Interview with Kristian Coburn, director of ‘Just Add Water: Stories From The Sea’

If you happen to be walking along the coastline all wrapped up in your winter garb you will be hard pushed these days not to come across an intrepid sea swimmer. Clothed only in the skimpiest of wares and perhaps the thinnest layer of neoprene. You might initially question their sanity but, as discovered by filmmaker Kristian Coburn, there is a catharsis and healing at work in this immersion. Upon joining a group of intrepid swimmers, Kristian was immediately drawn to their sense of community and galvanised to produce this heart-warming and joyful documentary ‘Just Add Water: Stories From The Sea’.

Kristian’s background in corporate and commercial filmmaking provided him with the wherewithal to undertake the making of his documentary and he painstakingly filmed 15 hours of very personal interviews and stunning scenes of the beaches on the South coast. By concentrating on specific themes he was able to shape this into a short documentary that is almost as invigorating as dipping yourself into the cold depths. Showing at both Hastings and Brighton Rocks International Film Festivals, the film might make you change your mind and join the movement.

We would have these very intimate and open conversations while submerged up to our necks in very cold water, and so I started to ask people if they’d be willing to speak on camera about these subjects.

Your documentary is a very open exploration of why people find themselves sea swimming. What was your motivation behind its creation? 

The concept for ‘Just Add Water’ came about after joining a sea swimming group called the Worfolk in January last year. They meet pretty much every day to swim and chat on the beach in West Worthing. I realised very quickly that most members of the group had quite fundamental reasons for swimming in the sea, and they were all incredibly open and honest with me from day one: telling me about their struggles with depression and PTSD, or dealing with the grief of losing a spouse, or using cold water dipping as a form of pain management to deal with long term illnesses and physical issues. We would have these very intimate and open conversations while submerged up to our necks in very cold water and so I started to ask people if they’d be willing to speak on camera about these subjects. 

I became quite obsessive about capturing those perfect moments when nature shows its beauty.

I was very clear in my treatment that I wanted every shot in the film to be from the beach or in the sea, no interiors, which meant I was at the mercy of the weather. I also spent many hours shooting b-roll along the coast, often going out pre-dawn to try and capture the perfect sunrise, or dropping everything to go to film some big waves that someone had just told me about. I became quite obsessive about capturing those perfect moments when nature shows its beauty. 

How did you move from the initial spark into the actual filmmaking?

To realise the project I spent a lot of time getting to know the contributors, and over the course of about a month I swam regularly with them, building up trust, and also deciding who best to feature in the film. I also joined a couple of other sea swimming groups and so the initial idea to feature about 12 swimmers expanded to a much larger group, which means the scope and scale grew. 

I already owned some basic kit, aSony A7iii camera, radio mic, tripod etc, but I needed some extra equipment before I could properly get cracking. I was looking for underwater housing for my camera, some lighting and a camera cage to create the film I had in mind so I successfully applied for £800 of funding from the Creative Commissions grant through the Adur & Worthing Trust, I also started a Kick Starter campaign to raise an additional £500 towards the cost of making the film. Once some funding was in place I was able to get the kit I needed to begin shooting. 

You are dealing with very intimate and personal suffering. What questions were you asking people in order for them to feel comfortable and open up? 

Ultimately, I wanted the dialogue to flow naturally and so I tried to keep the interviews as conversational as possible.

I interviewed about 50 people and each person spoke for between 10 and 15 minutes. I wanted there to be themes running throughout the film which made the actual editing process a lot easier because I was able to search a keyword or phrase in my spreadsheet, ie. mental health, and then I could find all the times those were mentioned, with clear timecodes, takes, notes, dates, etc. I had a standard list of questions that I’d ask each contributor, but I did tailor them depending on what I knew about that person from spending a bit of time with them. The basic questions were how long have you been sea swimming? Why do you do it? how does it feel to be in the water/afterwards? I also asked people to talk about a memorable swim they’d had at some point in their lives, such as on holiday or as a child, and that brought up some interesting stuff. Ultimately though, I wanted the dialogue to flow naturally and so I tried to keep the interviews as conversational as possible. 

I love the close-up shots of the swimmers. Why did you choose to focus on them like that?

I really wanted to convey what it’s like to swim in the sea and so I knew I had to get really close to the swimmers with my camera. I wore a buoyancy aid so that I had both hands free to operate the camera, but that made swimming quite tricky. Eventually I would just try and put myself in the middle of the action and shoot everything that was happening around me. 

As we all know how the weather can be a cruel mistress. How did you work on the sound, which is smooth and well balanced?

As year-round sea swimmers we’re always at the mercy of the weather, and so there were times when planned shoots had to be abandoned because of high winds, big waves, heavy rain etc. In terms of sound, I used a Sennheiser G3 radio mic, which meant I could get a clean signal and adjust the sensitivity as needed. I also made sure that the contributors had their backs to the wind as much as possible, or were hunkered down behind a groyne or behind some lobster pots. Quite a bit of work was needed in post to balance the sound as the interviews had been shot in so many varying conditions, and in noisy public places. 

How much footage did you have and how did you then approach working on weaving together your chosen interviews into the narrative we see?

