Behind the scenes of hit documentary The Deepest Breath with Irish director Laura McGann

Laura McGann's documentary explores the hidden world of free diving

Listen | 37:22

Warning: This article and podcast episode contain spoilers for The Deepest Breath.

Film-maker Laura McGann, who directed this summer’s critically-acclaimed Netflix documentary The Deepest Breath, has been ‘blown away by the reaction to the film’.

[The Deepest Breath review: ‘A tense, engrossing documentary’]

In today’s In the News podcast, McGann, from Newbridge, County Kildare, explains how she first came upon the story of freediver Alessia Zecchini and her Irish safety diver Stephen Keenan in a 2017 article in The Irish Times.


Dubliner Keenan, who helped the Italian athlete overcome setbacks on her way to achieving a world record, died during her attempt at one of the most challenging dives in the world at the Blue Hole in Egypt.

‘I didn’t know what freediving was, so I googled freediving and was met with these incredible videos of people that didn’t seem to have the urge to breath under the water’ says McGann.

‘It was kind of like finding out that there is a group of people in the world who have figured out they know how to fly’.

The documentary could not have been made without the help of this seemingly fearless community, says McGann.

‘It was like having a fleet of dolphins on our crew. they would all go down to 30 meters, get this shot, come up, show me on the camera, and I’d say that’s brilliant guys, is there any chance you could do that one more time?

One of the safety divers said “oh there was a bull shark that I was keeping my eye on the whole time, but he was far enough away that I thought it was fine”'.

[‘It was almost a supernatural experience’ - Tara Brady interviews Laura McGann]

McGann also credits Stephen’s father Peter Keenan, who, it turned out, was her neighbour in Dun Laoghaire.

‘I’d been chatting to people about the story all over the world for about six months, and I was shopping in the same shop as Peter, probably walking past him on the street. It felt like this story, which was happening somewhere very far away, was actually now very much on my doorstep’.

Laura and Peter met many times and talked about Stephen’s life, his intrepid nature and what drew him to such a risky profession.

‘Stephen had kind of been through a lot in his life,’ says McGann. ‘There’s something about freediving that quietens the mind, you have to go into this deep meditation, you can’t be stressing about anything, you have to quieten your mind in order to hold your breath and enjoy it and it’s almost like that’s what Stephen needed.

‘Peter said he was always waiting on that phone call. He knew it was possible something would happen to Steven, and he just had to live with that.

‘One of the things that made it possible for me to wrap my head around this story and approach it in a celebratory way, was that Peter said Stephen lived more in his 39 years than most people do in 80′.

The success of The Deepest Breath has opened doors for McGann.

‘For sure. My last film (2016′s Revolutions), it was an amazing experience, it showed in the IFI and that was an amazing moment for me. For this to be now in 190 countries, is insane’, she says.

‘I’m developing a few pieces at the moment, hopefully some of them get off the ground’.

Presented by Bernice Harrison. Produced by Suzanne Brennan.

This episode was originally published in September 2023.

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison

Bernice Harrison is an Irish Times journalist and cohost of In the News podcast