BBC's 'Dynasties' Captures The Complicated Social Lives Of 5 Different Species Executive producer Michael Gunton says following lions, chimps, tigers, painted wolves and emperor penguins for two years allowed filmmakers to capture the unique social dynamics of these animals.

BBC's 'Dynasties' Captures The Complicated Social Lives Of 5 Different Species

BBC's 'Dynasties' Captures The Complicated Social Lives Of 5 Different Species

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Executive producer Michael Gunton says following lions, chimps, tigers, painted wolves and emperor penguins for two years allowed filmmakers to capture the unique social dynamics of these animals.


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. There's a lot of great dramatic television these days. And our subject today is a series where none of the stars are professional actors. In fact, none of them are human.


GROSS: "Dynasties" is a new five-part BBC series focusing on groups of animals from five different species, each with rich and complex social lives. There's an hour each on lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves and emperor penguins. Naturalists and camera crews followed each group for up to two years, long enough so that the episodes reveal the social relationships among the animals, their kinship and affection, as well as their rivalries and power struggles. Real plotlines develop and drama unfolds. The series is narrated by David Attenborough.

Our guest is the executive producer, Michael Gunton. He has advanced degrees in zoology and animal biology and is creative director of the factual and natural history unit of the BBC, where he spent most of his career. "Dynasties" premiered January 19. It's airing on BBC America, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV and will soon be available on demand. Gunton spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.

DAVE DAVIES, BYLINE: Well, Michael Gunton, welcome to FRESH AIR. You know, there've been lots of terrific TV films and series about animals over the years, many you've participated in with David Attenborough. But this one was different. You're putting a ton of cameras and equipment and personnel, committing them to a family for two years. And it is remarkable. You had to pick the right families - in effect, cast the series for...

MICHAEL GUNTON: Yeah. I mean, I've used that expression. And it does sound strange in terms of documentary. But, actually, that is exactly what we had to do because the only way I felt this would work is if you could be sure - as it were, sure as you possibly can be. You can never be sure in nature - that one, the animals were box office animals, that they had real charisma and people would want to watch them; two, that we could get access to them and that they had scientific backing, scientists studying them so that we knew the stories we were telling were true; but most importantly that we needed to be pretty sure that something tumultuous was going to happen in their lives.

It was going to be a real change because, you know, we called this series dinasties (ph) - or dynasties, as you say it - because it is about power struggles within families and about animals trying to either hold onto their rulership or take over. So we wanted to make sure that there was going to be real dramatic action.

DAVIES: So these are - really involves plotlines, in effect, among individuals. I guess the penguins was a little different. But...


DAVIES: Among four of the five, you have these real struggles that develop among individuals in the species. And I thought we'd listen to one clip. This is from the episode called "Chimpanzee," where you follow a group of chimpanzees. And there's an alpha male named David. He's been named by the scientists who've been studying them. He's had that role for three years, which is around the time these things typically change. He's kind of a, you know, a very mature alpha...


DAVIES: ...Male. And in this little section, we're going to hear David Attenborough narrates as the chimps are eating termites from a big mound. Let's listen.


DAVID ATTENBOROUGH: These chimps have learned to use grass stems as tools to fish out the insects.


ATTENBOROUGH: As leader, David gets his pick of the feeding spots. But he is wary, as he must feed alongside old enemies. He has two particularly ambitious rivals. David's toes begin to twitch - a nervous tic he can't conceal. This is Jumkin, who has long sought the top spot, and this Luther...


ATTENBOROUGH: ...A tempestuous younger male...


ATTENBOROUGH: ...With an aggressive streak.


ATTENBOROUGH: The troop is together for the first time in months. And jostling for good feeding spots can easily lead to clashes.


ATTENBOROUGH: It's vital that David keeps order and defuses the situation. All eyes are on him.


ATTENBOROUGH: His display shows he is in control.

DAVIES: Oh, it's a rumble.

GUNTON: (Laughter).

DAVIES: That is David Attenborough in the series "Dynasty" (ph). Our guest is the executive producer, Michael Gunton. This is a fascinating story. And when you invested in following these groups, did the crews know what the plotlines of the story would be?

