John Downer exclusive interview: Discovery’s Serengeti shoots for empathy with real-life Lion King drama

John Downer in the Serengeti. Pic credit: Discovery
John Downer in the Serengeti. Pic credit: Discovery

A trip to Africa can completely alter your life, ask Danish author Isak Dinesen, who penned the classic prose, Out of Africa. It did the very same for American Idol and pop producer Simon Fuller.

What he witnessed was that animals are so very much like humans in so many respects-especially with regard to their emotional lives.

This premise overtook Fuller’s musical career mission after he had a life-altering vacation to the Serengeti to observe animals like wildebeests, hyenas, elephants, zebra, giraffes, lions, cheetahs and baboons.

He needed some help to shape this ambitious project.

Fuller called upon John Downer, a former zoologist-turned-noted-wildlife filmmaker who had already racked up impressive accomplishments for the BBC for over 30 years with his intimate style of capturing animal footage.

Fuller’s experience of life and death writ large on Africa’s expansive reserve fueled an idea: Make a series that was not just a patented BBC eye-candy visual sweep of the region, but actually follow the families of different animals and let the footage determine the narrative.  Make it a relatable story to tell.

Based on his past work, Downer was Fuller’s choice to collaborate after just one meeting. The two were on the same page about telling a visually rich story that made the viewer realize that animals are to be respected and interestingly are completely believable.

It was Downer’s personalized lensing approach that led to award-winning projects like Supersense, Weird Nature, Earthflight and Penguins – Spy in the Huddle and Spy in the Wild that appealed to Fuller.

Years ago, Downer even took his artistic sensibility to create a visually jarring (and groundbreaking in style) Digging In The Dirt video for Peter Gabriel, winning a Grammy to boot.

Reviews across the pond in the UK for Serengeti have been on the mixed side, with some criticizing that the stories told about each family of animals was reduced to a childlike approach in the narrative.

Ironically, this innocent straight-forward approach to the project is what I loved most about it. The stories created by Downer layered over his astounding footage served a great purpose, the actions played out by these majestic creatures made this constructed life and death yarn more poignant effort. Truly, how many TV shows can an entire family of every generation watch together? That in itself deserve kudos.

But when you watch Serengeti, narrated for the USA and Discovery by Oscar-winning actress (and native Kenyan) Lupita Nyong’o, you will empathize with their individual plights.  Like us, these great animals just try to get about their lives. Anyone who has a dog or cat will understand that animals feel and react in ways we can relate to, whether jealousy, rage or affection.

Even the old “scratch my back I’ll scratch yours” saying is demonstrated in real life by how the mongooses of the Serengeti get on with their warthog pals. It’s a tough world out there and buddies and allies make it all much easier. True for animals, true for us humans.

Statistically speaking, most Americans will never get to the Serengeti to see in person what transforms anyone who goes there with the wildlife we cannot imagine roaming freely among human life. A profound way our planet once was and yet there in Africa, still is.

As a result, Serengeti is now a visual homage to Africa unspoiled, a Simon Fuller and John Downer love letter to the place and the remains of the natural world.

You know you are truly alive when you’re living among lions.
― Isak Dinesen, Out of Africa

Last week, Discovery screened Serengeti at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles replete with an orchestra and Lola Lennox (Annie Lennox’s daughter) singing the theme for the lucky invitees including Monsters & Critics with Joshua Ledet (American Idol season 11) performing a heart-stopping rendition of Wild Hearts.

This was followed with a two-man panel of Simon Fuller and John Downer during Discovery’s Thursday afternoon at the Summer 2019 Television Critics Association tour.

Downer’s footage tells the story of ostracized mother lioness Kali, Bakari, a cuckolded baboon, protective elephant mother Nala and a female-lead pack of hyenas, where a mother will lay down her own life to ensure her daughter’s place in the pack.

It’s an ambitious premise, to assign made up stories to actual footage- but somehow Downer made it stick.

John Downer spoke with Monsters & Critics at press tour to explain how he accomplished this three-year project editing 3,500 hours of footage to six one-hour episodes, his ethos, methodology and execution of what will be a televised event you must see.

Monsters & Critics: This was originally filmed for BBC, how did it get to Discovery?

John Downer: It was Simon’s decision and talking to Discovery. I think they saw an early version of the film and they so wanted it. And Simon originally was going to put it on network, but no, the commitment and the belief in it from Discovery, I think, is what made it feel like a perfect fit.

