'The Greater Meaning of Water' – Freediving Feature Film Hollywood Premiere

‘The Greater Meaning of Water’ film premiere was part of the 2010 Los Angeles All Sports Film Festival, where it won ‘Best Cinematography’ for feature film, and was voted ‘Audience Choice’ award for feature film.

The Greater Meaning of Water – Trailer from Amorgen Pictures on Vimeo.

Blow by Blow

The film’s director Sky Christopherson gives a play-by-play of the experience:

5:35pm- Take obligatory ‘red carpet’ photos with cast, crew, fans, alongside lead actor and Justin Williford. Wow. My palms are a little sweaty. Relax, it will go fine I tell myself.

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5:43pm- Someone whispers in my ear a friend of James Cameron just showed up with one of our executive producers. Palms now noticeably sweaty. I stop shaking people’s hands in favor of the shoulder touch.

5:55pm- Walk in the Charlie Chaplin Theater. It’s the largest within the Raleigh Studios complex and seating is nearly full!  I think my palms are now officially wet.

6pm- Lights drop, opening underwater sequence hits the 40ft wide screen, filling the theater with vibrant blue, high definition light. The place sounds like it’s been immersed in the ocean with the 5.1 THX surround sound. There’s no hiding anything now. Every detail, every image, every word is constructing a mini-reality in front of all and there’s no turning back. I now fear for my life as I risk dehydration through my palms.

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?- No idea what time it is anymore but the final dive unfolds with Justin Williford sinking hundreds of feet down and the theater is silent. This could be a good sign or a really bad one?!?!!

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The end credits roll, applause fills the theater. I tap Justin on the leg and we turn to each other and shake hands. What started off as a dream in the back of a garage to break the pattern of stereotypical freediving films through years of filming, editing, running out of money, reworking, has finally become reality.

But now comes the true test. The audience Q&A. Did anyone ‘get it’?  Polite audiences clap when the filmmakers are present, but the Q&A reveals how the film was interpreted. I must say throughout the Q&A my apprehension was quickly overpowered with the joy that comes with an audience really ‘getting’ the underlying message of your film, with all of it’s subtleties and complexities, which we had put so much of our hearts into. 

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Audience Q&A

Audience and Filmmaker Q&A transcript (edited for length). Caution, may contain spoilers.

Sky Christopherson:  Tonight is a special night, marking the completion of over 5 years of work on this independent film. I had no idea how I was going to react to this screening. Ultimately, the most emotional part for me were the end credits. I realized how many people donated their time and talent to this idea, which is now one of three fictional freediving films in existence after ‘The Big Blue’ and ‘The Freediver’. It takes so many people believing in a project for it to be finished and make it to the screen.

I want to thank Justin Williford for an absolutely amazing performance. Justin, come up on stage (applause)

Also we wanted to thank Performance Freediving. Kirk Krack is here tonight. Can you stand up Kirk? (applause) The freediving community was really behind this project.  And we have my parents here from Tucson, AZ tonight (applause) I wanted to thank them as well. They’ve been so supportive through the years whether it was cycling or making movies. My wife Tamara can you stand up (applause) she was a kayaker at the Olympic Training Center and a huge supporter of the project through the years and one of our executive producers along with Louise Thompson, Adam Sumner, and David Christopherson.  So we can take some questions now:

Q:  I have too many questions but just wanted to say great job. Amazing job. This is stunning.

Sky Christopherson: Thank you. We really appreciate it.

Q:  How hard was it to resist the temptation to kill the freediver off in the film? (audience laugher)

Sky Christopherson:  We met with a Hollywood producer at the beginning of this project and told him we wanted to tell a story with freediving as a natural and potentially transformative sport that actually improves the health and well being of the lead character and he basically said, “You guys wont be able to sell this, you have to play up the danger and kill someone or critically injure them” (audience laughter) but we really wanted to break the pattern with freediving films.

