The exciting new documentary The Fire under the Sea is an adventure-lover’s dream come true. Bringing together deep-sea diving, volcanology, science and travel, the film looks at what happens when fire, lava and heat meet the cool depths of the Mediterranean Sea – with extraordinary results. We talk to the team behind this thrilling work about how such an unusual project got started.   

Interview with Vivien Lemaignan, producer at Les Gens bien productions and Florence Sala, Head of ARTE Distribution and Marketing at ARTE France Développement.

The Interview

TV France: Another wonderful documentary coming up: The Fire under the Sea. How did this documentary – which brings together nature, discovery and science – get off the ground?

Vivien Lemaignan

Vivien Lemaignan: We owe everything to Roberto Rinaldi. Roberto is an important Italian sub-sea cameraman, who worked with Cousteau. For 30 years, he traveled the world underwater, but deep down, he was always burning to make this great documentary about the volcanoes of the Mediterranean. It’s his “secret garden”, and we are honored that he came to us with it. Roberto also wanted to work with Laurent Ballesta, his friend of 20 years. The two men respect each other and are capable of diving deep into major scientific phenomena that have never before been documented. As Laurent says, there was, “the challenge of the dive, a scientific mystery to resolve, and the promise of unique imagery”: these things are at the heart of all our work.

TV France: You also mobilized an entire scientific team…

Vivien Lemaignan: Working alongside Roberto and Laurent is a full team of deep-sea divers who are loyal companions as the two protagonists explore the sea’s depths. It’s actually rare to find divers that can endure deep dives for such long periods. There has to be a real connection between the team to even envisage such a commitment to exploration with a complete respect for safety. We saw this in particular when they went beneath Stromboli at the volcano’s most active spot.

And then, there are the Italian volcanologists who study the area. For them, it was a huge advantage to be able to send in people rather than robots. Nothing can replace the dexterity and ease of humans when bringing back images taken from angles it would be impossible to achieve with machines. This is therefore a film that also tells the story of two great disciplines that rarely come together: deep-sea diving and volcanology.

TV France: The adventure, the challenges: a reason to live, a passion?

Vivien Lemaignan:Traveling between the Aeolian Islands seeking out remarkable volcanic activity under the sea is surely a dream come true for anyone who loves adventure. The subject is original, almost never seen before, so we felt like true explorers. This feeling was enhanced by our being under the sea.  There were no boats around us, even though we were in a region of intense tourism.  It’s actually thanks to the lockdown that we were able to film in these exceptional circumstances.

We got permission from the relevant authorities as our mission was partly scientific. Every dive was justified for Franco Italiano, the volcanologist specializing in the Aeolian Islands who was on the project with us. His great gift was to see – for the first time ever – the valley of 200 volcanoes at depths of 70m.

TV France: Beyond its value as world heritage and the superb and unique images, does the film also have an environmental message?

Vivien Lemaignan: Laurent Ballesta is a biologist, and during the dives he was aware of the least sign of life. Volcanoes are destructive, and it is interesting to know how life bounces back. It’s reassuring, even, since – as he says in the film – “where there is water, there is life and therefore hope”.   

The films we make allow us to see what we can’t usually – land-dwellers that we are. And we are more aware of what we are seeing. It’s even better when science can accompany us and helps us to understand. That’s how we can raise awareness and preserve our planet.

Going beyond preservation, this expedition is also an opportunity to look at the problem of the risk of eruption in a zone that has been affected by the volcano’s destructive powers for centuries. How do they work? Can we predict risk better? Can we protect ourselves while also respecting the environment? These are questions we ask in The Fire under the Sea.

TV France: The depths of the Mediterranean, its volcanoes… how do you plan to approach the international market?

Florence Sala

Florence Sala: Volcanoes and the deep seas are fascinating to all of us. The film also reveals the story of an amazing human adventure and takes us on a unprecedent journey with an international scientific expedition, in the heart of new discoveries. Those magic ingredients make Fire in the See a unique film and a real break though for international market.

TV France: ARTE, Les Gens Bien, an extraordinary scientific team – this is an exceptional professional experience!

Vivien Lemaignan: The relationship between Arte and Les Gens Bien productions has been built and strengthened over the years through ambitious projects: expeditions to far-flung places, committed human adventures with unique scientific and nature objectives… We have toured the world together, from Mongolia and Polynesia to Indonesia, Madagascar and the Antarctic.

It all started with Coealacanthe, which Gil Kébaïli made with Laurent Ballesta… That was the starting point for a decade of collaboration. Through a partnership with oceanography expert Andromède, the voyage took a new turn, notably with the film The Deep Med in 2019. And ARTE supported us again, aware that saturation diving would open a new door on the underwater world.

TV France: And such success!

Vivien Lemaignan: After great adventures researching the sharks of Fakarava and trips to discover the world’s atolls, the collaboration between Andromède Océanologie, Les Gens Bien and Arte was taken to a new level during the The Deep Med expedition, which – for the first time – used saturation diving continuously for three whole weeks.

But we didn’t stop with this proof of technical prowess. The adventure continued at Mont La Pérouse, hidden beneath the waters of the Indian Ocean, to the north-east of Réunion. And now, for the first time in Italy, with the discovery of this exceptional underwater volcanic mountain range.

TV France: The Fire under the Sea appears to have everything it takes to put it on the path to similar success.

Vivien Lemaignan: The Fire under the Sea appealed to us right from the start. What can be more fascinating than exploring the mix of fire and water, the contrast between intense heat and the cold of the sea’s depths? That’s an aspect of the Mediterranean that we don’t know and which has a certain appeal. Thanks to the involvement of passionate people, we are once again going to experience a unique human adventure, extraordinary both for its technological and scientific aspects and the beauty of its images. We have no doubts that the international audience will be as captivated as we were.