Near downtown Laguna Beach, a street dead-ends on a bluff above the shore. A kempt brick-lined portal opens in a row of beachfront houses and a staircase leads down to the stained-glass doors of an elegant home. Descending the steps gives one the feeling of moving toward the expensive seats in a theater.
Inside, Greg MacGillivray is working at a small wooden table against floor-to-ceiling windows fronting the ocean, handwriting notes on his new IMAX film script. On the table are a cantilevered stack of papers, a Rollieflex medium format camera, a mug of pencils, a measuring tape, and binoculars.
The slim, 68-year-old director, producer, and cinematographer of more than 50 films removes his glasses. With a wink of showmanship, as though an unseen crowd applauds my arrival, he invites me to sit. His wife Barbara offers me a pear wrapped in gold foil and a knife, then puts on eggs to boil.
The marine layer outside hangs over a gray sea rolling with south swell. The wind is onshore. Next to the glass panes, we sit at the interface of the elemental and produced worlds, an active ocean to one side, a fully furnished house to the other. The warmth of a floor lamp beats back the leaden seascape and we begin an easy exchange. We break off mid sentence to look at big sets, wipeouts, and seagulls flying by, just outside the window. The beach settles in as the third conversant in our chat.
“Our idea here,” says MacGillivray, “and it was really Barbara and I working together, was to make the house sort of organic and make it feel like there’s no real hard edges. It’s soft and kind of sensual without going all the way to Gaudí, or Gehry, but very smooth, and like nature.”
The bannister on the main staircase, created by Laguna sculptor Jon Seeman, is twisted and dripping like a tropical vine done in koa. Custom cabinets and exposed beams of white pine run the length of the main floor to the green marble kitchen counters. The family photos, mostly taken on movie shoots, are posed below Himalayan peaks, against a bush plane on an Alaskan tidal at, aboard a ski in Bali.
While warm and lived in, the interior is unmistakably posh. Owning a waterfront house here puts you in another sphere than the renters, who are working to be in Laguna. If you’re in MacGillivray’s orbit, Laguna is working for you. Even at the low point of the recent financial crash, the median Laguna Beach home brought north of a million. Houses like this go for several.
MacGillivray’s preternatural business intelligence surfaced early. By age 11 he and pal James “Walkie” Ray had a newspaper in which half of all local businesses advertised, and ninety percent of his community, Corona Highlands, subscribed to. MacGillivray made $300, the equivalent of $2,500 today. “At the expense of the neighborhood’s serenity and peace,” quips Barbara, “because all they did was stir up conflict.”
MacGillivray’s ancestors encouraged risk-taking. His maternal grandparents were Midwesterners who moved west, owned the only gas station in Victorville, then lost it in the Great Depression. MacGillivray’s father, Alex, was commissioned as a Lieutenant JG in the Navy, serving across the Pacific during WWII, and a schoolteacher, lifeguard, and self-taught homebuilder. His parents admonished him: “You’re not going to starve in California. So what’s the big gamble?”
A Project Person
MacGillivray pursued film and real estate in parallel. “John Severson bought a house down at Cotton’s Point and I went, ‘You know what? That’s super smart, because as you get older, surfing is going to become more troublesome. You don’t have enough free time, and you’ll never get to the beach if you don’t live right there.’ I’m a project person. I’m a lot like Hobie was, or Severson, where you end up getting a project and focusing on it in a laser-like fashion.”
By 19, MacGillivray had saved $17,000 for a down payment on a lot at Poche. This is indicative of his approach to life, not just work. He plans his fun, and he has fun planning. He even found a way to build fun into his father’s last days. When Alex MacGillivray was diagnosed with a terminal brain tumor, and given six-months to live in 2000, MacGillivray convened a family discussion of the estate: “We can spend the money doing family stuff, or we can wait until he dies and some of it will go to the government and some will go to us. What do you want to do?
We talked it out and said let’s take a family vacation to Tahiti that he can participate in. After that, let’s have a big party for him with 200 friends.”
MacGillivray threw a tribute/roast for his father. He rented the ball room at the Surf and Sand Resort, spread the word to his “most funny, engaging, entertaining friends,” lined up 20 acts, and cut a short film for the occasion.
MacGillivray Freeman Films (MFF) released its iconic 5 Summer Stories just prior to the implosion of the Nixon administration. At the time, the moneyed elite flocking to California considered Laguna Beach a coastal backwater, 60 miles south of the main attraction of Los Angeles. MacGillivray discovered a five unit building for sale on the beach just north of Thalia Street, where he and Barbara lived in a small apartment. In the pre-Lehman Brothers meltdown world, MacGillivray got favorable enough terms to live in one unit, do weekly rentals in the other four, and pull it off.
