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Grand Canyon Adventure Interview: Director/Producer Greg MacGillivray


Director/Producer Greg MacGillivray. Copyright Ben Horton.

Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: April 7, 2008

BMZ catches up with Greg MacGillivray to discuss his latest release, GRAND CANYON ADVENTURE 3D: RIVER AT RISK, MacGillivray Freeman Films' first foray into 3D.


Category: Interviews

Veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray has been creating films for over 40 years. Dedicated to the large format genre, his latest release, GRAND CANYON ADVENTURE 3D: RIVER AT RISK, explores water conservation using the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River as a microcosm for the looming world water crisis. Part of his series of films on water, Grand Canyon Adventure is also the premiere 3D film from his production company, MacGillivray Freeman Films.

Big Movie Zone: Can you tell us about the origins of the film? Was it always to be focused on water, or originally on the Grand Canyon?

Greg MacGillivray: Over ten years ago I made the announcement at the GSCA annual meeting that I was devoted to making ten films over the next several decades about the health of the ocean and the importance of water to our planet. This film, Grand Canyon Adventure, is the sixth film in that series of ten. The other films were The Living Sea, Dolphins, Coral Reef Adventure, Mystery of the Nile, and Hurricane on the Bayou. The last film, Hurricane on the Bayou, presented the wetlands environment south of New Orleans, which told one story of freshwater conservation, but I felt that we needed to inform our vast audience about water conservation generally.

It's true that around the world, as people moved into the desert regions where water is scarce, and as populations have doubled over the past fifty years, that we're running out of water. Using the Colorado River as a metaphor for the water problems everywhere in the world, our goal then with Grand Canyon Adventure was to show how water can be overused in a particular region and how all of us need to understand the issue and to conserve water at home and in the fields. Our first scripts were more focused on water generally with a lot of various sequences taking place in about six different locations. I felt, however, that telling the story of one location would be far more powerful and would allow us to market the film as a location-based giant screen film. It's been the case over the past thirty years of IMAX Theatre operations that location-based films are the most attractive to potential customers and these films have the best chance of breaking even. So locating the film on the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon became a solution which I felt was best for the message that I wanted to convey.

From a business standpoint, Grand Canyon Adventure also offered us the opportunity to build up to four destination theatres in and around the Grand Canyon to show the film for the next 20-30 years. These theatres could be not just 3D but 4D presentations using digital projection where the audience would actually get sprayed with water as the film took them through the rapids on the Colorado River. You'd really feel that wet, exciting experience.

BMZ: What do you think that Tara and Kick's generation can do to help the planet conserve its resources?

GM: The most important thing that Tara and Kick as well as all of us can do is to think about water differently -- to actually look at it as something far more valuable than what we've grown to believe over our lifetime. I want the audience members to look at water as something like gold, valuable and worth saving.

BMZ: Following the success of the first few films, what is the next topic/location in your water-themed series?

GM: The next film for our 10 film series on water and ocean environments is the film, To the Arctic, which tells the story of the Arctic Ocean, its animals, and its challenges in Canada and Alaska. We're producing this film right now and will begin shooting in June, 2008. It will be done in 3D IMAX as well as 2D 15-70.

BMZ: What can you say about your first experience with 3D? Why did you create a separate 2D and 3D version, and is this something you'll do with future productions?

GM: I really enjoyed the challenge and experience of shooting our first IMAX 3D 15-70 production. What I tried to do for the audience is to make a film, which was not only beautiful to watch but also engaging from an environmental standpoint. It's true that photographically the Grand Canyon has always been one of the most successful 3D locations in the world. For early stereopticons, hand-held stereo card viewers, which were used in the 1870s through the 1920s, the Grand Canyon was one of the ten most popular subjects of all the world's locations and wonders, year after year after year. Then, our title and market testing proved that conclusion. So I knew that the Grand Canyon would be a fabulous location, just as it's proven to be in our film. I also knew though, that at least 50 percent of our audience sees our productions in dome and flat screen situations without 3D, so I was designing the film from the beginning to work well in both 2D and 3D. Before we finished editing I viewed in 15-70 the majority of the film in a dome location with advisors Dr. Jeffery Kirsch and Craig Blower. I became confident that the film would work equally well whether in a dome setting, a flat screen 2D setting, or an IMAX 3D setting.

BMZ: What was your favorite part of the production? Similarly, what was the most frustrating?

GM: My favorite part of the production was getting to know the characters in our film extremely well -- Wade Davis and his daughter Tara, Bobby Kennedy and his daughter Kick, and Shana Watahomagie and her daughter Cree. Our connection was surprisingly strong and I have confidence that our friendship will last for decades. For me, it will be great to follow the growth and adventures of these three young women. Each is dedicated to the environment, to education, and to helping others learn to respect the natural world. In fact, after we finished shooting the film in September, Tara began at Colorado College, and then chose an Environmental Studies Major. After her freshmen year, she was so moved by the experience on the Colorado River that she elected to spend her summer vacation in India helping people build wells and solve community water shortage problems as part of a team. So I look forward to tracking the three young women and their careers.

The most frustrating part of our shoot was simply moving the big, duel strip 15-70 3D camera into locations where it would give me the best results. I had studied 3D for the past five years and was ready for the challenge, but never expected camera positioning to take so much time and be so hard.

BMZ: How did Robert Redford get involved, and how was he to work with? Will he be supporting the film launch?

GM: Robert Redford was my first choice as narrator and we began working on getting him a year ago. Finally, when he saw the film, he was totally knocked out and became very eager to do the film, even moving around his schedule so that he could meet our deadlines for completing the movie. He was great to work with and I feel that we got perhaps the best narration that he's ever done. I know that sounds presumptuous, but I really love the emotion, informed concern, and confidence you sense from his voice in the performance we recorded. My wife Barbara, Steve Judson, and I worked with him in Provo, Utah, near his ski resort at Sundance. When I sat him down in front of the microphone, I told him, "Look, I'm not going to try to direct you. You're a brilliant director, yourself, with an Academy Award to show for it. Just give me three takes of your best stuff, and I'll speak up if I need a fourth take." That relaxed him. But then he looked up from the script and said, "You know, I am directable though." We laughed and he began his work.

After we completed the session, he was so relaxed that he sat around and told us his life story over the next half-hour. He's a true environmentalist, loves the outdoors and the West, and has the credentials to validate the film's message. Way back in the sixties, just as the word "ecology" was being coined and environmental concerns were beginning to be communicated, Redford sponsored and produced a film called The Solar Film, which was one of the first short films ever done about converting our electrical energy production from oil and coal to solar. He's been a leader in trying to get people to fall in love with their environment for the past fifty years.

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