Interview with Alastair Fothergill

Alastair Fothergill is one of the co-directors of Disneynature’s latest film “African Cats”. Alastair also worked with Disneynature on their first film “Earth”. “Earth” was actually shot simultaneously with BBC’s “Planet Earth”, in which Alastair executive produced.  Movie Mikes had a chance to chat with Alastair about working on “African Cats” and what it was like shooting in the Maasai Mara Nature Reserve.

Mike Gencarelli: How much planning went into “African Cats” before shooting started?
Alastair Fothergill: A lot of planning. We chose to film in the Maasai Mara Nature Reserve because we know it very well and have worked there for over then years. We know the lions and cheetahs very well and as individuals actually. One of the key decisions was to find out who our stars were going to be. We really wanted to make a really emotionally gauging story. We didn’t want to make a documentary. Choosing the stars was very important and also a difficult decision. It was relatively easy with the cheetah because we found a cheetah we knew who was a good mother and just had five tiny cubs. We knew all of those cubs would not survive, so that was an immediately easy decision. Choosing the right lion was probably harder. There are twenty or thirty prides in the Maasai Mara. We finally choose the pride we ended with because we knew Fang was on the way out, he was a single old guy who didn’t have any supporters. We reckoned that within the two or three years we had for filming something dramatic was going to happen. In the same pride we find Layla, who was the oldest lioness and already in the beginning of our filming she was limping and she had a perfectly aged six month old cub. We knew that their would be something happening there. Those where the big decisions.  Then we also had to do other logistical things like setting up the camera, camps and vehicles, but we do that all that time. The main challenge was choosing the stars before filming.

MG: Since the film is referred to as a “true life adventure”, did you find it difficult to tell a story with the wild life animals?
AF: We have been very specific in suggesting to Disney what subjects we were going for. I think that there are only a few animals stories that are strong enough for the cinema. A lot of things in our film are very hard to film and do not happen that often. Lions do very little most of the time to be quite honest. We wrote a classic movie script, a forty to fifty page script, on what we hoped would happen. We were constantly rewriting the script to make sure we were coming up with a really strong story line.

MG: What was it like shooting in Kenya at the Maasai Mara National Reserve?
AF: It is a tough place if you do not know what to do. We are very experienced in it. We had specially adapted vehicles that had jacks so we were able keep them up in storms, they had doors that were able to be taken off for the cameras. We also had special rain covers. There are a lot of things to do when working in that place. The main thing is patience. These guys were out dawn to dusk, dawn to dusk, dawn to dusk for two years.  The moment when Carly and his sons attack Fang was a half an hour in two years of filming. If you missed that half an hour we would have missed one of the main dramas in our movie. A lot of patience I would say was critical.

MG: How long did it take to complete shooting?
AF: It was just over two years of filming, but it was spread over three crews. We had one crew with the lions the whole time, We had one crew with the cheetahs the whole time and a third crew coming in and doing other work. So overall it could have been more like five years of filming.

MG: What was the most exciting moment during the shoot?
AF: I think the two attacks of the lions were very dramatic. Lions very rarely actually fight. They usually roar at each other and decide by the power of the roar who is the boss. Those moments are very special. Equally for me though, some of the tender moments are amazing. I love the moment when Layla handed over Mara, that amazed me. I love the moment when the cheetah cubs where in the rain. All of the cheetah drama amazed us. We knew that the cheetahs would have problems with the hyenas but we did not expect them to be attacked by the lions. Even more, we did not know when the cheetah cubs grew up that they would try and beat up the lions themselves [laughs]. That was truly foolish and did not last very long. The two male lions crossing the river and being almost eaten by a crocodile…that has never been filmed before. Even us who have spent years and years working there were delighted. One of the good things about having a movie budget is you have the time to really spend and wait.

MG: Where you every nervous of getting too close during the filming?
AF: To be honest with you, if we get into danger that means we disturbed the animals. You get out of the vehicle you get eaten by a lion, you know? [laughs] We had tricky moments with the weather and the vehicles got stuck. We had one occasion when an elephant came into our camp and turned over one of the vehicles. Our job though is to keep out of danger, if you are in danger you are not doing your job.

MG: How does this film compare to working on “Earth”?
AF: “Earth” was a very different movie. Not sure if you are aware or not but “Earth” came out of the TV series “Planet Earth”. I made “Planet Earth” and in parallel I was shooting the movie “Earth”. “African Cats” is different since there was no TV series. We were shooting just for the movie. We were going for a stronger storyline. “Earth” is a fantastic spectacle movie but it doesn’t have anything like the strength of storyline like “African Cats”.

MG: What made you get Samuel L. Jackson to narrate?
AF: That was suggested to us by Disney. We were very pleased with the choice. We knew he had a powerful voice and we knew he would do the baddies well. What we were most delighted with was how well he did the soft parts. This film is really about mothers. I think he really captured the soft moments and the emotional moments with cheetahs very well. He just has such a great voice. You know also, he really loved doing it. He has been to Africa and has seen the lions before. You only have so much time with a guy like Jackson. He turned up and was really fired up for this. I think he did a really great job.

MG: Tell us about your next film with Disneynature “Chimpanzee”?
AF: Chimps are really fantastic animals. They share 99% of our genes. If you look into the eyes of a chimpanzee [laughs] you cannot help but get emotionally engaged. It is a great story. We have been filming a little guy named Oscar. We started when he was one year old and he is nearly four now. There has been some real dramas in his life. I think “African Cats” is an action movie and “Chimpanzee” is a domestic comedy. It is really intimate and very funny.  I know Disney wanted to release a film every Earth day, but I think it is important that every time people go to one of these that is a completely different experience. I think personally chimps are more engaging than big cats but they don’t do as much. It is filmed in a jungle and is much more different world than the Savannah.

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