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After the Storm: Revisiting The Script

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The Calm Before The Storm: Production Begins

In the beginning, Hurricane on the Bayou was supposed to be a rollicking adventure into the wild wetlands of Louisiana – and a resounding warning that if the wetlands continued to vanish, New Orleans could be destroyed by one of the hurricanes that comes near to the city once every 3 to 4 years.  Greg MacGillivray had long watched the deteriorating state of the wetlands with concern. He knew that land areas the size of Manhattan were eroding into the sea each and every year – and that the loss was accelerating, threatening wildlife, human communities and ultimately, one of the most economically and culturally vital areas of the United States.  

“The Louisiana wetlands are a natural treasure of America,” says MacGillivray.  “It’s a fantastic wilderness area and a valuable place for commerce, and these same wetlands have long acted as a vital speed bump during hurricane season.  Without the wetlands to protect it, New Orleans – which I think is probably the single most unique city in America – is all too vulnerable.  We really wanted to let audiences know about this wonderful place and dangerous situation.” 

It was this same concern that originally motivated Louisiana’s Audubon Nature Institute, the film’s executive producer, and the State of Louisiana to help fund a large-format film about the wonders of the wetlands and the potential disaster facing them.  “At that time, we felt the disappearance of the wetlands was one of the most urgent crises facing Louisiana,” comments Karyn Noles Bewley, Senior Vice President and Managing Director of the Audubon Aquarium of the Americas at Audubon Nature Institute. “And we knew that a film would have the potential to reach not only our visitors but people of all ages across the world in a powerful and compelling way. So we set out on a quest to find the right partner and it was Greg MacGillivray’s incredible passion for and commitment to the environment, as well as his company’s track record, that led us to realize they would be the perfect collaborators.” 

MacGillivray brought in screenwriter and acclaimed Louisiana filmmaker Glen Pitre – who has been dubbed “the father of the Cajun film”– to forge the script. Pitre had himself been grief-stricken by watching the very same magical prairies he played on as a child recede into the sea, and was worried for the future.  “We’re used to thinking big changes in the earth take eons,” says Pitre.  “Well, in Louisiana it isn’t taking eons, it’s happening right in front of our eyes.  The maps from just a short time ago are pockmarked with holes that represent wonderful places of which only memories remain.” 

Long before Katrina hit, Pitre knew there was a lot of drama to be found in the bayou and its struggle for survival.  “The Delta area we talk about in the film is where the Mississippi meets the sea and it’s where so many strands of American life come together,” he explains.  “Here, you get many of the greatest strengths of America and some of the weaknesses all in one place.  In this fantastic, fragile landscape, everything seems to get kicked up a notch.”  

That’s just what happened in the summer of 2005.  Early that season, the MacGillivray Freeman crew headed into the cypress-lined tributaries of bayou country to begin shooting a film that was then tentatively titled Hurricane Warning.  The filmmakers were astonished by what they found. 

“The swamplands were such a surprise to us,” explains the film’s director of photography, Brad Ohlund.  “We all started out with this stereotypical image of swamps as dark, slimy, primordial, forbidding places you see in horror movies, but then you get there and you’re blown away by the astounding beauty and peacefulness of them.  We were shooting just an hour south of New Orleans but it felt like another world – and a pretty fantastic world at that.  We’ve been to a lot of amazing places, but I honestly don’t think we’ve ever met so many delightful, fascinating people anywhere else we’ve made a movie.”

He continues:  “The spirit of camaraderie there was really astounding, and I think it’s part of what the film is about – how this land helped forge such a wonderful, warm and engaging culture.  Hopefully, we captured some of what makes it so special.  If only we could also let the audience taste the food with that same IMAX theatre realism!” 

To take audiences on their own visceral tour of the wetlands, the filmmakers used the favorite local means of transport – water-skimming airboats that can fly through the narrow canals – as well as helicopters to capture the shifting contours of the wetlands with all the grand perspective of aerial views.  They also shot close-up footage of some of Louisiana’s most colorful, not to mention dangerous, characters: Louisiana’s state reptile, the alligator. 

“Alligators are a big part of the bayou’s ecosystem so one of the things we wanted to do in this film is to make these usually rather unsympathetic creatures come alive in a way that is much more sympathetic,” notes Ohlund.  “By shooting an alligator family you get a sense of how they care for one another like any other family and how they’re such a natural and beautiful part of the swamplands.” 

