The movie producer used swimming as a springboard to box office success
This article originally appeared in the November-December 2018 issue of SWIMMER.
Mark Vahradian was well on his way toward a career as an attorney. After earning a degree in political science from Duke University, he was working his way through law school at the University of California–Los Angeles. He already had some connections in Washington, D.C., and a future in legislative law seemed like a safe bet.
Then his heart got in the way.
He pivoted and set his sights on movie production. Now, 25 years later, he’s best known as the patriarch of the “Transformers” series. His films have grossed billions of dollars and earned multiple Oscar nominations for their visual effects, and he’s worked with stars such as Bruce Willis, Megan Fox, Shia LaBeouf, Josh Duhamel, Helen Mirren, and Mark Wahlberg.
Vahradian’s also a lifelong swimmer, and he says there’s a logical connection between his background in the pool and eventual Hollywood success. Swimmers, of course, learn to persist. All those years of early alarms and suffocating sets tend to develop the kind of mental toughness that prepares them for future challenges.
Indeed, for Vahradian, his swimming experience with an elite youth club and as a collegian put him in the right mindset for the rigors of the film industry.
“They never tell you about the physical challenge of making a movie,” the 51-year-old says. “You’re up early. You’re working late. Sometimes you’re outside in the winter. Night shooting is, for me, the most painful part of making a movie. You go to work at 9 p.m. and work until 9 a.m. There’s a lot of physicality to making a movie, and you learn how to deal with that stuff and not complain. You learn a lot of that in swimming.”
To hear Vahradian tell it, not only did his aquatic background help equip him for professional success, it was specifically relevant to his role as a producer. He wasn’t necessarily the fastest swimmer, but he thrived in a team environment and forged bonds with his teammates. When sets became difficult, he kept his friends from quitting.
Turns out, being a glue guy on a swim club was a good proving ground for a future movie producer. In both roles, you learn to create bonds and hold things together.
“Producing a movie has basically been described as a long, slow walk through a minefield,” Vahradian says. “What they mean by that is that movies are always falling apart more than they’re coming together. It doesn’t matter what stage, beginning, middle, or end. Even after you’re done cutting the movie and the marketing team doesn’t know how to sell it or whatever. It’s the producer’s job to hold it all together.”
An Early Nadadore
Vahradian rose through the youth swimming ranks in the 1970s with one of the top clubs in the country, the Mission Viejo Nadadores in Southern California. He joined in its early years, but the bar already was set high. Even in its infancy, the club was developing future Olympic gold medalists such as Shirley Babashoff and Brian Goodell.
Not surprisingly, the training was hard. It was an elite program, and excessive practice was considered the key to success. Vahradian remembers practicing for two and a half hours twice a day, plus an hour of dryland training, six times a week during the summer. Between practices, he’d go to the beach and surf. It wasn’t unusual for him to be in the water 10 hours a day.
His first coach was Bev Montrella, the wife of esteemed coach Jim Montrella, who served as an assistant coach on the 1976 U.S. Olympic Team and later went on to a successful collegiate coaching career. Although Bev Montrella had no way of knowing Vahradian would one day become a famous movie producer, she says he stood out from the crowd even back then. She recalls Vahradian as a cute kid whom she never could teach how to dive off the blocks and who had a penchant for mischief.
“I remember one time vividly where I had removed him from the workout because he wasn’t following directions, and I imagine that one or two of his teammates went with him,” Montrella says with a laugh. “When his mother came to pick him up, she was very livid, which she had every right to be because we could not find the boys. They wound up being up in some trees.”
Vahradian’s bond to the Nadadores remains firmly intact. When the club celebrated its 50th anniversary in June, he made sure he was there. Never mind that he was shooting a movie in Montreal. He flew back to California for one day to celebrate with longtime friends, former teammates, and coaches, including Montrella.
“My brother [John] and I swam there together our whole childhood,” Vahradian says. “They all know my brother, who passed away my last year of college. So it’s nice to see people who remembered him and share memories.”
Diving Back In
When Vahradian graduated high school, he figured his competitive swimming days were over. He enrolled at Duke, motivated to concentrate solely on academics.
That was until Duke’s swimming coach at the time, Bob Thompson, learned of Vahradian’s background and persuaded him to join the team. Vahradian, who swam individual medley for the Blue Devils and graduated from Duke in 1989, says he gravitated to Thompson, a Vietnam veteran with a unique perspective on the world—someone who believed in hard work and commitment, without losing track of enjoying life.