GUNTON: Well, that's the key thing. When I was thinking about how this might work and sort of selling the idea to my bosses, who were actually going to have to pay for it, you know, one of the things I was saying to them is that these will end up feeling quite like drama but they cannot be plotted because these are true observational documentaries. We have the confidences that if we know enough about these animals and enough about the situation that we're pretty certain something is - dramatic is going to happen. And we will just follow that action as it happens. There were certainly times when things weren't happening or things were happening we weren't predicting. And we weren't being able to kind of work out what was going to happen.

But I think that's what has made them so exciting to watch as viewers because they feel they are witnessing something that they really do not know what's going to happen in the same way that we didn't. So for the crews, it's kind of keeping your wits about you all the time, about where's this heading, who's - you know, is that animal going to make its move now for - to challenge or is something else going to happen here? So in shooting it, it's quite an unusual situation because you're kind of having to cover almost everything.

But also, you have to really concentrate on the detail because sometimes, the clue and the things that the audience want to see may be quite a subtle movement, like a little look or little baring of its teeth. So these were long - these were two years, sometimes longer, filming these creatures. And to keep that kind of concentration and that intensity of following them and trying to film them was, you know, was, again, a unique thing we've not done before.

DAVIES: In this particular story, David is eventually attacked by some of his rivals, the alpha male - alpha of the chimpanzees and suffers some pretty nasty injuries, which are really graphically seen in the series. He makes a comeback by building alliances almost like a ward politician. You want to describe what happens here.

GUNTON: Two things happen when David is attacked. So the females coming into breeding season is what finally stimulated these - his rivals to come together and make their move. And what's strange is that one of the females is particularly attractive. So, apparently, whenever she gets into - comes into breeding conditions - breeding season - the males get more interested because she's the - they find her the most attractive. Anyway, she came into season, so that's why his rivals picked their moment to attack him. And they attacked him so severely. They, effectively, left him for dead. And we actually thought he was dead.

But rather like something out of the - kind of cross between "The Revenant" and, you know, something from, like, Clint Eastwood in one of those "Fistful Of Dollar" (ph) movies. He does recover slowly. And he goes off to feed himself up and to build his strength because he knows that if he doesn't get back to the troop soon, one of the usurpers will take over power. So he builds himself and builds himself. And - you know, these terrible injuries. He walks the 10 kilometers - seven or eight miles - to where they are and then makes this enormous gamble, which is that even though he's weak and unable to and would actually in a - if it came to a fight, would not be able to win.

He kind of stands up on his back legs and makes himself look as big as possible and just walks towards his - this major rival to intimidate him as much as he can. And the rival has this - you can see it in his face. This moment he thinks, this shouldn't be happening. I thought we'd killed you. He's coming back towards and he looks around, almost for - the rival looks around for support, doesn't get any. And then just at that moment, just bottles it and says, I can't do it, and runs away. And David, effectively, by not actually having to strike a blow, has regained his position in the - as the alpha.

DAVIES: Yeah. And then this thing happens where he's still an aging leader. He's not as strong as some of these young, tough ones. And he employs a strategy to get help.

GUNTON: Yeah. What normally happens is that males - these alpha males will try and get a kind of a group of other males to support him. Of course, the politics of this is all - there's duplicity going on all over the place. So, you know, he's trying to get friends and allies. But can he really trust them? But what he, in the end, does, which, I think, is - he always had this one particular friend who supported him. But just the two of them together weren't strong enough.

So what he now does is he tries to court the attentions and the favors of the elders of the troop, who are too old now to really challenge him. Once you get to above about 24-ish in chimp - in this particular society, you're too old. And they are past that. So it's worth their while being his friend because if they are his friend, they might get some benefits from being with him. So they might potentially be able to go off and have a little quick, sneaky mating with one of the females, or something like that.

So it's a kind of, you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. And together, they create this alliance. So when the younger males later try and do a takeover again, they suddenly realize, no, we can't because he's got all these other guys with him, and they're together. They're far too strong.

DAVIES: Michael Gunton is executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Gunton. He's executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties," an intimate look at five animal species. Each episode focuses on the group dynamics of a single group or family in the species over an extended period of time. It premiered January 19 and is airing on BBC America, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV and will be available on demand.

Let's talk about how you shoot this stuff. I mean, a lot of the shots of these animals are really close. What did the crews have to do to get so close and stay so close - 'cause some of these animals really move.