Wildlife experts estimate that there are more than one million alligators in the swamps of Louisiana, but finding them isn’t so easy, as they frequently hide in the thick mud banks to avoid the heat.  Underwater photography expert Bob Cranston, who previously worked with MacGillivray Freeman Films on The Living Sea and Coral Reef Adventure, helped to capture some of the up-close-and-personal shots of an alligator momma with her newborn babies. 

Those shots later helped to frame one of Greg MacGillivray’s favorite sequences in the film.  “One of my favorite moments comes when you see Tab Benoit and Amanda Shaw writing a song about the alligators – I love that quiet, intimate process of these two artists creating something new and the respect you can see that they have for each other and the bayou,” he remarks. “Then that leads into the alligators hatching out of their eggs and encountering mom and their surrounding world for the first time.  It’s such a playful, emotional and educational image that really takes you into the life of the bayou.  After Katrina, the alligator family also becomes a very important symbol of hope in the film. I’ve always felt that the more people understand the natural world, the more they will feel compelled to protect it – so the alligator family helps to bring that emotional connection with the land.” 

Moving on from the bayous, the filmmakers next began an unusual, and as it turned out unusually prophetic, task:  simulating a Category 5 hurricane and the resultant flooding in New Orleans.  Using wind machines, rain generators, water pumps and a variety of Hollywood-style smoke-and-mirror techniques, the filmmakers tried to give some semblance of what New Orleans would be like if the “big flood” hit.  They even shot fake rescue scenes on New Orleans rooftops.

But soon, these scenes would be permanently left on the cutting room floor, because out in the ocean the storm was brewing that would change the fate of Louisiana and the lives of millions of Americans forever.

Eye of the Storm: Shooting the Aftermath of Katrina

In late August of 2005, when the National Weather Service began to warn that a monster storm forming in the Bahamas could hit the Gulf Coast and even New Orleans, it seemed surreal to the filmmakers.  After all, that was the same scenario they had just been filming from their script. Yet as the warnings turned to demands for evacuation and the skies opened up with rain, it soon became clear that what the film had hoped would just be cautionary fiction was turning into raw reality. 

It was August 29th when Katrina made landfall in the U.S., hitting Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama with brutal force.  But it was New Orleans, as so many had feared, that would suffer the worst blow. When the levees that separate Lake Ponchartrain from the city’s neighborhoods on the north and Lake Borgne on the east were breeched, and surge water over-topped levees along the Industrial Canal, the majority of the city was inundated with high water from which there was no easy escape.   Homes and dreams were instantly shattered. Families were divided. Across Louisiana an estimated 1, 577 people died, while many thousands more required rescue and the city’s fate literally hung in the balance as the populace evacuated en masse

As Hurricane Katrina became a global news story, Greg MacGillivray felt a responsibility to get his crew back into the city to capture this devastating turn in the story. “This was big decision-making time,” recalls MacGillivray.  “Did I send more crew to New Orleans during all the uncertainty or not?  It wasn’t easy, but within a short time, we were able to get water, fuel, boats and helicopters there, and we realized we had a chance to get IMAX theatre footage nobody else was getting and tell stories nobody else was telling.” 

Overseen by Production Coordinator Kathy Almon, a rag-tag, last-minute operation swung into high gear.  “It took a lot of chutzpah to gain access to what was really a disaster zone,” says Brad Ohlund.  Adds Pitre, who also served as line producer and co-director: “At the last minute, we were literally knocking on doors to put together a crew from whoever was left in the area.” 

Meanwhile, a truck filled with IMAX theatre camera equipment was quickly dispatched from Los Angeles in the hopes of making it into the cut-off city. At the Baton Rouge airport, Spacecam inventor and operator Ron Goodman arrived ready to use his gyroscopic camera system to shoot unprecedented aerials of the water- and fire-ravaged city. Desperate for a nearby helicopter on which to mount the IMAX theatre camera, the production was finally able to borrow one from the Miami Vice set in Florida.  That helicopter provided the additional advantage of being emblazoned with authentic-looking police logos, allowing the filmmakers unprecedented access into off-limit areas.

Meanwhile, the newly arrived crew had nowhere to go. Many hotels were closed and others were filled beyond capacity with refugees.  With no electricity to be had anywhere in the city, much of the production camped, in the dark, at Glen Pitre’s house. Pitre’s parents, who escaped rising waters in their own home, were recruited as chefs, while the production assistants were sent out on daily reconnaissance missions to try to round up groceries and the most crucial supplies. 