M&C: At the live Serengeti event, Simon Fuller came out and told a little bit about the genesis of all of this at the beginning, that he had an idea. And that he bounced it off of you in a meeting…

John Downer: Yes, he came to see me having just been on an incredible safari that I think for him was life-changing. He saw in those animals the things I see daily in those animals because I’m filming them.

But the fact that he came from a different area of television and saw the potential of telling that story and when we met, I mean…”What’s Simon Fuller going to want to do?” That was my thought.

And it turned out that what he wanted to do was exactly where my head was in terms of I want to tell these stories that connect people with those animals and actually bring out those emotional connections that we have.

We [humans] share the same emotions with other animals and that’s often ignored in pure documentary.

It is quite difficult to tell. It’s quite difficult to even see, but if we got a style of filmmaking that took us into those animal worlds and actually their decision points when they were making decisions…

And certainly, our stories are about the success of their families and how to make their family survive. And that we could find a way of connecting again with animals.

The early humans that walked those plains with those animals. They would have considered themselves as part of that environment. These humans wouldn’t have considered themselves above it [the animal world].

We are so distanced now from nature.

This was a chance to reconnect and show people whether their lives might be in a totally different place now, but underpinning it is the same emotional needs, the kind of friendships, the personalities, the whole diversity of behavior in those animals that we have in humans.

The big difference is that we have a more developed cerebral cortex, but it makes us spend all our time justifying why we’ve done something, but underpinning it all we are probably doing it from a basic emotional response that we share with other animals.

And having spent thirty years filming animals, it was so patently clear for me – and I just finished a series called Spy in the Wild, which explored just those areas. It was about animal emotions and it was about friendships. It was about relationships and it was about personalities and their similarity to us.

That was where my mindset was when Simon came to see me. It was like this is the most perfect project that we could do together. And so it grew from there

M&C: You had the large idea, but the actual physical stories, did you have to get the footage first and then assign the stories or did you have the stories and then find the footage to fit the stories that you had in your mind?

John Downer: No. You have to have a plan before you go out. So I knew the behavior of all those animals, that we were likely to get over the course of nearly two years, but we were telling the story of the one year.

But I also knew that I had to tear up that plan as soon as we started filming because it had to be a full mode of behavior we captured. So there was an overall seasonal arc, and so events are going to impinge on these storylines.

Very quickly, and this was always the intent, it was quite a brave thing to do to let the animals inform the story.

So we wanted it to be their story. And so we had to rewrite and change the narratives as these events happened or unfolded. And of course, there were events very often that you could never predict, ever.

M&C: With Kali the lioness, she has the reunion with her sister. How did you know it was her sister?

Kali must risk everything to keep her four cubs alive. Pic credit: Discovery/John Downer
Kali must risk everything to keep her four cubs alive. Pic credit: Discovery/John Downer

John Downer: Well they are very closely related. Lions, you can’t be sure, but the connection. What’s great about the whole things is you realize that females run everything. And within the lion pride, they are the one thing that is always there.

The males may be overthrown by other males, but the connections, there are sisters, aunts and they are closely related. Almost certainly they are sisters. That event and where it goes in the next program when they get pursued by one of the males from the pride.

That’s an example where we didn’t know this was going to happen. I’ve been following the team, that pair and they are going around together absolutely terrified because this male would not stop relentlessly following them.

Every time they are going closer, they couldn’t stop and they couldn’t stop, and as you’ll see in the program too, there was a moment, which is probably the most terrifying moment for us filming them, where the female stopped running. Kali stopped running and the male came in, and we did not know.

We thought those cubs would be dead because she stopped running. She decided to confront the male, and what then happened, again, we weren’t expecting, is that the female confronted the male but she also started to flirt with him. And suddenly he is getting quite confused because he came to kill those cubs.

And she might persuade him that maybe they are his, we believe. But scientifically there is a kind of false estrous that can happen, but then subdues the male’s desire to kill someone else’s cubs. But that’s a story that we never would have written, but that’s what happened.

M&C: How did this line of work come to you?

John Downer: I think when I started, when I came and trained as a zoologist and I was taught what even seemed outdated then, that animals were basically machines, because they are not, because we are animals, we are not machines.

I very quickly realized it was just rubbish that we were being taught. But it was a very old fashioned view of nature and also because animals were studied in cages. They used to give them electric shocks to do something and a reward and think they found out something about those animals.

Put a human in there and do the same. You would get the same reaction. It was totally reductionist kind of viewpoint of animal behavior. And it was only people like Jane Goodall who spent time with the animals not knowing that you weren’t supposed to give them names and personalities or talk about their emotions because that’s all she saw. And if you spend time with animals, that is what you see.