Justin Williford:  We tried to walk the razors edge because in effect, we all die, which is the dynamic between the father and son because Max will die early because of the disease he struggles with but not from freediving, in fact freediving is making him live longer through the freedom he finds in it. So yes, we wanted to bounce back in the face of what Hollywood would like to have to say on that…

Sky Christopherson: That you don’t need guns, violence, and sex to tell a story (audience laughter)

Q:  Just wonderful. Beautiful. What an experience. In the room you could have heard a pin drop at the end we’ve never seen an audience absolutely still like that before. I am wondering if the film is based on a true story?

Sky Christopherson: Justin and I were roommates at the Olympic Training Center, he was a shotgun shooter and I was a cyclist and we would stay up at night talking about some of these moments. He would say when he was in the ‘flow state’ these little clay targets that he would have to hit at hundreds of miles an hour would literally grow, subjectively, to the size of trash can lids, making it that much easier to hit.

Justin Williford: And on the bad days, they looked like Aspirin Tablets! (laughter)

Sky Christopherson:  Theres a personal part of the story for me- I trained for almost a decade for the 2000 Sydney Olympics and won the Olympic Trials by almost 2 seconds in the 1000m event in Track Cycling, and just a month before the games there was this political selection that had me off the team. They had written something in legally that enabled them to do this at their will which was quite controversial at the time. It was devastating for me to have made all of the sacrifice and to have not made the team so I was forced to dig deep and look at why I was doing this and ultimately make the distinction between that end goal, and the process, which commonly had the ‘flow’ experience independent from competition, which is where the deep fulfillment really was.

Justin Williford: Its all based on true events. It’s a culmination of personal experiences. On our floor of the Olympic Training Center was this Greco-Roman wrestler named Ray Brinzer he was this guy who wore pink ties and never combed his hair and his approach on sport was phenomenal- like a renaissance approach. He taught us a lot about our own sports when it came to thought and meditation. It was these campfire stories we told as athletes sewn together in a film and directed towards freediving. Also we wanted to jump over to the Dad’s experience as a surgeon and show that it’s not just sports where you get this ‘Flow State’. Doctors, writers, musicians, social workers, anyone with this kind of relationship to their actions. It can be found in anything, not just sport.

Sky Christopherson:  But we thought what a better way to communicate this concept of ‘flow’ than through the sport of freediving, where getting into such a mental state is crucial, and with the sounds of the ocean, the rays of light, all of the atmosphere of the water during freediving really lends itself to these kinds of ‘flow’ experiences.

Q: What’s the current world record for depth?

Kirk Krack:  Kicking down and up, 124 meters now. Which is about 400 feet.

Q: To put that into perspective how many stories is that?

Justin Williford: That’s a 40 story building. 40 stories down and up on one breath.

Q: Oh my god!!

Q: How long do you hold your breath when you go that far down?

Kirk Krack:  Those are 3.5 to 4 minute dives.

Q: Can freediving cure something like cystic fibrosis?

Sky Christopherson: My wife Tamara was an Olympic Kayaker and brought this element to the story based on a Kayaker with Cystic Fibrosis, Sam Couch. Through athletic training Sam was able to improve his health and significantly increase his life expectancy as well as making alternate on the 1996 Olympic Team! Just a couple decades ago athletics may have been seen as a risk but this is part of a changing paradigm in medicine where active recovery and exercise result in huge benefits in treatment and most importantly prevention.

Justin Williford: We did research on this ahead of time and we found that kids with CF were doing tandem dives with freedivers, learning how to hold their breath because it was actually helping them. There are different levels of CF and how badly it effects you. There were just four girls on America’s Got Talent that are trying to learn to sing because they have CF and they are likely to die in their 30’s but they really pursued this dream and the singing has actually helped them as well so we wanted to show how lung exercises and lung sports can actually help CF.

