A huge hole was torn through the heart of the Santa Barbara community and the world’s ocean filmmaking family when Mike DeGruy died at age 60 in a helicopter accident in February 2012. The Santa Barbara International Film Festival — for which DeGruy played curator, educator, and inspiration — went from full swing to state of shock at the news of his crash in Australia, where he was working for director James Cameron on yet another deep-sea dive.
A few months later, his widow and longtime filmmaking partner, Mimi DeGruy, went back into their editing studio and started watching her late husband’s footage, believing that something cathartic and perhaps even cinematic would emerge. Almost seven years later, the result is Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike DeGruy, which fittingly will kick off the 2019 edition of SBIFF on Wednesday, January 30, at The Arlington Theatre.
The film features plenty of Mike’s smiling, ever-excited face; a steady stream of mind-blowing, rarely witnessed undersea phenomena that he filmed; a retelling of the shark attack that changed his life; and insight from those who respected his impact — from his wife, kids, mom, and siblings to legendary nature filmmaker David Attenborough, ocean champion Sylvia Earle, and Cameron, who had Mike’s help in filming Titanic. But Diving Deep also reveals a side of DeGruy that had not yet surfaced: His rage over the Deepwater Horizon oil rig disaster on the Gulf Coast, near where he grew up in Mobile, Alabama, and a concern that things were only going to get worse unless we all connected more with the ocean and nature at large. Altogether, it’s a complex portrait of a vivid, influential life cut short, and one that will engage all ages into caring more about both the ocean and those who are close to us, as life remains fleeting and, frequently, all too short.
I spoke with Mimi DeGruy recently about the film, and what follows is an edited version of our conversation.
How did this film come to be? He died in February, so by May or June I finally came back into the edit room and just started going through the footage. It was my way of being with him. The footage felt like such a gift. I just gradually let it percolate. I knew that out of that process, something would emerge.
The only way I could figure that out was to sit quietly with it and see what intuitively and organically grew out of the grieving process. I wanted to celebrate his career but also focus on that message that he couldn’t deliver, so that people might be able to pick up what he wasn’t able to finish.
For one of the projects we were working on, he had pulled all of his favorite sequences, and they were all on a timeline. I thought, “Oh my gosh.” It was almost prescient. I also came to realize that the trajectory of his career follows the trajectory of the environmental movement. So that’s how it evolved.
There are a million and one ways to tell a story. I feel like I tried 999,999. It has taken forever.
Are you excited to be SBIFF’s opening night film? It’s thrilling. We’re so honored. I have these moments where I think Mike would be a little embarrassed. But who am I kidding? He would be thrilled. He loved that stuff.
Was the process cathartic? I certainly hope so. I’m not sure it was cathartic for my kids. It was, in some ways, painful for them, and I’m so grateful for their participation. For me, I would say it was cathartic.
One of the most difficult things for me about Mike dying so suddenly [was] the unexplored emotional issues that we had. All people in long-term relationships have those, and I was heartbroken that we hadn’t delved deeper to explore those. There was no “later.” What wealth we may have found if we had the courage to dive in there earlier.
And there are parallels to that with the ocean: We all have to have difficult conversations about how we relate to the natural world in general, and in particular with the ocean, before it’s too late.
The film shows a somewhat darker side of Mike too following the Deepwater Horizon disaster. Who would he have become if he were alive today? He had joyfully skipped through most of his life. Suddenly that was no longer an option for him. He was depressed and devastated. He was in a really dark place. But he would have emerged from that darkness and that was beginning to happen when Jim called him about the Deep Sea Challenge. We sort of got Mike back.
What would have emerged would have been a fusion of sorts. He was still going to be the excitable, joyful Mike, but he had a depth to him and an undercurrent of rage. That guy was determined. I don’t want to say he’d have been on a warpath, but he would have been making some noise.
Mike was furious at the oil industry, but he was also furious at our own culpability. It wasn’t just the oil companies — we’re all responsible for this. That was the way he worked. He didn’t want to demonize any person in particular as much our entire culture. We’ve got to change the way we relate to the natural world, but, in particular, the ocean.
He would have been working toward legislative change and trying to engage kids in the political process. Democracy can work, but you’ve got to get involved and then you’ve got to vote ocean.
He’d try to approach it in a way that was joyful because he was so full of love for everybody and everything. It was hard for him to be negative for too long.
Diving Deep: The Life and Times of Mike DeGruy opens the Santa Barbara International Film Festival at the Arlington Theatre on Wednesday, January 30, 8 p.m. See sbiff.org.