I was out shooting regularly for 6 months and so I had a LOT of footage to work with when it came to the edit – about 15 hours worth in total. My first job was to trawl through all of the interviews I’d shot and transcribe every word, whilst filing passages into various ‘chapters’ in a spreadsheet, such as mental health, cold water, nature, community etc. This process took a couple of weeks but it really helped me to shape the film.

Your score is uplifting and embodies the joy that shines through from the swimmers. How did you go about creating this?

As the stories came together I started to think about music. In my application for funding from the local council I had said that I wanted to collaborate with local creatives as much as possible, and so I really wanted all the music to come from Adur & Worthing. I am lucky enough to be friends with quite a few talented musicians as I’m a drummer myself, and so I tapped into my network and quickly had some original music which has been recorded specifically for the film, from local artists Flevans, Laura Vane & Christian le Surf. I also sing in the Spring Into Soul Community Gospel Choir and so I came up with a simple three-part harmony using the word ‘swim’, which we then learnt and recorded in the church where we rehearse. The final piece of music, which was used for the end credits, was provided by Krafty Kuts, who lives in Worthing but is a hugely influential and well-respected DJ and producer, and someone I’ve been a massive fan of for years, so to be given an unreleased track of his to use was a real bonus. 

I love your edit and the back and forth. How did you decide on the final format mixing everything you had?

There was a lot of trial and error involved, often working for a long time on a specific ‘chapter’ or theme, and then seeing how different sections sat together.

I knew I wanted the interviews to focus on certain themes, rather than it being a linear narrative from winter to summer. I was also conscious that these were serious matters and so I wanted to give each contributor the breathing space to speak, whilst still keeping the dialogue succinct. There was a lot of trial and error involved, often working for a long time on a specific ‘chapter’ or theme, and then seeing how different sections sat together, but I also wanted to allow for peaceful moments where the footage and music could shine. In terms of the structure, I decided that the beginning of the film should be a fairly general introduction to some of the contributors, and to the activity itself, so the cuts are quite quick, but in the middle I focused more on a few people’s stories and featured longer answers. Towards the final third I wanted to make the themes more uplifting and positive, so that audiences went away feeling inspired and motivated to give cold water swimming a try. 

What did you learn in the making of ‘Just add Water’?

I learned that you can never have too much b-roll!

I learnt a huge amount in the making of the film. The biggest development for me was in my interviewing technique. My background is in corporate and commercial filmmaking and so you tend to know what it is you want people to say in those situations, but with this project there were really no right or wrong answers. I quickly learnt that by simply staying quiet and listening to people they would often open up and continue talking, giving me some really honest and thoughtful answers. The other thing I learned is that you can never have too much b-roll! Every time I left the house I’d have my camera with me, ready to shoot anything I saw. An example of this was a shot I got of some seagulls as they took off from the beach in silhouette, with a lovely sunset in the background. I shot that while I was out walking my dog one evening and just happened to have my camera with me. But even then, as the edit developed I realised I needed a few more shots, so even towards the end of post-production I was nipping out to get more footage of waves, or pebbles, or clouds or whatever! 

Have you watched the film with an audience yet and if so, how was that experience?

There have now been 5 screenings of Just Add Water, at festivals, in a cinema and at a few events I’ve put on myself. It’s always interesting to see people’s reactions to the film, especially those who have no link to it, and I’ve been surprised by how much it’s affected some audiences, with people getting quite emotional. The first showing was a launch party I organised for the contributors and supporters of the project. It was an outdoor screening at a café on the beach last summer and there were about 120 people present. I stood at the back and watched the audience and felt really proud of all the hard work everyone had put in. 

Do you feel your film has strengthened the already very strong sea swimming community? 

The best thing about the whole event was bringing together all of the various local swimming groups.

One of the things that inspired me to make Just Add Water was the amount of sea swimmers there are in a small town like Worthing. There are numerous groups and organisations who swim all year round, and I joined up with any that I could. Although there were crossovers within these groups I thought it would be nice to try and bring them all together for one event, and so over the Jubilee weekend last year I organised an event called The Big Jubilee Dip. I worked with the council events office and the coastal wardens to organise a mass dip of about 70 swimmers, and I filmed it from within the water, with another camera operator, Adam Moffatt-Seaman, working on the beach and a drone operator, Michael Childs from HoverShoot, capturing the footage from above. We got some fantastic footage (including the shot of a large group running into the sea which is used in the film), and it generated some local press coverage for the film too. But the best thing about the whole event was bringing together all of the various local swimming groups: The Bluetits, Worfolk, Worthing Mental Health Swims, The Shoreham Beach Swimmers, DadLa Soul and The Sea Sploshers, and even though it wasn’t a particularly nice day, most people stuck around long after the swim, sharing picnic food and chatting. I still swim regularly with the Worfolk, and I often bump into people out and about who were either in the film, at The Big Jubilee Dip, or have seen or heard about the film somehow, so now that it’s out in the world and is being featured in festivals and winning an award, it feels very exciting to be able to share the whole process with the community. They are all extremely supportive of what I’ve done. 

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