NEW YORK – “Swing Away” is new movie created by Greek-American Director Michael A. Nickles and Producer-Creator George Elias Stephanopoulos (cousin of the ABC Chief Anchor and This Week host who bears the same name). Viewers will see relationships unfold amid journeys of self-discovery and experience the joys of golf, but in its essence, it is a love affair with Greece.
“As the story came together it became about Zoe, a Greek-American golfer who was disillusioned with life and went back to Greece to visit family and to figure things out” Stephanopoulos told TNH, Zoe’s decision was inspired by reading Nikos Kazantzakis.
The movie’s poster has a message: hope for nothing, fear nothing. That paraphrases the great Cretan’s epitaph, and the substance of the Cretan’s idea morphs into an American ode to freedom: Swing Away.
Working their magic on Zoe’s psyche are Greece and its people, including Stella, the 10-year-old golf prodigy she took under her wing.
The intended audience from the start was Greek-Americans, “but obviously it will play to a much wider audience,” Stephanopoulos said of the film that recently had a private screening hosted by the NYC Greek Film Festivals, and additional private screenings are planned across the country. It has been submitted to select U.S. and international film festivals and there are currently discussions with major distributors and plans to release the film in 2016.
Many intellectual and experiential streams led to the Nickles-Stephanopoulos collaboration, but the primordial catalyst was the Ionian Village. When it was established by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in 1970, care was taken to create memorable experiences of Greece for the children of the diaspora but it did not take long for people to realize that what IV was selling along with a country was relationships with fellow Hellenes.
The two met as campers in 1982. When Nickles returned in 1985 just to visit his sisters Nina and Georgia, he re-connected with Stephanopoulos, then a counsellor. That friendship, sealed with a trip to the island Spetses, is now in its 34th year.
Their artistic endeavor is a case study in how one thing can lead to another – and how with imagination, anyone can help Greece emerge from the crisis.
“This movie had a lot of serendipity and synchronicities that worked in our favor,” Stephanopoulos said.
He is an entertainment lawyer and has worked on many films in various capacities, each project by design leading to Swing Away, the first story of his own he set out to produce. But although it’s the film he set out to make, he did not first set out to make a movie.
“My idea was to do something for Greece,” he said, which struck him at the 2004 Athens Olympics. He began to research ideas for re-purposing Olympic venues, including something like New York’s Chelsea Piers, which included a driving range. A Wall Street Journal article about golf in Greece and its connection with attracting vital high-end tourists got him thinking, and concluded that a feature film would stimulate new interest among young Greek athletes and developers.
New York businessman Peter J. Pappas, Sr. is an avid golfer who is a big proponent of golf in Greece. He immediately saw the impact of a film with golf as the vehicle, a child as a main character, and Greece as the background.
But good ideas can sprout anywhere. As the business elements began to exert a pull away from Greece, Stephanopoulos tugged back. “I fought like hell to keep it in Greece,” adding, “The crews that are available are as good as anywhere else in the world.”
“One of the things I am most proud of is that this is the first non-Greek film to be shot, edited and post-produced in Greece, so we kept all the money there,” he said.
For Nickles, the movie was an opportunity created by a friend to pay tribute to pivotal moment in his life.
“It will sound hyperbolic, but that IV experience drastically changed the course of my life.
I had never been out of the country and while I grew up in a Greek-American home I didn’t really understand and feel what it meant to be Greek until I had the experience of being on the land.”
One moment altered his life. “I was on a cliff, I don’t know where it was…but there was a sound I was drawn to, and peering over the cliff and seeing the sea and the rocks below took my breath away.”
He told TNH “It was the first time that I understood what a spiritual life was. It didn’t necessarily have to do with the Church, but something opened within me…there was a space of fluidity…my heart was open to people, I felt my authentic self.”
Asked if after that all the people in Greece felt like brothers and sisters he replied, “oh yes – oh yes!”
His parents, Achilles and Olga, successful booksellers with roots in Sparta and Mytiline, gave him a firm intellectual and emotional foundation for the artistic life, but that trip was vital.