GUNTON: (Laughter) Yes. One of the essential elements of the series is that you feel close to the animals. You want to - we want the audience to feel in their world and kind of experiencing the world and the challenges that those animals are facing. And so how you do that photographically is part of the way we get that to work. We're not actually as close as often as it might appear because there are certain things that operate when you're doing this. If you get - you always have to consider any impact you might have on the behavior. And if you get too close, there comes a point where you do start to influence their behavior. You distract them or they become aware of your presence.

So the skill, I think, of the crews out there - and they're all fantastic natural historians, biologists, in their own right - is just constantly gauging that proximity barrier, if you like. Now, some of this is done on telephoto lenses. But we tried wherever we can to not do that, but to try and get the camera off the tripod and in a more hand-held - the cameras in a more fluid way and using slightly wider-angle lenses, which does demand that you get closer.

So part of it, as I say, is understanding the reaction of the animals. And they are all habituated, to some degree, in the sense that they're observed by scientists or naturalists. And so they are used to human presence. And, you know, the chimpanzee film that we were talking about is - you know, that was an interesting one. When you turn up there after having been away for a while, David, the chimpanzee, the alpha male, will look at the crew and sort of think - maybe just give them a stare or do something, and sort of say, I remember you. Don't forget, I'm the boss. And then turn away and then forget them for the rest of time he's there.

And they - I don't know whether they think we're kind of walking trees, or something like that. But it's a quite interesting relationship that you have with them. You don't want to really have a relationship, but you certainly don't want them to be conscious of your presence.

DAVIES: One of the remarkable shots in the series is of tiger cubs in a den, which was really secluded. They're (laughter) really adorable and amazing. How do you set up a camera to capture that?

GUNTON: Well, filming those baby tiger cubs is a good example of how you have to be very, very careful about disturbance, and how you have to really plan how you get certain shots in a program like this, particularly when you're trying to follow individual life stories. Filming tiger cubs is not something that people have been able to do very often because often, you're just simply not allowed to or unable to actually get close to them.

So what we did was, we were able to use - once we'd located where the den was, we used remote cameras so that the cameraman was able to approach and put a camera on a long, super-extended tripod. And on that tripod was a camera with a number of remote servers on it which allowed him to pan, and tilt, and zoom and change the exposure. And then that was wirelessly connected to a control panel, which he was then able to retreat off to some distance away and then just leave it. Because if you would try to do it in a hide, or a blind, as you guys call it, that would be too disturbing.

So by being a long distance away and just letting the camera on its own, you know, he was able to spend four hours filming those cubs, which, I don't think it would be possible any other way. And that's why you get that extraordinary intimacy. And, you know, it's one of the most beautiful sequences in the whole series, those cubs - and also unique. I mean, people never get that close to them and able to film like that.

DAVIES: And some of these animals really range over large areas. How did you keep track of them?

GUNTON: Well, (laughter), every one of these films had its own logistical challenge in that sense because the chimpanzees there, they don't move very far, but when they do move, they go. And this is a really tough habitat. That forest is 40 degrees centigrade. That's 40 - yeah - 40 degrees centigrade. I don't know what that is in Fahrenheit, but it's very (laughter) hot and humid and ghastly. And then we were filming the painted wolves, and they range over enormous areas. So that, you're in vehicles. You're using drones to follow them. At one point, we had about five different crews following those two packs.

With the emperor penguins, that's not a case of - they don't move anywhere, but you have to be out there in -40 degrees centigrade, which I think is actually the same as -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and even colder with windchill. And that's the most brutal place on planet Earth. So every single one of these things has a particular kind of logistical challenge that you have to adapt your crews and your filmmaking approach, in fact, to accommodate.

DAVIES: You know, it was fascinating - at the end of each of the episodes is a few minutes in which we meet the crew, and they talk about what they do. And in the one on painted wolves, these wild dogs that were - there are two packs that you follow, one of the trackers said he could distinguish them by smell?

GUNTON: Yeah, absolutely. In fact, there is a situation where, (laughter), the vehicle drives over a dropping. One of the painted wolves had had a poo there, and they drove over it. And as they drove over it, it squished it. So it released some smell. And he said, stop, we're following a different pack here. That's the other pack.

And they...

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GUNTON: ...Had some radio tracking devices, and they flipped - they couldn't find the wolves. They flipped the frequency on the radio tracking, and then it went ping, ping, ping, ping. And it was the other pack. And he could tell because the diet of that particular pack, they had switched to hunting baboons. And the smell of baboon remains in there, in the dogs' feces, he could smell. It is kind of weirdly uncanny (laughter), what they can do, actually. It's sort of feels, whew, kind of magical.

