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“They were each other's missing piece”, director Laura McGann and producer Jamie D’Alton discuss The Deepest Breath
03 Aug 2023 : Luke Shanahan
The Deepest Breath
We caught up with director Laura McGann and producer Jamie D’Alton following their latest documentary’s release on Netflix. It is currently the fifth-most watched film on the platform internationally.

This is Laura McGann’s second feature documentary, having directed Revolutions, a portrait of women on the forefront of Ireland's Roller Derby scene.

The Deepest Breath follows champion freediver Alessia Zecchini, and Irish adventurer turned expert safety diver Stephen Keenan. They came from very different paths, only to meet at the pinnacle of the competitive freediving world, discovering a shared passion for pushing their limits and forming a powerful relationship.

The film was produced by John Battsek, Jamie D'Alton, Anne McLoughlin, and Sarah Thomson. It is a production of Raw TV, Motive Films, A24, and Ventureland, and is being distributed internationally by Netflix.

Director Laura McGann and producer Jamie D’Alton sat down with us to discuss The Deepest Breath, bringing an Irish film to an international audience, and using archive material to create a story that unfolds in the present tense.

IFTN: How does it feel having your film being the fifth most-watched movie on Netflix around the world, as well as the most watched in Ireland and the UK?

LAURA: “It's totally surreal. When me and Jamie started chatting about this a number of years ago, we never thought we'd be reaching an audience of four and a half million in the first couple of days. Getting the story out there, and getting so much positive feedback from people all over the world, it's really rewarding.”

“Also for the people in the film, I’m really delighted that it's had that positive response because they gave an awful lot to it and opened up a lot. It’s great.”

IFTN: How did you first encounter the stories of Stpehen Keenan and Alessia Zecchini? And what was it that drew you to telling that story on the big screen?

LAURA: “I read about Stephen and Alessia in 2017. I had to google ‘What is freediving?’. I was watching people swimming underwater seemingly without the urge to breathe, I couldn't believe what I was looking at. And it was super cinematic, so from really early on it was clear that it had that big screen appeal.”

“Then learning more about Stephen and Alessia’s story, even though it does have a tragic ending, I found there was something really uplifting about both of them and the way they live their lives. They kind of went against the grain, so that was really appealing to me.”

IFTN: Jamie, when did your involvement with the production begin?
JAMIE: “Quite early doors, Laura and I have worked together a lot over the years and she'd be a great pal as well. We just bumped into each other on the street in Dun Laoghaire one day and Laura had started cooking this idea off the back of an Irish Times article she read. We did a bit of a development phase with it, and the more we understood the world the more excited we became.”

“A big part of producing a project is to get it off the ground. I immediately saw, and so did Laura, the potential for this film to break out and be an international film. We didn't go down the traditional routes for funding, we went directly to London and partnered up with Ventureland, who are an incredible UK-based documentary company.”

“Having John Battsek on board, one of the most prolific and amazing documentary producers, it just immediately became a much more sellable film. He brought A24 on who financed the film.”

LAURA: “The brilliant thing about going to Jamie was that he immediately had that vision to make it something bigger. The ambition to say ‘Okay, we could do this, but we could also do this’. And then the idea to bring it to John and elevate it was a vital step.”

IFTN: At what point did Netflix come onboard, and how did that benefit the project?

JAMIE: “We were at a soft lock at that stage. Netflix were incredibly supportive of the film. They wanted the film to be the film, not a Netflix version of the film, or a streamer film. They were so supportive in terms of the cut, and then it was selected for Sundance which was huge for Laura and I. You always aspire to that as a documentary filmmaker, but you wouldn't dream that you could pull it off. In a small industry, it’s harder to break out, and it's harder to get the attention of a big festival. So that was a remarkably good start to the film.”

“When Netflix came on board, it was a great feather in our cap. They’ve had the reach to bring it to 5 million eyeballs in the space of three or four days, which is just remarkable.”

“There’s so many great Irish films being made, but trying to get the audiences internationally is a big challenge. I don't think it's a rule but I do always argue a little bit, if you fund local, you stay local. Bringing in international finances, bringing in American money with A24, it was immediately an international film. The film would’ve found its audience, because it’s a beautiful film and a beautiful story, but it’s helped having the scale of the machine we have behind us.”

IFTN: How did you go about gathering the archive material?

LAURA: “It was very much like a case of having an absolute wealth of footage, and we were careful not to be led by that. So it was important that we knew what the story was. If there were moments where there wasn't a tonne of archive, Julian Hart, our editor, was just so good at cutting shots in a way that it made it feel like there were maybe four cameras where there was only one.”

“We had amazing archive producers in Mary Carson and Aoife Carey. It did take two years, and it was COVID as well, so we were reaching out to people, sometimes we'd have one photo, and we'd see a person in the background of an event and we’d be like “Does that person have a camera in their hand?”. Then we’d figure out who it is, get in touch with them, and then they'd go up to the attic and see if they could find the footage. So it was really like just pulling at little bits of thread for years. Many of them.”

JAMIE: “I think that shows the scale again, that you'd struggle with when working with locally funded projects just don't have the budget or time to spend two years finding every frame of archive that's out there. We had the time in the dit to go down some rabbit holes and make some wrong turns. All a luxury that Laura and I have never had in terms of making a film.”

IFTN: Part of that archive includes extensive audio interviews with Stephen, how did your access to these interviews come about?

LAURA: “I had been chatting to people all over the world, and initially I wasn't going to get in touch with the family. Because it's a small tight-knit community, Peter Keenan [Stephen's father] had heard that I was chatting to people and so he got in touch with me. He said ‘Do you want to meet in Hardy’s Bar in Dun Laoghaire?’. It turned out he lived across the road from me. We had coffee and he brought his friend Mícháel Holmes with him, who’s a retired radio producer for RTÉ. At the end of the coffee, he put this little pen drive down on the table and said “Look, there’s some interviews with Stephen on that.” He had asked Mícháel ‘Will you come do a recorded interview with Stephen because he's coming home with these amazing stories’. So he came along and did one interview, and then he ended up returning nine other times to interview Stephen, over an hour each time. The whole reason it was possible to make the film was because of those interviews.”

IFTN: Talk to me about how you used these interviews to structure the documentary in the present tense.

LAURA: “The fact that we had Stephen telling his own story made it possible to tell the story in the moment. For Stephen to tell you himself firsthand why he did what he did and how he felt about different experiences, we had the opportunity to tell the story in the moment and not have it be retrospective. A lot of documentaries, you'll tell everybody what happens at the end, and then you go back to the start.”

“In order to do that we had to treat Alessia in the same way otherwise it would be kind of unbalanced. So we had Stephen’s audio interviews, and we had tons of archives that he shot himself and the other people shot of him. So with Alessia we used her audio and her archive as well, and that way we were able to weave the two stories together.”

“What struck us when dissecting their stories was that there was a call and response. Alessia had so much drive and a really clear idea of what she wanted, whereas Steven was much more loosey goosey, but did have this fire in his belly for exploration. Like Peter says in the film, he was searching for something that he couldn't quite put his finger on, so there was that idea there that they were each other's missing piece.”

JAMIE: “To view Stephen’s story through the lens of knowing how his life ends, it would be a very different film, and you’d look at it differently. Having that flow of an unfolding life feels right. I think it was in the very first document Laura wrote about this project that this was how we were going to do it”.

"A lot of people have been reaching out to us about Stephen just being an inspiring man. I think we all wish we had a bit of Stephen in us, that we were brave enough to not just follow the 9 to 5, 30 year mortgage rhythm of life that a lot of us do."

The Deepest Breath is available to watch on Netflix.

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