I shook him up, though, making it hard to readjust to New York and NYU’s Film School.
“I just wanted to return to Greece,” and hold on to what he could later call a “peak experience.”
At the time he did not have a word for it, but now a movie expresses it.
The meaning of Stephanopoulos’ journey unfolded more gradually, but he knew “I’ve always wanted to do something creative.”
He set out to learn about film making and through volunteering for the NYC Greek Film Festival he met important figures in the Greek film industry.
GREAT CINEMATOGRAPHY, MUSIC
The movie was initially to have been set in Kazantzakis’ Crete, but the golf course there was undergoing renovation. Second choice Rhodes left nothing to be desired. One of the producers, John Paterakis, told TNH ”the music and the cinematography are spectacular.” and Tao Zervas is the composer.
Stephanopoulos began by working with his writing and producing partner Paul Lingas and later Nickles’ wife Julia Wall worked on the script. He said the entire cast was exceptional, but noted “We got great performances out of Shannon Elizabeth and John O’Hurley” – the latter was off script a lot but his improvisations were spot on, generating memorable lines. He is the villain in the piece as the owner who wanted to sell the golf course.
The movie demonstrates the many varieties of eros, that yearning for completion explored by artists and poets, not just therapists, and Stephanopoulos fell in love with golf making it.
“To me it’s a game of self discovery – you play 18 holes for four hours, often by yourself, inside your own head” – marinated by nature in the best settings.
“It requires discipline and mental toughness… and characteristics that are rooted in Greek culture,” and it can be played at a high level even at a very young age.
Viktoria Miller, who played Stella, was not a golfer but she is a gifted actress who with instruction – and a body double – made the golf scenes realistic.
The personal lives of Stephanopoulos and Nickles naturally affected the movie.
Stephanopoulos and his wife Elena have a 16 year-old daughter, Stella, who gave her name to the young golfer. Nickles and his wife just had a little girl and he said “one of the our inspirations was let’s create a movie our daughter could see in the future and find inspiration and strength in, and believe that she can do anything – one of the themes of the film.”
Making the movie was also a special experience for Stephanopoulos because some of the characters are vehicles for honoring his parents and grandparents, like Yiayia Anastasia and his late father, Rev. Elias Stephanopoulos.
Nickles too wanted to honor his grandparents and said he resisted the temptation to make them caricatures.
The Father Anthony character, played by Christos Sougaris, is a tribute to the priests – relatives and not – in Stephanopoulos’ life.
He was the one person in the village to encourage Stella, who became fascinated with golf watching the adults play. She taught herself the game – Stella built her own little course – up the point when Zoe took charge.
Everyone touching the movie left their mark but all agree it is Stephanopoulos’ baby.
“It was a long process for George” – who had a full-time day job, Nickles’ said. “Every couple of years he would send a draft and I would give him my thoughts. Two years ago he called and asked if I would be interested in directing, and of course I said yes.”
Stephanopoulos told TNH that when he began to think seriously about a film “Michael was the first person I called.” Nickles’ guidance and nudges were invaluable and “It became evident on set how much he was respected by the cast and crew,” Stephanopoulos said.
“My main role…was really to be there to support Mike’s vision for the film. For this movie or any film for that matter it all comes down to director’s execution…the finished film exceeds all of my expectations,” he said.
Many old and new friends came through for him, and Rocket Hub was an important part of the process. While the campaign fell short of its financial target, it generated a lot of vital buzz.
Joe Steranka, whose wife is Greek, is the former CEO of the PGA. He helped fund and promote the movie and got cross partnership deals with the PGA. Stephanopoulos was delighted with the participation of Nicole Castrale, a Greek-American who just retired from the LPGA tour and helped with the film’s authenticity. He also appreciates the support of author (and former TNH columnist) Dr. Alex Pattakos and Tom Hiotis, who was also a lead investor and producer.
Photo credits: SWING AWAY TM & (c) Ancient Game Productions LLC. All Rights Reserved.