UO grad Jake Swantko on winning an Oscar: 'We just exploded'

Jake Swantko behind the camera

For UO graduate Jake Swantko, winning an Oscar will never get old.

Since earning a journalism degree from the university in 2011, Swantko has carved out a career as a documentary filmmaker. The native of Puyallup, Washington, worked on documentaries for Frontline, HBO, CNN and National Geographic before meeting director Bryan Fogel, who hired him as director of photography for a documentary he was making about doping in sports.

The resulting film, “Icarus,” was picked up last year by Netflix and was nominated for numerous awards, winning the Special Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival. Last month, at the Academy Awards, “Icarus” was awarded the Oscar for best documentary feature.

Swantko, who also served as associate producer on the film, will present a free public screening of “Icarus” at 6 p.m. May 8 at the Bijou Art Cinema in Eugene, followed by a question-and-answer session. Priority seating with a UO ID is available starting at 5:15 p.m. General seating starts at 5:30 p.m.

Swantko also will be speaking to several classes that week in the School of Journalism and Communication. He also is expected to meet with UO President Michael Schill.

Around the O caught up with Swantko at his home base in Brooklyn, where he was contemplating his next projects.

Q: When you were at SOJC, how did you find your way to filmmaking?

A: When I first got to school I didn’t know what I wanted to do. A lot of people I admired were journalists, so I chose journalism. I kind of found my place when (senior Instructor) Rebecca Force put a camera in my hands. (Professor of Practice) Mark Blaine handed me Gay Talese's “Fame and Obscurity,” which changed my life. (Professor) Michael Werner took me under his wing at Flux, and I started doing documentaries and it took off from there.

Q: Obviously that moment of picking up a camera was a big turning point for you.

A: I think in a lot of ways I was so relieved, because I was struggling as a writer to find my voice. When you pick up a camera, the lens and light speak adjectives and verbs for you. You start to become a more visual story teller. For me, the camera started to speak for me. I started to fall in love with some of these stories. If not for the school, I don’t know exactly what I would be doing.

Q: How did you connect with Bryan Fogel, the film’s director?

A: After I got back from Ukraine for Frontline, I had a phone call with him and he laid out a very simple idea, and he wanted to start shooting immediately in Colorado. It was supposed to be a three-month commitment up front. He basically laid out this whole “Super Size Me” kind of idea, and I found it very interesting. He was starting to push up against this façade of what the anti-doping bodies are doing — every so often they crucify someone in public so they can say they’re doing something about this and that people are being held accountable.

Q: The protagonist of “Icarus” is Grigory Rodchenkov, head of the Russia anti-doping lab. He’s a fascinating character — it felt like he should be a villain for orchestrating a massive doping program among Russian athletes but he becomes this almost heroic whistleblower.

A: He is without a doubt was the most interesting character I’ve ever met. Grigory has something about him that’s almost mystic. He has almost a savant syndrome. He’s very funny, very charismatic.

He’s one of the smartest dudes you’ll ever meet. He’s a brilliant chemist. He’s a part-time philosopher. Working with him, it was always a learning experience. He was always lecturing you about food or fine whisky or his favorite musicians of 1970s Russia or all these philosophers. He would recite Hamlet to us.

Of course, there’s going to be a lot of people will say, this guy’s cheating the system. There’s always this conflict, and he presents that in the film very clearly — he’s operating under a state-sponsored system, and it’s also for nationalism and pride of country, and also combatting and beating a system that is also incredibly corrupt already, which is the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and WADA (World Anti-Doping Agency).

I have never seen him as anything but a champion for clean sports. He has shown to this day – and while his life is still sort of in the balance, he is providing information to the highest governing bodies within sport to clean up the corruption within anti-doping.

Q: When did you realize the film was going to be not about Fogel’s experiments in doping but about something else, something much bigger?

A: I met Grigory for the first time in Moscow. He takes us into his lab. He tells us to take the camera and put it in a black garbage bag and go through security. I was struck by how unalarmed he was, doing crazy sensitive things, talking about very intense, politically charged stuff. He has a calming demeanor, he’s very funny.

Once when we went into the Moscow lab, for me, it was like, ‘Whoa.’ The things he was saying, and saying on camera, I started to think, this is becoming something else.

Q: As director of photography and associate producer, what exactly was your role in the making of this film?

A: With a documentary, it really varies. In some of these scenes, I would go by myself and shoot and interview people. Sometimes, I was orchestrating two or three other camera operators. When you’re in a documentary, it’s really by any means necessary to tell the story.

And thing with being a director of photography in a documentary is, you’re a much more active participant in the scene. You have to use your intuition, you have to follow motion, you have to anticipate where people will be.

Q: You attended the Academy Awards ceremony in Hollywood. What was that experience like?

A: It was a total trip. The creative crew, four or five of us, were all sitting in the mezzanine. Everyone was cool and collected until our category came, and my hands started to sweat so bad. It was a very unnerving feeling. (Presenter) Laura Dern said “Icarus” and we just exploded. It was insane, another level of euphoria and excitement. It was indescribable, the feeling. That feeling does not get old.

Q: What’s next for you?

A: If there’s one thing I would say, for where this film started and where this film finished, there’s nothing in this world that’s impossible.

The next logical conclusion is to take more big risks on my career and keep pushing forward and keep trying new things. Now more than ever, having this accolade helps free me to just let it roll, to follow my intuition and my gut and keep creating new things.

I thought by no means when I graduated in 2011 that any of this would be possible. As Grigory would say, “Can you imagine?” It’s unbelievable, it’s stranger than fiction, which makes you think anything in this world is possible.

By Tim Christie, University Communications