Taking a Deep Dive with Mimi and Mike deGruy
Last January, the Santa Barbara International Film Festival considered cancelling the city’s premiere cinematic event in the wake of the Thomas Fire and the devastating Montecito debris flows before ultimately deciding to go ahead, partly as a healing offering. This Wednesday, SBIFF 34 kicks off with a locally-produced opening night film catalyzed by another Montecito-related tragedy: the 2012 accidental death of the irrepressible ocean filmmaker and longtime Montecito resident Mike deGruy.
Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike deGruy, a feature film documentary directed, produced, written by and told through the eyes of Mike’s widow and production partner Mimi Armstrong deGruy, is something of a personal passion project, put together over a period of more than six years, beginning just nine months after Mike’s death in a helicopter crash in Australia while filming for director James Cameron. Mike deGruy’s underwater cinematography credits include filming for BBC, PBS, National Geographic, and The Discovery Channel in a number of important film and TV specials, including The Blue Planet and Pacific Abyss, and his storytelling-filled adventures took him on many deep sea diving expeditions. Among his myriad accomplishments was being the first to film many rarely seen creatures in their own oceans, including the vampire squid and the nautilus.
But deGruy’s legacy runs even deeper in Santa Barbara, where he was an ever-present and effervescent personality around town and, especially, at the film festival. He founded the Field Trip to the Movies (which was re-named in his honor) and served in many capacities, including interviewing Al Gore on stage at the Arlington for An Inconvenient Truth.
Diving Deep is a remarkable piece of filming, a near masterful mix of Mike’s life and lifelong love of the water, his career and his ecological message, complete with sequences of footage from his films and underwater work, and in-depth interviews with Sir David Attenborough, James Cameron, and many of Mike’s collaborators. Within the first few minutes, there are references to deGruy quoting Toy Story’sBuzz Lightyear’s “To infinity and beyond!” as he was lifted over a boat’s to plunge to new depth records for a diver, and images of him cavorting with sea turtles, octopuses, and dolphins.
But there are also many personal moments and memories for both Mike and Mimi, whose own credits include working with CNN, Turner’s Portrait of America series, and the PBS series The Infinite Voyage. Just six minutes in, Mimi recalls hearing the news of his death and thinking, “How can someone so full of life be here one minute and then gone the next?” There are interviews with his children and close family members, a segment where Mimi recounts her first encounters with Mike and becoming attracted to the “funny amphibian,” a shaman who was connected to the natural world.
Things take a serious turn via an exploration of deGruy’s reaction to the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Atlantic coast and the attendant damage caused by the dispersant. But there are also many lighter moments, which will come as no surprise to anyone who spent even a few minutes with Mike. Witness the life-threatening story of when a shark took a big bite out of his arm – which deGruy later joked that the fish had washed up on the beach, dead of food poisoning.
Earlier this week, Mimi deGruy talked about the films and the fears, and the tears and the laughter, in advance of the film’s screening at the Arlington on Wednesday, January 30. Here are edited excerpts from our conversation.
Q. Why did you want to make the film?
A. When Mike died, he and I had been working on three or four projects in production together and when people asked what I was going to do with [them], I had no idea, knowing that my kids were my first priority. But I started the process around nine months after Mike died, working on it very, very slowly for awhile, because truthfully, I just couldn’t handle [seeing him on film]. Then I started watching the footage from the project about the oil spill and another one about Mike’s life where we’d filmed intros and outros in the edit room where he’d talk about sequences he had filmed. He’d pulled all of his favorite sequences and had them on a timeline, almost like he had set me up [for this film], which was very moving… When I went through that footage, the stuff where he was so angry, I was heartbroken that he hadn’t been able to take that message public. That became the core motivation for making the film, but I also wanted to celebrate his career… In order for that message to resonate with people, I needed to introduce who Mike was, and how he got to that point where he was behaving so differently on camera, the arc. It was so striking to me because he was such a joyful guy.
How did you find balance between Mike’s career, his early life, your life together, the tragedy of his death, and the story he was trying to tell?
I knew the [parts about] his [pool] diving – which was his life all through college before he burned out after getting injured – had to be in because of the moment when he learned to make a conscious decision to push through his fear. That was a revelation to me, and it explained a lot about Mike. But there was so much footage that we left out, including more of his animal behavior sequences, because I had to focus more on telling the stories rather than a montage of all this beautiful stuff. I like getting into the psychology of things, so rather than showing more footage I wanted to tell these stories. It was like there were all these little films and it was hard to tie it together in a way that it wouldn’t be too exhausting.
The Deepwater Horizon segments were fascinating, both for the content itself and how the way the “clean up” went affected Mike. You spend some time on his own internal processing, or not, of those emotions.
Mike and I had a great marriage, but like anyone we had our own issues. We had put off talking about those things, thinking we could deal with it later. Mike wasn’t great at dealing with his own psychology and I wasn’t great at trying to get him there either. There was a lot we never discovered about each other because we put it off. One of the metaphors in the film is that we all need to do that with the people in our lives, just as we need to dive down into the ocean and understand its complexity before it’s too late. They’re dual storylines, and making the film was part of my way of going back in and trying better to understand Mike and my own grief.
Now that it’s done, how has it been for you to make the movie, do all the research and viewing of footage, going back over everything, including the accident that killed him? Does the film serve as perhaps catharsis, or closure, or something else entirely?
Cathartic isn’t quite right. Closure in the area of death isn’t either. My relationship with him continues; it’s a very vibrant thing in that… the memories are all very much alive. So for me it was really painful at times – I’d almost throw things at the screen, thinking “How could you have gone?!” I had a lump in my throat almost every time I watched it.
But the biggest surprise – or maybe it was by design – is that it gave me something other than my own sadness to think about. It was incredibly healing to get out of my own way and spend time with something bigger than myself. When I was really depressed I’d throw myself into the project and it felt very helpful for my grieving process. It became a mission to get this out there, and hope people take Mike’s spirit and let it inform how they relate to the ocean, keep his energy alive.
What does it mean to have the opening night slot for the festival?
Mike loved this community, and he never said no to anyone… [SBIFF executive director] Roger Durling has created a film event that has a global reach but has kept its local Santa Barbara roots. Mike was a community guy who also had an international life. So it’s really moving and I’m incredibly honored to have the film premiere here.
What ultimately do you hope people take away from seeing it?
Mike lived in the moment more than anyone I know, which might have been because he survived the shark attack, which he called his second birthday. I hope they see his spirit and take every opportunity to relate to each other consciously, and ultimately to jump in and get involved in understanding and protecting the ocean.
A) Mimi deGruy’s documentary about her late husband, Mike, premieres at SBIFF on January 30
Further Focus on Film
UCSB Pollock Theater’s Beatles Revolutions series continues with the 1970 film Let It Be, with a post-screening Q&A with Santa Barbara-based musician-producer Alan Parsons, who served as assistant engineer on the original album (7 pm, Thursday, January 24; free)… Point of No Return, the 2017 behind-the-headlines doc about the first solar-powered flight around the world, screens as Pollock on Tuesday, January 29, at 7 pm, followed by a discussion with co-directors Quinn Kanaly and Noel Dockstader… Back in the environmental film arena, the 2017 award-winning documentary Broke, about the 2015 oil spill near Refugio Beach, marks the 50th anniversary of the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill, and screens at 6:30 pm Tuesday, January 29, at the Santa Barbara Public Library, followed by Q&A with director Gail Osherenko and panel on current oil threats in Santa Barbara.