‘Olympic Dreams’ Pulls Back the Curtain on the Games

Amid the pageantry and intense competition of the biggest sporting event in the world, two people make a connection in the romantic comedy “Olympic Dreams.” Shot on location during the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, the film shows the games from the perspective of Penelope (Alexi Pappas), an American cross-country skier who finds herself with some free time after her sole event early on. Although she skis a personal best, Penelope isn’t at the level of, say, Shaun White, and her non-superstar status makes her a perfect guide in this world, as she’s able to flit through the Olympic Village, the place where the athletes actually end up spending most of their time, without really being noticed by anyone, save for Ezra (Nick Kroll), an American who volunteers his skills as a dentist to the athletes as a way to cope with a recent breakup.

Pappas, who was born and raised in California but also holds Greece citizenship, competed in track and field at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where she set a national record for Greece in the women’s 10,000-meter race. “I’ve long been a performer and a writer, so I’ve always had an interest in filmmaking, and this story in particular was inspired by my own experience at the Olympics and that feeling that every Olympian has about what happens when the competition is over,” she told Entertainment Voice. 

Us commoners have long heard stories of the hooking up and partying that goes on in the Village, and while there is a taste of that here, it’s depicted mainly a place where the athletes decompress, bond with each other, and, as Pasppas puts it, reflect on their Olympic experience. It makes sense that this would be an ideal place for love, although Ezra’s attachment to his not-quite-ex makes a full-blown romance out of the question. Still, he’s immediately drawn to Penelope when he first spots her in the cafeteria, and the two strike up a friendship that evokes “Lost in Translation.” Penelope, for her part, doesn’t seem ready for a serious commitment, because although she exhibits a great depth of feeling, there’s an immaturity to her that probably stems from her spending so much of her young adulthood training instead of developing relationships. The pair are sweet to watch as they explore together, and eventually encourage each other to follow their respective dreams.

Pappas co-produced and co-wrote “Olympic Dreams” with her husband, director Jeremy Teicher. Their previous film “Tracktown,” which also drew from Pappas’ life, caught the attention of the president of the International Olympic Committee, who invited the duo to Pyeongchang as artists-in-residence. Along with Kroll and a “scriptment,” something between a treatment and a script, they headed to Korea promising the IOC at least a short film, but really planning to come away with a feature.

As one might imagine, there were many challenges in filming at an event as monumental as the Olympics. Although the the trio had unprecedented access and permission to film wherever, they had to work around what was happening at the actual games, giving “Olympics Dreams” a guerilla-style feel. 

“I was the only crew,” revealed Teicher. “I did the shooting and the sound. It wasn’t like we got to a location, unpacked the tent, got the crew set up, and four hours later were filming. We’d get there and within minutes we were shooting a scene and out in under an hour. Often people didn’t even know that we were there.”

Making it feel even more naturalistic is the fact that Kroll was often mistaken for a real volunteer while the camera was rolling, and many of these moments made it into the final cut. “There were definitely times where we would embrace the chaos, and that would change the scene, often for the better,” said Teicher.

Pappas discussed working with Kroll, a big fan of the Olympics, whom they only met weeks before heading to Korea. The comedian ended up not only co-producing the film, but also helping to develop the story. “He was such a great teammate, being someone who knows what it is to write and produce and act and improvise, and those were all skills that came in handy on our set…. A lot of the words themselves were improvised, but all of the beats and the emotional journey were very thoughtfully planned.” 

Also in the cast is Gus Kenworthy, an Olympic skier who has recently dipped his toes into acting, appearing “American Horror Story: 1984.” Here, he plays himself and has a different, yet equally enjoyable chemistry with Pappas, as Penelope flirts with him before learning that he is gay. Plenty of lesser-known athletes also appear, and Kroll’s goofing off with them is one of the highlights of the film.

“I would go into the various athletes’ spaces, the dining hall, the game room, and find athletes, and if they looked like they weren’t about to perform, compete or train, ask if they wanted to be a part of this movie that we were making,” recalled Pappas. “The good thing about athletes is that we’re used to being on camera. It’s usually in a more intimate, formal setting, so I think this is actually a more new experience for a lot of them, and it helped that we have such a lean crew of one person, because it wasn’t so [intimidating], it felt like it was just three people in a room together.”

Pappas and Teicher also take us outside the bubble of the Olympics, as Penelope and Ezra venture out into the host country for an unforgettable night. According to the director, shooting in a foreign country on the fly meant that they had to be respectful while also thinking on their feet, looking for cool locations. There’s a spontaneity to these scenes, and Teicher explained why. “The dinner scene in the restaurant, they were actually eating dinner. That was our dinner that night.” 

At the end of the day, Pappas does not find the experience of making a film all that different from being an Olympian. “[The Olympics] are something that you dream about, but you don’t know what it will be until it happens. [Penelope] is definitely very different from me, but I think the emotional core of her is something that all Olympians can relate to, and all people, honestly. It can be [about anything] they’ve been working towards. Putting a film together, for example, there’s definitely a feeling afterwards of reflection, and ‘what am I now?’ She’s definitely relatable to the world beyond athletics.”

Olympic Dreams” opens Feb. 14 in select theaters.