The swimmer

The director Thomas Beug talks about his new film The Swimmer, about the first swimmer to complete the Ocean's Seven

Underwater cinematographer Ken O’ Sullivan filming Stephen Redmond out at the Fastnet Lighthouse

Director Thomas Beug’s new film, The Swimmer, screens at the Peebles Outdoor Film Festival on 26th January. The film is an immersive and poetic portrait of Irish sea swimmer Stephen Redmond – the first person to complete the Ocean’s Seven Challenge. Beug chatted to the OSS about the challenges and compulsions of filming a life at sea

You have made a few films on sports – were you looking to do one on swimming? And specifically outdoor swimming?

I love swimming and I’m especially into sea-swimming so I was actively looking for a subject like this. Growing up in the West of Ireland, the sea played a very big part in my life. We swam in the ocean year-round (including on Christmas day), I sailed and I surfed a lot as well. So I was really itching for an opportunity to put the Atlantic Ocean on film and I specifically wanted to do a project where underwater cinematography was a major element. I’m very grateful to Screen Ireland for giving us the opportunity and funding to make this film and for fully supporting our vision.

How did you find Stephen Redmond? How did you know he would be a good subject for a film?

Once I started researching open-water swimming in Ireland, Stephen’s name came up quickly. He’s a bit of an unsung hero in the world of long-distance swimming and a bit of a legend in the swimming community. It being Ireland, I got his number from a friend who happened to know him and as soon as I spoke with him, I knew he’d make a great subject for a film. He’s articulate, he’s funny and he looks at the world from the unique perspective of somebody who admits to feeling more at home in the water than on land.

Did you swim with Stephen when not filming?

Funnily enough, the first time I met Stephen he suggested meeting at Lough Hyne, which is a maritime lake where he trains in West Cork, for a quick dip and then we could have a chat after. It was October, it was freezing, but I hopped in and went for a swim with him. I think it was his way of sussing me out and making sure I was serious about the project. When we chatted afterwards in a nearby hotel, I could barely string a sentence together because my teeth were chattering so much.

Who wrote the poetry sections in this film?

The poem is called ‘A Swim In County Wicklow’ and it was written and performed by renowned Irish poet Derek Mahon. We split it into three sections in the edit and used it as way of giving the film a structure as well as strong poetic through-line. I had known and loved this poem for some time and I felt like it dealt beautifully with some of the ideas I wanted to take on in this film myself.

At the time of filming, I imagine that the current trend for swimming films was just getting going, were you aware of this?

I love that more people are making swimming films these days, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that outdoor swimming is having such growth as a sport and hobby in general. When I was growing up in Ireland hardly anyone would swim in the sea – now everyone seems to do it year round. It was like there was a collective decision that cold water was no longer something to shy away from.

As a filmmaker, what do you think is the draw for making films about swimming? Is there a natural quality of “immersiveness”, in reality and metaphorically?

Swimming, especially sea-swimming, is a complicated, dangerous and awe-inspiring endeavor and I think that’s why it’s a draw for filmmakers. The sea is vast, it’s both literally and metaphorically deep, it’s mysterious and when you put a swimmer out there in the middle of it, you encounter all of that depth head-on.
The sea is ancient and primal, we humans have evolutionary ties to it and it’s so vast that it’s almost impossible to comprehend. This all gives it an inherently poetic quality and when people deal with it as a subject in film or other art forms, there’s a natural tendency to abstract, which is something I’m personally drawn to.
I was really interested in the idea of ‘immersiveness’ when it came to making this film. Stephen spends a lot of his time immersed in a world underwater and I wanted to see what that did to him as person, where it made his mind go and what kind of dreams and delusions he had. I also wanted the film itself to have an immersive quality so it would really wash over viewers and give them a visceral experience of sea-swimming while they watched it.

How did you approach making the film from a technical perspective?

The aim was to spend as much time filming on and in the water as possible. I wanted to shoot in different conditions, in different bodies of water, on the surface as well as deeper underwater. It was April, it was bloody cold and the weather was predictably unpredictable (Irish) so that certainly presented some issues around both safety and body-temperatures during filming.
So the technical side was a challenge as we had a small team and a limited budget but thanks to my producer Jessica Bermingham, the crew and cinematography team – our incredibly talented DOP Eoin McLoughlin and a fantastic underwater cinematographer by the name of Ken O’Sullivan – everything went brilliantly.
We also got some invaluable help with boats and logistics from a group of locals who were friends of Stephen’s. I also have to mention how great Stephen was to work with. He was the only one not wearing a wetsuit and he got in the water again and again and swam for long periods with only the odd expletive and complaint.

What about the narrative and the incorporation of the poem?

From the first time I spoke with Stephen I knew that he would give us a really interesting perspective on open-water swimming. He’s a great character and a prolific talker and he has a lot to say about his experiences with open-water swimming over the years. Several long conversations with Stephen were distilled to just a few really powerful ideas that got at the heart of what he does and how he makes sense of the world.
The poem itself was quite difficult to integrate in the edit but it became integral to the narrative arc. Stephen talked about a separation of mind and body when he swims for a long time –  how his mind is ‘somewhere back there, behind his body and shut down.’ This ‘shutting down’ was something I visually represented with a narrowing of the letterbox during the poetic segments of the film.
As a filmmaker, I wanted to push the poetic, philosophical side of the story and let the visuals, music and sound-effects underscore the extreme nature of Stephen’s passion for swimming. There is a line I love in the film when Stephen says that he sees his pursuit like ‘the fade-out at the end of a film…a moment where I know, this is why I’m here.’

Do you swim outdoors while filmmaking?

If I can be of use in the water I am very happy to jump in. But usually I’m better off being in a boat with a remote monitor. I did spend some time in the water with Stephen and Ken in Lough Hyne when it was raining, which was a really memorable experience. But unlike those two sea-creatures, I got cold pretty quickly. Maybe my next water-based film project should be based nearer to the equator.

What’s your favourite shot in the film?

There’s a shot towards the end of the film where we see Stephen swimming past the camera out in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean without a trace of land in sight. Ken let’s him pass by and then they both dip underwater. When they come up, the iconic Fastnet lighthouse appears before Stephen, as if out of nowhere. It’s a beacon, a destination and also the one thing in the frame that ties this lonely swimmer to the land. I love that shot.

And what didn’t make it, or what shot did you want but not get?

I secretly was hoping for some rougher filming conditions out at sea. Bigger swell, white caps, ominous clouds, waves. Just to heighten the extreme nature of what Stephen does. But the reality is, we probably couldn’t have filmed out at the Fastnet lighthouse if that had been the case. So we actually got really lucky with the weather conditions.

What’s next? 

I’m currently working on a short documentary about the weird and wonderful sport of Ice Curling, which we are going to shoot in Montreal, Canada. While this one is more comedic in tone, I’m still aiming to do some really interesting things with sliding camera shots on ice and really elevate the cinematography.

Beth Pearson