Producer-director Greg MacGillivray on location in Saudi Arabia. (MacGillivray Films / IMAX )
Director Greg MacGillivray knows a thing or two about shooting large-format films in tough locations: For 1998's "Everest," for example, he designed a lightweight, all-weather Imax camera to take up the highest mountain on Earth. But he says his new Imax movie, "Arabia 3D," opening Friday at the California Science Center, was his hardest endeavor.
"At times we were in 120-degree heat" in the Saudi desert, recalled MacGillivray, 65. "When we would change rolls, which is every three minutes, we would actually put a tent over the camera. We had a tent that was tied down and then we would lift it up and over the camera, so that the camera assistant could change film in the tent where dust wasn't blowing around."
"That worked fine, except that it would get to be 130 degrees inside the tent, so he would come out sweating. There were these huge sandstorms that curtailed filming. I tried to film in them and got nice shots, but you end up not knowing where you are."
The first major film shot entirely in Saudi Arabia, the 45-minute movie spans 2,000 years of history and the three "golden ages" of Arabia: the Nabataean Empire, the Islamic Age, and the current era of oil wealth and technological development (which also touches on women's struggle for equality). The country and its history are seen through the eyes of Hamzah Jamjoon, a Saudi native and 26-year-old MFA film student at Chicago's DePaul University. He sets out across the country to explore its history and cultural and geographic diversity.
The Oscar-nominated MacGillivray, who also produced "Arabia 3D," said the film "was a different kind of hard" than the Everest film.
"We didn't have to climb up to the top of Everest with a camera" this time, he said, "but dealing with permits and the size of the country and getting actually permissions and keeping them" was difficult.
Obtaining "the helicopter permit so we could shoot aerials — it took us over a year of actual day-to-day to work, hundreds of meetings. I had a guy living in Riyadh, the capital, for three months banging on doors every day.... They don't have any infrastructure" for filmmaking.
MacGillivray said the genesis of the film was the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. "Some Arab American business people were embarrassed by the fact that 15 out of the 19 bombers were Saudi Arabians and Osama bin Laden was from Saudi background," he said.
These businessmen approached MacGillivray's company, MacGillivray Freeman Films, about making an Imax movie for western audiences that would help shed light on Arabs and the Muslim culture. MacGillivray acknowledged that he was worried at first they would want to turn it into a propaganda piece.
"I said I think I can do it if I get complete freedom and complete autonomy and don't have to go through the government and things don't need to be approved by the king," he said. "They said we can assure you of that. They gave me complete autonomy to figure out the story."
MacGillivray had never been to Saudi Arabia. So he set out with his wife and longtime collaborator, Barbara, the researcher for the screenplay, to visit the country as well as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Oman.
Not only did they fall in love with the landscape, they were also taken with the warmth of the Saudis. And MacGillivray came up with "a way to fashion a film that could communicate in a 45-minute sequence what being an Arab is and what Islam is and try to get across the fact that they are not much different from us. They have a lot of things they are working on like women's rights, and there is progress being made there."
However, women still are not allowed to drive or vote and must have a male guardian regardless of their age. The lack of equality is one of the main reasons MacGillivray selected Helen Mirren to narrate and included Nimah Nawwab, a women's activist and poet, in the film.
"I always wanted a woman to narrate from a kind of women's perspective," he said. "That is why Nimah is a central character.... She could tell her true feelings in terms of women's right and what she wants out of it. She's traveled the world and knows what [Saudi] women can't do. She realizes that it's changing but she wishes it would change more swiftly."
Saudi Arabia has one Imax Theatre, in Al Khobar on the Persian Gulf at the Sultan bin Abdul Azziz Science and Technology Center, and MacGillivray is hopeful that it will open there this year.
One businessman funding the film recommended Jamjoon, who graduates this summer, to MacGillivray as a crew member. But MacGillivray was taken with the young man and his movie star looks and thought he would be a perfect on-screen guide.
"Having him travel around the country in a kind of travel movie sense gives the audience more of a sense of time and place," said MacGillivray.
Making the film, said Jamjoon, "has opened the door to what I really want to do in life."
"It has been one of my dreams to make a movie about Saudi and Islam and the Arabian people," he said. "Sadly, there are a lot of misconceptions about as Muslims and Arabians in the media. I feel the need to make it easy for Western audiences to look at the Arabian culture and see the beauty of it instead of looking at it and getting scared."