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Notre-Dame: Rebuilding a Legend

Tuesday, September 3, 2019

How a Nova Scotia film crew documented the historic Notre-Dame reconstruction for international audiences.

On April 15, 2019, the world held its collective breath as a fire blazed through the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, France. A legendary landmark filled with invaluable treasures, the burning of Notre-Dame was deemed an apocalyptic disaster.  

The global community immediately clamored for the reconstruction of the iconic symbol, with an outpouring of financial support and public acclaim. While the restoration has begun and is expected to take 20 years, one film crew was given access to witness the process. 

That film crew is from Nova Scotia, and this is the incredible story of how a fortunate series of events and years of experience delivering content for global audiences, enabled them to be first on scene for a truly historic and globally anticipated endeavor.  Arcadia Entertainment, is based in Halifax has produced and delivered over 500 hours of programming for global audiences since 2001. Working with Discovery US, Arcadia turned the documentary around quickly for a premier September 14th .  So how did it happen? 

(Spoiler alert: East Coast friendliness and a love of Nova Scotia plays a large role.) 

The story starts with a three-person crew from Arcadia Content embarking to Paris to film Notre Dame: Rebuilding a Legend for Discovery US. While the journey began on the fringes of the reconstruction, it quickly escalated to center stage. 

The director of the project. Andrew Killawee, explains. “We had a bunch of interviews set up with academics and experts and people peripherally involved in the disaster and the reconstruction efforts. But it wasn't until we got there, and we started making contacts on the ground where we got sort of closer and closer to the action.” 

“Sometimes you don't know exactly how it's going to play out until you get there, and sometimes it's a little bit of luck.” 

While filming at a stone quarry north of Paris, they got one giant step closer to the action. As luck would have it, the folks at the quarry had just been at Notre-Dame the week before. 

“They connected us with the chief of the construction site, who has a cottage in the Gatineaus in Québec and has this weird fondness for Canadians,” says Killawee. “We talked to him and told him we were from Nova Scotia. It turned out he loved Nova Scotia and said, ‘Come on in and I'll show you the site.’"  

“There was a lot of bureaucracy to get through, a lot of people to talk to, and we really got lucky at the end of the day where we just happened to talk to a guy who was outside that chain of command but was actually in charge of what was going on. What he took us in to see was really something I'd never seen before. It was like after an airplane crash where they put all the pieces of the airplane back together in a hangar.” 

Doug Graham interviewing Didier Durant, head of Notre-Dame construction site. Photo courtesy of Andrew Killawee.

“There were shelves and different categories for materials that were recovered and what part of the cathedral they were recovered from, and there were other areas where they had removed statues so they wouldn't get damaged during the reconstruction.” 

Doug Graham filming charred remains of Notre-Dame. Photo courtesy of Andrew Killawee. 

“And basically, they were investigating all these pieces to see if they could be reused, to see what caused the fire, and to see what they would need to replace.” 

The biggest breakthrough though was figuring out who was in charge, who to talk to, and making it happen. 

“At Arcadia, we have people who've been doing this work for a decade or more, and they know how to search for the interestingness audiences crave and explore the stories of our world far beyond the news headlinesWe often work in sensitive situations. There’s an etiquette to it. We use a naturally Nova Scotian style. We talk to people, we cooperate, we help where we can, and tell stories in a meaningful way. Our Nova Scotian crew here at Arcadia is top-notch at that kind of thing.” 

When asked about the Nova Scotia-based crew, Killawee explains, “It was me as director, Doug Graham as our director of photography/camera operator, and Jack Chisholm as our drone operator. He was crucial because we were also visiting other cathedrals while we were there.”  

The airspace over Paris is one of the most tightly controlled in the world, presenting incredible potential challenges faced with aerial filming.  

We really had to dig deep with the municipal governments, the police, the fire services, and arrange sort of a weird drone-filming situation where we rented a party boat and we did it from the Seine. 

Drone filming over Eiffel tower from Seine at 4:30 am. Photo courtesy of Andrew Killawee. 

Killawee sums up the essence of finding the fortunate in an unfortunate situation. 

“It was kind of odd, but that's another aspect of this kind of ‘live in the moment’ documentary stuff. Sometimes things don't go exactly as planned, and you have to be ready to pivot and adapt in the moment. But we got it, and it worked out really well.” 

Notre Dame: Rebuilding a Legend, is supported through the Nova Scotia Film and Television Production Incentive Fund. Learn more about the Nova Scotia Film & Television Production Incentive Fund.