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Arabia Interview: Director/Producer Greg MacGillivray

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Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: February 19, 2010

Large Format veteran filmmaker Greg MacGillivray chats with BMZ on his latest film, ARABIA.

  

Category: Interviews

Celebrated filmmaker Greg MacGillivray has directed and produced some of the best and most successful Large Format films around. His well-known films include Everest, Dolphins and The Living Sea. His latest work, Arabia, focuses on this unique culture of the Middle East revealing its incredible history and fascinating people.

Big Movie Zone: Hi Greg, thank you for talking with us today.  Many of your previous films focused on nature and conservation.  What led you to creating a more cultural (and spiritual) film with Arabia 3D?

Greg MacGillivray:
Back in the mid-1980s, I made four IMAX Theatre documentaries about Indonesia for a cultural park in Jakarta. One of the characters featured in the films was a Muslim boy who was studying for his exams on the Qur'an. I didn't know much about Islam at the time, and this experience left me with an ongoing curiosity about the Islamic faith. Then 9/11 happened and shocked the world. But it also produced a tremendous surge of curiosity. What is an Arab? What's a Muslim? Where do their customs come from? What happens at Mecca during the Hajj? These are just the most basic questions our film sets out to answer for Western audiences. I hope to help demystify the Arab culture and give audiences a basic working knowledge of Arabian history. In doing so, we hoped we could break down some of the misperceptions and stereotypes about Arabs and Muslims that are so prevalent in our culture today.

BMZ: Another Giant Screen film on the Muslim world was recently released, Journey to Mecca.  How would you differentiate your film from this one?

GM:
Journey to Mecca is focused more on the religious aspects of Islam and the story of one historical figure's personal pilgrimage to Mecca, whereas Arabia attempts to paint a much broader picture of Arabian culture and expose the audience to the rich history of Arab civilization, as told through the stories of three people today. Few in the West realize that Arab culture has experienced periods of enlightenment at least as bright as those in the West. In fact, Arabs established major civilizations twice before in their history -- during the Nabataean era 2,000 years ago, and during the Islamic golden age of science, when Muslim scholars shook up the world with their discoveries in optics, algebra, chemistry and medicine while Europe fell into the Dark Ages. The film also goes inside modern day Arabian life and shows how Arabia's customs today, which may seem strange to us here, are actually rooted in traditions thousands of years old.

BMZ: How much time did you spend filming in Arabia?  Was it a difficult process filming in the Middle East or did it go fairly smoothly?

GM:
Making giant-screen movies is always challenging, but this time our challenge wasn't getting the IMAX camera to the top of Everest or down the Nile. Instead, our main challenge was cultural. Because Saudi Arabia has historically been a closed culture, and because we were the first big movie production ever to set up there and film at more than twenty locations, the permit process was endless. We had to attend meeting after meeting after meeting. In fact, we like to call this period our "twenty million cups of tea" period because of all the tea we drank! Another challenge was something that was difficult for us to understand about Arab culture at first: most Arabs find it very hard to say "No" to a family member, friend, or a business associate. Not denying anyone anything is a key part of traditional Bedouin hospitality. This means there are also varying degrees of "Yes." Another obstacle was the lack of filmmaking infrastructure in Saudi Arabia. We had to invent the protocol for many aspects of our filmmaking needs, and because there are no experienced film crew in Arabia, we had to hire people from all over the Middle East. I think we had crew members from 15 different countries. Overall, we spent more than five months filming in six separate shoots all over Arabia. No other major film production had ever spent more than four or five days filming there.

BMZ: What do you hope viewers, particularly American audiences, get out of Arabia 3D especially in such a tenuous political climate?

GM:
My sincerest hope is that besides being well received for its artistry, this film will begin to build a bridge over the divide between Western and Arab cultures and will lead to increased international understanding. I hope it will inspire people to meet in the middle and be more compassionate and tolerant with one another. I'm certain audiences will be moved by our portrait of a culture and people with strong family ties, a deep devotion to their faith, and a growing desire to engage with and understand the rest of the world. If the film succeeds in this -- and I think it will -- it could be the most important movie I've ever made.

BMZ: As a longtime filmmaker of traditional Large Format films, where do you see its future?  Is a switch to digital inevitable?

GM:
I have been saying that everything will eventually switch to digital -- capture, editing, presentation -- once the qualities match or exceed. And this transition will, over the next ten years, open up countless new options for all imaginative filmmakers. Avatar is an example of that. I see an expanding world for giant-screen films -- and all films. In fact, we have just started work on our biggest project ever, which we hope to announce soon.

BMZ: I understand you're working on a non-IMAX film on surfing.  What's it like returning to the subject of your early films?

GM:
It's liberating! There are so many creative restraints in large-format filmmaking that aren't such burdens in smaller formats. This is also a feature length film -- 85 minutes -- for regular 35mm and digital theatres, so there is more time to express yourself.

BMZ: You also always seem to have many LF projects lined up!  Can you tell us about any of your upcoming films for IMAX theaters?

GM:
For our next two projects -- To the Arctic and Humpback Whales -- we're returning to the ocean, which I admit makes me very happy. As everyone has heard me say for the last 20 years, my life's mission is getting people to love and care for the healthy of our oceans. As a surfer and diver, that is my simple goal. To the Arctic takes audiences into the incredibly diverse and beautiful world of the vast Arctic Circle, where dramatic changes are occurring because of climate change. Audiences will get to explore the vibrant kaleidoscope of life found under the Arctic sea ice, they'll experience the vast wilderness of the Alaskan National Wildlife Refuge and the great caribou migration, and they'll get up close and personal with the Arctic's top predator, the polar bear. We're modeling the film somewhat after The Living Sea and plan to use a montage of beautiful and diverse scenes to overwhelm the audience with the true magnificence of this unique environment. To the Arctic will come out in the spring of 2011, followed a year later by Humpback Whales, which we hope to start production on very soon.

BMZ: Thanks again for speaking with us and congratulations with the film!

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