I’ve always wanted to be in the animal world, and get more of their viewpoint is to see that emotional connection more and more. And actually, get more intrigued by the motivations and the relationships…I would have done it [somehow] had I taken another journey.

Part of that is always wanting to be in their mind and in their world. As a filmmaker, you have to be in their heads to get the footage, because you are continually trying to predict what they are going to do.

It is never a clear-cut predictability. So, in the end, you get to know the animals, you have a relationship with them and you make very good guesses of what they might be doing next.

But you never know, and I think that is always intriguing.

M&C: What equipment and crew did you rely on?

John Downer: We had three camera teams and the very basic stripped down team would-be driver, guide, cameraman and camera assistant. I spent a lot of time there and I would be in one or the other of those vehicles. We would also sometimes have additional camera assistant, but everyone who was in those vehicles had a camera device of some sort.

So each vehicle had up to five different ways of filming because we needed all the different angles and viewpoints. You might be having one camera that’s really getting subjective viewpoints. You might have another camera that’s out and remoted into the area the animals are in so it’s shooting at ground level. You have remote cameras that are protected to an extent.

Not if an elephant decides to crush it but they are designed to go right in among a pride of lions and come out unscathed but have footage that is just totally gobsmacking in their world.

We also have cameras which are left remotely. They caught the images just because the animal’s visited, so at a den site, we may put several cameras there, so you are getting an intimate view when you are not even there.

You lay them out at the beginning of the day and you come back at the end of the day or a day later and there’s magic on them.

It is those moments of magic that become part of the film. But over the course of it, we shot three and a half thousand hours of footage which then had to be viewed and if you just took even viewing of that amount, that’s about half a year day and night.

We’re having to structure in group material, and they are like the building blocks of the story as we went along. So that was all part of the

M&C: Of all the family stories, which one resonated with you the most?

John Downer:  I think the baboons. They are very close to us, obviously.

I didn’t know that much about baboons. I know a lot about a lot of those animals, but they are kind of animals that you drive past on the way to the elephants or drive past on the way to the lions. I started researching them and we spent a lot of time with them and you suddenly realize these are really complex and they are so human-like.

Even researchers have studied them and their behavior to inform our lives because you can see even when a male is deposed and he starts to just become this dejected figure and just crushed and doesn’t survive long.

There’s research being done on that I’d read about and you are seeing it before your eyes. These changes and also the emotional connection and how if you’re a baboon, and you are a teenage baboon, you have to leave your group and find another troupe.

There’s a very good reason for that. Most teenage males have to for reproductive reasons, they have to. But to even get into another troupe, that male has to befriend a female. And it’s a friendship. It’s not necessarily sexual. It might become sexual, but it’s a friendship.

That’s what I think people don’t really understand, and that’s what we are trying to make people understand, that those friendships and relationships underpin everything. And with baboons [it is] very intense and so human-like.

M&C: Are you personally anti-zoo now in your outlook?

John Downer: I would hate to say that I was actually anti-zoo. I’m anti a lot of animals being in zoos because it’s not a good place but it’s a place that there’s an argument for the education and also the argument for breeding rare animals.

I wouldn’t like to say I’m totally anti it, but it’s not something that I’m comfortable with in a lot of instances. Animals should be protected. They shouldn’t need to be protected in a zoo. It’s almost an absolutely universal rule that if you protect an area and you give the animals a chance, and protect them generally from people, they will come back.

You are seeing that. Even where we were filming, it was once a hunting preserve. Whatever you call it, it’s not preserving. You would hardly see an animal because the animals are smart, they know not to go there.

Now it’s just one of the richest places. And it’s all part of the Serengeti ecosystem because it’s been protected from poachers, protected in every single way.  The animals very soon know that it is paradise and it feels like paradise.

That really gives me hope that people value it. They are protective and one of the things both me and Simon were absolutely passionate about and the intent of the series is to make people relate to these animals, in an emotional way and understand the complexities of their life.

In that way create empathy, rather than just these are animals we know are poached or trophy hunted. But when you understand what it actually means to be those animals, and then you have a different view, which is one where you emotionally connect.

So you care more about all the things you connect with than just in an abstract form. I want to preserve this. And that connection is inherent in all of us… or was.

That’s the way we lived alongside these animals and we are now distant from them.

It is a chance for us…[and] that’s what we want to do, is to make people feel differently.

To think: ‘Wow, these are really complicated animals. These are just like us. They’ve got personalities.’ To reignite that kind of connection.

Serengeti is a 6-part docu-series that premieres Sunday, August 4 at 8 /7c on Discovery.

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