Recently I spoke with David Douglas, filmmaker, and Dr. Patricia Wright, primatologist, about the film they collaborated on to make, Island of Lemurs: Madagascar. In typical IMAX fashion, Lemurs is visually stunning, has a resounding and beautiful Malgache soundtrack, and is narrated by Morgan Freeman. The sweeping shots of the island’s countryside are incredible and watching the way that lemurs dance and move and talk to each other is hilarious and joyful in a species-transcendent sort of way. If you are feeling the pulls of wanderlust or the need for warm weather and are near an IMAX theater, go see this. It takes you away.
I spoke first with David Douglas, who told me about the perils of filming from a hot air balloon, the most charismatic creatures, and what it takes to be a nature filmmaker. He’s been working at IMAX since he was fifteen.
Scroll down to read my interview with Dr. Patricia Wright, whose career as a primatologist began when she bought a monkey outside of a Jimi Hendrix concert.
Z:What drew you to IMAX filmmaking?
D: I think that the power of IMAX as a medium gripped me early on. I stumbled upon it when I was a kid and was able to get a job with these guys who were inventing this new thing. So I’ve been with this IMAX giant-screen process since its beginning. Forty-three years, I’ve been doing this.
Z: I’m sure it’s changed a lot.
D: In many ways, but in other ways it still has the same challenges. Engaging people with the world around them and trying to use this enormously powerful medium to do more and more subtle things with the audience in terms of letting them feel comfortable and engaged in a new environment or a new story.
Z: Speaking of challenges, over and over again in the film I heard Morgan Freeman say that the lemurs were incredibly difficult to find in these remote locations. What exactly was the process of finding the lemurs in order to film them?
D: Thank God we had the brilliant and highly experienced scientist, Patricia Wright, to call on. She has been developing a science organization in Madagascar for almost thirty years. And so when we said, Okay, Pat, we want to try to see if we can make a film about Madagascar and about the lemurs, she called on her associates, a number of scientists around the world who have research stations in different places in Madagascar, in the forests that remain. And so she’s got a phone book like nobody else does in terms of getting in touch with these people, so she really drummed up an amazing team of science support to help get to the most filmable wild animals as possible. We’re in her debt for that.
Z: She seemed integral in the film.
D: Totally. It was a totally integrated and cooperative effort in that way.
Z:Were there any shots in particular that were very logistically difficult to get? I’m thinking of that cliff…
D: This is the first time I’ve ever operated from a hot air balloon…
D: There is not much infrastructure in Madagascar. There are not many helicopters or things we would normally use. When you’re making an IMAX film you try to be in the sky, if you can. So, fairly early on we wanted to try to bring out this device that is largely used by scientists studying the rainforest canopy. It’s called the Cinebulle. And it’s a two-man hot air balloon that comes from France. We brought it and its pilot out for about three weeks, so whenever the wind was quiet enough, we’d inflate that balloon in the pre-dawn and start our day off by trying to get some aerials of whatever location we were in at that time. We just kept that balloon with us, wherever we were as we moved from one species to another. So, when you see those shots of that big, tall cliff, and the shots of the human procession with people coming down the road and the trees around them, those are shots that are possible with that balloon that you can’t get with anything else. You could try to get it from a helicopter, but it would be obvious what you were doing. You’d see the trees jumping around from the downwash.
Z: That sounds amazing.
D: It’s a very calming sort of thing. Until you try to land. Landing is not calm. You have really no control when you land.
Z: Actually, sounds…kind of scary.
Z: Did you have any particular goals for this project as a director? It seems like all IMAX films have something that they are advocating for; does this film have a goal?
D: Well, I mean, we try to shape the experience emotionally so that people can take something away at the end. Certainly we’re trying to make people think about how valuable these creatures are alive and what interesting lives they have. They are primates, they have all the same parts as we have, and they have complex lives which parallel our own in any number of ways. They are a shadow of what we came from. It would be a terrible thing if after 60 million years of existence on this planet they were scrubbed out by neglect and ignorance in a couple of thousand years of humans doing slash and burn agriculture because they don’t know any better.
Z: It was sort of eerie the way that they move and their faces and how alike we do seem. I really liked that biology lesson at the beginning of the film that shows our evolutionary connection. It’s close. That was helpful.
D: I thought some context would help.
Z: Speaking of their faces, which are sort of adorable, and I can see why Dr. Wright has devoted herself to them, what are some of the most charismatic creatures you’ve ever filmed and how do lemurs rank?