 Despite all the adrenaline, the mood soon shifted to somber as the crew began moving through the city, painfully witnessing both death and destruction on a scale they never imagined seeing in America. “It was as if we had suddenly become war journalists,” says Pitre.  “There were times when we could barely shoot because there were tears streaming down our faces.” 
On several occasions, the filmmakers turned into rescuers, jumping in to assist wherever they could.  They offered food, beverages and radios to those in need – and even freed trapped dogs.  They also operated as messengers, delivering reports about the status of homes and neighbors. 

Says Karyn Noles-Bewley of Audubon Nature Institute:  “I really credit the filmmaking team for being extremely creative and very aggressive in getting into the city and making things happen.  There was a great responsibility here to do this with real humanity and also to represent people’s stories in a meaningful and hopeful way – and they lived up to that.” 

There were plenty of logistical challenges as the crew had to engage in a constant search for very scarce fuel – and compete with teeming armies of news helicopters for space in the sky.  In those wildly unpredictable days right after Katrina, danger was everywhere, with bullets flying and rumors raging throughout the city. “Every shot we got was a scramble,” recalls cinematographer Jack Tankard.  “We were fighting helicopter traffic, dodging fires, worrying about where our next can of fuel would come from.  There were no clear procedures or rules anymore, and we had to try to make the best of the chaos.” 

Yet there was also an unwavering sense among the team that they were capturing a period in time that no one in America would ever, or should ever, forget.  After 9 days of shooting in and over the inundated 9th Ward and Lakeview areas, a ghostly French Quarter and across a brand new landscape of makeshift shelters and rescue operations, the crew brought back images they could scarcely believe.

“It’s hard to even put into words the incredible emotional impact of seeing this footage,” MacGillivray comments. “What happened in New Orleans is something you can’t explain rationally – so you have to see if for yourself. I hope we were able to recreate some of that experience in an honest and respectful way – and at the same time put a very positive emphasis on how people rose to the challenge and helped one another as fellow human beings.” 

After the Storm: Revisiting The Script

Once Katrina hit, Greg MacGillivray knew that everything had changed.  The entire nation was still reeling in shock from all the confusing, frightening news, while New Orleans faced a long, hard road of recovery ahead if it was to ever rise again as a great American city.  Yet, the film seemed more important than ever.  If New Orleans was to have a credible future it would depend on a lot of things – but one of the keys would have to be replenishing the depleted wetlands that could save it from storms to come.  And there was now an even more vital story to tell about how New Orleans, the wetlands and the Mississippi Delta are so essential to American life and so in need of the nation rallying around them in this time of dire need. 

“Katrina literally re-wrote our script,” MacGillivray comments.  “Now we felt compelled to create something that would bring out not only the importance of the wetlands but the emotions, tenacity and amazing survival stories we had just witnessed.  Our original story about the wetlands also had a new poignancy, because you realize that what seemed like just a far-off warning was completely right.” 

The director continues: “I’m used to continually rewriting my scripts – always trying to make them more emotional, more human, more compelling but in this case everything had changed and we had to find ways to communicate this much bigger, more urgent story to our audience.” 

The narrative began to follow a new arc:  starting in the endangered but magical wetlands; then moving with great peals of thunder into the fury of Katrina; then easing into a heart-rending collage of larger-format images from the aftermath; and then continuing as the city’s citizens, and its many musical icons, begin to return with courage and hope to make a new start. 

Continues MacGillivray:  “We looked for the right way to blend together these three very different stories, and the link naturally became music because musicians have always been the heroes of Louisiana. So the story now followed several musicians who suffered at the hand of Katrina, revealing what they learned along the way.” 

As the script went through several more rounds of changes post-Katrina, MacGillivray also wanted to make sure it would offer something different, and more intimate, than the overwhelming news and media coverage of the hurricane.  “I’m sure there are going to be a number of very hard-hitting, in-depth documentaries that will come out and deal with the political controversies and the organizational problems, but I wanted to stay away from all that because we have a different story to tell,” he comments.  “Our story is about the wetlands and the bayou and the personal experiences of musicians.  We take advantage of all that IMAX theatre format photography can bring to telling this important part of the tale.” 

