Nature’s glory, human folly
With a new TV series on Yellowstone National Park on the horizon, BBC creative director Michael Gunton ponders the tricky art of making a great nature doco. Grant Smithies reports.
We don’t get off to a very good start. ‘‘Oh, my God!’’ says Michael Gunton from his office at the BBC. ‘‘They’ve sent you the wrong bloody film!’’
He sounds a little posh and more than a little exasperated. How could this happen?
‘‘There are two BBC series on Yellowstone, you see. I can tell by your questions that I worked on the other one. I can’t believe that TVNZ sent you the wrong show!’’
I’m sure that he’d love to rant and rave about this, but Gunton is a reserved Englishman, and a professional. He didn’t get where he is today by losing his rag.
Gunton goes by the rather grand title of Creative Director; Factual at BBC Worldwide. A director/producer of 35 years, and armed with a zoology doctorate from Cambridge, he has made more than 120 wildlife films, won Baftas and Emmys, and climbed the career tree like a particularly energetic orangutan to the very top.
If you’ve ever watched one of the Beeb’s nature docos, sitting captivated while the secret lives of fish, flesh and fowl play out against magnificent natural backdrops, Gunton probably had a hand in making it.
The recently screened Blue Planet II, for example, fronted by his good mate Sir David Attenborough, was Gunton’s baby.
I want to know precisely what it is that’s so very special about Yellowstone National Park in the United States. Why did the BBC feel compelled to make not one but two indepth series about the place? And why should we sit in rapt attention before our TV sets on January 28 when one of these series hits our screens?
‘‘Well, that is easy to answer. Yellowstone is one of the most important and unusual wildlife habitats on the planet. Partly that’s for historical reasons – it was the first ever National Park, anywhere in the world. But also it’s down to the geology of the place. It ranges across Wyoming, Montana and Idaho, across vast mountains and plains. There’s nowhere else on Earth quite like it.’’
Yellowstone is perfect subject matter for documentary film-making, Gunton says, because of its inherent drama. It is an extraordinarily hostile environment for much of the year.
Their Finest, Saturday, 8.30pm, Rialto
Danish director Lone Scherfig (An Education) once again proves a master of creating a sense of space and place. In this 2017 drama, wartime Britain is lovingly brought to life in all its stiff-upperlip and danger-every-night glory. This is a film that skilfully manages to juxtapose broad humour with bleak drama, as our ‘‘heroes’’ attempt to use their typewriters and acting skills to lift a nation. Gemma Arterton, Bill Nighy and Sam Claflin star.
Embrace of the Serpent, Monday, 8.30pm, Rialto
Shot in evocative black-and-white, this Oscar-nominated 2015 Colombian film has echoes of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto and
‘‘It’s quite genuinely epic, so watching something filmed there sort of reconnects you to the power of nature, and to the heroism of the creatures that make their lives in such a tough environment. The animals that live there have this rollercoaster life, because it goes from being one of the coldest places on the planet in winter, to one of the hottest in summer.’’
‘‘Even when it’s minus 40 [Celsius], there’s incredible heat in some places due to all these thermal geysers, because the entire park is up very high, in the bowl of one of the biggest volcanos on Earth. All these volcanic explosions in the distant past have created this very peculiar landscape. The bowl makes moist air condense in winter, and you get about 50 feet of snow there.‘‘
The makers of both series have divided their work into three episodes, based around the changing seasons.
‘‘From a natural history point of view, this makes good sense, because as the temperature changes, different animals are in the ascendancy. In the winter, when it’s at its snowiest, the wolves love it. All the other creatures struggle and they’re easier to catch, so the wolves have lots of food. And then, the works of Rolf de Heer, as Amazonian shaman Karamakae, the last of his people, assists two European scientists (on individual journeys, separated by 40 when the snow melts, the elk and other deer all bugger off and the wolves really struggle.
‘‘In spring and summer, when it warms up, the bears who’ve been hibernating all winter come out, and grizzlies become the dominant creatures. Then in autumn, the deer become the most prominent creatures. It’s like a three-part drama, with each act having different heroes, if you like.’’