D: Oh, gosh. Well, I think lemurs are right up there. And there are so many different kinds, so it’s never boring. They are just a bouquet of strange and exotic life forms with all different colors of eyes and crazy fur patterns and different sizes. In my experience they are most closely rivaled by an animal we had in the last film that we made. We made a film called Born to Be Wild, and we worked with another primate, the Orangutan, in Borneo. When you’re working with those creatures, you’re basically working with a hairy tribe of short people. They are so close to being human that the difference isn’t worth talking about. They were studying us all the time and trying to play in our ‘game,’ as it were. So, for charismatic species it’s hard to beat them. We try to choose creatures where it’s going to be easy to expand an audience’s appreciation for the breadth of life that goes on on this planet, and a lot of it is not human.
Z: Most of it, in fact, is not human.
D: In fact. But it’s not a point that is obvious from the lives that we lead in cities.
Z: It’s easy to forget. I imagine you travel quite a bit for your work when you’re on projects. Do you feel more comfortable in the wild? Does it feel strange coming back into cities?
D: I think I am more comfortable out there. There’s a lot that makes me uncomfortable that I’m able to leave behind when I head out into the wild. I’d rather have those challenges of self-sufficiency and of making a film, of things that I’m comfortable dealing with. I know what those challenges are. They are clear to me.
Z: Do you have any advice for budding filmmakers or anyone who would like to get into the sort of work that you do?
D: Budding filmmakers… I guess my advice is that you have to be in it for the long run. Be prepared to put in time to reach a high level of expertise with whatever part of the industry that you want to be in. In terms of technical ability, you need to have a skill set that is professional standard, and that takes time. I know that young people want everything to happen immediately and people will tell you that you can be a filmmaker if you have this camera, and you can, but if you want to be a filmmaker that people will pay to see the work of, that’s a different thing. You just have to be prepared to keep at it until your skill set matches your ambitions.
Z: Tenacity seems key.
The following is my interview with Dr. Patricia Wright, the primatologist featured in Island of Lemurs: Madagascar.
Z: Dr. Wright! I watched Island of Lemurs last night, and I loved it.
P: Great! I love that film. I’ve seen it, like, ten times and I never get tired of it.
Z: Their faces…so human.
P: Everything! Their leaping, their dancing, their sounds. My god, can they sing! I already know about lemurs, so it’s not a surprise for me, but it’s great to be able to share that with the world and have everybody enjoy them like I do.
Z: So, I wanted to ask…it struck me that you went from being a social worker to a primatologist. I can sort of see the link, but I wanted to ask you about that transition.
P: Well, let’s start. Here I was in New York, and I was a social worker, in Brooklyn, actually. And on the weekends I would go to hear rock concerts at the Fillmore East because this was a long time ago… and one day I had a ticket, me and my husband, to see Jimi Hendrix. We got there early, we were so excited, and so we walked across the street and there was a pet store called Fish and Cheeps, and we always liked animals. And so we went into this pet store, and, again, this was a long time ago, and I would not recommend anyone get a monkey as a pet, but I did. I got a monkey, and I fell in love with it. It looked a lot like a lemur, actually, with those big eyes. That led me on this incredible journey.
I went down to the Amazon to find out how it lived, and did a study, the first study, it turned out, on this extraordinary, nocturnal monkey in the wild. I wrote a book about it. So then they told me I had to go to graduate school, and I didn’t want to go. I was content to work and go on, but no, no. So, I went to graduate school, finished, and got a job at Duke Lemur Center. That’s where I fell in love with lemurs. The center is in Durham, North Carolina, and the lemurs there are outside. It was incredible to watch them jumping, like you see in the film. Nobody really knew much about lemurs, though, at all. I had hardly heard of them even though I was getting my doctorate in primatology.
That’s because Madagascar was cut off from the western world for a while because of political problems, so no scientists were able to study lemurs until the end of the ’80s, really. I went over there to find out if this animal that we knew from the fossil record had gone extinct or not. My main function was to see does this animal even exist. And then, when I found it, I mean, what an incredible animal. It was just amazing. It was a bamboo eater. Just charming.