As the population of California went from 16 million in 1960 to 38 million today, MacGillivray’s equity positions (his current house, the Water’s Edge, John Wayne’s former house, and North Laguna’s Tides Hotel, among others) have soared. “You’d have to be an idiot to invest in real estate in California forty years ago and not make money,” he says.
With that windfall came gentrification, a boon to balance sheets, but a gradual thinning of the culture in this formerly eccentric seaside burg. “The beach right here is less crowded today than it was 40 years ago,” he says. “It used to be that all the people that lived near us were surfers and artists and they’d come to the beach everyday. Now they’re retired people, or hedge funders, or lawyers.”
Mastering His Craft
Surprised by the success of his first lm, A Cool Wave of Color, MacGillivray bailed college and committed to filmmaking. Along with Jim Freeman, another bright young filmmaker, he began experimenting in filming from the water and air, angles taken for granted today, but innovative at the time. MacGillivray captured surfing POV shots, now ubiquitous, with a 20-pound Kodak K-100 screwed to the deck of a surfboard.
His relationship with technology has always been complex—there’s no computer in his office and someone prints his emails and puts them in a box he checks a few times a day. An MFF company memo once detailed the decline in employee productivity with the advent of email. Though he employs RED cameras for certain applications, he still shoots mostly on film. Nevertheless, he’s no Luddite. MacGillivray built his career largely by innovating filmmaking technology, from early water housings, to a lightweight IMAX camera for Everest summit shots, and he’s keenly watching the impending switch to digital IMAX.
As they grew, MFF made a string of innovative surf movies including The Performers, Free and Easy, and Five Summer Stories. While MacGillivray was one of the first people to lm from the water at Pipeline, he says Bud Browne took the art to a new level. “Bud built a water housing out of surgical tubing and rubber,” he says. “He’d tie it to his body with a surgical tube, and when he had to swim under a really big wave, he could just let it dangle and use both hands. Or he’d put it between his legs and just swim with his arms so he could go out at big Pipeline.”
Later, MFF began to land Hollywood gigs, including shooting the aerial images for The Towering Inferno, which took home the Oscar for best cinematography in 1974. MFF also shot the surf scenes for Big Wednesday and the opening sequence for Stanley Kubrick’s cult classic The Shining.
When IMAX arrived it was a novelty, on the fringe of commercial viability. But then MFF was commissioned to make an IMAX documentary for the 1976 opening of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and the potential of the medium became clear. The film, To Fly!, chronicled the history of manned flight. Accompanied by stunning imagery, it became one of the highest grossing documentaries of all time and is still shown daily at the Smithsonian.
Ironically, and tragically, just before the lm premiered in Washington D.C., MacGillivray’s partner and co-director, Jim Freeman, was killed in a helicopter accident while scouting locations in the Sierra Nevada. Greg and Barbara were left to deal with not only the fallout but also the red carpet, all while reeling from the loss of their friend.
“Jim was so good at talking to people,” says MacGillivray. “He handled all that. When he died I had to learn. I had to actually study how people engage with each other, and read books about how to get along with people— how to talk. I learned it over time.”
Even after more than three decades, in the fondness and immediacy with which MacGillivray recalls Freeman, it’s clear Freeman’s death left a hole in MacGillivray that is healed but not gone. “Had Jim lived,” he says, “it would have been more fun because we would have been able to share responsibilities and decisions. You make one or two bad decisions and you’re out of business. You do a lame film and you’re toast.”
MFF could have gone the Hollywood route, but MacGillivray gambled. He reasoned that if he could create a niche in making remote, adventure-oriented IMAX films, shot on location and distributed mainly through museums, he could avoid the L.A. movie machine and remain comfortably ensconced in Laguna’s idyllic coves.
In retrospect, the payoff has been obvious: MacGillivray helped pioneer IMAX filmmaking and became the world’s highest grossing documentarian, generating more than $1 billion in box office returns. But some of his ascendance came from being in the right place at the right time—from Laguna real estate, to the rise of surfing’s popularity, to being positioned in the nascent IMAX industry, to shooting the documentary Everest (1998) during a historic climbing disaster that was tragic but filmmaking gold.