DAVIES: Yeah. And in that case, there actually were some electronic tracking devices...


DAVIES: ...Attached to some individuals in the pack...


DAVIES: ...Right? Yeah.

GUNTON: Yeah. So that - we don't apply - attach these devices. The scientific researchers do this to some individuals so they can follow the packs for various parts of their scientific research. With the painted wolves, I don't think - it would - although we - the trackers were amazing. And actually, for long distance tracking, you sometimes can only do it by that kind of traditional tracking skills. But when you're closer, strangely, they're actually sometimes harder to find because they might be sleeping under a thicket or something like that. And that's when the radio tracking devices sometimes can help you zero in on them and find them.

DAVIES: What dangers did the crew face?

GUNTON: We get asked this a lot about the dangers from - and people - I assume they mean from the animals. And the - to us, there's almost no danger from the animals because if there was, we wouldn't be doing our job right - because I think if the animals are aware of you or if you're in a situation where you might be attacked or might put yourself in danger, you have stepped too close, or you have done something that is disturbing the natural course of events. So really, the dangers we face are really driving around, flying around, going in boats or occasionally bumping into people with guns.

DAVIES: Oh, really - people with guns?

GUNTON: Well, on this series, that didn't really happen. But that - you know, on my - in my career, the most scared I've ever been is bumping into roadblocks in some of the more hostile parts of the world and with seeing people who, perhaps, were scared and weren't quite sure what to do and maybe didn't - we didn't have much in common in language. And yeah - that's scary.

DAVIES: Right.

GUNTON: Well, I've never been scared by - well, actually, that's not true. I have been scared by a rhino once. But pretty much, in 35 years, I've never really been scared by an animal.

DAVIES: You know, there are times when the crew are, you know, photographing, you know, animals, which can - which are serious predators - I mean, tigers and lions - and are sometimes, you know, hungry, almost starving. Don't they ever get concerned that the animals look at them and - that's moving.

GUNTON: (Laughter) You obviously have to respect all animals - that they are potentially a risk, a danger to you. Funny enough, actually, predatory animals are often less of a risk than things like rhinos and elephants or buffalo. Hippos - I mean, those are the ones that do more damage to people than predators, generally, partly because you don't think they're going to do any damage. But we always have to be very, very careful of how close we approach. And we are always very conscious of - you know, we're all natural historians. We're all, you know, biologists. We understand. We spend a lot of time in the field. And I think we have good antenna about when things are beginning to turn out wrong.

And to be honest, if somebody got attacked by a predator - one of our film group - I'd be really cross with them because they will have done something wrong. They will have got themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time because if you put yourself in a situation like that, you're already - the animal's aware of you in a way that it shouldn't be aware of you. So I think we are pretty confident. We've - touch wood - we've never had an incident like that in all the 60 years that the natural history unit has been making films. And I think that's because we just kind of know what we're doing and make sure that that situation doesn't happen.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Gunton, executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." After a break, we'll talk about gender differences in the animals they followed for this series and how painted wolves care for their sick, injured and elderly. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Michael Gunton, the executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." The series provides a close look at five species of animals: lions, chimpanzees, tigers, painted wolves and emperor penguins. The episodes reveal the complex social relationships of these animals, showing kinship and affection and sometimes deadly power struggles. Each group of animals was followed for years by camera crews and naturalists.

DAVIES: They must get attached to the animals they follow. I mean, they, you know, in some cases, follow these individuals for two years. And there are cases, I mean, where the team could choose to intervene. There was one amazing scene where - in the lion episode where - it's - a young male lion named Red, I think, wanders in to a bunch of hyenas.


DAVIES: Want to describe what happens there?

GUNTON: Young males in all - virtually all animals, ourselves included, often think they're a bit tougher and a bit braver and a bit cleverer than they really are. And one of the young males in this - in Charm's pride - as they do it, this - they're - just before they're beginning to probably leave and go off and live their own lives, he was wandering around and thinking he was a bit of a - you know, bit invincible and ended up caught in a kind of a corral of hyenas and very quickly discovered that he was completely outnumbered.

