News

A Real Lion King

TFK chats with the director of the new Disneynature documentary, African Cats

April 22, 2011

 

Zoologist and nature documentary director Keith Scholey set out to make a real-life version of The Lion King with the Disneynature documentary African Cats. The movie follows the true stories of the families of lions and cheetahs that live along a river in Kenya's Masai Mara National Reserve. The protected park, established in 1961, is one of the wildest places on Earth.

Single cheetah mother Sita with one of her cubs, in a scene from the Disneynature documentary African Cats.
DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC.
Single cheetah mother Sita with one of her cubs, in a scene from the Disneynature documentary African Cats.

Through the film, audiences will meet the River Pride, a family of lions led by a fierce king named Fang; a rival lion across the river named Kali and his four brothers; and a fearless mother cheetah named Sita and her cubs. The documentary, narrated by Samuel L. Jackson, opens in theaters on April 22. Disneynature will donate a portion of the proceeds from the opening week's ticket sales to the "Save the Savanna" campaign. TFK chatted with Scholey, who codirected African Cats with Alastair Fothergill, about filming the big cats.

TFK:

What was your goal when you set out to make this film, and how did you get involved?

KEITH SCHOLEY:

I've been making wildlife films for many years, especially in Africa. I sort of specialize there, and I've always had this long-term idea ever since I saw The Lion King. I thought, "Could we make a real one?" Having filmed all these animals over the years, I've learned that they are all strong characters, they have incredible stories to tell, and in a way The Lion King kind of touched on that.

TFK:

How did you decide to film in the Masai Mara?

SCHOLEY:

That was quite an easy one because over the years I've filmed in many different places around Africa, and many locations have the big cats and lots of wildlife. But there's nowhere quite like the Masai Mara for the actual density of cats. It's not only the numbers; they are all so jam-packed together that they actually interact with each other. So you see cheetahs encountering lions, lions encountering other lions and so on. You see so much more behavior in the Masai Mara than anywhere else. I doubt we could have made African Cats anywhere else with the same level of drama.

TFK:

Can you describe the process of filming and how you chose the characters?

SCHOLEY:

The first rule of any screenplay is to find big, strong characters, and we did spend quite a long time on that. Well, Sita the cheetah kind of fell into our laps as soon as we turned up in the Mara. She had just given birth to five cubs. From having followed many cheetahs before—when you've got a [single] mom and cubs like that—things are going to happen. [With the lions] we were looking for a pride where there was going to be trouble. When we came across this pride that just had this one male, Fang, with a broken tooth, looking beaten up, and then next door there's this guy Kali with these four brothers—you know that Fang's not going to last. And then we found within this pride, there was this injured lioness, Leila, with just one cub. We knew something was going to happen, but we didn't know what. From then on, we just let the story play.

Codirector Keith Scholey, left, told TFK that the African Cats crew relied on their truck to navigate the Masai Mara while filming the big cats, who are not bothered by vehicles.
DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC.
Codirector Keith Scholey, left, told TFK that the African Cats crew relied on their truck to navigate the Masai Mara while filming the big cats, who are not bothered by vehicles.

TFK:

How close were you to the animals from day to day?

SCHOLEY:

All the animals in somewhere like the Mara are very used to tourist vehicles, so the rule is don't get anywhere closer than 20 meters [about 66 feet], which is a very good rule. We often film with very long lenses and can be a long way away. [Our strategy was to] go out and look and, once you find them, follow, follow, follow, and record what happens.

TFK:

What was your favorite moment that you captured?

SCHOLEY:

There are some things that are incredibly rare, and I don't think anyone's ever seen before, like the two lions crossing the river and actually getting pulled down by a crocodile. That's an amazing thing to have filmed. There are some moments that are just amazing pieces of drama, like when Sita was facing off against that big lion or the hyenas. You just don't know what's going to happen. Then there are moments of huge tenderness, like the cheetah cubs in the rain. You can actually see the cubs shivering. You just feel for them.

TFK:

Was there anything you were surprised to learn about cheetahs or lions while filming?

SCHOLEY:

I think what always happens every time you follow these animals—I've done it for a lot of my life—each time just the reinforcement of "Wow, this life is tough." What we're showing is just the tip of the iceberg. This is going on day in and day out. Part of what I hope African Cats does is I hope people really start to understand that these wild animals are just quite incredible.

TFK:

If you could ask the big cats that you filmed one thing, what would it be?

SCHOLEY:

I would ask, "Does it ever get you down?" [Laughs] But I guess one thing about an animal is that they don't introspect. They can't see into the future or ask questions like, "Why am I doing this?"—which is, of course, what we would do. In a way, that would be my first question: "Does it ever exhaust you? Do you ever get depressed?" Even getting dinner isn't exactly easy for them. It's a danger in itself, and that's just the routine every other day.

TFK:

The movie had many amazing sounds, like the lion's great roar. What was it like to hear it in person?

SCHOLEY:

If you are sitting in a car quite close to a lion roaring, it's so deep that the car shakes. I've actually been in a tent once with a lion roaring outside, and I've never felt so small in all my life. You just feel you've just shrunk to this insignificant little blob. I think we've done a reasonably good job on recreating the sound, but it's probably still not as big as the real thing.

See this young cub and the rest of the lion pride in the Disneynature documentary, which opens in theaters April 22.
DISNEY ENTERPRISES, INC.
See this young cub and the rest of the lion pride in the Disneynature documentary, which opens in theaters April 22.

TFK:

What sort of human or environmental risks did you see affecting the lives of these cats?

SCHOLEY:

The actual Masai Mara National Reserve itself is a protected area. In terms of poaching and things like that, I think they have that very well under control. [As for the] boundary area of all these national parks in Africa . . . [human] populations are growing. In places like Kenya, they are growing very rapidly. The fate of these animals outside the protected areas is becoming increasingly constricted. That's the biggest danger for them. These are big animals, and they need huge space. Even an area like the Masai Mara, which is 1,500 square kilometers [about 930 square miles], is still a bit too small. One thing that's great about the film is that Disney has done this "Save the Savanna" campaign, which is about trying to buy extra corridor space to link up the different areas of the national parks. That's the big issue really for all these wonderful creatures in Africa: the big, huge spaces and keeping the non-protected space free for them, too.

TFK:

What do you hope that kids take away from this film?

SCHOLEY:

I think that there is a really interesting kind of chain reaction with conservation, with keeping anything really: step one, you have to be aware of animals like lions and cheetahs. Once you're aware of them, you can start to learn to value them. So what I hope the film is going to do is by people seeing it, especially kids, they'll really start to value these animals. Once people have a sense of value, then action often follows, and with action comes hope for the future. I think we're the start of that chain, of value-action hope. And then you know these animals have a future. I can't imagine a world without lions and cheetahs living in the wild.


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