Alexi Pappas, 29, represented Greece at the 2016 Olympics and competed in track and cross country at Dartmouth and Oregon. The Dartmouth grad is also a filmmaker, writer and improviser who honed her skills at Second City and The Upright Citizens Brigade comedy troupes. In 2017 she wrote, directed and starred in the scripted drama "Tracktown." Now, in the best possible collision of her two worlds, she co-wrote and starred in "Olympic Dreams" -- the first movie to be shot in the Olympic Village.
The president of the International Olympic Committee [Thomas Bach], saw our our previous film, "Tracktown," on an airline, really randomly. He called me because the Olympics had this artist-in-residence program that they started [in 2014]. He invited us to be a part of it and make a film project in the village. We grew the idea into this feature film, and we got permission to bring in another actor.
The artist-in-residence program is set up so that any artist who is a part of the program can have the access that we did, but nobody had done a film. I remember when I was competing, there was a photographer -- you could find him around the village -- and there was a painter this past year. This artistic component adds to the Olympics.
Filmmaking and running are performances for me. When I am running I am wearing a costume, and I am performing in front of people, and when I am acting, it's the same thing. There's a vulnerability there. And there's a feeling of, "I need to do this in my own expressive way." There are many ways to get to the finish line.
And [the IOC] trusted me with this idea because I am an Olympian. I am going to respect my peers, and I am going to tell a story that is real.
We shot during the 2018 Winter Olympics [in Pyeongchang, South Korea] for three weeks. We were there before opening ceremonies. The village was packed with athletes who were about to compete. Over the three weeks, we watched the athletes finish their competitions. All the athletes in the film [such as freestyle skiers Gus Kenworthy and Morgan Schild] are real Olympians.
My partner, co-writer and director Jeremy [Teicher] and I thought about what story is authentic to my Olympic experience. We reflected on my time in Rio, and I remembered two things -- one, just the feeling of possibility that I experienced. I had an interaction with a doctor that I met there, a volunteer doctor. He asked me out. (The real-life volunteer doctor who approached Pappas never treated her.) Because I was engaged to Jeremy, that did not turn into a story. But it inspired this story between Ezra [Nick Kroll, a volunteer dentist] and Penelope [Pappas, a cross-country skiing competitor]. The [second] thing is the emotional core of this story, which is the experience of what happens the moment after your Olympic dream comes true. It's the moment you're the least prepared for because you're so focused on the competition itself and just getting there.
The movie, specifically, is about the moments after [arriving at the Olympic Village], Penelope is trying to absorb what just happened to her [as an Olympic athlete]. She finds Ezra, this volunteer dentist, and they have this unique wrinkle in time together. So, we wanted to put these two characters in a unique situation in the Olympic Village and make the most of that playground we had there. So many people understand the Olympics from the perspective of watching competitions and interviews with the athletes, but the real Olympic experience for the athletes happens in the village. It's where you spend most of your time. It's where you make your friends. It's where you have your nervous pre-competition meal. That was my Olympic experience, and I have never seen it in a movie before. It was so amazing being in the village -- in the game rooms, in the dining halls, in the laundry rooms, in all these places that nobody gets to see and to tell the story there. I felt very lucky to be in the belly of it.
Instead of a traditional script, we created what we call a "scriptment." And that's a detailed outline with what is going to happen in each scene and where the movie is going, but not the exact dialogue planned out. Nick and I improvised the dialogue. It made things a little more organic. It also allowed us to embrace moments. There was a scene with these snow sculptures and these ice skates, and we just drove by it one day, and we said, "we need to do a scene here," and then we looked into our "scriptment" and said, "this scene could work here." There was also one day the competitions got postponed because it was so cold and windy that even the winter Olympians were unable to compete, but we still filmed. I remember the camera shut off at one point because it was so cold.
I think that was part of being a part of the real Olympic Games -- wanting to be agile and embrace all that was there.
Jeremy directed, did the cinematography and sound, all as a one-person band because we didn't have access to additional [talent] in the village. He would give Nick and I detailed directions on what the scene was, and then Nick and I stay within that sandbox. Nick, Jeremy and I were co-writers on the project. We planned this together. We developed their backstories -- like why are they there, what are they afraid of, what do they want.
I think when you're an athlete a lot of your time is spent head down and focused on your competition. With the film, my whole duty was to keep my head up and capture the experience. I did embrace my Olympic experience as an Olympian, but I had the opportunity to embrace it even more as a filmmaker. That was special to me because I saw people who reminded me of myself who were about to compete in their first Olympics -- I know what that feels like. But I was also being an artist and capturing it at the same time, so it was pretty cathartic.
In chasing any dream, whether you're trying to make an independent film, which is a challenge, or if you're chasing an Olympic dream, there is this hope. This possibility. And this feeling that dreams do come true. There's also this pause of confusion, or what's next. The Olympics is such a place of possibility. It feels like everybody is doing something they maybe have never done before. This movie captures that moment.
"Olympic Dreams" premiered on Feb. 14 in limited theaters and is now widely released. Pappas, who is going to Greece in March for a training camp and plans to run a marathon in April, also has a book called "Bravery" set to release in August 2020.