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Greg MacGillivray, Master documentary director

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Director Greg MacGillivray documents the breathtaking beauty of the great outdoors, including Yosemite's Half Dome, when he's not at home in Laguna Beach.

Greg MacGillivray was the type of youngster who took on projects. He built a go-kart. He set up a home darkroom. When he was 13, his parents gave him a Kodak 8 mm camera, and he began shooting short films and showing them to his friends in Corona del Mar.

“I loved doing that,” MacGillivray, 70, remembers. “I loved the combination of art and storytelling."

For more than half a century, MacGillivray has focused his facile scientific mind and artistic eye on making movies – most of them nature documentaries such as “Everest,” “Tropical Rainforest” and “Journey to the South Pacific,” filmed in virtually every environment on land and under sea throughout the world. MacGillivray’s latest project, due for release this month, is “National Parks Adventure,” a visual exploration of Yellowstone, the Everglades, the Yosemite Valley and wind-carved stone archways and redwood forests of the American West, narrated by Robert Redford.

The film, to be shown in IMAX theaters, commemorates the centennial of the National Park Service. It is one of more than 50 documentaries created by MacGillivray Freeman Films, a Laguna Beach company founded by MacGillivray and his late collaborator, Jim Freeman.
MacGillivray found success early. He completed his first movie, a surf film called “A Cool Wave of Color,” while he was a freshman at UC Santa Barbara and leased out high school and civic auditoriums to show it to crowds of up to 1,000 a night. He narrated from the stage and sometimes re-edited the film between screenings.

These days the company is a family enterprise. His son Shawn is president, overseeing daily operations, and his daughter Meghan Weil is the production manager. MacGillivray’s wife, Barbara, is director of research. They also have a nonprofit foundation, One World One Ocean, dedicated to protecting the sea.

My neighborhood: Laguna Beach. I’ve lived here 53 years.

Why I live there: I like the trees, the coves, the surf, and the people. The trees make the environment – green trees against the blue sky. It creates a frame that’s just beautiful. You end up feeling a part of nature. And very few locations in California have a rocky coastline. The rocky coastline makes waves with better shape. You have a lot of advantages for diving and surfing when you have rocky coves.

Hobbies:  I’m either surfing or mountain bike riding or stand-up paddling. I also do a lot of reading on the beach. We have a place right at a surfing spot. If the surfing is bad, I can take reading material there. I put myself in nature as often as possible.

Three favorite books? “The Martian,” which was just made into a film with Matt Damon. It’s about an astronaut who gets left behind on Mars. I love comedy books too. “The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared“ had a lot of cleverness and wit. I like suspense – “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,” that series.

Only restaurant I can’t live without: Nirvana Grille on Broadway. It serves sustainable seafood – fish that are not endangered. No swordfish, no orange roughy, no Chilean sea bass. It’s just a terrific place, the best food in Orange County.

My perfect day: Going out to stand-up paddle at 7 o’clock in the morning, then coming to work, and working with our editors on a film, then going out with friends and engaging in thought-provoking conversations. A lot of times it will involve a hike or going to a restaurant like Nirvana.

Favorite getaways: We love the north shore of Kauai, and we love Tahiti. The island of Bora Bora is our favorite, mainly because of the beauty of that island – the health of the lagoons, the beautiful coral. And the people are so gentle and wonderful.  

My sanctuary: The ocean. If the surf is good, I’ll go surfing. If it’s not really good, I might go swimming. I always swim with a mask and snorkel, looking at the rocks and the fish.  Now that Laguna Beach has a 7-mile stretch of marine protected area – a no-take zone – it’s regenerating what it used to have – a lot of fish and kelp and abalone. It’s like a nursery for the rest of Orange County.

Favorite late-night haunt: Besides Nirvana, one I like is the restaurant Sapphire. It’s outdoor dining, with beautiful lamps created by John Barber. It’s got that kind of artistic Laguna style. They took a historical building – for decades it was a place where people would buy pottery – and turned it into something even better. You also get a little view of Brooks Street surfing.

iPhone or Android? iPhone.

Dodgers or Angels?  Angels.

Red wine or white?  Red.

Best celebrity encounter: Probably my favorite celebrity is Meryl Streep. She’s narrated three or four of our films and loves our films. She knew about our films — she’d seen them – and about 20 years ago she said, “I'd love to narrate.” When she did the narration, I met her, and we got along great. She’s an A-plus human being, just a fantastic person. I love working with her. She comes prepared. She is terrifically energetic and also super smart.

Pet peeves:  Restaurant menus that misspell the word “Caesar,” as in “Caesar salad.” Another is the trend now of having home deliveries made with 60-foot-long semi trailers, 18-wheelers. They want to fill up a big truck so one driver can handle every customer. In a small community like Laguna, it doesn't work so well. My next pet peeve is cigarette boats that have these 200,000-horsepower engines that pollute the serenity of the beach environment. When they’re close to shore, it’s like you’re living next to a drag strip.

Favorite place to dive? Palau, a series of probably 100 islands near Guam. It’s so far from any big population that the undersea life is vibrant. They have one lake called Jellyfish Lake. At least a million jellyfish live there. They’ve been isolated from other species and predators, and they’ve lost the ability to sting you. You can swim through these jellyfish and not worry about it. It’s very eerie. We shot a whole sequence of that for the film “The Living Sea,” and it’s just otherworldly. You feel like you’re on some other planet.

Scariest moment under water? That was in Indonesia while diving in 1985. I was shooting an IMAX film. I was at 120 feet, and the shot ended up taking three times as long as expected. I was at depth for too long, essentially playing it too close to the line. I was afraid when I was ascending. I was trying to take my time but I was also out of air. The tingling started as soon as I got back into the boat. I got a case of the bends, a minor case. It didn’t cripple me, but it was scary. There was a doctor on board the boat, and he took care of me and made sure I was all right.


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