And the hyenas decided that they were going to take him out, and they just would not leave him. And they - what - of course, if he got one of them in his jaws, he could kill them instantly. But they were very clever. They'd run in. Some of them would run in, and he'd snap at them. And the others would then run in and bite him on his rear. And they were, basically, trying to wound him and weaken him so that they could eventually - well, we don't know if they would've killed him. But it looked like that was what they were trying to do. And he was - and this was going on and on and on. And he was trying to fight them off, and then they would fight. And you could see he was getting weak, tired. And it didn't look like it was going to end happily.

There was a lot of - you know, a huge cacophony of sound, you know, rumpus of all this going, the howling of the hyenas, him roaring, all the rest of it. His half-brother was also out and about and heard this in the distance and looked over and came running over. And when he saw it, he ran in. And as soon as the hyenas saw there was another male lion, they stop it because suddenly, there were two jaws to fight - to bite rather than just one. And the odds were then completely against them. And so that - his half-brother, basically, saved his life.

DAVIES: Right. But I think we as the audience, and, I'm sure, the crew that was filming it, were thinking, oh, my God. We're going to see this...


DAVIES: ...Animal that we've developed this affection for ripped to pieces. Wow.

GUNTON: But the thing about that, you know, if you - people say, you know, talking about intervention, what would you do? I mean, as an observer of a camera crew, one - well, you know, if you walked in there, you'd probably end up being eaten by one or other of them.

DAVIES: Drive a vehicle towards them. No.

GUNTON: Yeah. But then what would they then - would the lion turn on you? Would the hyenas turn on you? Also, you have to take a kind of a judgment call that you're interfering with what is, you know, the rhythms of life, if you like. He had made a mistake. And that was what was going to happen. And I think if you'd intervened in that way, I think you'd - I think it would be a very difficult thing to justify. It's heartbreaking.

But I think you take a view. It's this sort of rule that you judge every situation on its own merits. And there was another situation in the series when - there was a difference - where we took a different view. But in that particular case, I think, you just observe what you're seeing. And let nature take its course.

DAVIES: Well, I want to talk about one case where the film crew did intervene to help some animals. And we have a clip from this series. This is about the emperor penguins. And they're on this huge ice sheet, where hundreds - maybe thousands - have come to breed, right? And...

GUNTON: Thousands, yeah.

DAVIES: And they're - they've given birth to their chicks. And they're holding them in these warm little pouches in kind of - just off the ice at the base of their legs. But a storm has come up. And about 50 or so of these penguins were blown into a gully maybe 50 feet deep. And the sides of the gully are too steep and icy for them to climb out. So they're going to die there. And some of the chicks are starting to die. The film crew observes this. And then a storm comes up. And they have to leave because conditions are just too fierce. And then we pick up the story here - again, David Attenborough narrating.


ATTENBOROUGH: Two days later, the weather allows the team to return to the colony. Already, the gully has claimed more casualties. The team decide to act.

WILL LAWSON: We've given it a lot of thought. We've decided that we are definitely going to dig a shallow ramp that they will hopefully use.

ATTENBOROUGH: It's fairly rare for the film crew to intervene. But they realize that they may be able to save at least some of these birds simply by digging a few steps in the ice.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Oh, man. Will, look.

LAWSON: Oh, my goodness. We were literally just about to leave. But the first birds are definitely making their way out, which is brilliant. So hopefully, they'll just make their way back to the colony. And them and their chicks will have a much better chance of survival because there's no chance that they were going to survive down there at all.


DAVIES: And that is from the series "Dynasties." Our guest is Michael Gunton, the executive producer of the BBC series - pretty dramatic moment. And there are a few other cases. There was a case of a tiger who wanders too close to a village. And, I guess, in cooperation with conservation authorities, they tranquilize it and bring it back. I guess these were tough calls.

GUNTON: Yes. I - in the case of the tiger, we had no involvement in that at all. We just observed that. That was all done by the authorities. And generally, when there is an intervention like that, as there was, actually, in the lion film where the - one of the lions gets poisoned, again, it's the authorities who make that decision to intervene or not. But with the emperor penguins, it was such an unusual situation because all those kind of things I was mentioning or mentioned before about, you know, changing the dynamic between a predator and prey or between two fighting animals or feeding an animal that's starving, all those kind of things we don't do because one, you - how would you? And secondly, you're probably going to make things worse.

But this was a kind of - almost like a laboratory environment. There were no other animals involved. These animals, these - the penguins were blown into a - were in a prison kind of not of their own making. It was a complete freak of nature. This chasm had opened up. And the only reason why they couldn't get out was because, although the side of the thing was slippery, it was because they have to carry their chicks on their feet, which restricts the movement of their feet. So they just simply couldn't get enough traction on the ice. And so they would - they had a choice - the adults - either abandon their chick when they did have the traction or stay there and, eventually, would perish.

