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BMZ Interview: Jerusalem Director/Producer Daniel Ferguson


Written by: BMZ Staff
Date: September 16, 2013

Director/Producer Daniel Ferguson chats with BMZ on his latest film, JERUSALEM.


Category: Interviews

Director/Producer Daniel Ferguson chats with BMZ on his latest film, Jerusalem. The film takes audiences on an inspiring and eye-opening tour of one of the world's oldest and most enigmatic cities. Jerusalem opens in IMAX, Giant Screen and other specialty theaters September 20, 2013.

Hi, Daniel. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us. I understand you've been a part of the IMAX industry for some time now. What first drew you to this type of filmmaking?

Daniel Ferguson: I entered the industry in 1998 rather by chance. I was making a feature film in India, and met Goulam Armasy (Primesco) and Keith Merrill (Grand Canyon: The Hidden Secrets), who hired me to be Unit Production Manager on a film about fresh water. The film never got made, but I ended up working for Goulam on several different films and learning distribution and finance as well. It's an immensely rewarding and frustrating format to work in. Rewarding because it is pure cinema. The images do the talking. Every shot is subjective. The brain is tricked into believing it is actually experiencing something first hand. The format makes you to think in terms of spectacle and puts great care into every aspect of production. There is nothing disposable about it. As a writer, it forces you to use as few words as possible, because it is about showing, not telling. As a documentarian, it is thrilling. You have an audience completely captive and primed to learn. I love the challenge of taking these cameras and this equipment to remote and exotic locations. It gives you an access to parts of the world you could never otherwise get. The format is frustrating because it doesn't naturally lend itself to intimacy, character development or a compelling multi-act narrative structure. The films are short and the technical requirements are (even with digital innovations) restrictive. We try to satisfy everyone from 5 year olds to 85 year olds, aquariums to planetariums, 2D and 3D, flat screens and domes. It's hard enough to tell a compelling story, let alone keep all the technical and market requirements straight.

How did the idea for Jerusalem originate?

The idea for Jerusalem came from Taran Davies, who produced Journey to Mecca. He approached me in 2008 with the idea to do something about the intersection of the three Abrahamaic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam). I actually studied comparative religions, so I loved the idea that we could explore the same place from different points of view. George Duffield (our other producer) knew Jerusalem well, but to Taran and me it was entirely new and rather overwhelming at first.

You previously worked on Journey to Mecca, a film about Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta. What fascinates you about the Middle East, and in particular the religions of the area, that has you returning to do another film here?

This is really Taran's doing, but I will say that Journey to Mecca showed us there was an appetite for films in Large Format about culture and about "the other". In the case of JTM, we saw it as an opportunity to bridge the gap between east and west. With Jerusalem, there is so much curiosity about this part of the world and unfortunately so much misinformation. Much of Western Civilization has its foundations here. Many of our present-day conflicts and beliefs and values are derived from stories and events that took place here millennia ago. In the case of Jerusalem, you start to see why so many different cultures considered it the center of the world. In many ways, perhaps it still is…

I have yet to see the film, but the footage I have seen contains some incredible imagery. What kind of difficulties did you experience filming in such an ancient city, especially in 3D? Were there any locations that you were not permitted to film?

When we submitted the original script for this film to the political and religious authorities in Jerusalem, we were told we would be lucky to get 50% of what we had written. We ended up with nearly everything, thanks to the tireless efforts of our local Israeli, Palestinian, and Jordanian team. We spent nearly a year doing research in 2009 before we even began filming, meeting with all the major local groups: Israeli national and municipal leaders, the Mayor of Jerusalem, the police, the army, the Governor of East Jerusalem, the Supreme Islamic Council who manages Al-Aqsa Mosque, the Ministry of AWQAF (religious affairs) in Jordan, members of the Royal Jordanian family, the heads of each of the six major churches, including the three custodians of the Holy Places: the Greek Orthodox church, the Franciscans and the Armenian Apostolic church.

The key to securing the permits was building trust with each of these stakeholders, especially in the Old City where each quarter is made up of widening spheres of influence, often controlled by long-standing families. One of our major accomplishments was filming low-altitude aerials over the Old City. Jerusalem is a strict no-fly zone, and aerial filming has not been permitted for some 20 years. Through the efforts of Duby Tal at Albatross and Highlight Films, we succeeded in filming at heights as low as 300 meters (984 feet) over the holy sites, the Palm Sunday procession, and the Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall.

