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Greece: Secrets of the Past Interview: Director Greg MacGillivray


Photo courtesy MacGillivray Freeman Films

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: February 17, 2006

Celebrated filmmaker Greg MacGillivray speaks with BMZ on his latest project, GREECE: SECRETS OF THE PAST, an archaeological journey exploring ancient Greek civilization.


Category: Interviews

Having over 40 years experience in the film industry, acclaimed filmmaker Greg MacGillivray has directed and produced some of the most successful and well-known Large Format films including Everest, Dolphins and Coral Reef Adventure. With numerous technical and artistic contributions to the industry, he along with his production company, MacGillivray Freeman Films, have been dedicated to creating some of the best Giant Screen films today. His latest project, GREECE: SECRETS OF THE PAST, is an exploration of this ancient culture and its far-reaching influence on the modern world.

BMZ: You've been at the forefront of the Large Format industry for many years now. What was your first experience with Large Format filmmaking? What attracted you and still keeps you dedicated to this genre?

Greg MacGillivray: I first started making films back in the early 1960s with my best friend and creative partner, Jim Freeman. We made 16mm surf films primarily but we also photographed for several Hollywood feature films, including Stanley Kubrick's The Shining and Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which earned an Academy Award® nomination for Best Cinematography. We were known for our aerial cinematography and our experience shooting from helicopters and airplanes.

In 1974, we got a call from the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum. They told us they were building a new museum with an IMAX theatre in Washington DC and they wondered if we were interested in producing and directing a film about flying for that theatre. We had heard about the IMAX film format through technical journals, which we read with relish every month, and we were thrilled to have the opportunity to make a film in this new format.

At that time, the director of the Air and Space Museum, astronaut Mike Collins, told me that even though the film was to premiere in America's Bicentennial Year of 1976, celebrating 200 years of American self-governance, he did not want the film to be a historical journey about flight with lots of dates and facts. He said to us, "I have plenty of historical plaques on the wall of my museum; please give me a film that entertains and allows the audience to be amazed by flight."

We took that suggestion and ran with it. It fit perfectly with the way that we had been making movies all through our surfing years: enthrall an audience with great entertainment and photography, inventive music, and images the audience had never seen on screen before. Put the audience through the experience of flying. Give the audience the thrill of taking to the air.

The film, To Fly, was an instant critical and financial hit. In fact it's still playing at the Air and Space Museum today more than twenty-five years later, making it the longest continuously running documentary ever in the history of cinema. More than 15 million people have seen it at the Smithsonian alone. And I've been making IMAX theatre films ever since.

What continues to attract me to the genre are the elements that make IMAX theatre films so unique -- the clarity and brightness of the image, the dimension of sound, the visceral involvement and thrilling moments that can be felt when watching this kind of a film. Only an IMAX image, with clarity derived from shooting film that is ten times larger per frame than conventional 35mm motion pictures, gives the audience a true-to-life, you-are-there sensation. In some of our films, during the long distance shots, you can actually see details in the landscape that are literally miles and miles away. Probably no other film format, except for Cinerama, which was a huge hit between 1953 and 1960, can deliver this kind of exceptional involvement in the image. It's reality filmmaking to the extreme.

BMZ: What led you to a film about Greece?

GM: It's a subject I've been excited about for a very long time and I also felt it was a topic that was both very fresh for IMAX® theatre filmmaking and quite relevant right now. The ancient Greeks really shaped who we are as Western people and it's where a lot of our ideas and passionate feelings about art, philosophy, theatre, literature and especially democratic government come from so it's a time and place that is truly meaningful to everyone. I've always been especially fascinated by the Golden Age of Greece because so much was accomplished in just 100 amazingly compact years. It was an incredibly creative, groundbreaking, incendiary period -- and when you look at it, you can't help but wonder just how and why all these wondrous things happened in this time and place. It's really one of the greatest stories of human achievement and one that sparks the imaginations of people of all ages.

My own personal romance with Greece actually began about 30 years ago when I was shooting a movie for Twentieth Century Fox there and I first visited the island of Santorini. I fell madly in love. It was one of the most stunning places I'd seen in all my travels around the world. There was such beautiful architecture with these striking blue-and-white homes literally carved into the sides of the volcanic caldera, stunning vertical cliffs, amazing ocean vistas and also a truly unique culture. The mix of this beauty, humanity and the buried wonders from the past being discovered by archeologists there was simply overwhelming and it was then that I first knew I wanted to make a movie about Greece. It stayed on my list of future film subjects for years until I saw the opportunity to make it come true.

BMZ: It's always a challenge to figure out what to focus on in a Giant Screen film, considering that you only have 45 minutes or less. With a rich topic like Greece, the challenge is even greater. What is the film's focus and theme, and how did you get there?

