America Wild: National Parks Adventure: Interview With Director Greg MacGillivray
The vision for America Wild: National Parks Adventure
America Wild: National Parks Adventure : Presented by Expedia and Subaru comes from celebrated documentary filmmaker Greg MacGillivray. A film veteran who has made 38 giant-screen films, MacGillivray brought a blend of artistic and technical expertise to the project, as well as a lifelong passion for the outdoors. To get more insight into the IMAX 3D film America Wild: National Parks Adventure and MacGillivray’s love of the National Parks, we called him at his office in Southern California.
What about the National Parks drew you to this project?
I’ve loved the parks from the time my parents took me to Yosemite when I was 10. I’ve never tired of them, probably because I’m a visual person, and whenever I see something incredibly beautiful I take pictures of it. And taking pictures to share with others is my passion.
The National Parks have preserved these places. Yosemite looks the same as it did 60 years ago when I went with my folks, maybe even better because of the National Park Service. And that’s something, because most places don’t look as good as they did. These places have been protected.
How would you characterize the movie?
It is a tribute film and it’s told with two parallel stories. One is the origin story of the park concept, with Teddy Roosevelt and John Muir back in 1903. We got lookalikes to portray their three-day camping trip to Yosemite, where Muir convinced the president that it was worth the effort to try to protect these areas.
The other storyline features three modern-day characters: Conrad Anker, who’s a famous mountain climber, and his son Max Lowe and their family friend Rachel Pohl. Max is a photographer. Rachel’s a painter. When there’s an opportunity, they just jam out and find the next park. They have a goal of going to all the National Parks within their lifetimes. It challenges them and gives them joy. Their motivation isn’t making money or anything; it’s just enrichment.
The movie reenacts John Muir and U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt’s iconic three-day camping trip in California’s Yosemite National Park.
It seems like there’s a real connection for you between nature and art. How do you see that connection?
Nowadays everyone has a camera with their phone. You can instantly take a picture and zip it to your grandmother and she’ll get it five seconds later. And that’s one of the joys of being in the parks. Everyone is taking pictures. Ten years ago that wasn’t the case. Film was expensive. Some people would take pictures and put the camera away, and that would be it. Now the camera is out all the time.
So I think — at least I hope — people are appreciating the visual splendor of National Parks more intensely and at a different level than they’ve ever done. They are waiting for the clouds to change, for the dark sky to come in, for certain lighting conditions. There’s a new appreciation for the art of photography and the beauty of our natural wonders. People are engaged in a new fashion. I find that wonderful.
And so it makes my job a little harder. I’ve got to strive even more to get something that they haven’t seen. So I try to find locations that people can’t get to and work harder and get the helicopter permit to get an amazing shot that other people aren’t going to be able to get.
Three of the movie’s stars – Conrad Anker, Max Lowe and Rachel Pohl – survey Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
I assume the giant-screen format that you’re working in also allows you to capture things people are unable to capture with their phones. How does this format inform your work?
In a flat-screen theater, about 90 degrees of vision is filled. In a dome screen, 180 degrees is filled with image, so you’re in the movie. You feel like you’re there in real life.
We shoot film that’s 10 times bigger than 35 mm, so every frame is 150 million pixels of information. No digital camera captures that yet. There will be, but there’s not one that will capture it now. So we’re giving the audience more information, more visual stimulation than they’ll get in any other format, and so it’s engaging.
What I have to do with my filmmaking is make that engagement worth it. I have to give viewers a visual image that puts them in a place that is pretty interesting and where there’s plenty to look at — something in the background, and something in the very close foreground, and something over on the left, and something over on the right and something way up high, because the IMAX frame is really big. And so I’m looking not for a close-up. I’m looking for a wide shot that has all of the components of the foreground, middle ground and background, and is unusual in the respect that people haven’t seen it a million times already.
I try to go to the places where you get a unique view. Then I wait for the right light that truly makes it unique — the clouds, the rainbow, the shaft of light through the clouds.
Outdoorsman and Hollywood icon Robert Redford narrates the movie. He was the first choice of director Greg MacGillivray.
Robert Redford narrates the movie. What does having such a Hollywood icon lend to the project?
As a filmmaker, you want to have the narrator to have credibility with the audience. Robert Redford was the first person on my list because he has this credibility. He’s fought for nature all through his life.
He lives in Utah, and one of the reasons he’s there is there are so many open spaces and so many National Parks. So he’s walking the walk, not just talking the talk. He skis, he enjoys the outdoors, he goes on hikes. He’s very vital. This is in his blood.
What do you hope people will take away from the movie?
Conservation is never a relaxed game. You have to fight continually against people who want to profit from these wonders, whether it be building resorts or homes along the edge of the Grand Canyon, or people who want to extract minerals from certain areas that should remain pristine. It’s a continual fight.
So we want to make the parks feel special and worth saving, to show they have spiritual value, a value to our poetry and our art and our sense of being. That’s what we want to come out of it. This fight is worth having. And the actual parks are worth supporting.
Greg MacGillivray is a two-time Academy Award nominee. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.