broken up with his fiancée.
Pappas, an American-born runner, finished 17th in the 10,000-meters event at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, representing Greece. She drew on her experience hanging around after she ran her event for the film, which she co-wrote with Teicher (who is her husband) and Kroll.
“As an Olympian, the most surprising and wonderful and, honestly, the most important part about your Olympic experience — or just as important as your competition — is all the moments in between, all the moments before, and all the moments after,” Pappas said in a phone interview this week. “The profound thing was to understand that the Olympics is a process, rather than just an event.”
Olympians, Pappas said, are “aware that this time is going to come and it’s going to go. When you’re preparing for an Olympics, you are preparing for that pinnacle. And you’re definitely not preparing for the moment after, because if you were preparing for the moment after, you might not get to that pinnacle in the first place.”
Getting to make “Olympic Dreams” in Pyeongchang, Pappas said, was attributable to luck. According to her, Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, happened to watch their 2016 movie, “Tracktown,” on an airline. Teicher and Pappas wrote and directed the film, in which Pappas played a runner trying to qualify for the Olympics.
Bach, she said, invited Teicher and Pappas to take part in the IOC’s new artist-in-residency program, and make a movie set in the Winter Olympics at Pyeongchang.
The challenge of filming in the Olympic Village, Teicher said, was “we had to be the absolute smallest footprint possible. ... I was a one-person crew,” acting as camera operator and sound recordist.
Teicher was struck by the comparatively small size of the Winter Olympics, versus the Summer Olympics. “The dining hall in Rio was the size of a football field,” Teicher said, “and the dining hall at the Winter Olympics was more the size of a college basketball stadium.”
Teicher shot from a detailed story outline, “with just about every scene in the film mapped out, with what would need to happen in the scene. ... We didn’t have the exact dialogue written, because we knew we wanted to be using improvisation to enable us to be flexible and adaptable.”
Casting Kroll — who is known for TV (Comedy Central’s “Kroll Show”), movies (“Uncle Drew”) and Broadway (his two-man show with John Mulaney, “Oh, Hello”) — was key to making the improv work.
“We needed to have a person who was going to be comfortable being one part of a three-person team,” Teicher said. “We needed someone who was going to be able to really think on their feet.”
Within the village, Teicher and Pappas would ask athletes to appear in a scene, chatting in improvised conversations with Penelope or sitting in Ezra’s dentist’s chair.
“I was really trying to be thoughtful about approaching athletes who looked like they were either done competing, or they might be down to skip out of the game room and shoot a scene with Nick for 30 minutes,” Pappas said. “It was a really organic thing. And I think it helped that I was a peer.”
Pappas noted that two American athletes who trained in Park City had substantial roles, playing variations of themselves. Freestyle mogul skier Morgan Schild played Maggie, who becomes Penelope’s roommate and confidante. And Gus Kenworthy, a slopestyle skier who competed at Pyeongchang and won silver at Sochi in 2014, has a tender scene with Penelope at a party. (Kenworthy, who acted in “American Horror Story: 1984” last year, recently announced he would leave the U.S. team to compete for Great Britain.)
“Morgan was going through kind of a moment, not unlike Penelope,” Pappas said. “She was like, ‘Wow, this is the story of my life.’”
With “Olympic Dreams” trickling out into theaters nationwide, and available on demand through streaming platforms, Pappas is back to training. She’s aiming to make the Greek Olympic team for the 2020 games in Tokyo. This time, she’s trying for a spot in the Olympics’ most storied foot race: the marathon.
“Chasing an Olympic dream is a bit like trying to squeeze an ice cube — you have to hold on to it, but not too tight,” Pappas said. “I’m trying to have that balance, of commitment, but also allowing it to happen if it’s meant to.”
The romantic comedy “Olympic Dreams” was filmed on location at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea.
Where • Broadway Centre Cinemas, 111 E. 300 South, Salt Lake City.
When • Opens Friday, Feb. 21, and runs for at least the next week.
Rated • PG-13 for some language and sexual references.
Running time • 83 minutes.
Coverage of downtown Salt Lake City arts groups is supported by a grant from The Blocks, a cultural initiative of Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County.