EXCLUSIVE: In what is sure to be one of the hot packages of the upcoming Cannes Market, Woody Harrelson, Shang-Chi’s Simu Liu and Djimon Hounsou are set to star in Last Breath, a fact-based narrative thriller that will be directed by Alex Parkinson. He co-directed with Richard da Costa the 2019 documentary of the same title that informs the film.
Last Breath has elements of Apollo 13 and The Perfect Storm, in the life saving ingenuity that is the only chance of keeping an impossible rescue situation in harsh elements from turning tragic. The premise: a diver is stranded on bottom of the North Sea, and when his umbilical cord snaps because of rough seas and an equipment mishap on the ship above, he is left with only five minutes of oxygen, in total darkness and freezing water, with no chance of rescue for at least thirty minutes. Mitchell LaFortune wrote the script, and the producers are Paul Brooks and David Brooks through Early Bird Productions, Stewart le Maréchal, Al Morrow, Anna Mohr-Pietsch and Jeremy Plager. CAA Media Finance is brokering domestic sales, and FilmNation Entertainment will handle international sales.
“He’s 100 meters down, he’s got five minutes of gas; it’s all about the group of people he works with, coming together as a collective, overcoming insurmountable odds to complete an impossible rescue,” Parkinson told Deadline. “It touches on a lot of ideas; the strength of the human spirit, and the ability to hang on as well, this poor chap who is at the bottom of the sea bed, trying to cling on for as long as possible. It turns into this amazing race against time, which will play out in real time in the film. It’s still one of those things, where people don’t know how he survived.”
Saturation diving is one of those well-paying jobs meant for few people, those who can get along in a tightly confined space and can keep their emotions in check and not panic, as the tissues in their body are flooded with gases to allow survival in the pressure of 100 meter depths as they execute repairs on oil drilling equipment. It is such a jarring pressure process that it takes four days to bring the divers back to the surface and regain pressure equilibrium, or else they would practically explode as they were overcome by “the bends.” The real diver who found himself untethered from the umbilical cord that provides oxygen, heat, communications and light, is named Chris Lemons, and the actor to play him will be cast shortly. Skill, and a lot of luck went into the rescue, Parkinson said.
“He was conscious, with five minutes of oxygen, when that umbilical cord is severed,” he said. “Suddenly he is in freezing water, and that’s the kind of thing you would feel immediately, and without electricity it is absolutely pitch black. It’s horrifying, but Chris managed to do everything right that he could to put himself in a position to be rescued. If he panics, or walks the wrong way after being thrown from the structure…he had to get to the top of the structure to have any chance of being rescued. So he was standing on the ground, thinking, where’s the structure? Which way do I walk? By blind chance, he chose the right direction. Had he chosen wrong, he would have walked into no man’s land and certain death. There are all these incredible bits of luck, tenacity, invention and sheer grit to hang on and all these things happened, people doing the right thing to allow for him to be rescued.”
That included the captain and crew on the ship above, when a vessel with an automated process of steering the ship went awry.
“On the bridge, the whole accident happened because the position system called dynamic positioning went offline,” Parkinson said. “The impossible happened, when 10 levels of redundancy safety measures all went offline, which is supposed to be impossible, but happened. So the ship is drifting in these six meter swells in 35 mile and hour winds in a huge storm, leaving the ship drifting out of control. They don’t know when they will regain control of the ship again. The first thing that happened is the captain decided to take manual control of the ship, which had never been done before. He took a huge risk but thought, I’ve got no option but to do that. If I don’t, we’re never going to get back to him. He learned in that moment how to control the ship in those conditions, which was astonishing seamanship.
Another obstacle facing the captain is that it’s his first voyage on the ship and the stranded diver is beloved by the crew, and the captain has to get them to trust him. The rescue on the bottom is executed by Dave (Liu), who must maintain his composure and keep his emotions in check as he races against the survival clock.
“He survived because Chris was in this sweet spot where he was running out of oxygen, and became unconscious at just the right point, as his body temperature lowered to just the right mark so he could slip into stasis,” Parkinson said. “If he’d had more gas, his body temperature would have lowered and he would have died of hypothermia. If he’d had less gas, he would have died of asphyxiation.”
And if his rescuers didn’t do everything just right, death would have been inevitable.