MAKING WAVES: Q&A with Producer Frances McElroy

Jan. 31, 2012, 11:05 a.m. (ET)
Philadelphia’s historic Boathouse Row, where great rowers and Olympic champions have trained for over 150 years, is the setting for MAKING WAVES, a documentary that sheds light on efforts made by the rowing community to make the sport better reflect today's diverse society. USRowing caught up with Frances McElroy, producer and director at Shirley Road Productions, a Philadelphia-based, award winning non-profit production organization founded in 1991.

MAKING WAVES is available on DVD for individual home viewing, with a portion of the proceeds benefitting America Rows, USRowing’s national inclusion initiative. For more information, contact

How did the idea of MAKING WAVES originate?

Shortly after completing my last documentary, which had taken five years, one of Shirley Road Productions board members, a rower, suggested I look into a documentary about Boathouse Row. Being a history lover and a Philadelphian, it seemed like a good idea. When I began my research on Boathouse Row, however, I soon discovered that it was a huge topic. I needed a focus. Having attended the USRowing diversity conference at Temple University, it became clear that this was an important issue worth pursuing.

Why was Boathouse Row chosen as the backdrop?

I’m a Philadelphia filmmaker whose films typically have roots in the city where Shirley Road Productions is located. Because of this, along with Philadelphia’s distinguished rowing history, it was the logical choice. Had the project had a larger budget, we would certainly have travelled around the country to capture diversity stories in other cities where many worthy efforts are underway. From the vantage point of my city’s major rowing community, we were able to introduce some of the major challenges involved, along with some representative characters.

Describe how the project took shape over the four years of development.

Four to five years is usually how long it takes me (and many of my documentary filmmaker colleagues) to finish an hour or feature length film. After identifying the subject, the first phase is research. This, to me, is always very interesting, regardless of the subject, since it involves meeting a variety of people and hearing their stories and experiences. Finding the focus is crucial and often an evolving process. Certain individuals the filmmaker meets during the course of production can result in the film’s turning in another direction. The focus is ultimately shaped and refined in the editing room. In this case, I edited on and off for close to a year with two different editors. Raising funds is the hardest part and is often the cause for delay in finishing a piece. We never raised the whole budget for MAKING WAVES. So, we had to cut corners, such as licensing far less archival footage than we originally envisioned.

What impact will this film have on the rowing community? What was the initial response?

I hope MAKING WAVES will encourage dialogue among all the stakeholders about ways to make rowing truly reflect our diverse society by becoming more accessible and affordable. I also hope it will increase awareness among many youngsters that this is a sport worth pursuing for a variety of reasons. The most enthusiastic reactions so far have been from members of the minority community and among those who are already working to increase diversity in the sport. Change is slow and not always easy. It requires determination and grit.

What were some of the most interesting moments for you, as a producer, while making the film?

The most interesting moments were the interviews with our subjects. To a person, they were all dynamic, inspiring and willing to share their stories. It was an honor to meet and interview Anita DeFrantz. Dwayne Adams cares so much about his work and was a joy to work with. JB Kelly is a great story teller. The challenge was how to distill all our characters’ wonderful stories into something manageable for the 53 minute length required for public television. So much wonderful footage wasn’t included.

Were there any moments during filming that things went horribly wrong?

Weather was a real issue during two key shoot days. Both involved the Thomas Eakins Head of the Schuylkill Regatta. The first time, in 2007, the regatta was cancelled due to storms, extremely high water and dangerous debris floating down the river. Before the actual mid-morning cancellation, the camera crew was furiously capturing footage on Boathouse Row in the pouring rain. This caused me great anxiety considering the value of the high definition camera we had leased for the shoot. I also regret that broadcast time constraints prevented us from including a wonderful chaotic scene inside the University Barge Club as the debate was underway to cancel the regatta. The second year, 2008, also brought downpours. But, we managed to shoot the Fairmount Park Community Rowing boat coming down the river in the driving rain. Compensation came with the many gorgeous days we spent on the Schuylkill River working on the project.

How does MAKING WAVES compare to some of the other projects you've done?

MAKING WAVES was more difficult than some of my past projects. It was a detour from my usual subject matter – largely arts related. I’m not a rower, so I had to learn a lot from the beginning. Nevertheless, many individuals on Boathouse Row were extremely helpful and patient with me. And I’m very grateful to them. MAKING WAVES was similar to my other work in that it captures some of the fascinating culture and history of Philadelphia.

What's next for Shirley Road Productions?

In keeping with my usual subject matter, my next project involves ballerinas. In this case, I’ll be looking at the “black ballerina” and how, even today, well after the decades of blatant discrimination, the prospects for young black female ballerinas are still very limited.