Serengeti Director On Telling Animal (and Human) Stories

John Downer, the director of Discovery's new nature documentary Serengeti, says there are lessons to take from the animal world.

Serengeti John Downer

They say editing is the soul of cinema. Rarely has that been more apt than in Discovery’s upcoming nature documentary Serengeti

Serengeti, produced by American Idol’s Simon Fuller, directed by John Downer, and narrated by Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o, is a little bit different than your traditional nature doc. Nature, and particularly the Serengeti region of Africa in which Serengeti is set, is an inherently fascinating place. Hundreds of species of animals live together in a vibrant ecosystem in a desert habitat. One thing the Serengeti doesn’t necessarily have, however, is a storyline. Putting natural life in a classic three-act structure is solely the domain of humanity. So that’s exactly what the humans do in Serengeti.

further reading: The Best Documentaries on Netflix

Serengeti, which contains six parts and premieres on August 4, uses editing and Nyong’o’s excellent narration to dramatize the story of these animals’ day-to-day life. For a year the cameras followed baboons, leopard, elephants, lions, and more, and then those soulful editors found the human friendly stories from that year. The animals of Serengeti have motivations, fears, triumphs, losses, and even names.

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We caught up with Serengeti director John Downer during the Summer 2019 TCA press tour to talk about what it’s like to capture and then tell those animal stories.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.  

How did you begin your career doing this? Because it really seems like a dream job – the melding of entertainment, adventure, zoologist.

When I was about eight years old, I saw this television program, David Attenborough on the Quest for the Komodo Dragon. I watched that film and I was just transfixed, and I thought, “I want to do that.” It was like an impossible dream. How could I ever do that? And I just went through with this dream.

At university, having studied zoology and going to the BBC, I was suddenly allowed to make films with proper equipment. But I was never interested in doing what everyone else was doing, because everyone else was just shooting with a long lens and telling the stories of these animals, and I wanted to go further because I wanted to get inside their world, so I would be continually looking for technical development so it allowed me to get my cameras close and literally inside their world. That is still with me today. The fact is now I have more toys and ways of doing it and everything I could ever have dreamed of.

A lot of natural history and amazing natural history is about spectacle. Everything’s slowed down, but it’s absolutely beautiful. But I want to tell stories in that world and I want to tell them in a dramatic way, and so this was a perfect project.

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How did Serengeti come about for you?

Simon Fuller came to me, having been on safari in Africa and saw that these animals had incredible stories to tell and they were so much more complex than he ever imagine. He came to me and said, “Could we do something together?”

He’d come from another area of television not anywhere connected with animals, but he knew about emotion. And at the heart of animals is emotion, because animals are totally emotional. They’re driven by the same emotions that we have.

So we had sort of a joint view of what we wanted to do with the series and that was basically tell the animal stories.

I want to talk about the storytelling aspect of it a little bit. There’s some just like kind of nuts and bolts things that I’m curious about, one being, who comes up with the animals’ names?

Well we spent a lot of time thinking up what we were going to call them. We tried (naming them based off of) their characteristics, and that just didn’t seem right because it was too obvious and on the nose, you know?

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But then once we started exploring Swahili words, it sort of all came together, because they are of that place. That’s the language of Tanzania and of Kenya and the whole Serengeti ecosystem. The human language, but we have to use human language to communicate anyway, so that felt quite a breakthrough.

Tembo for instance is perfect for the teenage elephant, but that just means elephant. It just felt right. So the words all have meaning, but they’re not words that we generally know, and there’s a slight distancing and it feels much more organic and real.

Do you have a favorite character, as it were?

Well, I think probably my favorite is Bakari the baboon, and his story is amazing. It just goes on and on and on. I’ve been making wildlife films for 30 years, and I’ve filmed almost every animal. I have never filmed baboons.

There were continuous surprises in their behavior and what we filmed, and the intimacy and the relationships that baboons have is extraordinary, because they’re very close to us, and we once walked those plains. They now still walk those plains and our lifestyle then was very, very similar as gatherers and hunter-gatherers, which they are, they’re hunter-gatherers, and so there’s immediate connection. I just got more and more into that storyline and the continual things change and how things change.

further reading: HBO’s I Love You, Now Die is a Complicated, Must-Watch Documentary

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The most amazing thing about baboons is like you take Bakari, he could never have got into the troop. Like a teenage elephant, a teenage baboon has to leave the troop if it’s male because he’s got to go into another troop, and the only way he can get in that troop is by making friends with a female and start at the bottom and try and work his way up.

