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Filmmakers On Nature Documentary 'Serengeti'


Simon Fuller, an internationally renowned showman with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame who's produced the "Pop Idol" and "American Idol" franchises and managed talent that includes the Spice Girls, Kelly Clarkson, Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony, has a new show with a compelling cast of characters who contend with life-and-death situations every day, all day. Now, that's entertainment.


SIMON: "Serengeti," a new six-part series, that shows a year in the lives of some of the lions, leopards, elephants, zebras, wildebeest, baboons and other charismatic creatures who make their lives in the majestic and demanding Serengeti. It airs in the U.S. on Discovery. Lupita Nyong'o narrates. John Downer is the filmmaker. Simon Fuller and John Downer join us now from our studios at NPR West. Thanks so much for being with us.

SIMON FULLER: My pleasure.

JOHN DOWNER: Glad to be here.

SIMON: Let me ask you both. How many years did it take to film this one year?

DOWNER: Well, it took three years. From the beginning, we were shooting for about...

SIMON: By the way, which charming Englishman are you?

DOWNER: This is John Downer.

SIMON: OK, go ahead, Mr. Downer.

DOWNER: Yeah, no. It took three years to make. And about a year and a half - well over that, nearly two years - was actually filming, although we were doing the editing as we were filming, as well.

SIMON: Simon Fuller, how do you get from "American Idol" to "Serengeti"?

FULLER: Yeah, I found myself two days in "Serengeti" as a little bit of R and R after a business trip in Kenya with a pop group. And I was laying there and just contemplating the serenity and majesty of that amazing place and, of course, those beautiful animals. And it just came to me an idea that actually these creatures are very similar to us in many ways. They have feelings and personalities that are quite often slightly overlooked with other natural history shows. And then, of course, because I don't make natural history shows, I allowed my mind to wander and just consider, well, maybe if we did a show and I could create an idea that allowed the viewer to see these animals but from their perspective and sort of see their lives unfold - and maybe they might be far more relatable. And maybe that might just create that extra bit of empathy that might ultimately make us respect and love these amazing creatures more and then hopefully look after them better.


LUPITA NYONG'O: (As Narrator) Bakari, who now spends his days brooding on the injustice of it all.

SIMON: You give them human names.

FULLER: We did. We did. Because I want - I personally felt that the viewer needs to see them as individuals. Rather than a pride of lions, a herd of elephants, you see a character in it and you recognize their personality. And I think for us humans we find that easier to identify and relate. Even John, who's been doing this for 30 years, he - you connect a little better when you have a name and it's like, well, that's Bakari, that's the baboon. This amazing character. And it's worked so well. I mean, we're thrilled with that aspect of it.

SIMON: Bakari, the baboon - and I actually began to tear - he becomes an adoptive father during the course of the episode I saw.

FULLER: Yes, he does. And he's - what a magnificent character he is and a wonderful, wonderful baboon.

SIMON: Jilted in love. And yet how do we tell his story?

DOWNER: Well, the thing is we had to follow these animals so closely. We had a constant presence there. All - that crew, every one of them was used to filming those kind of animals before. So they knew their behavior, so they knew where the storylines might appear. And so they were looking at storylines. And we drafted an initial script that, you know, encompass the entire six episodes. But we knew we were going to tear that up as soon as we started filming because what actually happened we couldn't anticipate. And so, you know, there's an amazing moment. I'm not going to - you all know because you've seen it and I'm not going to give the game away but something happens quite dramatically at the end of the sequence where the snake is involved.

SIMON: And let me make it clear - when you say a snake is involved, you're not referring to a talent agent, right?


DOWNER: No, this is a real snake. But the point being is that that moment changed everything in the story lining. And so those are the moments we were looking for, the lion Kali and her...


DOWNER: You know, that just developed before our eyes.


NYONG'O: (As Narrator) Kali has had cubs with a lion from outside the pride. She gave birth in secret. Now she must try to bring her cubs home.

SIMON: Simon Fuller, you become aware of the fact after a while Kali really needs to feed her cubs. And by the way, they're utterly adorable. You want to put each of them on their laps and, you know, chuck them under their little furry chins. But you realize they are not vegetarians, and either these little cubs will die from hunger or cause some other animal to die so that they can live. This is tough stuff.

FULLER: Yeah, it is. Then something happened that I find magical - is that because you're so connected to the characters, in this instance Kali, the process of, you know, ultimately the - a kill. You're so wrapped up in the emotions of Kali that you don't feel the same horror that you might do watching it as a pure relatively cold documentary. And it's sort of you're happy for Kali more than the sorrow of the animal that sadly has maybe not survived. It's an interesting outcome.

SIMON: Let me ask you both, Simon Fuller and John Downer, what do you take in your own lives from getting to know these animals?

FULLER: For me, you know, it began with my love of animals, just from a everyday perspective. And I think making this show with John, who has been doing this for 30 years and is such an expert, I learned a lot more than I ever knew about animal behavior. So I sort of understood how these families operate and all kinds of extraordinary things. I didn't realize that lions sometimes strayed from the pride and just sort of things that were very human.

DOWNER: I think it's very easy to kind of deny that side of it. But once you actually open that up, you see the connection between human lives and animal lives. And once we walked those plains of Africa, early humans, that's where they, you know, began with those animals. And they never would have considered them separate from them. We live in cities now, we're distance from them. And the way that I'm hoping and we're hoping that people will connect is to connect in a way that we were once connected, that you will see these animals as, you know, living beings, not so different from us. And through that connection have a new respect for them and an empathy for them because, you know, they are there to be treasured. But you can only treasure something that you really understand the value of.

SIMON: John Downer and Simon Fuller. Their new series "Serengeti" premieres August 4 on Discovery. Thank you so much for being with us, gentlemen.

FULLER: Thank you.

DOWNER: Well, thank you. It's been a pleasure.


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