Water and Inspiration

Jill Heinerth loves the places where her friends have gone to die.

By Robert McClellan

Considered the world’s top female cave diver, Jill is an acclaimed underwater explorer and film maker. Choosing to work deep inside the underwater rivers and springs of the planet, she brings breathtaking visuals back from one of the most beautiful, dangerous, and unforgiving environments on earth. And, tragically, all too often, she loses one of her technical diving colleagues due to mis-steps or technical failures.

There are only a handful of people who can go to the places where Jill works  underwater. And smaller still, is the elite group of cave divers who can plan, light, and shoot professional HD footage thousands of feet inside these dark, confining, gushing underwater conduits. An underground river that may very well be flowing right beneath our feet.

Three cave divers join Jill during an underwater filming project.
Three cave divers join Jill during an underwater filming project.

Independent film makers often commiserate about the cost and logistics involved in shooting on location. In the case of filming inside an underwater cave, if the pre-production and dive planning is not thorough and precise, the cost could be immeasurable. Unlike topside shooting, where a crew’s comfort and working conditions are always a factor, producing an underwater film must also add life support to the equation. On a typical shooting day, there are specially trained underwater grips, safety divers, cast, and a very task-loaded camera operator managing a specialized housing in a narrow, water-filled space. They are fighting the flow, working hard to get a few minutes of usable footage, all while keeping track of air consumption and decompression obligations. There is truly no room for error in this precarious underwater ballet. 

James Cameron confers with Jill Heinerth while shooting the Sanctum pitch trailer at Ginnie Springs in Florida.
James Cameron confers with Jill Heinerth while shooting the Sanctum pitch trailer at Ginnie Springs in Florida.

Jill Heinerth is part of an underwater team made up of some of the most accomplished scuba divers on earth, and, working together for more than a decade, they anticipate each other’s thoughts and moves, like a tightly knit, telepathic acrobatic troupe.

Led by pioneering cave diver and videographer Wes Skiles, this ensemble has produced some of the most remarkable cave footage ever shot, for adventure programs on National Geographic, PBS, the BBC and others. When SONY/Lakeshore needed an underwater crew for the monster thriller The Cave, they hired Skiles and Heinerth. And, when legendary director James Cameron (who is an advanced scuba diver), wanted to test the 3D camera systems to be used in Sanctum, he traveled to north Florida’s cave country, calling on Wes and Jill’s expertise to prove the capability of the new technology in the underwater cave environment. Sanctum’s screenwriter-producer, cave diver Andrew Wight, based the Sanctum plot on an ill-fated caving expedition he and Skiles attempted on the Nullabor Plain in Australia. While in Florida, they shot a short “proof of concept” 3-D pitch trailer that wound up as a bonus feature on the Sanctum home DVD. Jill plays the lead diver in the short, shot by Cameron, Wight and Skiles. Yes, she really did breathe from tiny air pockets from the ceiling of the cave, and if you’ve seen Sanctum, you know how this technique plays into the script.

The dive crew is briefed by Jill Heinerth (in orange) prior to an underwater shoot for We Are Water.
The dive crew is briefed by Jill Heinerth (in orange) prior to an underwater shoot for We Are Water.

Wes Skiles and Jill Heinerth wrote, produced and appeared in the award winning four part PBS special documentary series Water’s Journey, following the path of water through the environment, from a raindrop, through the aquifer, and out to the oceans. It was during the production and promotion of Water’s Journey, working alongside renowned conservationist Skiles, that Jill realized she had a unique opportunity to use her platform as a film maker to join Wes as an advocate for the earth’s endangered water resources. They spoke of making a documentary film based on their life long love affair with water.

Early in the development process, Wes Skiles died while shooting an underwater National Geographic project in south Florida.

Last month, Sanctum screenwriter-producer Andrew Wight died while shooting a 3D documentary for Cameron in Australia.

They join a heart-rending list of about a half dozen cave divers I have known since marrying Jill five years ago, that have perished pursuing their life’s quest.  It is strange attending the funerals of my newest friends.

Shortly after Wes Skiles’ memorial service, Jill and I had a serious discussion about her career choice. Most of the notable film work she had done was with Wes. Not only were they creative partners, but friends and neighbors. Two years before I came into the picture, Wes sold Jill a ten acre property he owned next to his country home in Florida. While staying in a travel trailer in Wes’ back yard, Jill built the house in which we now live. 

If the loss of Wes Skiles was too much for Jill, I told her that I’d completely understand if she was no longer interested in shooting underwater projects. But, in her grief, Jill mustered an even stronger commitment to continue. She was determined to carry on Wes’ work, showing audiences the fragile beauty of our remarkable planet’s watery biosphere.  Paraphrasing her childhood hero, Captain Jacques Cousteau, Jill said “People will protect what they love. I’m going to make a film that encourages people to love water.”

And so, after many emotional brainstorming sessions, and a few tears, the We Are Water project was born.