There are freak storms, flash floods, forest fires, way up high in the Rockies, in the giant bowl of a sleeping volcano, bounded on three sides by mountains. The sheer scale of the place is astonishing.
‘‘Yes, it really is enormous, and there are glorious aerial shots looking down on these huge frozen lakes. And when it gets super, super cold, all the moisture in the air freezes to ice and the crystals are so tiny, they don’t fall like snow; they just blow around and refract the light, and everything is bathed in this silvery-gold colour, like diamonds. It’s a spectacularly beautiful place.’’
It’s also surprisingly fragile. Huge cattle ranches surround the national park, the owners of which are less than
years) to locate a sacred healing plant. A provocative and compelling drama with a stunning sting in its tale.
I Am Heath Ledger, Monday, 8.45pm, Three
Like fellow recent documentaries on Whitney Houston, Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain, this 2017 movie aims to tell the tale of a troubled life through the artist’s own words and those of their nearest and dearest. Australian-born Ledger was a rising Hollywood star who was arguably in his best form when he died in early 2008 at the age of just 28.
Harry Potter: A History of Magic, Tuesday, 8.35pm, Prime
Miriam Margolyes narrates this new British documentary made to celebrate chuffed when elk and bison venture out to graze their land, or wolf packs swipe their stock.
During the 1920s, wolves were culled to appease local ranchers. The populations of other critters went haywire, and during the 1990s, new wolves were imported from Canada amid howls of outrage from farmers to restock the park with apex predators.
‘‘Yes, well, that was a really strong illustration of how closely intertwined these ecosystems are. It’s like a giant Jenga game; you pull one piece out and the whole thing tumbles to the ground. When wolves were taken out, the elk population skyrocketed. They then decimated this sagebrush tree a lot of other animals depend on, and the whole ecosystem started to change. Once they brought wolves back again, the elk population came down, and balance returned.’’
The messy human politics surrounding wilderness areas are often downplayed in nature docos, presumably because they’re a bummer for viewers. They can enter a world where blundering, selfish humans are kept at a distance and fascinating, complex, deeply photogenic animal societies reign supreme.
Dead coral reefs, vast acreages of floating plastic bags, ranchers offing wolves, skinny polar bears traipsing miles to find food over sea ice thinned by global warming – our human legacy of protracted damage to the natural world is not what most nature doco fans are looking for.
Gunton wrestles with this issue every time he commissions a show.
‘‘It’s as if you’re dealing with a lot of very strong flavours, and if you combine them badly, you have a very unsatisfying sort of stew. You need to carefully consider how you mix them.’’
With the two Yellowstone series, he says, it was primarily an opportunity to celebrate a truly magical wilderness area, and give an inkling of how it had evolved.
Gunton’s quick to point out that other shows made on his watch have gone into considerable detail about human environmental destructiveness.
‘‘With Blue Planet II or Planet Earth II, for example, I felt it would be irresponsible not to point out the negative human impact on nature, because those shows aren’t looking at one small area; they’re considering the entire planet. They’re like an audit of the natural world right now.
‘‘There are many ways of skinning a cat. Showing people the wonder of a place while just hinting at its fragility can be just as powerful as a hardhitting documentary outlining all these grim things we’ve done to nature. If you want to protect something, the first step is to love it.‘‘
will screen on TVNZ 1 across three consecutive Sundays from January 28 at 7.30 pm.
the British Library’s exhibition of the same name. As well as offering a tour of the priceless collection of Potter artefacts, it also features interviews with the film series’ actors Warwick Davis, David Thewlis, Mark Williams, Evanna Lynch, as well as author J.K Rowling herself.
Life, Animated, Thursday, 8.30pm, Rialto
Falling silent at age 3, Owen Suskind’s parents feared he would never speak again. However, their routine of watching Disney animated classics together to forget about their troubles had an unexpected side-effect, Owen began to re-engage with – and make sense of – the world through the prism of The Lion King and Aladdin, as this 2016 documentary reveals.– James Croot