The musicians at the heart of the newly conceived HURRICANE ON THE BAYOU each represented a different way of looking at Katrina, the wetlands and New Orleans.  “As an energetic teenager, Amanda Shaw serves as the eyes of the audience, someone who’s enthusiastically learning along with them about the beauty and importance of the wetlands,” explains editor Jim Foster.  “Tab Benoit is kind of the local guru – he knows the bayou and all its issues so well and he’s got a lot to teach about it. And Allen Toussaint represents the city.  He’s an authentic living legend – the real deal – and he brings a real gravitas to the film.”

Tab, Amanda and Allen each share their own stories of surviving Katrina. Tab reveals how his beloved songwriting cabin was blown to pieces by high winds. Allen Toussaint shares how, in his undying devotion to the city, he stayed in his flooded house through the storm, then was forced to evacuate for lack of food and water.  In some of the film’s most tense moments, Amanda Shaw speaks openly about the fears she had for the beloved grandparents she could not reach.     

Says MacGillivray:  “Watching these characters, ranging from a teenager experiencing the biggest disaster she’s ever seen to a legendary musician who is an undeniable part of New Orleans, as they each go through such a life-altering event, brought even more human emotion to the story.”

Although musicians can have the reputation of being incorrigible rebels, the filmmakers found that they had the opposite experience in New Orleans, where musicians were uniting around a city in crisis.  “Everyone there had so much civility and respect for one another,” says Ohlund.  “It’s even in the way people talk.  People called me Mr. Brad and I called them Miss Amanda or Mr. Chubby – it was a really cool environment to work in.” 

Imbuing the film with this kind of truly local perspective was very important to Karyn Noles-Bewley of Audubon Nature Institute.  She notes:  “I think the film really gets across that those of us from Louisiana have an emotional connection to this place.  It’s something that is almost impossible to express in words, but images and music can do it so powerfully.” 

Adding further resonance to the project, the filmmakers were thrilled to have one of the nation’s most lauded leading screen actresses, Meryl Streep, join the film as the narrator.  Says MacGillivray:  “Her ability to connect with audiences and bring so much depth to everything she does made her the perfect narrator for a film that goes through so many moods and is intended to not only educate and entertain, but inspire.”

Capturing Katrina

The filmmakers of Hurricane on the Bayou now had extensive footage from before and after Katrina to utilize in the complex editing of the film – but they still needed a way to capture some of the most intense moments in the middle of the storm when no cameras were shooting.  For these dramatic sequences, they turned to Santa Monica-based special effects house Sassoon Film Design, who have extensive experience in the tricky art of designing digital effects specifically for large-format films. 

Sassoon was recruited to provide a number of powerful images, including simulating the approach of the Hurricane Katrina into New Orleans; the near-instant destruction of the water tower in Buras, Louisiana by 200 MPH winds; water cresting the New Orleans levees during the storm; and the roof blowing off of the famous Superdome sports stadium. 

Before they could even begin, the digital wizards at Sassoon had to become amateur experts in hurricane science themselves.  “We researched the effect of fluid airstreams on millions of rain drops, the physical dynamics of how structures are torn by wind, and also how light bounces around during night-time storms,” explains Digital Supervisor Johnathan Banta.  “Basically our task was to recapture certain moments in time during Katrina’s havoc, and to bring to bear some of the emotional turmoil that happened with it in the designs.  We did this by carefully controlling light, shadow and detailed visual elements.” 

Says director of photography Brad Ohlund of Sassoon Film Design’s work:  “I think audiences will be really impressed by how these effects demonstrate the sheer power of hurricanes.  They add another layer to the film’s theme of how the people, the culture and the environment are all so intimately connected.”

One of the biggest challenges for Sassoon was making the most everyday sights seem realistic under hurricane conditions.  “The rain and the cloud formations were the most difficult to simulate,” Banta explains.  “We are all very attuned to how those natural elements are supposed to appear in real life, but when you get to a hurricane a lot of the simple techniques of recreating them go out the window.” 

Another intriguing mission for Sassoon Film Design was digitally lighting the Superdome in the dawn hours. “We were originally provided daylight shots, so we spent a lot of time un-lighting them!” says Banta.  “This gave us a lot more leeway in terms of actually sculpting the light in a digitally modeled environment to give the effect Greg was looking for.  With the Superdome, we were able to bring a beam of light momentarily into the foreground.  It’s one of the film’s emotional moments, as that ray of light comes in like a metaphorical glimmer of hope in the wake of the storm.”