How many times have you seen The Big Blue? Be honest, now. If you’re under the age of 18, you can get away with lowballing me on this, since it was released before you were born.
I’ve seen it more than once. More than twice. Everybody I hang with has seen it, oh, a few times. Do we know all the lines? We do. Do we hum the musical score? Heaven help us – we do.
Are we about ready for a new Great Freediving Film?
Oh, yes. That we are. And not another Big Blue, please. Been there, done that. And done that. And done that…
Sky Christopherson was so ready for The Next Great Freediving Film that he stopped waiting around and set out to make it himself. He didn’t fool around, either. He sacrificed his entire net worth, stressed his marriage to the limit, urged, cajoled, sweat, cried, hurt, and lost track of the world outside this project.
I’ve been screening a rough cut of the film, The Greater Meaning of Water, to handpicked freedivers from around the world for several months now. Mostly elite-level competitors and trainers, with a few high intermediates for diversity’s sake. Only one - one – had a negative reaction to the story line. Everybody liked the moving pictures. You will, too, when you see the video clips.
Then, in a sweltering Middle Eastern living room last August, somebody said the magic words: "This could be a great film if the guy would just finish it already." Wow. That was exactly what I’d been trying to say, but couldn’t quite figure out how to say it. A great film ! If he’d just…
Finish it? You mean. . .?
I tracked Sky Christopherson to his very lair, and relayed this comment to him. Turns out there’s another chapter to this story, all right. Here’s how that conversation went:
DB -The first thing everybody in the freediving community wants to know is whether you see your film as the successor to The Big Blue! Do you?
Sky - No, the new James Cameron film, The Dive, about Audrey Mestre’s death will be the successor to The Big Blue. Both tell stories of freediving as a sport of love,obsession, and death. Our purpose in making The Greater Meaning of Water is to break beyond the stereotype that prior films reinforce to the general public – that freediving is deadly. We emphasize the naturalistic side of the sport through the eyes of the lead character Maxwell Avery, a freediver with an almost inconceivable dillema. He suffers from a lung disease and finds peace from the suffering through freediving. Thus, in Max’s case, freediving and the water contribute to his health and survival, rather than threaten it.
More importantly, we wanted to explore the idea of “flow state” in elite level sports. “Flow” is a term coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihaly to describe a mental state where we become so fully immersed and engaged in what we are doing we loose a sense of self and can experience (sometimes radical) changes in our perception of time and space.
DB – The Flow? Hmmm, I know about a thing I call. Where are you coming from with this?
Sky - My wife and I, along with the lead actor, are retired Olympic athletes and we routinely experienced flow during our finest workouts and competitions. We wanted to communicate these experiences using freediving as a vehicle. However, during the course of the project it became apparent to us that flow is quite universal.
During our research for our script, we talked at length with people outside of sports; surgeons, musicians, writers, and the like, we found that they all had their own versions of flow. We soon realized this project was more that just a film about freediving or elite athletics, it was about the human experience.
DB -The Greater Meaning of Water is a movie about freediving experienced through the life of Max Avery, an athlete training to break the world record. How did your athletic background shape the story?
Sky -I was a sprint cyclist on the US Cycling team for eight years, and was 4th in the world in 1998. My event was called the "kilo", a 60-second, all-out 1000m time trial on the velodrome. The kilo is known to produce the highest lactic acid levels on record. My blood was turned into battery-acid. Even my teeth would ache unbearably, and with my blood oxygen dropping significantly, I would commonly ride that fine-line of loosing consciousness.
DB – Near blackout? Sounds familiar. . .
Sky - Mental preparation before the race was crucial. In the hours prior, I followed a specific plan designed to create very deep levels of concentration, described by many as the "flow state" peaking just minutes before the start. In this state, I became able to push myself to a level that would otherwise be impossible. In my everyday state of mind I feared the effects that followed such an effort. But fear, in this case, is contradictory as it only worsens the effects by over stimulating the body heart rate too high, and so on.
DB – Tell me about The Flow. What’s it like for you?
Sky – The subjective experience of flow is very interesting. A feeling of deep centeredness accompanies it, and at times radical changes of space and time occur. For example, Michael Jordan has described the rim of the basket growing considerably in size during his best games, and feels an "automatic" unfolding of the game ( More on this here – Ed. )as he becomes interconnected with his teammates. In the film, we modeled one of the scenes after an actual sports psychology session that gives you a behind-doors look into the creation of these mental training programs.
DB – You know that expression "like a fish needs a bicycle" ? So how does a bicyclist turn his attention to freediving?
Sky - When I saw a freediving competition for the first time, I recognized this concept immediately. Although our sports were on opposite ends of the spectrum, achieving something toward the "flow state" was essential to safely reaching peak performance.
It was this experience that made me wonder what it was like for freedivers before, during and after the dive. I wanted to know if the athletes at the peak of their game experienced the same things that I did as a cyclist- in other words, were there common experiences that could link our sports together in some way? I think what I found was in the moment of pure focus, athletes find a moment of clarity that surpasses any other experience in the world.
DB – What’s your freediving background?