“He was a guy who had a lot of passion, and I think he thought there was something more that I could get out of school,” Vahradian says. “He was a big believer in the culture of swimming. I think he thought that was something that was important in my life, and maybe I didn’t realize how important it was.”
Thompson cemented the fortitude Vahradian had acquired with the Nadadores. Vahradian recalls the annual holiday trips to Florida, where the team would train arduously for two weeks and return home tan and fit, with a sense of achievement.
“Coach Thompson was one of those ‘more is better’ types of coaches, and I remember these training sessions that were excruciating,” Vahradian says. “His favorite set was four sets of four 400s. The 400 free is a long swim. Four of those is longer still. And four times through that whole thing is crazy.”
‘Stopped Me in My Tracks’
Vahradian earned his bachelor’s degree at Duke and then completed his Juris Doctor at UCLA School of Law. He didn’t see himself working in a traditional law practice, though, instead considering work in some sort of legislative capacity. But as he approached graduation from law school, he was becoming less enamored with the approaching career track.
“I didn’t like the idea of billable hours and keeping track of every five minutes of my day,” Vahradian says.
It took a stroke of serendipity to launch his movie career. He visited the UCLA undergrad career center and began scanning a wall of 3 x 5 cards with job leads, seeking vocational inspiration.
“I saw architecture and urban planning and blah, blah, blah, and I got to film producer,” Vahradian says. “It sort of stopped me in my tracks.”
He thought back to the science fiction and horror titles that captivated him as a youth, back to “Jaws” and “Twilight Zone” marathons. That card led him to internships with two up-and- coming producers, Mark Gordon and Chris Meledandri. Gordon would become known for work such as “Saving Private Ryan” and “Grey’s Anatomy,” and Meledandri would go on to produce the “Despicable Me” franchise.
Vahradian caught on at Universal Pictures and later moved to Disney and Warner Brothers. He joined Paramount in 2006 and has remained there ever since.
In addition to the venerable “Transformers” series, he’s produced “Deepwater Horizon,” “Red,” “Man on a Ledge,” and many other major films. He recently wrapped up shooting a reprise of Stephen King’s “Pet Sematary,” starring John Lithgow, and has a spinoff of the “Transformers” series, “Bumblebee,” coming out in December.
Staying in the Pool
Despite a demanding schedule, Vahradian manages to find time to swim.
It’s a challenge when he’s on the road, depending on where he is and the hours he’s keeping. During a recent shoot, he used a stationary swimming device in a hotel pool, which he says actually improved his stroke.
Back in Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Chelsea, and their sons, 11-year-old Wes and 9-year-old James, it’s much easier to get to the pool. He swims UCLA Bruin Masters’ early morning practice, which is known to attract some notable names.
The coach is Erika Stebbins, who swam at the 1988 and 1992 Olympics under her maiden name of Hansen. Four-time Olympic gold medalist Lenny Krayzelburg and two-time Olympic silver medalist Markus Rogan are regulars, as is John Moffet, a member of the 1984 U.S. Olympic team.
A guy named Mark Spitz also has been known to drop by when he’s in town.
Vahradian admits it’s a bit surreal, although not intimidating, to swim alongside Olympic greats. Just as he has no desire to practice five or six hours a day, as he did back with the Nadadores, his lanemates aren’t exactly looking to train intensely, either. At this point, it’s more about relaxing, loosening up, and getting the blood pumping.
“It is weird to be swimming with Olympians, but most of them are out of shape like me, so that makes you feel a little better about it,” Vahradian says with a laugh.
Vahradian says the friendships and camaraderie at Bruin Masters are the biggest reasons he stays involved in the sport. It’s a vibe of friendly competition. As it does with many Masters swimmers, that’s what motivates him to get to the pool on a cold winter morning.
“It’s a very supportive group,” Stebbins says. “They connect outside the pool. They razz each other, which makes it a little more fun and keeps you committed and makes you work a little harder than if you didn’t have that push from somebody else.”
Just like the swim club he was on when he was a teenager. Just like the swim team he was on when he was in college.
“Masters swimming is the same way,” Vahradian says. “The number one reason I show up at that practice is the people that I’m swimming with. It’s comfortable for me, and if you saw us in that pool and just listened, you would think we were a bunch of 14-year-olds, because that culture never changes. It doesn’t matter how old you are.”
- Human Interest