RR Interview: Nick Trojan's New Feature on Yale Men's Rowing

Nick Trojan's latest feature documentary is twice as long as his previous work—but leaves you wanting more, just the same. 

There’s a new feature in Nick Trojan’s series, taking an inside look at top-tier college rowing programs in the US. This time, Trojan focused his project on Yale and the legendary coach Steve Gladstone, blending outstanding camerawork with one of rowing’s most compelling stories. 

Having uploaded the video to YouTube only two weeks ago, it’s already approaching 70k views. And for good reason. 

RR sat down recently to talk through it all with Trojan in an exclusive interview, from origins to development and finally a finished product—as well as what might come next. Here’s what we learned.

Navigating shifting waters

A photo of two Yale eights rowing on the river near the Gilder Boathouse

Elite rower turned filmmaker Nick Trojan’s new feature, titled simply, “Yale Men’s Rowing,” was years in the making. 

“The initial idea was to do the same kind of rinse-and-repeat that we had done with Harvard and Cal,” Trojan says, “but I think what changed a little bit about what we did with Yale was that it was the first piece I was doing where I hadn’t been integrated in Yale’s system, so to speak. The Harvard piece, the Cal piece, I was also editing and living in those areas at the time, so I had the chance to go out and shoot, and make some mistakes, and go out again and shoot or take the time to do it right the second time.

“At the same time, I was also training in those places for the US national team at the time, so my focus wasn’t all there all the time. So with Yale, it was the first piece, it was the first time I branched away from where I was training, and extended beyond where I knew people a little more personally.”

After shooting his second film—an in-depth look at the Cal Men’s Rowing program, which we featured here on RR in 2020—Trojan had reached out to a number of other programs, in hopes of continuing his series. “Steve and Yale were obviously on the top of that list—not to put them above everyone else, but they were coming off a three-peat at the IRA, and that was the last school I thought I would ever get to work with. But Steve proved to be the first person to call me back. 

“He was extremely open to the idea—he liked what I had done with Cal and Harvard, which was a blessing, because I don’t think I could have earned his trust without first having Charley [Butt] and Scott [Frandsen] opening their doors to me. So I owe both of them a huge thank you—I know it was a gamble on both their parts, but I think the results have been very positive for everyone, and I couldn’t have had the opportunities I’ve had since without their help.”

Still, even with Gladstone’s buy-in, the path to Yale didn’t run smooth. 

“It took a while just to get to Yale—I was literally two days out from flying to the East Coast when the Ivy League shut down [due to Covid-19 restrictions]. I got a call from [Yale men’s associate head coach] Mike Gennaro, who was helping me navigate my way to Yale—he let me know hey, we’re going to be shutting down and that I should cancel my flight. He was just extremely kind, but also frank and direct in telling me what was going on—I feel very fortunate that Steve [Gladstone] and the whole program, people like Mike and Joel [Furtek] who were so clear in terms of directions, especially when it came to something that severe.”

“It didn’t work out the way I had hoped, obviously, at that moment. But also I had already painted a picture of what I had wanted it to be, but everything had to go on hold. I wanted to give the coaches some space to deal with everything they were dealing with, so we kind of fell out of touch for a while.”

Trojan, having retired from his rowing career around the outset of the Pandemic, took on a full-time job on the West Coast, and it would be a full year before he had the opportunity to pack up his equipment and head east—this time, the plan was to meet with the Yale program the week of the 2021 Head Of The Charles. 

“When I headed back to Yale, it was an entirely different project—even things like the administration, which had even more stringent regulations around who could be on campus or attending events (partly the fallout of Covid procedures). Also, they have their own team of media people, so it was a risk for them to allow me to work on this project.” 

“...Steve called me at one point, and said that he didn’t care so much about the film—just that he wanted to make sure I was doing ok, since he hadn’t heard anything for a while. The fact that he took the time to reach out like that, it was kind of emotional. It made a huge difference, because it took away any pressure to just put something out that wasn’t the best it could possibly be.”

Trojan worked with the administration, going to what lengths he needed to go in order to bring his vision to life, including getting his commercial drone pilot’s license. 

“Joel Furtek, like all of them, is a force of nature. He’s the most dialed-in human being I’ve ever met. I was very fortunate to have someone that dialed—you’d think that a system like this would be so set in their ways that they wouldn’t want to deal with an outsider, but everyone was super welcoming. They opened their doors. They were much more friendly than I was expecting [laughs], not that I wasn’t expecting them to be friendly, but you know, inviting me to dinner, or lunch—I just never thought that would be possible in doing this project.”

An image of Joel Furtek of Yale Rowing in the Gilder Boathouse

Given this context, how does Trojan see it fitting into his work and this series overall?

“This was not an intentionally different piece, at least structurally. Of course, each one is different in terms of how it is presented so that it can reflect the look and feel for each team, and their culture. 

“But this piece changed because I was on a very short timeline. I actually filmed more days than I had on the other pieces, but I was only there for eight or nine days, from start to finish. On the other pieces, I was there for two to three months. I had to be a lot more organized, and that changed the piece, too—I didn’t have time to make a mistake, and for any mistakes I made, I had to be flexible enough to adapt.”

He adds: “It was definitely a big shift for my personal growth. Obviously, I want each piece to be better in terms of developing my craft, but I don’t want them to be viewed as better from the perspective of one overtaking the other—I don’t want there to be the impression that these schools that did let me in, that they were given any less effort or attention. I’m pouring myself into these films, from start to finish, and that never changes.”

That includes some significant challenges that Trojan—who films and produces these films entirely on his own—faced when trying to edit this documentary into its final form.

“My biggest battle that I had throughout this [Yale] film was technological. I had purchased and used much higher quality equipment and cameras, which was a double-edged sword: It provided this great picture and a lot better cinematography, but I didn’t have the computer power to process this much footage and data. It really slowed down the whole process.”

