This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labour of the writers and actors currently on strike, the movie being covered here wouldn't exist.
Last week Netflix viewers were graced with the release of Laura McGann's emotional documentary, The Deepest Breath. This up-close and personal encounter with the free-diving community shares the highs and lows of the extreme sport.
It focuses on Italian athlete Alessia Zecchini, who has a by-chance meeting with Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan. An unlikely pairing, they soon realise how pivotal their encounter is in her attempt to break the world record. Speaking to FILMHOUNDS, director McGann talks about what attracted her to the incredible story.
What made you want to direct this film?
I read about Stephen and Alessia's story, but I didn't really know what freediving was, so I Googled it and found hundreds of amazing videos. I'd never seen anything like this before, they looked like dolphins swimming in the ocean. Next thing, I looked up and it was dark, I'd lost myself in how beautiful it is. Then, with all my knowledge, I went back to Stephen and Alessia's story, it touched my heart deeply, and it never let go.
What made their story appealing?
To me, it seemed like they were each other's missing piece; he was the Yin to her Yang. When you see them, you realise that for it (their relationship) to work, she needs a little bit of him, and him of her.
Was it emotionally gruelling to see so many blackouts?
Like many things, the more exposure to blackouts, the less shocking it becomes. Some of these people have been in the sport for 10 years, or more. People black out, they come back and then get on with their day. It's normal, and part of the evolution of free diving. Initially, it was seen as a scary thing, that should be hidden from the public, but now, it's shifting. The community is informing people that blackouts are common in freediving. The divers know the risks involved, and they do whatever they can to mitigate them. At the end of the day, they all want to go home and have their dinner.
How did you come by all the archive footage, and why did you use it?
I came to this story in the present day, so I needed to see who else was in the competition in 2005. When I looked through the pictures, anyone I saw with a camera or a GoPro, I noted them, then began contacting anyone I could until I tracked down the individuals. From there, I had to firstly, see if they still had the footage, and second, whether they would help. Luckily, with free diving, similar to other niche sports, there's always someone filming, so we ended up with around 40 to 50 archive contributors. It was such a variety, everything from VHS to an iPhone.
For anything that wasn't filmed, I went back and filled in the gaps, whilst ensuring I kept it in the style of the event that day. We filmed the interviews in all the different locations, I wanted it to feel like they were part of the original scene. It was like the beach was behind them, and they had just come out of the water from a swim. The same applies to the shots taken in the Blue Hole in Dahab, or the Bahamas. We had the wealth of archive footage, paired with the opportunity to go to these incredible places, to film the different events. I needed to make sure that anything I added kept you in the moment.
Why did you structure the film chronologically?
It was important for me to film the story chronologically, and with all the archive footage available, it enabled us to do this. It's not often you get the opportunity to have access to so much archive footage. It allowed us to be ‘in it' and not told the story retrospectively, by another person. That's all you want from a film, to be engrossed in what you're visually seeing. It is also thematically fitting; in freediving, you need to be in the moment, you can't be worrying about what happened last week or what may happen tomorrow. I purposely refrained from revealing the outcome until Alessia and Stephen's paths separated, they were treated identically before that. From then on, we arrive ‘in the now.'
Finally, what do you think it encapsulates well?
The thing I love most about Stephen and Alessia is they both took the road less travelled. Alessia had a dream when she was thirteen to be a free diver when it didn't even exist. Meanwhile, Stephen didn't know what he wanted, but he knew that he had to go looking for it. They both made decisions to forge their own way in the world. They have a curiosity, with no idea where they would end up; I really admire that.
If viewers could take away one thing from the film, it is as simple as that; they should follow their dreams. Listen to that voice inside your head, you never know where you may end up. Stephen and Alessia were worlds apart; there could be someone else on the other side of the world for you too. If you don't listen to that voice, you might miss that. For them, every decision that they made brought them closer together.
The Deepest Breath is out now on Netflix.