We were most fortunate to gain access to what is referred to as "the most contested piece of real estate on the planet". Jews call it "The Temple Mount", where they believe the Temples once stood. Muslims call it "al-Haram al-Sharif" (the Noble Sanctuary). Today it is the location of the Aqsa Mosque and the famous golden Dome of the Rock. Most western crews are not allowed inside these buildings, but we worked there for several days with major lighting and a 30-meter film crane. We are extremely grateful to the Islamic WAQF (custodial body), the Supreme Islamic Council and the Royal Jordanian Ministry of AWQAF for this rare opportunity. When we filmed the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Christendom's most sacred shrine, we received permission from all six of the custodial churches to spend the night locked inside the church in order to explore underground parts of the church normally off-limits to the public. For hundreds of years, the single door to the church has been bolted from the outside every night at 9 PM by a Muslim family and opened the next morning at 5 AM. During those precious eight hours, we were allowed access to film an ancient quarry underneath the crypt and to a series of rock-cut tombs dating to the 1st century C.E., the existence of which is cited by most archaeologists as the main reason why the Church of the Holy Sepulcher remains the most likely site of Jesus' burial. For the Western Wall scenes, tripods and heavy filming equipment were forbidden so we worked with a steadicam and a crane placed on a roof overlooking the plaza, which allowed us unprecedented vantage points. We timed our shooting schedule to film Passover, Easter and Ramadan, ensuring we would represent the holy days of all three religions. We also elected to film archaeological excavation sites in the peak of the summer when they are most active with volunteers from around the world. I don't think there was a single easy shot in the film, but we knew that going in.

How did you approach the differing religions centered in Jerusalem, which obviously could be a sensitive topic to many viewers?

Luckily our film is not about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is about the roots of universal attachment to this space, told through different points of view. The first challenge for anyone tackling Jerusalem is the weight of the subject. There is such controversy and lack of consensus. If you use the wrong word with the wrong group, you're finished. It's a minefield. When you tell a Jerusalemite you're trying to make a film about their city in 40-45 minutes, they just laugh at you. Whose Jerusalem, they ask? So the first step was just absorbing the dynamics and politics of the Old City and figuring out where the mines are. People often assume you have an agenda and are reluctant to participate for fear of backlash. You're constantly dealing with competing factions, not just between Jews and Arabs, but between religious and secular Jews, between Fatah and Hamas, between Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant Christians. I actually made close to 10 trips during the research and development phase and moved my family there for 6 months. I just didn't want to be accused of naivité with a subject so delicate. One of our greatest achievements was assembling a local crew of Israelis and Palestinians, as well as Jews, Christians and Muslims, a feat that is generally impossible due to political pressures and tensions between communities. Having been told building such a crew would be difficult at best, we invested great energy in establishing trust with each community, explaining the vision for the film and listening to feedback. The concept of telling the story of Jerusalem from four different perspectives was embraced by most of the people we approached. In the end, our crew was a mosaic of cultures and communities nearly as vast and diverse as the city itself: Israeli Jews; Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox); Palestinian Muslims and Jordanians. Part of the goal of the film is to foster understanding between people of different faiths and beliefs, and we saw it in action every day on the set.

What do you hope audiences get out of this film and their understanding of Jerusalem?

One of our goals with the film is look at the roots of the universal attachment to Jerusalem: Jewish, Christian and Muslim. We hope the juxtaposition of these different religions and cultures -- all with profound spiritual and historical connections to the city -- will reveal how much Jews, Christians and Muslims have in common and inspire all of us to better understand each other.

Our film embraces the idea that Jerusalem is many cities: imagined and real; past and present; Jewish, Christian, Muslim and secular. Part of what we're doing is getting people to ask questions: Why Jerusalem? What is it about this tiny space that made it the ultimate prize of empires and the object of longing for so many different cultures over thousands of years? Why did so many cultures consider it the center of the world? Why did it become sacred ground for half the people on earth? What made it the most fought over piece of land in history? We can't hope to answer all these in 45 minutes, but we hope to challenge people's assumptions of Jerusalem as well as the three Abrahamic faiths. Being immersed in Jerusalem makes you as a filmmaker and as a member of the audience realize just how much these three faiths have in common and how they are all drawn to the same few acres.

For those wanting to see the film, how many theaters are committed to launch Jerusalem so far?

National Geographic is doing an outstanding job selling and marketing the film. They have around 20 openings in the first two months and then we'll see. All the theatre launches are on our website: We built an exhibitor consortium starting in 2010 with around 35 additional theatres that have supported us. Hopefully interest will grow once people see the film. I think the film has many "wow moments" and I hope people will be as astonished by the city as I was. It really is the best way to experience this part of the world.

Can you tell us about any upcoming projects, Giant Screen or otherwise?

We're cooking up some future projects for the Giant Screen, but honestly I need a break after Jerusalem. My wife just gave birth to our second daughter so I want to just be a dad for a while. I am scheduled to finish a feature documentary I started years ago for French and Canadian Television called "Last of the Elephant Men" that takes place in Cambodia and Vietnam.

Thanks again for speaking with us, and congratulations with the film!

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