Q: What was the inspiration for the visualization when he was far deep in the tunnel, was this a visualization that the divers told you that kind of go through in their meditation? In a sense it seemed like a dream…

Sky Christopherson: Yes. We used these images as psychological symbols. In the beginning it’s an example of a dive gone wrong, where he’s really fighting against it, and that just raises your heart rate, burns more oxygen and as a freediver thats the last thing you want to do because the next thing you know you’re going to be waking up from shallow water blackout. The trick with freediving is to really stay relaxed, to get into these deep meditations, really let go of fear. We wanted to contrast the first dive with the final dive where you see some of these more philosophical symbols found in traditions like Zen Buddhism that aim to control breath and control attention as a path to enlightenment. It’s tough to show on screen without blatantly talking about it so we used some of these images symbolically to communicate it.

Q: Is this something freedivers experience?

Sky Christopherson: The tunnel image itself was from the accounts of freedivers.  When you’re burning too much oxygen and start going hypoxic, its a kind of tunnel vision and narrowing of vision. Freedivers have described it to us as feeling trapped in a tunnel, where you feel a little claustrophobic and gets a little frightening. In the final dive at the end, that’s why visually it opens up into this wide open space with a completely different set of metaphors because its a completely different kind of experience.

Q:  I was just stunned at how gorgeous the cinematography was and was really blown away by your job and for a first time director Im just amazed. Do you think it was something that, a talent you had, or something you studied, how did you get it looking so good out of the box?

Sky Christopherson: Ive always found it natural whether it was with a Sears video camera when I was 8 years old, or studying it at film school at UCSD after sports. Composition was the natural part but what I had to work at was the dramatic story.  We worked with writer Elizabeth Martin, she’s here tonight can you stand up? (applause) Beth really helped us to put these more esoteric things in these visuals and these moments into a story that would work as a film. Also, a scientist and close friend of mine Bilge Sayim helped with research for the script.

Visually, an influence on me personally is Michael Mann, almost verging on documentary where you have a lot of handheld and it’s not very contrived. You can do it fast so we would drop Justin into these real environments. Kirk Krack said if we came to the Caymans we could put Justin on the dive line and get the shots that we needed. This gave much more realism to the film staying lightweight like that really helps, from a visual perspective.

Kirk Krack: And I think one of the interesting things too, we were actually there doing our own competition and our own records, so we had the stage set, so after the records were done they could get in because everything was set, the divers were there, the boats were there, just get in there and do it.

Justin Willford: We got really lucky because everything came together just perfectly- if you look closely you can even see little thimble jellies that are swimming around giving this little detail- everything lined up perfectly and we had just barely enough time to sink that dive in.

Q: What camera did you use?

Sky Christopherson: This was a Sony digital HD camera. It was cutting-edge 5 years ago (laughter)

Justin Williford: We actually couldn’t edit it because it was so cutting edge at the time and Final Cut (software) wasn’t ready for HDV yet and we were praying they were going to speed up the development of it so we could begin editing. This caused a delay of some time.

Q: Why is all the diving in Cayman? Is it because the warmth of the water, or?

Sky Christopherson: Visibility that was key and on those days we had over 100 feet, which underwater, that’s a gift. It was the right week to be there and we had the HD camera in a case and had a rebreather diver take it down. I shot most footage above ground and in the pools personally, and we had an underwater camera operator Chris Brandson who did a great job on those shots hundreds of feet down.

And I wanted to note also, Justin did all those dives that you see in the film. Originally we were going to use a stunt diver but Justin wanted to do all the training to really get into the role because that’s his mindset and commitment to do it right, and what we found was that by the time we got to Cayman, Justin could go over 100 feet (audience member “wow”) Kirk Krack of Performance Freediving had shared some training techniques so that made it easier to keep it realistic.

Justin Williford: And just so you know 100 feet is a baby dive compared to what Pro Freedivers do. It amazing what these guys and girls, can do.

Q: When’s the DVD coming out and where can we buy it?

Sky Christopherson: Soon. We have a website http://www.gmwmovie.com where you can order through Amazon.com soon. We are very close, just putting together all the special features that people have requested including a making-of, a philosophical commentary on the ideas behind the film, additional footage from the Caymans, and more on the DVD and Bluray.

Festival Director: We are out of time, so we will have to cut it off there. Thank you all for coming tonight, we hope you have enjoyed this feature presentation.

The film’s official website: http://www.gmwmovie.com

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