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Mystery of the Nile Interview: Director/Producer Jordi Llompart


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: July 8, 2005

BMZ catches up with Director/Producer Jordi Llompart on his Large Format film debut, MYSTERY OF THE NILE, a film that captures the first full descent of the Nile River from source to sea.


Category: Interviews

Spanish filmmaker Jordi Llompart has been in the film and television business for more than 20 years. He makes his large format feature film debut with MYSTERY OF THE NILE, a film that tracks the first full descent of the Nile River. As director and producer of the film, Llompart captures the emotional and historical impact of this epic expedition.

Big Movie Zone: Can you tell us a bit about your background in filmmaking and how you became involved in the Giant Screen genre?

Jordi Llompart: My professional career started more than 20 years ago in journalism. I started directing programs in a radio station and writing articles and reports. After a few years, I was hired to direct and present daily and non-daily news programs in television and then I became attracted by the report and documentary genres. Between 1994 and 1996 I traveled all over the world shooting a quality documentary series for television about the conservation of the world's cultural heritage that brought me a lot of awards and public recognition. It could be said that the documentary series The Vanishing Past was my first great experience in movie making production and direction. After the success of The Vanishing Past, I created the production company Orbita Max, from which I have produced and directed documentary series and films for television such as Nomads of the Human Condition, and I started going towards the cinematographic format that is most spectacular and best uses the documentary language, the Large Format IMAX. My first contact with the LF industry was New York's 1999 GSTA, where I realized my projects and my way of understanding the documentary language could fit in very well. I immersed myself into the LF industry to learn about it and this is how Mystery of the Nile has become a reality.

BMZ: What brought you to the Nile project?  How did MacGillivray Freeman get involved, and what role did each company play?

JL: Mystery of the Nile was born as a logical and natural consequence of previously shooting The Vanishing Past, that took me around a lot of countries in the Mediterranean, Africa and Middle East, such as Egypt, Ethiopia or Yemen.

I found that the cultural connection between Ethiopia, Sudan and Egypt through the Blue Nile was very interesting and a new topic for the IMAX audiences, and soon I started exploring different projects around this idea. My first project was entitled Sands of Africa but didn't come through, and then I improved it with the idea of traveling down the Blue Nile. After some time, when I was lacking only a quarter of the founding for the project, the people at MacGillivray Freeman Films expressed their interest in participating in it. Among their projects in development, they had a movie about the Nile and they considered that we could join our efforts and work together. This is how our relationship started for a project that has been shaping thanks to many people's contributions, and in which Greg MacGillivray and his team have played a great role for their technical experience in this format. We can say that Orbita Max has basically undertaken the conception of the film and new ideas that have been combined with the experience and the solvency of MFF.

BMZ: How did the idea of this film originate?  Did the Nile explorers seek out to film their expedition, and if so who made the decision to do so in Large Format?

JL: The idea for the film in large format has more than 5 years. As I previously said, it has been the result of the success of The Vanishing Past and of my desire of making a movie for IMAX theatres. I thought that Egypt and the Nile were very well known and very attractive topics, to which we could add new concepts such as discovering Sudan and Ethiopia through the waters of the great Nile, the Blue Nile.

BMZ: The film documents the first full descent of the Nile River from source to sea.  Why hasn't an undertaking like this been completed before?  Has it ever been attempted?

JL: Until our expedition, there is no documentation about any other previous expedition to run the entire Blue Nile. It is well known that throughout history, Greek and Roman travelers, as well as Christian missionaries from Syria, Egypt and other countries, had visited some parts of the Blue Nile, and during the 20th century, some adventurers had run some parts of the river, but no one had been able to run the entire Blue Nile from Ethiopia to the Mediterranean sea in Egypt.

BMZ: Can you describe the filming process for Mystery of the Nile?  Were you and the crew present with the explorers for the entire journey?

JL: As it usually happens with a documentary project based in reality, the success depends on the fact that the main characters get really involved in the project or that everything you encounter during the shooting is favorable. Therefore, I have to say that when we were about to begin the shooting, all of us -- especially me -- were very aware that the movie had to be done day after day, reacting quickly to many factors, and one of them was that we needed our explorers to be motivated to do a lot of things that no one would do only for the money. So it was very important that our explorers, real people, not actors, were enthusiastic and collaborating people.