What we actually saw before we had to leave the first time was one female did make it out. And she - what she did was she wouldn't give up. She had a little chick on her feet. And she used her beak as a kind of ice pick to give her this extra traction. And she sort of kind of chipped little bits into the ice and then would pull herself up. And she finally managed to get out. I think that gave us the thought that, actually, they can get out if they just had - could get a tiny little bit more traction.

So the rules of working out there - you're not allowed to touch the animals. You're not allowed to get closer than a certain distance to them, which is pretty distant. But if - they've decided if they could just cut some tiny, little nicks, if you like, little chinks into the one side of the ice, they might - the penguins might discover it. And if they could, that could give them a chance to escape.

And what was strange is almost immediately, they cut these little - I mean, steps is too grand, I think. They were little slices, little chinks. The penguins discovered it and out they went. And one after the other, one - they all got out. And I just think we all felt, how on Earth would you - you know, imagine the conversation if we said, we could've done that. And we just sat there and watched them all perish. So I think in that case - very unusual situation - we made the right decision.

DAVIES: Michael Gunton is executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." We'll take a break here and then talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Gunton. He's executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties," an intimate look at five animal species. Each episode focuses on the group dynamics of a single group or family in the species over an extended period of time. It premiered January 19 and is airing on BBC America, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV and will be available on demand.

The behavior here is just fascinating in all these groups. And gender roles are very clearly defined, and it's interesting how they vary among species. You know, in the episode on lions, we see a pride of lions in which a female has this enormous burden of both protecting and feeding her young over long distances and long periods of time. And the reason is that the male lions in the pride have just left. Is that typical? Is that natural behavior?

GUNTON: No, that was very unusual. In fact, that was - when we embarked on that film, we didn't expect that at all to be the story. We thought it would be - typically what happens is eventually, other males will come in and challenge the kind of incumbent males for that that position. And we thought there would be what they call a takeover or an attempted takeover, but just - for - I don't think anybody's really ever seen it, certainly they'd never filmed this before. These - the adult males just up and left. I mean, there's a lot of complex interactions with other prides in the area, which probably explains why they did it.

But what it meant is, as you said, is that suddenly the - this female, Charm, whose job it is normally to provide because the females do most of the hunting and most the providing of the food, she not only had to be the provider, but she had to take the role of the males whose job it is fundamentally to be a protector of the pride. She had to do both jobs. And that, of course, put enormous pressure on her.

And that really is the dynamic of the film is how she managed with that and how each of those challenges made each other - harder thing to do and so why she almost lost the pride. But in the end, because she's an incredible lioness, she managed to keep them together and rebuilt the pride and is now - and it became a powerful one again with resident males who then became the protectors.

DAVIES: Wow. So normally, the males hang out and protect while the females go out and hunt and get all the food.

GUNTON: Broadly, yeah.

DAVIES: The dudes have it - get all the breaks, don't they, in nature?

GUNTON: Well, they're doing - well, I think people would say that in lion society, actually. Male lions have a pretty easy time, except, of course, when they have to do the one thing they're there for, which is to protect, and then it can be pretty brutal.

DAVIES: You know, there are some cases where animals - I think in the lion episode, where one of the young ones is ill and can't travel. And at some point, I mean, the pride will come back to check, but in the end, they can't do much. And the animal has left. And it's interesting that the painted wolves, who travel in packs, seemed just fiercely committed to taking care of each other. Even, like, when one of them was - had a lame leg, they just wouldn't let go.

GUNTON: Absolutely. I mean, I suppose one of our hopes was that when you make a film about an animal like a painted wolf, you know, everybody knows and admires lions, but like a painter wolf, there's a kind of a bit of a misunderstood, a bit of a, you know, in some people's eyes a bit of a villain in nature films.

And it's wrong to kind of, I think, to paint animals as good or bad. You know, they're all trying to make their living. And they're all trying to do the best they can. And the truth of it is, actually, that painted wolves are extraordinary animals. And actually, it's often lions are the baddies - if there was one in those situations. And, you know, that story about that - the way they look after their pack, their co-pack members is remarkable.

