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Greg MacGillivray has taken cameras into the deep blue sea, down the mightiest rivers, up the highest mountain peaks and off into the wild blue yonder. But his latest film started out to be a relatively small undertaking by his own super-sized standards.
MacGillivray—the award-winning producer, director and cinematographer who in the 1970s co-founded Laguna Beach-based MacGillivray Freeman Films with the late Jim Freeman—was making an IMAX format documentary on Louisiana musicians banding together to help save the state's disappearing coastal wetlands. When Cajun blues guitarist Tab Benoit called the wetlands "hurricane speed bumps," MacGillivray knew he would need to re-create storm sequences to illustrate that point.
Then Hurricane Katrina came along and saved MacGillivray the trouble.
Actually, when meteorologists and the National Weather Service started issuing warnings about Katrina bearing down on southern Louisiana in August 2005, MacGillivray was in his Laguna Beach office, faced with a limited production budget and a difficult decision. He ultimately choose to hang back and record televised Katrina reports on three 24-hour news channels, while he sent his crew, four huge cameras and enough money for food, lodging, a helicopter and a boat to Louisiana to capture what would become the costliest and deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Pre-Katrina footage with musicians, the hurricane images MacGillivray's crew got, the news shots and some follow-ups with his story's subjects are all balled up in Hurricane on the Bayou, which has played elsewhere around the country and just opened for a five-week run on the six-stories-high screen in the IMAX theater at the Irvine Spectrum.
Actually, there are brief special effects in the 42-minute film as well. The sight of a falling water tower and scraps of metal peeling off the Superdome roof had to be computer generated because nasty conditions made it impossible to capture those moments live, MacGillivray told Garden Grove fourth and fifth graders invited to a special screening of his film last week.
Like other IMAX offerings, Hurricane on the Bayou suits this age group well, focusing on the beauty of the region, exposing new ears to the rich music of New Orleans and avoiding the Katrina blame game.
"It's a movie about a natural environment that's so beautiful, it's a national treasure well worth saving," MacGillivray told the kids just before the theater went dark.
As the film shows in its opening sequences, it's also a national treasure than can be saved. Benoit explains on camera that Louisiana's alligator population had nearly died out before the government instituted protections. They now thrive there.
"I wanted it to be uplifting," MacGillivray explained to the students after the show. "This is not an attack film. This is not about the response to Katrina. It's about the wetlands of Louisiana, and how wonderful they are."
He also sent them off with this: "Whatever we can do to help the people of Louisiana, we should do that."
Asked as the pupils were filing into their buses about his decision against dwelling on the human tragedy and the government's profound failure to protect its own people, MacGillivray said it was a simple matter of time.
"It would be too complicated to explain in 42 minutes," he said.
But Hurricane on the Bayou has served a political purpose. It was shown to members of Congress just before a bill was passed to fund wetlands restoration in Louisiana.
"A Louisiana senator applauded the film for getting those funds restored," MacGillivray said. "It shows that you can do something positive with your work."
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