MacGillivray Freeman Films' Big 5-0
Greg MacGillivray looks back fondly at the late 1960s, when he and his filmmaking partner Jim Freeman would walk into the offices of Hollywood players.
"We were kind of the surfer guys," says MacGillivray during a recent interview. "They liked us. They'd say, 'Let's get those surfer guys from Laguna.'"
The names of those surfer guys in Laguna Beach are now part of a company celebrating its 50th anniversary, MacGillivray Freeman Films, which specializes in large-format films that are shot around the world and roll in IMAX theaters everywhere.
MacGillivray, who was "devastated" when Freeman died in a helicopter crash in 1976, insisted his partner's name remain a part of the company brand, even after MacGillivray became the first documentary filmmaker to earn more than $1 billion in ticket sales at the worldwide box office.
He and his company were honored twice at the just-concluded Newport Beach Film Festival. On April 29, there was a retrospective screening at South Coast Village Theater in Santa Ana of Five Summer Stories (1972), the final surf film Freeman and MacGillivray made together. The co-director participated in a panel discussion about the impact of the film with the likes of Laird Hamilton, Stacy Peralta and Steve Pezman.
The next night, at the Regency Lido Theatre, MacGillivray took audience questions on his adventures in filmmaking around the world, peppering his tales with film clips and capping the night with an Orange County premiere screening of his newest film, Journey to the South Pacific, which hits IMAX theaters in June.
Before embarking on a career that would take MacGillivray to Borneo, the Arctic, up Mount Everest and 46 countries so far, he shot his teachers and classmates at Newport Harbor High School through a telephoto lens, "hidden-camera style." He'd finish his homework at school so he could spend the next three or four hours at home working on his movies, which were funded through babysitting, a paper route, mowing lawns and working construction for his home-builder father during summers. He'd try to make back his investment by charging his friends 25 cents each to see his films at his home in Corona del Mar.
MacGillivray went on to UC Santa Barbara to "study physics," although he really chose that location because he needed more surf scenes for his latest movie. That's where he met Freeman, who had come to town to show his 3-D surf film Outside the Third Dimension, which MacGillivray found "bizarre," but they nonetheless struck up a friendship and kept in touch.
Later, when MacGillivray was making his surf film The Performers, Freeman offered to help with the editing—for free. MacGillivray was impressed not only with Freeman's generosity, but also the filmmaking abilities he possessed beyond MacGillivray's own. And they got on well together, so much so the pair dropped out of school to make their first film together, Free and Easy, a surf film shot in California, Hawaii and South America (although footage from the latter didn't make the final cut).
MacGillivray credits two public-television specials on their offbeat company that aired in 1968-69 with getting MacGillivray Freeman Films on the radars of Hollywood A-listers. This was just as the old studio system was giving way to the new mavericks, ushering in what would years later be regarded as a golden age of American cinema. "We were part of that wave," says MacGillivray. "A lot of us were non-union, and a lot of the filmmaking was done in foreign countries. Hollywood had become a little stagnated creatively. These were new people with new ideas and new team members coming in. We fit right in there."
MacGillivray and Freeman started with surfing sequences in Hollywood films such as The Sweet Ride, then specialized in aerial scenes in The Towering Inferno and Jonathan Livingston Seagull. "Word kind of spread fast in Hollywood," MacGillivray says of the pair's budding rep. "We did things different than the Hollywood norm back then. It was kind of wide open to us—right place, right time."
Freeman died while shooting a commercial in Bishop, days before To Fly!, a film he co-directed with MacGillivray, premiered at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., where it still runs daily.
Two years later, John Milius pulled MacGillivray back into the surf world with Big Wednesday, a drama about three surfers (Jan-Michael Vincent, William Katt and Gary Busey) set in early 1960s California. "He hired me to produce mostly all the surfing sequences—they are all throughout the movie—and then I advised on the rest of the film," MacGillivray says. "I kind of wished I'd advised a little bit more; it could have been a really excellent film."
He had fonder memories of the 1980 horror classic The Shining. "When I got the call from Stanley Kubrick, I couldn't believe it was really Stanley Kubrick," MacGillivray recalls. "I was certain it was one of my friends because they knew he was my favorite director, and I thought they were playing a joke."
Kubrick, a New Yorker who fled Hollywood for London, kept a very tight circle around him, which explains why his good friend Brian Cook served as assistant director. Cook had also been A.D. years earlier on Sky Riders, whose cinematographers were MacGillivray, Freeman and Ousama Rawl. Shots from the sky Kubrick wanted for The Shining would be rolled into the breathtaking opening sequence that has Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) driving his family up the mountain to the Overlook Hotel. With the passing of Freeman, who'd been regarded as one of the steadiest aerial cameramen, Cook suggested MacGillivray to Kubrick. Thus, the call.
"The Shining was a huge production," MacGillivray says. "They'd built a gigantic set in London. It took a year and two months just for shooting on the set. We shot for almost a year in America. Kubrick would finish his work at 10 p.m. in the studio in London, then go home and call me, about twice a week. He'd say, 'How are you doing there? Have you got any good weather yet? Have you got the shot I need?' It's amazing how hard-working he was."
He called notorious perfectionist Kubrick "a fun guy to be around. People forget how comical he was." MacGillivray also appreciated that the master director welcomed experimentation. "We did five sequences that never made it into the film," he says. "Kubrick's deal was he'd shoot a two-and-a-half- to three-hour movie, and then cut it down to 100 minutes. He wanted to tell the story well, and he wanted all kinds of choices because he did all his own editing."
The favorites MacGillivray cited from his own catalog (so far) are: To Fly! because it was Freeman's last film; The Living Sea (1995) because of its beautiful ocean setting, artistry and collaboration with musician Sting; and Everest (1998) because it's an excellent documentary (Oscar nominated!) that MacGillivray Freeman Films invested heavily into making—and went on to become the highest grossing documentary until Fahrenheit 911 came along.
His next most favorite film would be whichever one he's working on, which right now is Humpback Whales 3D.
"Celebrating 50 years or getting a lifetime achievement award is really secondary to me," MacGillivray says. "You keep doing these individual projects, and eventually, you've mounted up a lot of projects over a lot of years. Kubrick told me, 'Don't ever do the same thing twice; life is too short not to take on new challenges.' I listened to that."
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