Pool Reporter: Canadian director Pascal Plante gets inside the competitive athletic mind with realistic swim flick Nadia, Butterfly

Whether it’s a comedy about a baseball team of misfits who go on to win the championship or a drama about a washed-up athlete who gets one more shot at glory, all too often sports movies cater to the cliché.

And filmmaker Pascal Plante had enough of it. 

So sick of seeing the same stale tropes coming out of Tinseltown time and again, the Montreal-based filmmaker decided to make his own sports movie – one that, according to his director’s statement, aimed “to be a sociological foray into the off-camera world of high-performance sports, without sensationalizing it.

It makes sense. After all, Plante himself was a competitive swimmer at the national level throughout his teenage year, an experience that gave the sophomore director more than enough insight to craft Nadia, Butterfly — a complex psychological drama of a swimmer who never quite ascended to the top levels of her sport, but also feels a huge loss once retirement suddenly becomes reality.

“It’s not easy transitioning from any sport,” said Plante recently during a phone conversation about his experience in competitive swimming. “(But) I saw so many different kinds of retirements around me.”

One of only two Canadian films represented at this past year’s Cannes Film Festival, the drama opens at an imagined 2020 Tokyo Olympics (fictionalized, since the COVID-19 pandemic sidelined the real event this past year). There, Nadia, a veteran swimmer is taking a final grasp at gold before calling an end to her professional career in the pool. 

“I wanted the film to be approved by swimmers or Olympians or just elite athletes in general,” admitted Plante of his quest for authenticity, an endeavour that reaches beyond the imperfection of elite athletes and their faults – a world Hollywood rarely explores in great depth.

In fact, Plante’s intent for realism stretched into creating a stunningly surreal Olympic Games in Japan (all the interior scenes were filmed in Montreal) complete with cleverly-crafted logos, mascots and medals. He also invested more screen time on presenting his protagonist in deep training or quietly recovering in an ice tub rather than dramatizing scenes of heightened high-stakes competition.

“Some (filmmakers) don’t want to go too much into the details because (they) are fearful to lose some of the audience members but for me, it’s the opposite,” said Plante, insisting he spent great efforts on getting the smallest minutiae correct for discerning audience members rather than amping up the “simplistic binary of winner versus loser”. 

“If I watch a narrative film about ballet, I want to learn something about ballet,” Plante added.

In fact, the filmmaker was so set on accuracy that he ended up casting a real-life Olympian in the lead role. Although Katerine Savard was originally hired as a sports consultant on Nadia, Butterfly, soon Plante placed the 2016 Rio Olympics relay bronze-medalist into the film’s protagonist role. 

“I worked with non-professional actors before in my short films so it wasn’t necessarily my first time,” admitted Plante, who added having an elite athlete was imperative to portray the finer details of athletic performance on-screen.

“When you see Katerine swim butterfly at that level its so gracious,” said Plante, explaining what real competitive swimmers added to the film’s aesthetic. He compares it to the elite talent of dancing in Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers musicals from 1930’s Hollywood. 

“It’s obvious that it’s them performing. When you watch an old musical, for instance, its not (camera tricks) that are doing the work – they are doing the work.”

Plante also insists it wasn’t a hindrance hiring non-professional actors in the movie either. While he notes that casting Savard may have seemed a gamble at the outset, the 27-year old earned her acting stripes on-set. In fact, Plante says there were many scenes they filmed where the first take ended up being the best version. He adds, for a few scenes, they only had to shoot one take – convinced Savard nailed it out of the gate.

“They’re performers,” said Plante of his athletic cast. “I mean, they’re non-actors but they want to do good, they want to perform and they want to excel at anything they do. That’s common ground for most athletes at that calibre. I knew that in rehearsal we would never get past a certain point, but elite athletes perform when it counts.”

Nadia, Butterfly will be available on VOD on Dec. 8.

Steve Gow has spent a good amount of his time conducting interviews for a variety of publications as well as on television. Most notably, he was a film reporter for The Movie Network/HBO Canada and his written stories that were regularly featured in Calgary’s former “go-to guide” FFWD weekly, as well as Metro, Toronto Star and more.