Jazz Tangcay talks to Simon Fuller about how a trip to the Serengeti and his work with animal charities inspired Discovery Channel’s Serengeti
When you hear the name Simon Fuller, you think Pop Idol, American Idol. Fulller is the mastermind behind those shows, but he also had a passion for animals and nature. Behind the scenes, Fuller was active, working with animal charities, and one trip to the Serengeti inspired what would become the basis for Discovery’s newest nature documentary.
Fuller developed a show with a difference, a show that gives viewers a narrative by creating characters and storylines to weave the series together. He wanted to bring the viewer closer to the animal and the character narrative. “My feeling my whole life is that animals do have feelings. ” Fuller says as he takes us into those feelings. I caught up with Fuller to talk about Serengeti ahead of the series premiere
Was it the trip to the Serengeti or the work with animal charities that inspired this?
It was a combination. My family and I love animals, and if I were to pick one cause that I champion myself, it would be in the arena of animals and nature. I’ve often been asked to contribute thoughts to a number of charities from the WWF to United for Wildlife. Every now and again, I’ll have people call and ask if I want to contribute thoughts. I’ll attend board meetings and hear the dialogue, and really want to do stuff.
But, it’s complicated the way everything is in the modern world. The way I would do things isn’t necessarily what everyone else would do. I thought, “What could I do? If I could do anything, how could I contribute to animal causes and human respect for nature?”
I started mulling ti when I was in the Serengeti when I was working on a music project and taking a two-day break. I was sitting there and thinking about it while I was on a game drive on my own. As I was driving around and pondering, I started to see everything and I started relating to it as if animals and humans aren’t that different. There are mothers protecting their children. There are young males being cast out of their families and going off on their own. There were so many fundamentals that are applicable in the animal kingdom as with humans, and I think it suddenly dawned on me that there was something huge here.
Most of my output is mainly pop culture and mainstream focused, one thing I’ve always known is that a lot of people love animals. It’s a part of our lives. I think for some reason, all wildlife shows, and when I say all, I mean many reflect animals as animals and they don’t ever touch the note that maybe we’re not so different. Maybe they’re not as blank and cold as some humans like to portray them. I know we’re very conscious of not putting human emotions on to animals, but that’s not the point. My feeling my whole life is that animals do have feelings. Animals do communicate, and they do so in different ways to humans. You can observe any animal and not just a pet to know that there’s a hell of a lot going on there. One thing led to another and I thought, I’d love to do a show that really shone a light on this side of animals that has really gone unnoticed.
I wanted to bring more empathy between the viewer and the animal. Instead of seeing them as scary wild creatures in these distant lands, suddenly it’s a mother, it’s a son, it’s a parent, it’s an enemy or it’s a friend. I just had the idea and got so excited by it. That’s really where it came from. The more empathy that humans feel towards nature and animals, the more likely we’ll have positive change. This show was born out of that notion that we’re not that different. As humans, we like to think we’re super smart, but we’re very vulnerable and we’re not that dissimilar to a beautiful animal in the Serengeti searching for this next meal and putting food on the table.
To me, it’s a very mainstream idea, but in my mind, it’s as broad as a music or entertainment show. We can watch a thousand cop shows and dramas and we tell all these fictional stories all based on human lives, but no one tells stories about animals. It’s not just for Disney to tell these stories.
I love the story aspect. I love that whole idea of characters and telling that story.
We knew the intent was to tell the story of these families in the Serengeti, and we wanted to tell the story of these perspectives. We couldn’t construct the stories in the way you would a drama. So, we went out and shot everything. We chose the families we wanted to follow, and we followed them for a year and a half. We created the stories after we had captured the footage. It’s a complete reversal of what drama as we know it is, but it worked fantastically well. We knew we had the footage to tell the stories. They were incredible.
John Downer is one of the greatest ever producers on the natural world, and he captured things on Serengeti that he had never seen before, never mind filmed. Because of the way we did it, and we did it in a compact space. We were given complete freedom. It’s a private reserve. We had cameras everywhere. We had drones which we used sparingly, but it allowed us to really capture imagery that has previously not been seen. When you have the tragedy of Bakari and what happens to his lady getting badly killed by the snake, that was something we caught by luck. I can’t wait for you to see the rest of the series because it gets better and better.
The final episode is epic. I was watching the final versions of 5 and 6, and I’m in awe of it all. IT’s the drama and the storytelling and it’s true. These things happened, and they weren’t made up. I’m pleasantly surprised that no one has attempted to do it before.
Between the score of Lola Lennox and Lupita’s voice, that really adds to all that we’re seeing.
Well, Lupita is so incredible. I can’t wait for season two. Again, we managed to get her to do it because she has a real passion for animals. She’s from Kenya, and the Serengeti goes from Tanzania to Kenya. She really immersed herself in it, but the end of the 6th episodes she’ was really getting into her stride and she has this gentle lilt to her voice and it’s so empathetic. She really has it in her voice.
Lola is something else. It’s ethereal. She trained as a classical singer. She has this purity of sound, and her mum is a legend. It’s one of those things, and all of it came together beautifully. I’ll be honest with you, but we were learning as we went along.
John was saying when we were starting the second season, and he said, “Now that we know what this is, it’s going to make it so much easier. We can really take it to the next level.” I can only imagine what that means.
SERENGETI premieres on SUNDAY, AUGUST 4 at 8:00pm ET/PT on Discovery