They are - they're one of the few animals that will have this kind of social care, if you like, for their fellows. And part of that, I'm sure, is because the pack is more efficient and more effective when numbers are high. They're much better at hunting. So, you know, in biological or evolutionary terms, it's good to keep your numbers up.

But nevertheless, they do have this, you know, uncanny ability to tend to the old and the weak and the sick and the injured. And I think, for that, they should be, you know, we should be admiring them.

DAVIES: Right. And there was also one amazing sequence which we see one of them eaten by a crocodile, pack takes it hard.

GUNTON: You know if you talk to the director, Nick (ph), who spent so much time with those animals, he felt that there were things that were going on in those animals' minds that you absolutely could connect with as a human being in a way that people would describe as being anthropomorphic. And he would absolutely deny it to the bitter end. He said the complexity and the nuance and the emotion that those animals show was, you know, we did our best to show as much of that as we can in the film, but it's - you never can perhaps - you can never completely reflect the realities of that.

They - and that's one of the things, I think, that the series is trying to do is that these are individual animals. And they think, and they plan, and they complex lives. And they need to be respected and kind of considered in that way because that's probably a good way of making sure that we perhaps look after them.

And you start to see them as individuals who are struggling in the same way that we struggle. That gives an empathy with them that may be a powerful way of helping us care about them because if you care about them, you want to look after them, protect them.

DAVIES: A lot of these animals are threatened. And, you know, there are numbers that you cite in the series about how few tigers there are left, for example. And generally, all of these species, they face threats from loss of habitat, which just makes conditions all the tougher.

GUNTON: Yes. I mean, it's competition for habitat, loss of habitat. Yes, you're right. They can actually lose the habitat because it's destroyed, but often, it's because there is literally - humanity wants that land as well as the animals do. And in those situations, animals don't often come out on top. And it's quite a - it's a really important part of - it became a really important part of the series, actually. We didn't set out to tell people a conservation story.

But I guess looking back on it now with hindsight, if you spend this amount of time - is - the amount of time that we did with these creatures - these type of creatures - it was almost inevitable that part of that story would result in them bumping into humanity in a confrontational way and - as it so proved to be. And actually, I think it was - I think it's been a good element to the series to show people that as well as all the pressures these animals face between their rivals within their own families and competitors with other species, they also have this extra challenge, which is that they have - they're bumping into humanity and in conflict with humanity for space, for habitat.

DAVIES: You know, there are a lot of heartbreaking scenes here. I mean, this will bring tears to viewers' eyes, and I think that's partly because, you know, we have so little contact with the natural world. I mean, my daughter weeps if her - one of her cats gets a mouse. And we see a - you know, real competition for food and space and territory and mates. And you know, particularly in the lions series, I mean, you know that there are droughts, and there are predators and all these things.

GUNTON: Yes, although I think - I mean, animals are evolved to live out there. That's the place where they should be, I think. I don't think they'd complain if they could. It's just - I think one of the things that we - you know, you talk about, people will cry. And I - and people did. In the U.K., we've shown the series, and it - and people did find them - the emotional rollercoaster, as they described them as.

But I think what was fascinating was that the audiences were enormous in the U.K. It was the highest-rated species factual program in the U.K. last year. And the audiences came to it because of the - I think they accepted that we had not dodged the realities in showing these films. This was a true representation of what these animals have to face. And so when they saw these - you know, there are traumatic moments 'cause in nature there are - there is - these things happen. They could accept it because - see it in the context of the bigger story.

And ultimately, the - every film is uplifting. It has the kind of uplifting and - not that we engineer that. It's just - I think it reflects the fact that these animals have within them this sort of unquenchable fire to survive and - doesn't matter what Mother Nature and what rivals and competitors throw at them. They will never give up. I think the little extra twist is the impact of humanity just tipping the balance a little bit too far against them. I think that's - and I don't - we don't answer that question, but I think that is something that will be in people's minds.

DAVIES: Michael Gunton is the executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." We'll continue our conversation after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.


DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and we're speaking with Michael Gunton. He is the executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties," an intimate look at five animal species. Each episode focuses on the group dynamics of a single group or family in the species over an extended period of time. It premiered January 19th and is airing on BBC America, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV and will be available on demand.

You know, the crew spent, like, two years with a lot of these animals and really got to know them. It must've - there must've been a terrible separation to leave - I mean, missing your kids.