Sky - I trained with the lead actor as I was writing the script to get into the freediving mindset, which became particularly important during editing. Before every editing session for an underwater scene, I would spend at least an hour in the water letting my mind shift back to that world. Aquatic psychology is quite different from its terrestrial counterpart, and I tried to juxtapose the two in the film. Max, the protagonist, finds freedom from his deepest fears and problems while in this aquatic space. As a result, all underwater scenes flow with long fades and dissolves, whereas the dry-land scenes utilize jump-cuts and faster pacing.
DB - Your wife is an Olympian, too?
Sky - My wife, Tamara Christopherson (then Tamara Jenkins), competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney, Australia in sprint kayaking. She’s a fierce competitor but also graceful and beautiful- I am lucky to know her. We met at the Olympic training center in San Diego, CA, fell in love and married in 2002. Tamara’s love and support were instrumental in getting this film made, whether it was playing the part of an athlete extra or in staying up all night with us to get a scene shot, she was always there.
DB – How’d you go about casting the film – especially the main character, Max Avery?
Sky - In the summer of 2003, I traveled to Colorado to visit my friend Justin Williford, a member of the US National Shooting Team. At the time Justin was ranked 5th in the nation in his Shotgun discipline of Skeet. Because shooting is so much more a mental sport than a physical one, I found it much easier to discuss the points of mental preparation with him on an elite level and how important it was to have a strong mental game.
Justin and I were roommates at the Olympic Training Center, and would talk for hours about those cherished moments of "flow" that we lived for. Justin said the tiny 108mm clay pigeon that normally traveled over 60mph (100kph), would kick into slow motion and appear as large as a trash can lid. He could see the sun glistening on the edge of the targets and would hit them effortlessly with the shotgun, which now felt as if it was an extension of his body.
During this visit, we talked at length about freediving and its parallels to our sports. Justin shared my conviction that freediving had been exploited by the media, and was in need of something to communicate these greater values.
Sitting in a hotel room that afternoon watching a thunderstorm, Justin and I made a pact that we would make our own film about freediving. He would be the lead actor, and I would write and direct it. We would set out to portray freediving as a beautiful and natural sport, one deserving treatment equal to any other legitimate sport.
We held an open call and assembled a group of enthusiastic San Diegans for the cast and crew. We also got a generous offer from Performance Freediving president Kirk Krack, who said if we could find a way to get down to the Cayman Islands in April 2005, he’d let Justin use the dive line after their record attempts. We pooled our frequent flier miles and made the trip. The water was crystal clear wtih 100ft plus visibility, and underwater cameraman Chris Brandson got some incredible shots that really captured the beauty of the sport.
DB – Did Justin have any freediving experience before you shot the film?
Sky - Justin had his scuba certification, but had never freedived until this project. It was very important to us that the freediving experiences in the film be authentic, so we decided not to use stunt divers.
To train Justin as a freediver, we researched various clinics and instructors and decided to go with the Performance Freediving courses because of their emphasis on safety. We attended the Basic Freediver program in Malibu, CA. and were thrilled to discover that World Champion Martin Stepanek was an actual instructor along with team coach Kirk Krack. Justin learned static and dynamic apnea techniques, depth diving techniques, and most importantly the safety standards. They also did college-style class work and Justin took a lot of notes on the breathe-up and recovery techniques so he could perform them correctly. After the clinic we put together a training program that included static and dynamic apnea in the pool, and ocean training at La Jolla Cove.
In addition, my former teammate Erin Hartwell put together a general fitness program for Justin, as he was 50 pounds overweight to begin with and needed to have Martin Stepanek-like abs by the time of filming! Justin ran, swam, and lifted weights every day.
With the help of Performance Freediving, Justin was able to hit a depth just over 100ft by the time of the shoot, which enabled us to stick to our initial goal of having all dives and training in the film be authentic.
Justin fell in love with the water, and has continued freediving after filming was over.
DB - You portray freediving as an almost spiritual experience for Max, your main character. Why was this important to you?
Sky - Some of the most insightful and deeply meaningful experiences in my life have come through moments of flow during my finest performances in my sport. I wanted to communicate this and I found freediving as a sport that is strongly conducive to these kinds of experiences. I found it interesting that freediving has been so grossly misrepresented by mainstream media as dangerous and even deadly. There are so many parallels between freediving and traditions that cultivate meditation- Zen Buddhism, for example.
To amplify this spiritual aspect of freediving, we created a character that struggles with cystic fibrosis, a genetic disease that affects the body’s ability to breathe. In many cultures and religions, breath and life are synonymous. Max confronts his own mortality daily, but by learning to control breathing through meditation and freediving, he gains control of his fight for life.
DB - Freediving and cystic fibrosis. It looks like you may have introduced two groups that may not have known much about one another. Do you plan to screen your film for the Cystic Fibrosis community?
Sky - The Greater Meaning of Water shows that people with cystic fibrosis can lead full, active lives and and can even thrive and extend their lifespans, perhaps with freediving as a part of the cure. During our research for the script, a study was released showing the positive effects of salt water on individuals with CF. the saline assists in reducing the severity and frequency of the infections. We also found an article chronicling an event where children with CF got to experience freediving by tandem dives. They would be strapped to an instructor and “ride along” on dives. The article emphasized that both the diving and physical activity were beneficial to CF patients.