MacGillivray’s ability to recognize and capitalize on opportunities is not luck, however, and in this department he’s been impeccable. While many filmmakers feel economic pressures are an encroachment, MacGillivray excels at the interface of art and commercialism. He works diligently to attract sponsors and maintain funding, essentials when you’re shooting 15/70mm film at $1,000 per minute. “The joy is not knowing whether you’re going to succeed,” he says. “If you know, it’s not any fun.”
Entrepreneurialism is not all upside however. The recession hit the media business hard and the industry is rapidly changing. IMAX is also now shifting from lm to digital, which is expensive, and after five decades at work, MacGillivray is transitioning some responsibility to his son, Shaun, while searching for creative talent.
“Our company is at a low income level compared to ten years ago,” he says. “But I invested the money I made in the past very well. We’re using those funds to keep the company moving and support the foundations. And the glass is 90 percent full. It used to be 98 percent full, but it’s still at 90. So you worry about it more, and maybe you curtail your dreams a little bit, and that’s the struggle of a recession. People are curtailing their dreams, which is sad.”
Workbench by the Sea
Though he keeps an office at a historical building romantically named “Villa Bella,” the locus of MacGillivray’s most-inspired work is the table by the window in his house. “This is where I come to read and do research and write and do deeper thinking, strategic thinking,” he says. “If you have a natural distraction, you can get into something for half an hour, and then a set comes in and you can watch the set for a minute or two. It doesn’t feel like work.”
MacGillivray says it’s 40 percent more fun working here than the office. “This place was the key to my life really, in so many ways. Barbara and I raised our family here and, because of where we’re located, it became the hangout spot for our kids and their friends. I’d come home from work and there’d be ten kids here everyday. And it was awesome. The vibe was just fantastic. Now it feels so empty.”
His house is not unlike a camera: there is an appreciable aesthetic to the object itself, but the greater value is in providing a frame for the transient, intangible things that pass through its chambers. Figuring largely in this is the unending parade on the sand outside his window.
“I’m closer here to the people walking and running, and flying Frisbees and seeing the kids on their boogie boards,” he says. “You get energy from that. You get joy. Our films make positive reflections of the joys and wonders of nature. You have to present the problems that go along with nature to make the movie interesting, but the main thing that people bring home from one of our films, even my first one, is that there is a lot of beauty in the world. It’s very important to reflect on how wonderful nature is and how wonderful life is.”
Many of his more than 30 IMAX films are paeans to different biomes, and attendant issues: climate change, water scarcity, ocean acidification, cultural discrimination. MacGillivray considers himself a conservationist, and an influencer of popular perception. And his films achieve this to a degree because they are outliers in a culture presently consumed by sunsets tritely trotted out on Instagram.
His films, masterfully shot and projected on 80-foot wrap- around screens, not only stun viewers, they move people with his sense of how things ought to be—a pristine, cohesive view of nature, and those working to save it.
“We’re trying to show people things that are exquisite, things we don’t want to disappear. What a tragedy if we were to lose the gigantic, shimmering schools of anchovies. We have lost so much of the wonder of nature in the past 300 years. There used to be hundreds of millions of pigeons across our country that would create this dance in the sky. You’d see a million birds changing directions and then they’d be gone, just like a storm cloud moving in time lapse. Mark Twain wrote about it. I’ve been here 68 years and I never got to see that. I think it’s really selfish for us to say the future generation should not have as much majesty on of this planet as we have.”
MacGillivray’s work sounds a legitimate alarm in this respect, reminding us that nature is being pillaged. And in surveys, audiences overwhelmingly respond that his films have made them more aware of this message and/or changed their opinions. But many of the issues MacGillivray’s films address are worsening. Species extinction is far higher than historical averages, and accelerating. World leaders are indifferent to climate change. Water scarcity is looming. And wetlands are earth’s most degraded ecosystem according to a U.N. study.
So how does MacGillivray square this on a personal level? “We eat local,” he says. “We eat only sustainable sh. In fact we went to a wedding the other night and they served Chilean sea bass. And we went, ‘Oh fuck.’ Well we haven’t had Chilean sea bass in about eight years—and yeah, we ate it. But it kind of points out the question: How do you get people to change doing things they really love? Even after you’ve communicated with them that they’re catching the very last fish, they’re driving that fish into extinction?”
He admits changing public perception is frustrating work with few victories, and he’s not getting any younger. But still, he says, he can’t imagine refocusing his life on something different. “I’m going to work until I drop,” he says. “I would still be doing this even if I was retired.”