Laguna Beach Filmmaker Greg MacGillivray and His New Memoir

The filmmaker chronicles a lifetime of adventures in his new memoir.
Photograph by Emily J. Davis

In the aptly titled “Five Hundred Summer Stories,” MacGillivray recounts behind-the-scenes moments during the making of his first film, “A Cool Wave of Color,” in 1964, and the astonishing sweep of surfing, Hollywood, and IMAX entertainment and conservation films that followed. Among them: a near-death experience during a wipeout in 25-foot surf shooting “Big Wednesday,” and a masterclass from director Stanley Kubrick while working on “The Shining.” 

Did you keep a journal to be able to recall events in detail?

I didn’t keep a journal, but I keep notations on my calendar as to what I do every day. Probably my first calendar was at 16. My first film took four years because I was going to high school and college. I had to be cautious with how much time I spent on my film and how much I spent studying and going to class. I tried to manage all those things, and I’ve carried that through my entire life. 

How important to your work are the technical aspects like building waterproof housings for cameras and designing platforms slung under helicopters to film aerial shots?

I learned the concept that with every film, you have to advance both the technical qualities as well as the artistic storytelling qualities. The reason that’s important—and I learned this through Stanley Kubrick’s movies—is that the audience can see regular dramas and storytelling on television. But when they go out to a movie and spend their money or go to an IMAX theater, they want visuals that are spectacular, better music, and sense of sound. They want to be surprised; they want something out of the ordinary. No one understood that more than Kubrick.

For “To the Limit” (1989), my clients wanted a film on medicine and the human body. I thought, “OK, that can be really boring on the big screen because you have to have people talking, doctors.” I thought, “How am I going to make the story of the amazing human body visual and striking?” No. 1, IMAX used true slow motion. They slowed the beautiful body down with a specialized camera that would shoot twice as fast and shoot true slow motion at 110 frames per second. You slow down the motion with that beautiful clarity of image and you see things you’ve never seen. So I used ballerina Nina Ananiashvili and Carl Lewis, the famous sprinter and long jumper, to show their bodies in movement. You end up watching these people move, and it’s poetry; it’s gorgeous. It’s still one of my favorite films.

Are there different rules for a documentary film in terms of presenting the material?

My films play in museums, and museums continue to be the No. 1 trusted source for information because they have no ax to grind. They’re there to present the facts, and every fact in a museum has to be vetted by experts. So when I make a film like “The Living Sea,” I had 10 oceanographers passing judgment. “Just change that word, change that statement a little bit this way.” I can’t gloss over things. And it can’t be misleading, either. Sometimes I’d love to make a good story point, but if it’s misleading, you can’t do it.