For English filmmaker Keith Scholey, there is something addictive about waking up and watching what he refers to as a “natural family soap opera.”
“Each day you get up and wonder what is going to happen and how it’s going to play out,” Scholey said.
While it might sound like Scholey is getting his fix on daytime TV, he’s actually capturing stories in nature with a lot more drama.
In the new Disneynature documentary “African Cats,” Scholey and fellow filmmaker Alastair Fothergill journey to the Maasai Mara National Reserve in southwestern Kenya to follow and film a lion family and cheetah family, who are both struggling to survive in the African savanna.
During an interview with me, Scholey and Fothergill, who studied zoology in England before producing wildlife entertainment for TV and film, talked about the beauty and intrigue of “African Cats.”
How aware are these animals of the film crew’s presence and how does that affect the way they behave?
Keith Scholey: There are lots of tourists who travel in their vehicles to the place we picked to make the film – the Maasai Mara National Reserve in Kenya. Those animals are completely used to having vehicles there. The beauty of it is you can move around and they’ll completely ignore you. We can literally be a fly on the wall and see what’s going on.
Some people would say a film like “African Cats” is something you can easily find on the Discovery channel. What would you say to those people who might be overlooking the complete movie-going experience?
Alastair Fothergill: First, I think the big screen really takes you there in a much more powerful way than TV ever could. I think the most important thing is that the movie has a very strong emotional storyline. We didn’t want to make a TV documentary; we wanted to make a movie. Also, a movie has a budget that allows for us to be out there for much more time than we would for a TV show. As a result, there are a lot of things in “African Cats” that have never been seen before.
How intense does it get watching these animals and do the things you see affect you anymore since you’ve been working in this field for so long?
KS: You certainly do get used to seeing these animals on a day to day basis. To know these animals more and more allows you to really get into their lives and understand their day to day challenges and the drama of what they go through. What you see in the film is how it really plays out, but just a little toned down.
Since “African Cats” is a family film, do you have to make a conscious decision to stay away from the more brutal parts of nature?
AF: You probably noticed, but once the cheetah grabs the gazelle, we cut away pretty quickly. We never dwelled on any of the gore. At the same time, we all know nature is red in tooth and claw so we didn’t shy away from the fact that the lions have very powerful battles. We had to find a way for it to be exciting without being too frightening for very young children.
Do you still learn things about these animals while you are shooting these films, or do you have them pretty figured out by now?
KS: It’s always a surprise. In this movie, we could have never envisioned what was going to happen. We didn’t know these lions regularly cross the Mara River. We certainly didn’t know crocodiles attack lions when they swim across the river. Every single time we make a movie like this we learn things. It’s a constant revelation.
There have been a few nature films to hit theaters early this year – “The Last Lions,” “Born to Be Wild,” and now “African Cats.” What is it about the nature documentary people find so intriguing?
AF: A lot of cinema is artificial and created by CGI. There’s nothing wrong with that, but I think there is a real desire to see a real, natural experience. Many people live very urban lives, so to get the opportunity to escape is very rewarding. We hope we’ve combined amazing scenery with a very powerful story.