In order to find the main characters for the movie, we contacted many people from all over the world over several weeks: photographers, archaeologists, scientists, journalists, etc. Finally, thanks to our own and our contacts and friends' efforts, we were able to find the candidates we needed. But we really couldn't be sure about this until we started the shooting, because until the first day shooting in Ethiopia, we would not know how our candidates would react to everything we would ask them to do. We weren't even sure if some or all of them would dare to run the entire expedition to the sea.

The challenge was huge: we were starting to shoot in a country with many logistic difficulties and without being sure about how our explorers would react. From California, everyone was more optimistic than me, probably because I knew very well these three countries and I had experienced very negative issues in the past that made me very cautious. Finally, I clearly saw that having a successful expedition would be possible when I realized during the shooting that we were surrounded by very competent and collaborating people like the second unit director Richard Bangs, the expedition leader and the movie main character Pasquale Scaturro, and the kayaker and cinematographer Gordon Brown.

The filming process was the only one we could do: first shooting in many planned spots along the river in order to structure the script of the movie -- this process took us two months in a row in Ethiopia and Egypt, and an extra month in Sudan -- and then, we gave the explorers an IMAX camera so they could shoot extra footage on their way down the river. Then we would meet them in certain spots along the river for new sequences. The truth is that the process was very risky because we had to combine the logical cinematographic necessities and the great logistic difficulties. There were a lot of places where we wanted to shoot at that were totally inaccessible.

BMZ: What kinds of dangers did you experience while filming?

JL: The greatest dangers for the shooting were, without a doubt, the big logistic and bureaucratic difficulties to move more than 70 people with passports from many different nationalities, and seven tons of shooting and rafting material. We had a lot of bureaucratic problems with customs, the engine of a helicopter broke and the organization of the shooting was very complicated at all levels. Also, the explorers had to overcome crocodiles, hippos, malaria and bandit attacks, and some accidents that thankfully were solved going to the hospital. Many things happened and we were very lucky. When the finished the shooting I realized that, but now that some time has gone by, I even realized it more, we were very lucky.

BMZ: Taking an IMAX camera would seem unwieldy on this type of journey.  Were any technological innovations necessary?

JL: From my experience I can say that working with video cameras is so much easier; but at the same time, working in 15/70 is so much more stimulating for a professional. In my case, working with Reed Smoot and Brad Ohlund has been great. Each of them uses the camera in a totally different way: one gets the best possible cinematography and the other one gets the best possible spontaneous sequences. We all know that a 36 kilos camera -- we had four of them -- can be seen as something a bit anachronistic if we compare it with the evolution of digital cameras, and I'm surprised that no further investigations have been developed in order to improve not only the cameras but also the future substitution of this format for another one that is easier to use maintaining the same image quality. But things progress very quickly and I'm sure that there will be some surprises very soon.

BMZ: The expedition crosses three countries in Africa (Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia).  Was there a particular area or landscape that blew you away?  Any memorable shots that stand out?

JL: Mystery of the Nile has amazing cinematographic moments, like the image of the acacia that opens the movie, the aerial shoots of Tississat Falls and the Nile, or when shadows of camels are projected on the walls of an Egyptian monastery. There are also moments when the images and the music -- everybody loves the music -- create an atmosphere of emotional intensity and beauty, like the ones in front of Meroe's black pyramids in Sudan. But I sincerely believe that the best thing in the movie is the narrative intensity that describes the adventure our explorers are going through. I believe that the editing work for the movie has also been very important in order to create a movie that works in every way.

BMZ: What do you hope audiences take away from the film?

JL: I think that the audience feel that they have shared with the explorers a unique experience: a travel full of emotions to one of the most fascinating places on Earth, a true IMAX experience that had not been seen in this format for a long time. I don't want to be too pretentious and think it is a perfect movie, but the response from the audience is excellent and indicates us that people had not enjoyed an IMAX movie so much for a long time.

BMZ: What future projects are you currently working on?  Do you hope to continue working in the LF medium, and if so, would it be another collaboration with Greg MacGillivray?

JL: Mystery of the Nile is not the only movie that Orbita Max will do. We have other projects in development that I still can't share with you and that I would like to co-produce with Greg MacGillivray again if we both feel like it. Greg and his team are great people whom I really get along with and, to tell you the truth, they have a level of commitment to quality that is not easy to find in other companies of the LF industry.

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