GUNTON: Absolutely. And each of the directors is absolutely adamant that their animal is the best.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GUNTON: That - so - 'cause they don't quite get to fisticuffs, but you know, there is this kind of pride. But you're right. And I think it's - it was tough for them to be dispassionate when they saw these things, particularly as the films got later and later - you know, further and further through the production, which is why I think when you - when they do end with a triumph of some description at the end, I think it's particularly poignant and particularly rewarding for them.

You know, in the emperor penguin film, Lindsay, who is the cameraman - he says, right. That's the very last thing he says - is that, you know, I've been here a year. I'm desperate to get home. I should say that his - while he was there, his wife had given birth to their first child, and he hadn't seen his child. The child was four months old when he got home. So he was absolutely desperate to get home and see his family and his new baby. But he said, but a part of me doesn't want to go because I - the place and the animals and the story and the - that world just gets to you in a way that is almost inescapable. So it does have - it does absolutely - you know, experiencing this kind of thing does never leave you.

DAVIES: And that's from a guy living in Antarctica.

GUNTON: Well, yeah. I mean, the story there is great because, you know, when we - when I - when we decided to do that film, you have to find a crew who are prepared to leave their home and live in Antarctica for nearly a year. And for about four - no, about eight months of that, they are on their own with seven other scientists. There - basically, there's a station there, an overwintering station, which has some scientists and some people watching the weather and some geophysics and stuff. That's it. That's all that - those are the only people there.

And for two or three months of that time, it's completely pitch black. There's no sun. The only light is from the moon. And it's brutally cold. And you had to find someone to do that. And amazingly, this young guy Lindsay said, I've always wanted to go and film emperor penguins. I'd love to do it. And so he said - he signed up to say I'll do it. And then he got married and then discovered about two months before he was about to leave that his wife was pregnant. And he still went.

DAVIES: Wow. You know, among the individuals of the species in this series, one of the more interesting is a 92-year-old homo sapien named David Attenborough.

GUNTON: (Laughter) Yes.

DAVIES: We see him out in the bush. He delivers this compelling narration. Just tell us about what he brought to this project.

GUNTON: There was only one person who I - could ever be the person to tell the stories in this series. And that was David because for - oh, so many reasons. One, because, I think, it is a - it was a new - it's a new approach. And I think the audience needed to be introduced to the, you know, what are - what we were trying to do with this story and how it was going to work.

And, of course, if he tells you this is a - if he stands there at the beginning and says, let me tell you a story, most people are going to say, OK, I'll listen to this story, because he is the world's great storyteller. But also, I think the way he delivers the stories allowed us to tread the line between the truth and the drama of the truth without stepping into melodrama or something that felt untrue. There's something about the conviction and the passion and the knowledge that he has, absolutely makes you absolutely follow those stories with, you know, an extraordinary intensity.

And for that - part of the reason that - well, one of the outcomes of that is that I thought we had - we needed him to come out on location with us and introduce the series from location and set out in a - what we call a piece to camera. In other words, addressing the audience directly about what we were trying to do with the series. And, you know, that's a challenge. He's 92 years old. I mean, he's an extraordinary fit and healthy man. But I, nevertheless, had that responsibility. And nobody wants to be the person who killed David Attenborough.

DAVIES: (Laughter).

GUNTON: So we were pretty careful that he - that didn't happen. But we went to Zimbabwe for about 10 days to shoot. All - we found - we used that as a generic location to introduce the series and each of the episodes. And then we were able to get a - because that's also the location where we filmed the whole story of the painted wolves, we are actually able to get a specific closing to that - to the painted wolves film with him in the absolute signature David Attenborough thing, which is David Attenborough standing next to the animals, delivering his great lines and then turning to the animals. And we were able to do that with the painted wolves. And it was an amazing experience to do it because I've worked with him for 30-odd years and done many of those things. And I wasn't sure I - that would happen again. And to be able to do it one more time was amazing.

DAVIES: Well, Michael Gunton, it's a fascinating series. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.

GUNTON: It's been a pleasure. I hope you all enjoy it.

GROSS: Michael Gunton is the executive producer of the BBC series "Dynasties." It premiered January 19 and is being shown on BBC America, AMC, IFC and Sundance TV and will soon be available on demand. Gunton spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies, who is also WHYY's senior reporter. If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like our interview about how addictive drugs interact with the brain with Judith Grisel, a neuroscientist and recovering addict, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross.


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