Now on Netflix, free-diving documentary The Deepest Breath has captured viewers with its high stakes storytelling and emotional turns. Ireland’s own Laura McGann, whose previous feature was the roller derby doc Revolutions, directs the film, which through word-of-mouth has become one of the most sought-out films currently streaming.
Graham Day spoke with Laura about the world of freediving, the mindset behind it and the immersion required to tell a story of this magnitude.
How did you discover this story? Where did it all begin for yourself with The Deepest Breath?
For me, this whole thing started when I read an article about Stephen (Keenan) and Alessia (Zecchini) in the Irish Times in 2017. I didn’t know anything about freediving, I didn’t know about the world didn’t know Stephen or Alessia and I had to Google, you know, what is freediving.
Initially, I was really struck by what I saw, people, you know, swim into the water, like, without the urge to breathe, it looked like. For an extended period of time, and I couldn’t believe what I was looking at, really. And it was visually stunning, as well. And I, over the coming months, as I spoke to people all over the world, and here in Dublin, I really started to get a sense that there was something unique about both Stephen and Alessia. Their lives before they met, and what happened when they came together. And little pieces of archive footage like landed in my lap, really, and it made me think, okay, we might be able to do something particularly special with this film. This was because certain pieces of archive footage that we’d never wouldn’t be able to create ourselves existed.
You did Revolutions back in 2016, and that’s also a documentary, and it is a very human story as well. Did that give you a taste of once you have got to The Deepest Breath, this is another important story and another human story that I’d really like to tell?
I suppose most documentaries, you know, have that kind of human, universal element. For me, I think sports is sometimes an interesting way into a story or even just a way to a story with The Deepest Breath that was particularly interesting way into the story. And, and really, it’s the human story, like you said that, that appeals to me as people going against the grain. Like in Revolutions, these girls, everybody was emigrating, everything was ending in Ireland, it was 2010 and everything was shite. And these girls were trying to start something new when everything’s crumbling around them. And I just loved their spirit.
They’re not giving up their spirit, and in The Deepest Breath you have got two people where the entire world is saying, just do what everyone else is doing, please. And they say – No, thank you, I’m just going do my thing over here: And I’m going to stick with it, I’m going to continue and I’m going see where it takes me. Of course, it takes them to some incredible places where, you know, they’re challenged.
And they get the rewards, of course, and there’s risks involved as well. I think that’s the human element that kind of connects both those stories. It’s a tenuous enough thread. I’ve been asked about it so many times now, I’ve had to kind of think about it. I think that’s what it is. It’s not something I’m looking for it you know, every story is, I suppose every story is about somebody trying to get over an obstacle or a challenge is put in front of them, and then let the story go. That’s the kind of story really.
What were your initial thoughts of freediving when you first saw it?
Well, you know, I think, I think a lot of people who are watching it, particularly because it’s on Netflix, it’s got such a wide reach Netflix does, I think for a lot of people it is very new to them. My reaction to it, when I saw it for the first time was, of course to hold my breath. And be like, let me see if I can do this just sitting on the chair here. Of course, I couldn’t, I kept having to take a breath and then I tried again. I ended up counting how many breaths I would have to take while watching, you know, one person swim along and take no breaths. It came to six or seven, you know? I just thought, well, I’m fairly sure that’s going to be people’s initial reaction to it. I think a lot of people, you know, first thing is to try and do it as well. It felt like you know, until you understood what it is that they do, there was no point of me starting anywhere else in the story until you knew that piece of information, until you went through that experience of holding your own breath while watching it.
What was it like, getting to learn about Alessia? What was like learning her story?
One of the things that really, I just fell in love with Alessia’s story was the fact that she was 13. She turned up for a freediving course it was all men, older men, like adult men, which that in of itself is brave, to say the least. And, and then she went, and she beat them all in the pool, you know, almost immediately. That’s something but then the rule came in pretty much immediately that you can compete them until you’re 18.
So, she was told she’d have to wait four years. However, she held on to her dream. She stood fast, she put her head down and she worked. She came back four years later, and she blew them out of the water. I just thought, you know what, what young teenager can do that, you know, to keep their focus for that long with no reward whatsoever. I just thought like, she’s a special person. You know, this person is a very special person.
When it came to Stephen and learning about his journey, throughout the course of this story, what was it for him? He was a fascinating figure; I’d say for myself.
So, Stephen was the complete opposite and that’s what was interesting about his journey and his personality as he hasn’t even have a clue what he wanted to do. What he did have was the passion and the drive to go and try and figure it out with great vigour. He was searching for something with the same intensity that Alessia was. Stephen was trying to find something; he didn’t know what it was.
It was like, meaning it was for some kind of answer. It was much more of a kind of spirituality, an adventure and, you know, going too far off places, and visiting tribes and learning. He was really interested in the details in places that he couldn’t read in a guidebook, you know, you have to go you have to find out yourself. He didn’t want the conventional life. He just thought there has to be more. He wanted to drink up every last drop, as Peter (Keenan) says, of the world. You know, the film Into the Wild?
There is an element of Chris McCandless I feel about Stephen. Of just maybe turning your back on the conventional life and doing something, carving something out for yourself.
There is also the third element of The Deepest Breath. What was it like meeting their families and the community that they had both built up around them?
Well, I met their families and friends, I suppose at a time, which was probably the most difficult time in some of their lives. I just did my best to be respectful and to let them lead the pace or set the pace. Some people were just so open, and others, it was not for them. It was really like a collaboration between all of us. Of what people wanted to share and what people wanted to do. People wanted to make the film. That is how and why it got made, because everybody is seeing the film and more wanted it to be made. It almost wasn’t made because I wasn’t particularly convincing. It was that they wanted Stephen’s story to be out there.
How immersed did you have to get into this world to make sure you could properly tell the story?
Well, I suppose there are two things that come to mind when you ask that. One is, a lot of the research, you know, in earnest kicked off the start at COVID. So, everybody was home every day, you know, in this film and beyond, or at home, and, you know, I must have been on Zoom to people, over hundreds of times. They would not be able to go anywhere, I wouldn’t be able to go anywhere.
We’d spend half the day on Zoom chatting. The background I got on the whole thing was like, you know, we could have made six movies out of it, and from my attic in my house in Wicklow I felt like I was transported to the Bahamas, to you know, to the Philippines, Egypt, everywhere. It all happened here through those conversations. Then once things opened up again, the first place that we went to, was the Blue Hole in Dahab in Egypt.
I had an experience there that I feel like shaped the immersive nature of the film. At one point, I was in the Blue Hole, on the shore. It is all coral in the water for about ten metres. You can’t walk though, so you’re swimming before you normally would. It is quite shallow. It is only about up to your knee, but you have to be swimming. It is beautiful, I see all the fish, I am relaxed and then, all of a sudden, the ground dropped down to nothing. It just disappeared and this immense blue just filled my entire frame. I had just forgotten where I was for a second.
I did not realise it was going to be a complete drop. I got a sense because I had been speaking to free divers for months. They were saying it is the blue, it just pulls you down to the blue and for that that moment I got it. I feel like that was an important thing for me as the filmmaker to get, so that I could do my best to all but bring the audience there and give them that same experience.