How so? Trojan lost all of his work not once, but twice after two consecutive computers failed midway through edits. Fortunately, he still had the raw footage—and the desire to shape it into something special. 

“By the time I was able to finish, it had been a year and a half.”

The Yale coaches hadn’t forgotten about the project, however—but that doesn’t mean what it might appear. 

“I hadn’t made contact, and I kind of didn’t want to get in touch until I either had it done or I had made a lot of progress,” Trojan explains. “But, Steve called me at one point, and said that he didn’t care so much about the film—just that he wanted to make sure I was doing ok, since he hadn’t heard anything for a while. The fact that he took the time to reach out like that, it was kind of emotional. It made a huge difference, because it took away any pressure to just put something out that wasn’t the best it could possibly be.

“In the end, it has been kind of a big stepping stone. I’m glad that it worked out the way it did, and it has been received really well—and in my opinion, I’ve improved my skills and my work each time, which is very satisfying.”

On working with the Yale coaching staff

A photo from the stern of an eight-oared shell, showing Yale rowers training on the river

“Joel himself is quite an artist—he took me under his wing when I came in. He wanted to know how he could help me. This person, who is already managing logistics for three separate Division 1 teams, always putting everyone else’s needs before his own—I think that was something really special. I wanted to make sure he himself is recognized for that.”

“With Mike—obviously he’s got a very special place because he gets to work with someone who is already a rowing legend, but somehow Mike manages to be Mike. He doesn’t feel this weight that Steve can sometimes unintentionally put on people because he can be very intimidating—he’s very well spoken, always knows what he wants, he’s direct without being insulting or threatening. I’ve never seen someone be able to handle that and set ego aside, and just absorb everything he can—while also being himself. 

“Mike is an absolute personality—he knows when to be funny; he knows when to crack the whip a little bit; he knows when to rein it in. They all work extremely well together, they all set their egos aside, and they focus on what the big picture is—I think that is the culture that Steve builds, but they all embrace it and embody it.

“There were times when I shut off the camera and just watched, because it’s just enjoyable to see people work so well together.”

The man, the myth…

A photo of Yale Men's Rowing head coach Steve Gladstone in the launch

Steve Gladstone is already a legend in rowing—his legacy is already solidified as one of the best ever to do it, so in a way, this is just for fun. But it’s also more than that.

“Working with Steve, for starters, he’s probably the most observant person I’ve ever met. He’s a great conversationalist, and that’s in great part because he wants to learn about your story, and dive into that. He wants to learn where people are coming from, what they’re excited about in life. He’s not someone who approaches things as though he has all the answers.”

“For people who had been coached by him, there was this hype around him—but I’d never met him. I’d heard stories from other rowers, and everyone raved about him, but (and I don’t mean this as an insult) I thought, how great can one guy be, really? But after spending the first day with him, or even the first phone call, I realized that he’s interested in investing his time and energy into people who are passionate about what they do, what they love to do. And I think when he meets those people, he gains a lot more than most people would by genuinely sharing in their excitement.”

What’s the main takeaway? What should we learn from all this?

“That’s a loaded question, for sure. There is a lot to takeaway, as there was with the other pieces. But what I took away as a person, versus the filmmaking side, were two very different things. 

“From the perspective of the craft, simply that there can never be enough preparation. You can never be too organized. But you can also never be perfect. 

“In terms of what I took away personally, it was one of the most valuable experiences I’ve had—my life has changed since I stopped training. Things have shifted in terms of goals and plans. It gave me a different focus that informed the development of my psychology, which has shifted greatly since I filmed the Harvard piece [editor’s note: Inside Rowing: Harvard Men’s Crew debuted in the RowingRelated newsletter in 2019]. I’ve realized that having and accepting help is the most valuable thing I have in life. And this goes into what I’m saying about these coaches and how they work together, with the results and how they’ve all proven themselves—they’re willing to set their egos aside, and not necessarily make a ‘sacrifice,’ but make a change because that is what it takes to get better at their craft. Even when you might think they’re at their best, they are always out there looking for more—but without being too aggressive, or impatient. 

“That was what I took away from it, more than anything, and it’s definitely something I’m going to be looking for as a career goal. I want to take on the projects that are the best opportunities to grow, and be around people who are equally committed to their work. 

“Being direct, and clear about intentions—that is one of the things that Steve does so well. He can be very direct, but he does it without being negative or making people feel like they do not matter.”

What’s next

An image looking out toward the docks from inside Gilder Boathouse at Yale University

“I almost felt like Yale might be the last of this series,” Trojan says. “I’m just worried that I would keep going down a path that might be a dead end, as in how many of these can you produce before it becomes repetitive. I don’t want it to just become a standardized process. 

“I definitely want to get into women’s rowing. And I don’t mean this to be negative in any way, but I think these pieces work when we focus on the highest level of coaching and rowing. If it were shot on an iPhone, or there were fewer production values, people would still be interested in seeing how these programs operate. The reason I’m interested in these top teams is the same as everyone else, but it also pushes me to be a better filmmaker. I find that I can only do this to my absolute best ability when the environment is characterized by high performance.”

Let’s hope there is much more on the horizon. In the meantime, in these fraught cultural times, let’s cap it off with one of the gems that Gladstone drops near the end of this documentary. 

“Focus on the self is toxic. I’ve been in a position to focus on other people, and the development of other people through this wonderful sport called rowing. So for me, it’s been an absolute blessing. And I would offer, if you want to call it advice, a legacy, to people who are right in the thick of it now, or at the beginning of it—the less that the process is about you, the more effective you’ll be, and the happier you’ll be.” 

All photos courtesy of Nick Trojan.


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