Capturing concert at Masada not quite a suicide mission


In the world of global TV production, multimillion-dollar, multicultural, multinational productions are usually the preserve of the mega media companies. But that didn't seem to factor into the agenda of four-time Emmy Award-winning pubcast producer Nicolette Ferri when she mounted a film expedition into the desert wilderness of Israel that "Lawrence of Arabia" director David Lean would have been proud of.

Ferri, who specializes in music programs for her PBS station employer WTTW in Chicago, headed up a unique $2.3 million production for the broadcaster that would become a nightmare of logistics and sheer intestinal fortitude in desert heat upwards of 130 degrees and 70 mph winds -- all to shoot a concert.

The shoot happened in the summer, when WTTW, with production partner the Angel Group of London and its managing director, Julia Davey, filmed famed Israeli singer-songwriter David Broza in concert at the ancient historical site of Masada. "It was a magical place to film," recalls Ferri, who pulled together a big international production team for "David Broza at Masada: The Sunrise Concert."

The story of how the film -- airing this week and next on PBS stations around the country -- came into being could serve as a tutorial for any producer looking to mount a big-budget international TV project.

"On a scale of one to 10 in terms of the worst possible conditions to film in (10 being the worst), this was a 10," she says. "Masada is smack in the middle of the desert, two-and-a-half hours from Tel Aviv and an hour from the Dead Sea. Israel had no high-def equipment, and so we had to ship tons of equipment to Israel (out of the U.K.). We shipped 10 tons of lighting and 12 tons of high-tech gear. We had to ship in air conditioning."

Ferri says they were warned about the heat. "I'd been to Arizona in 120-degree heat. But none of us had shot in such extreme conditions as this before. And what we didn't count on were the winds and the dust and what it was going to do to the equipment.

"We brought crew in from the U.S. from WTTW, and from the U.K. (including the special's director, Julia Knowles) and we had crew from Israel. None of us could have guessed the extreme conditions we were about to walk into," she says.

Dust storms filled the production tents and covered delicate sound and film equipment. Crew members dropped from heatstroke, and scorpions and snakes were a constant threat. But Ferri carried it off and brought in a remarkable event special for PBS.

The genesis of the production came eight years ago when Ferri first met Broza while working on a Hanukkah music special for her Chicago station. He spoke about his regular "sunrise" concerts at Masada, and the idea of filming a performance at the ancient Roman site emerged. "My thought was to tape him here and roll in some footage of Masada, but he said, 'You have to experience Masada to know what I am talking about. Just come and see the place and we'll take it from there. '"

Ferri connected with Matthew Bronfman, who seeded the early preproduction costs. "We flew out to Masada where David was having his sunrise concert, and it was a visceral experience. I could not believe what I was experiencing," she says. From that moment, Ferri was determined to make her film at the site where 2,000 years ago Judaic rebel fighters committed mass suicide rather than face defeat by the Romans.

It took years of wheeling and dealing and seeking partners and underwriters, but this week and next sees the results on PBS stations nationwide.