GM: One of the things we really wanted to explore in this film is how thrilling and fun archeology can be as a science. You might see shows such as "CSI" on TV, but this is real forensic science -- where you search for clues that help you to figure out what happened in the long ago past. It's detective work, except that instead of trying to solve a murder you're solving questions about how people lived and died thousands of years ago. The film's leading character, Dr. Christos Doumas, is a shining example of the kind of curiosity and devotion that goes into this important work. Christos is one of Greece's leading archeologists, especially when it comes to studying the early Greek culture on Santorini that was buried by history's largest volcanic explosion. He's 72 years old and he loves the game of archeology more than ever. His passion for scientific discovery is palpable.

Greece is really a story about the human drive to explore, to wonder, to be curious -- something the Greeks themselves passed down to our society. Similarly, archeology is about what secrets lie beneath our feet if only we're willing to dig for them. The people of the past can speak to us if we take the time to listen by discovering what they did, created and thought about in their lives.

BMZ: What are some of the noteworthy Greek locales featured in the film?

GM: Much of the film was shot on the breathtaking island of Santorini, where we filmed the volcanic caldera and the archeological dig taking place at Akrotiri, a town that was buried nearly intact under volcanic ash 3,000 years ago after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. Being surrounded by this ancient world that has been so perfectly preserved is an experience I'll never forget. Another favorite locale was Poseidon's Temple, perched on the cliffs about Cape Sounion, South East of Athens, where you get these incredibly brilliant sunsets. We shot many scenes in Athens, including the Acropolis, site of the Parthenon, which is considered by many to be one of the most important historical sites in the world. Some of the most stunning images in the film are the high-altitude aerial views we captured of Santorini shot 15,000 feet above the island. We had a crystal clear day for shooting so the views of the islands are incredible and create real visual drama. We also captured beautiful images of the ruins at Mycenae, Delphi, Melos, and sacred Delos, which is one of Greece's most magical locales.

BMZ: How was CGI used?

GM: One of the most exciting sequences in Greece is a digital re-creation of what the Parthenon first looked like during the Golden Age. The scene starts off with a helicopter view of the Parthenon ruins at dawn, then merges into the CGI-created views of the Parthenon as it first existed with its brightly colored pediment sculptures, which then blend into a dolly shot of our modern-day characters walking in to the Parthenon and seeing a CGI rendition of the spectacular giant 42-foot tall golden and ivory statue of Athena that used to be housed inside. It took almost two years to design that one spectacular shot, which I believe is almost certainly the most expensive and labor-intensive single IMAX® theatre shot ever done at nearly four minutes in length. The process started with the incredibly detailed work of Paul Debevec, a computer-modeling pioneer at USC who had been working with a team of talented modelers and historians to create a digital reconstruction of the Parthenon and all of its sculptures. We then brought in Craig Barron of Matte World who took on the enormous challenge of expanding these images in a way that would look very real and spectacular in the 3-D vastness of a large-format film.

We knew it wouldn't be easy but it can be a lot of fun to give yourself that kind of challenge. It was a chance to marry fantasy and reality -- to bring art and technology together in a creative way. It was a wonderful chance to take the audience back in time, and back to the Golden Age of Greece, in a way they could never experience outside of a movie theatre. We're all thrilled with the success of it.

BMZ: What were some of the unique challenges of production?

GM: We knew going in that it would be tough to shoot in some historically significant areas because the Greeks are rightfully very protective of their antiquities -- but it turned out to be even harder than we anticipated to get filming permits. It took a lot of wrangling, but ultimately we were able to get permission to fly a helicopter within a few hundred yards of the Parthenon, which I don't think has ever been done for a film before -- although we were almost chased off by a Greek Sheriff in a helicopter who didn't realize we had a permit. We were given permission to build an 82-foot long dolly track in front of the Parthenon -- which we had to do overnight so we wouldn't interfere with tourist traffic. Both of those were essential to capture that one spectacular shot.

One thing we anticipated being a problem was the notorious smog in Athens, but as it turned out we got very lucky. We were there right when there was a big North wind, which is very rare, but it completely cleared the skies for a day. So we had just a few hours to get all these stunning shots of Athens. It was just incredible -- you could see all the way from the Parthenon to the Greek Islands and really get a sense of the majesty of the way Athens was 250 years ago.

BMZ: Now that you've researched and made the film, do you have reason to believe there is truth to the legend of Santorini as the location of Atlantis?

GM: Yes, I think there's a very real possibility that there is. One of our film's main characters, Dr. Georges Vougioukalakis, has written scholarly papers on why he thinks there is truth to this idea. Atlantis was described by Plato in his famous Dialogues as an island state with the most advanced civilization of the pre-historic world that was swallowed by the sea in the short span of a day and a night. While there has been much debate on the subject, one well-regarded theory is that Plato's citation of Atlantis being destroyed 9,000 years before his own 6th century BC epoch was actually in error by one zero too many, meaning that he meant to write that the demise of Atlantis occurred only 900 years before his time. If true, then the destruction of Atlantis coincides with the massive volcanic eruption of 1646 BC, which we know obliterated the island of Santorini and very likely all those living there. It's an intriguing possibility that they are one and the same, but the scientific debate continues.