We started with the idea of a Koyaanisqatsi type of film. Stunning visuals with a hauntingly beautiful soundtrack. We had hundreds of hours of beautiful underwater footage tucked away on countless tapes and hard drives. It would only be a matter of selecting the scenes and finding the perfect musical score, right? Wrong. Godfrey Reggio and Philip Glass have nothing to fear from Jill and Robert.

As we continued to rack our brains we considered a hard core doc about how the wars of the 21st century will be fought, not over oil, but water. We contemplated an historical piece about civilizations rising and falling based on the bounty of rivers and oceans. We chewed on all the common water issues: bottling, commodification, fracking, drought, access; all hot button subjects. But other recent documentaries had this territory covered. We needed something more personal. We needed a story. Beginning, middle, and end. A three act structure in a documentary package.

After many false starts we realized we had the documentary script all along. Tell the story of a shy young Canadian girl who grows up to be a celebrated cave diver and weave her life journey around a passionate call to action on behalf of the earth’s water resources. Jill Heinerth’s story.

We would make a film with a physical and spiritual connection to water.

We would make a film of which Wes and Andrew would approve.

I knew that the landscape of independent film production was changing at remarkable speed. And the playing field was shifting in favor of small producers like us, who could write, shoot, edit and distribute their own projects on a micro budget. Although Jill has years of industry contacts and a great reputation in the adventure documentary world, (as recently as January 2012, she led a National Geographic magazine/TV film scout into the dangerous desert regions on the border of Libya and Egypt), we decided that We Are Water was too personal, and too important to pitch to a network or develop with an outside producer. Experience has shown us that even the smallest project can be run off the rails by partnering with a well-intentioned, but obstructive investor or executive. This would be our baby, sink or swim.

We quickly began shooting water footage at every opportunity. Even while in the Egyptian desert with a National Geographic project, after the day’s wrap, Jill would grab her 5D and housing, and jump into a spring-fed oasis to gather a few minutes of original underwater content. So far, we have shot We are Water as we went along on other projects, speaking at diving conferences, visiting family in Canada, on a NOAA scientific expedition, and right here in the water of north Florida’s gin clear natural springs. I wish we qualified for film board grants because we’ve shot in Canada, Australia, Egypt, Bahamas, Bermuda, the U.S. and Finland! Maybe the air miles will add up to cover some of our expenses.

Taking a sober look at the kind of funding we’d need to complete this project, Jill and I studied the possibilities of crowd funding. (One of the resources to which we often turned was the Film Courage podcast featuring any film maker with a KickStarter or IndieGoGo campaign.) We decided on IndieGoGo because many of the potential contributions would likely be coming from non-U.S. sources, and as of now, we don’t think KickStarter accepts anything other than U.S. dollars. We set a reasonable goal of $45,000 – about half of what we think we need to finish. The remainder would be from our personal funds and corporate partners, who have sponsored Jill’s diving expeditions. 

One of the first to step up was SUUNTO, the Helsinki-based manufacturer of dive computers, heart rate monitors and outdoor sports instruments. Jill is a SUUNTO ambassador athlete, so we had great access to pitch them on the We Are Water project. They embraced the concept early, and have decided to adopt this as their 2012 “green’ project. They have provided us with several dive computers and watches, each valued from $500 to $1500 as perks for our high-end IndieGoGo supporters! SUUNTO will also include printed material promoting We Are Water in product packaging, and is considering some distribution assistance. SUUNTO has made their corporate PR firm available to us, and they have placed some nice online articles already. Maybe other indie film makers can benefit from a corporate relationship like this, one that is not overtly a cash infusion, but a creative way to partner up. We will host a sneak preview screening of We Are Water, sponsored by SUUNTO, at DEMA, the annual diving industry trade show, in November 2012 in Las Vegas. 

We Are Water is an ambitious project. We will use the evolving hybrid distribution model to get it out into the world. As a well known dive industry personality, Jill Heinerth has wisely cultivated her “tribe” over the past few years. With four diving books she has authored still selling respectfully, frequent public speaking gigs, and a series of DVDs Jill produced with Wes connecting her to her fans, we have a core audience we know how to reach. We don’t think there is a distributor who is as plugged in to our base as we are. Add to this, hundreds of what we call “missionaries” who amplify Jill’s projects via social networks. We think we are in a good position to tackle distribution via our websites and emerging technology like Distrify and Distribber. We’ll still apply to film festivals that are a good fit, and look for a bigger VOD partner as we roll this out. And there will be a highly promoted “road show” as we take the film directly to the audiences who need to see it most: young people, students, community activists, thought leaders and environmental and water conservation groups. We will project this film on the sides of public buildings if we have an audience who wants to see it. 

We are planning a cross-Canada bicycle tour to promote water literacy and present We Are Water in towns and cities from Vancouver to Halifax. Let us know if you’d like to host a screening. In the meantime, we are shooting, editing, and getting in our training mileage!