And I found not only the one that I had gone over to find, but I also discovered a new species to science. This beautiful golden animal. Here we had the Golden Bamboo Lemur, which I got to name, and the Greater Bamboo Lemur, which had almost gone extinct, and about thirteen other species. But then the timber exporters came in and started chopping down the forest, and I got totally freaked out, as you can imagine, and went to the government and asked them if they could make it a protected area. They said to me, you get the money, we’ll help you make it a national park. That’s when I became a conservationist, and ever since that time I’ve been trying to save those animals. We did make a national park in 1991, but, you know, that was just the beginning. There was a lot more to do.
Z: How exactly did you go about securing that land? Did you campaign for funds?
P: I had no idea how to make a national park. That’s not what you learn in graduate school! So, I had to learn by doing. Part of the reason, I think, that it’s been so successful is that I didn’t know what I was doing.
The first thing I did was go around to all the villages adjacent to the proposed park and talk to them. You know, if we make this backyard of yours a national park, you’re not going to be able to go in there and hunt, so what can we do for you to make you happy that there’s a park in your backyard? And they almost all had the same answers. They said we need health clinics and we really need schools, and we need some economic help if we’re not going to be able to hunt, and we need a soccer ball. They were kicking around these balled up vines.
So they got the soccer ball first, and then I got some USAID funding, for health, and then Liz Claiborne and her foundation gave us some help, UNICEF helped us with the education piece. And so what I’ve learned to do, without knowing how to make a national park, is piece together these bits of funding and all these experts, so that this project is multi-faceted. It’s not just ‘saving the lemurs,’ it’s saving the health, education, livelihood of the people around the park, too. There are lots of projects that cross over. We are studying the infectious diseases and parasites of the lemurs and the infectious diseases and parasites of the people and comparing and contrasting. We have a lot of projects like that. Research where everybody benefits.
Z: So are you based mostly now in the research center you set up in Madagascar?
P: Two-thirds of my time is spent in Madagascar, but I also teach. I teach at Stonybrook University. I’m a professor! I teach classes in conservation, and I take students to Madagascar ever year. My graduate students are really helping us to learn what we don’t know about lemurs. We still don’t know enough. I take almost fifty undergraduates from different universities out there.
Z: Sounds like a fun trip.
P: Oh, it’s great. They get to see the mountain park, the spiny desert, the mangrove swamp. Such a diverse place. And so many species that are only found on Madagascar. Of course you know that female lemurs are the leaders of the group…
Z: I was about to ask you about that, actually. Did that draw you to them? That immediately piqued my interest, that they’re matriarchal. Is that unique to them as a primate species?
P: No, its not unique. There are other primates that have female leaders, but they are unique in that ALL the females are leaders. And it’s in every single lemur species where it’s the females who are calling the shots and leading to the fruit trees.
Z: They seem pretty fierce. You seem to know the lemurs you study really well. Do they know you?
P: They really do. I’ve been studying some of them, most of them now, since they were born. Recently, I was in the forest with lots of tourists. One of the ways we’ve made the park valuable to the local people is creating jobs through tourism. They’re either working as park rangers or tour guides or in hotels. So, anyways, I’m with lots of tourists underneath the lemurs I’ve been studying, right? And I was there, watching, and then all the tourists decided to go back to the lodge for lunch. So they all left, and I was left alone. And all of a sudden all of these lemurs that had been far up in the trees came right down and sat next to me. And it was like, okay, Pat, how are you? They do know me, and it’s really gratifying.
Z: They definitely seem to be studying the film crew as they were being filmed.
P: They definitely were, and it’s great. My daughter was a teenager when she was with me in Madagascar, and she went to school there, and the young lemurs would try to play with her. They knew that she was the young one and I was just the adult.
Z: In the film, you say that you feel most comfortable and at home with the lemurs. Can you talk a little about that?
P: It’s comfortable for me to be in a rainforest because it’s very complex. All these things are going on at the same time. And so its not exactly a quiet place. But when I’m out there, I’m just with nature, and it’s just a wonderful feeling. The stress of our human world passes away, and I can just sit and watch the animals and try to understand what they’re doing. It’s very restful and really fun for me.
Z: Finally, what do you consider your biggest success?
P: When it’s all said and done… you know, I’ve discovered a new species, I rediscovered a species we thought was extinct, I’ve got three medals of honor, I’ve got many scientific papers published, my new book is coming out…
P:…right? All these things are great, but I think when history writes the book, it might be just this movie. I think this film is going to raise the awareness of so many people that we just might be able to save those lemurs from extinction if we work together.
Island of Lemurs came out in theaters April 4th, 2014.