Aesthetica Short Film Festival Official Selection: Interview with Justin Spay

The Documentary genre at ASFF guides audiences through a revival of the familiar to the discovery of the unknown. A Deep Breath by Justin Spray finds beauty at the bottom of a municipal swimming pool as he follows a group of novice free-divers. We speak to the director about the portrayal of a journey of experimentation and underwater discovery.

ASFF: A Deep Breath follows a group of novice free-divers in their journey of experimentation and underwater discovery. How did you get to make a short film about this activity?
JS: I have been a keen underwater photographer for over 25 years and I joined the freediving club in the film as a way to learn to hold my breath longer while taking shots of sharks, manta rays and pilot whales. I am also a Chartered Psychologist, very interested in what makes us human. While freediving it struck me how fundamental the breath is yet how little attention we pay to it.

A freediver makes the very most out of each breath. Prolongs the moment. Savours every second. Most of us don’t even notice we are breathing. I wanted to make a film that combined the beauty of the underwater world with the essence of life – breathing.

ASFF: Your film was produced with London Film School. How has been connected with this organisation helped shape your career?
JS: Without the London Film School I would not have made this film. My career is only just starting but without the LFS I don’t think I would have got anywhere. I am 47. I’ve pursued a career in psychology and business for close to 30 years but I always really wanted to do something creative.

I felt, like probably a lot of people, that the film world was an exclusive club where you had to be connected, special, from the right background to get anywhere. I always thought that it was closed to me and I had no idea how to get in. Then in 2012 everything changed for me. I was part of the Olympics Opening Ceremony, directed by the inspirational Danny Boyle and then part of a immersive theatre group – You Me Bum Bum Train. Both taught me that you don’t have to be extraordinary to do something extraordinary so I applied to the London Film School. It has been utterly life changing.

ASFF: What do you hope that audiences will take away from your documentary, and what are the advantages of working in short film?
JS: I hope they will pause for a moment and think about their breath, their life force. Then I want them to jump into a swimming pool. With short film, you can push boundaries and explore topics with relatively little financial investment. Your learning also increases very fast as you can take a project from start to finish in weeks or months before taking all the learning onto the next endeavour.

ASFF: Do you have any upcoming projects that we can look out for?
The freedivers in the documentary approached me about making a short fiction film set under water so I’ve been making that recently. Filming a documentary underwater was difficult enough but trying to get coverage and performances was a whole new level of complication. Without their masks on, the freeedivers could not see anything underwater so direction and instructions had to be precise and detailed before we even dipped our heads under water to take a shot.

Even moving a light became a major endeavour involving crew, safety divers and lots of pointing. This film should be finished in the next few weeks then I need to concentrate on my graduation film. It is a calling card so the stakes are high which is making it difficult for me to decide what I am going to make. Don’t be surprised if it’s underwater though.

To see more of Justin Spray’s work, visit

You can watch A Deep Breath at ASFF between Thursday 5 and Saturday 7 November in Documentary Screening 3. See the ASFF Programme for full details.

Follow us on Twitter @asffest for the latest news in film in the UK and internationally.

1. Justin Spay, A Deep Breath. (London Film School)