BMZ: Can you talk a little about the music?

GM: Music has always been one of the great cornerstones of Greek culture so we knew we needed a unique soundtrack that would forge a uniquely Greek experience for the audience. I relied on my longtime collaborator and friend, Steve Wood -- a brilliant composer and musician who has scored most of our films -- who, it just so happened, had recently finished producing a CD with Greek opera and pop singer Mario Frangoulis. So Steve was already very familiar with contemporary Greek music, and he relished the idea of researching the early historical music of Greece, which we wanted to have in the film. He flew to Greece and met with noted Greek composer and producer, Euthymios Papadopolous, who helped him find Greek musicians well versed in the ancient music and instrumentation of Greece. They got together in a recording studio, and because the instrumentation for Wood's score was so unusual, featuring ancient lutes, lyras, pipes and percussion, he did much of his composing on the spot, giving general direction to the musicians and waiting to see what spontaneously developed as they played. The result is a very lively, very rich soundtrack that immediately creates a sense of Greek heritage and transports the audience back to the Golden Age of ancient Greece.

BMZ: Has making this film changed your views about Greece and its historical impact?

GM: I continue to be amazed at how much the ancient Greeks and their way of life continue to speak to us today. There's a beautiful quotation from Socrates that says, "Wisdom begins with wonder." I think that is a big part of what the Greeks have taught us -- that it is always worth taking a deeper look at the world around you. There is also a surprising sense of equality in this philosophy. It's true the Greeks still had a long way to go -- they had slaves, and women were not free -- but it was the first time in history that this spirit of exploration really spread throughout much of society, and was not just for the rich and powerful anymore but for all the citizens. In this atmosphere, someone like Socrates, who was a simple stone mason by trade, could also become a philosopher and teach new ideas and aspire to whatever heights his imagination might lead him towards.

Some of the biggest gifts the Greeks left behind were their ideas about democracy, freedom of expression and especially their openness in accepting new ideas from outside their own society. In my opinion, this tolerance and willingness to constantly learn, change and explore made their culture even greater and more rich than the earlier Egyptian or the later Roman cultures. The Greeks left behind this magical, remarkable moment in time, this tremendous flowering of thought and expression, that will continue to make us wonder how high the limits of human achievements can soar when that is the focus of society.

BMZ: One of your upcoming films is Hurricane on the Bayou which originally focused solely on Louisiana's wetlands. How difficult was it to restructure the film after Hurricane Katrina? How much additional filming did your team have to do?

GM: Actually, the film's original focus was on hurricanes as well. The wetlands act like natural speed bumps that lessen the impact of hurricanes, so the fact that they are eroding into the sea leaves the entire region much more vulnerable. We originally intended for the film to be a warning about the devastating consequences for the city of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast should a major hurricane hit the area. We staged some pretty dramatic recreations of flooded homes and people evacuating through their roofs to show what would likely happen in the event of a class 4 or 5 hurricane. When Katrina struck four months after we finished principal photography, we were amazed at how exact our dramatizations turned out to be when compared to the real events being seen on television -- it was hard to tell them apart.

Katrina inevitably became a major part of the story, which we had to restructure because we were no longer dealing with a hypothetical situation, but one that actually happened. Our production crew spent about 9 days filming in New Orleans immediately following Katrina, and we will spend another 10 days or so filming additional scenes, mostly of new characters we're introducing into the film such as famous jazz pianist Allen Toussaint and Marva Wright, the Blues Queen of New Orleans. The film's focus is now much more about the importance of rebuilding the wetlands and the unique city of New Orleans as it is so important that we preserve our nation's environmental and cultural treasures.

BMZ: What are your thoughts on the future of the traditional Giant Screen industry, especially in the face of what some call the "threats" of digital 3D, DMR, home theater, etc.?

GM: There is a large audience of dedicated IMAX theatre filmgoers who continue to seek out educational films like Everest, Dolphins and Greece: Secrets of the Past -- we believe they'll still be there 20 years from now. There is still no other place to get this same meaningful and enriching type of experiential cinematic experience, so we're very bullish on the future of the industry. Certainly, there are more and more forms of entertainment out there competing for the customer's hard-earned dollar and time, but none so far takes away from the unique educational IMAX theater experience. There's just nothing else out there like it.

BMZ: Along with Greece and Hurricane, I understand that you also have another film, Alps, in production. What others are in production and development? Any of them in 3D?

GM: After The Alps: Giants of Nature comes out in spring 2007, we'll be releasing a film currently called Water Planet, an adventure film set in the Grand Canyon that deals with our planet's fresh water crisis. We start shooting later this year and we may film that in 3D, I'm not sure yet. We're also in production on Space Journey, and we're developing a number of other films on the topics of humpback whales, the Arctic, Native Americans, the Romans, and a film about the aerodynamics of flight.

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