The film bridges spirituality, on the one hand, with the practical principle that activity can be a part of the total solution. We’re hoping to show the film to several of the non-profit organizations that fund CF research, and also to children that struggle with the disease. Theses children need to know there are options and even greater freedom through athletics. If The Greater Meaning of Water can raise awareness of cystic fibrosis, I think it would be great. If freediving could be used as a treatment for cystic fibrosis -now that would really be something!
DB – If you were asked today to come up with a tag line for the film, what would it be?
Sky – The deeper you dive into the ocean, the deeper you dive into yourself. That’s the philosophical tag line. Practically: Freediving is not insane and you do not need to be suicidal to do it. Rather, if done properly it is one of the most beautiful and natural things we can do. Too long for a tag line?
DB – Oops, I think in Hollywood the first thing you’re supposed to ask about a film is how much it cost to make !
Sky -The film so far has cost 80 thousand dollars, which is considered ultra low budget. By way of comparison, most low budget films start at around a $1 million and up. We managed this by shooting with a high definition video camera rather than on film, and with the support of a cast and crew who were willing to work on a "credit and copy" basis.
DB – So far? What do you mean by "so far" ?
Sky – I’m currently fundraising the remaining 50% through targeted donations of $5-$10 thousand each to finish the editing, music, trailer, sound design, mastering, and duplication of the film. We have raised about 50% of the funds so far in the form of grants, sponsorships, and donations. Contributors will be named as executive producers and producers of the film, and will be invited as special guests to all screenings. If you can identify with the core message of the film and want to enable its completion, contact the producer.
DB – Was there ever a time when you had doubts about the project?
Sky - In the beginning, we had no idea how we would do it, and had very little money available. Justin sold most of what he owned and drove out to San Diego. He slept on a mattress in a small room in the back of my garage. There, we began planning, writing, and researching, with daily threats from the Homeowners Association of eviction for “improper use of garage space”.
Initially we talked to a Hollywood producer for some guidance, and he told us that we were wasting our time making a film about the spiritual side of freediving. He said we should play up the danger of it otherwise there would be no public interest. We thanked him for his opinion and moved forward anyway, but I must admit I thought a lot about what he said.
When we were in the thick of the production I remember the toughest day. I was preparing for a shoot and I couldn’t save the script file on my computer because my hard drive was full. Instead, I tried emailing it to the actors but my email account was full from all the project emails. Then I tried to print it out, only to find I was out of printer ink. I drove to the store with the gas gauge on “E” and tried to buy some ink but my credit card was maxed out from the rest of production. At the same time I was starving from working all day and couldn’t buy food or water either. It was so ridiculous that I laughed at the situation, but then stepped pack and thought about what a huge risk this was to try to pull off. I almost lost it that day, but fortunately Justin, Tamara, and my Dad pitched in help and got me through it.
DB – How about the others? The cast and crew?
Sky - Internally we all went through various cycles of stress and uncertainty. Each of us had our doubts at different points during the film, but each of us would in turn cheer the other up and keep the other motivated to finish the project. There were times each of us were in tears from frustration, exhaustion, and financial “brokenness”, but we managed to keep each other motivated to finish the project.
DB – You had a test screening in La Jolla, CA. How did it go, and will the film be changed?
Sky – Yeah, we held an April premiere at the new high definition Cal-IT2 theater in La Jolla, which was a great success. We had hundreds of people in attendance, and the diving footage looked absolutely beautiful on the theater’s HD projector. The version that we screened was definitely not ready to be “locked”, but being young filmmakers we wanted to just get it on the screen get as much feedback as possible for the final version. In addition, we wanted to show all of the amazing volunteers, crew and cast the fruits of their labors during the process of the first edit.
DB – So what will be different in the final cut?
Sky – There will be about three new scenes that will enrich the story, and further development of the freediving scenes. In addition, there will be special features on the DVD including extended diving montages, a montage from Stingray City in Cayman, an up-close and personal interview with actor Justin Williford, and a photo slideshow. A future version of the film is also planned that will inter-cut documentary footage discussing the latest research in freediving and sports psychology.
DB – Where can I see the final cut ?
Sky – The final release will be submitted to film festivals and also made available on DVD. We are currently taking pre-orders for the DVD. It will also be available on HD-DVD and Blue-Ray, which is exciting because it will be among the first wave of titles available in these new formats.
The film has already received invitations to six film festivals in the US and Europe, and we’ve also been approached by a few distribution companies. We’re also interested in alternative media distribution. It’s an exciting time to be making movies because there are so many alternatives to traditional distribution.
DB – Are you glad you did it ?
Sky – Whew. All in all, it’s been a great challenge and learning about the sport of freediving has been fascinating. I look forward to getting feedback from the freediving community once the film is finished. Hopefully no one’s disappointed that the protagonist doesn’t die from freediving, but my hunch is that anyone who’s felt the peace and beauty of diving will identify with the core of this film.
The Theatrical Teaser is now live on the films website: http://www.gmwmovie.com