It’s a female’s world. And this is an overarching theme. The females are in control, really. He has to make friends with a female before he can get into the troop, and so, again, that’s just so interesting and how the relationships are built. It’s all about relationships, and most of life on the African plains about relationships.

Interesting that you mention the female animal world as an overarching theme because that was one observation I had. It seems like the majority of the animals covered in the doc are female. Was just kind of how things shook out or if that was a deliberate choice?

It wasn’t deliberate. We suddenly realized all the best stories were female. I think that’s kind of also really interesting in terms of how things have shifted, because even behavioral sciences, they used to look at the males as what’s interesting. Well, it’s not interesting because they’re basically pretty stupid most of the time and they’re not doing very much. The females are the ones running the show.

So it wasn’t deliberate, but when you look at what is interesting out there, it was the female stories. The lions, the males, you know, it used to always be … I mean, the Lion King does it, you know, it’s the big males’ the thing, but there’s no big males or any there for probably three years before they were overthrown by other males. The females are going to be there forever, and they control the pride, and so they were the thing behind the scenes and we put them center stage. So that came out of really what happens there.

Nature is obviously a volatile, sometimes scary, violent place, and I’m just wondering what it’s like when you are trying to tell a story and dramatize nature. How do you balance out and present the grim realities of it without turning off an audience or grossing them out to a certain extent?

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Well, that’s an interesting one. We’re very careful what we show and how we show it. We don’t show the full, you know (killing). It’s cut short, basically, and we’re really careful in the shots that we show.

But I think the most important is that when something dies, that you understand what the stakes are for the animals that are hunting it and that you know why they’re doing it and the reason, because they have cubs, or they have pups, or whatever, and they’ve got to bring them up, so they’re only doing the best for their families. Once you’re invested in that family, you feel very differently when something is killed to support that family. So we are really careful throughout in that you understand when something dies, you know the stakes involved and your empathy is with the character.

So like in any drama, you have to control the emotional arcs and everything and be very careful when you’re playing with animals’ lives to present it in a way that is informed by the need to survive and make sure that your viewpoint is with the right animal at that point.

To you personally, what was it like to be able to film in the Serengeti, and how long had you wanted to do that and see a documentary set there?

I spent a lot of time there before we made this film. I’ve made films about elephants, I’ve made films about lions. I’ve made films about wildebeests. I’ve made films about most of those animals. There are a few that I hadn’t really featured, but I knew them, I knew the behavior, so I knew the potential.

I also had an incredible experience with some of the best wildlife cameramen who had lived and breathed Africa, so they knew the behavior. I mean, for the baboons, for example, I didn’t know much about baboons, but one of the cameramen has made a film about them and lived with them and spent time with them for about two years, and so he could see every nuanced piece of behavior that happened.

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Between them, they had a hundred years of experience of Africa and the animals there, so they were knowing, they could see and they could sense what was likely to happen because they could get into those minds of those animals and they’re having to second-guess decisions they’re making.

You can’t get it right because the animals are always changing. That’s what’s so intriguing. They are very, very complex. You can’t say tomorrow they’re going to do this. You’re going to say, well, on chance basis they probably do this. They haven’t been to water for a couple of days, they’re going to have to go to the nearest waterhole, so that’s kind of might drive you, but you’re just reading the behavior from your knowledge of it.

(Animals) are dynamic. They make decisions, just as we make decisions. Different personalities make different decisions because they’re all different personalities, and so you can’t say that lion does that, the next one’s going to do the same. Which when I naively started, I felt, oh, this is going to be pretty easy to work out what they might do, and I found out very soon that even like a butterfly, you cannot control the behavior.

What are you most excited people see in this series?

Beyond the amazing moments that inform the narrative and everything else, I’m hoping that people will see the connection between the animals there and our own lives. All those animals are doing the best for their families. The underpinning is that they kind of live the same emotional lives that we do.

When early humans walked those plains of Africa, they were living alongside these animals, they didn’t think “these are different,” that we’re somehow superior. They understood the motivations and what they had to do to survive.

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What we’re hoping is that people will reconnect through that emotional connection from being close to them, seeing the decisions they have to make on a daily basis that we realize, well, they’re not so different after all.

Read and download the Den of Geek SDCC 2019 Special Edition Magazine right here!

Alec Bojalad is TV Editor at Den of Geek and TCA member. Read more of his stuff here. Follow him at his creatively-named Twitter handle @alecbojalad