Interview: Mark Linfield, Director Of 'Monkey Kingdom' Macaque monkeys born at the top of society live like royalty. The new film from Disneynature follows a monkey born at the bottom of the pile who struggles to makes a better life for her family.
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A Mother Rises Through The Ranks In 'Monkey Kingdom'

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A Mother Rises Through The Ranks In 'Monkey Kingdom'

A Mother Rises Through The Ranks In 'Monkey Kingdom'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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A nobody, just a cog in the machine on the bottom rung of society, breaks out of the role society has assigned her and rises to the top. This classic Cinderella story does come from Disney, but it's a live-action documentary about monkeys in Sri Lanka. Tina Fey narrates "Monkey Kingdom."


TINA FEY: Maya takes whatever scraps fall her way. A low-born like herself simply can't improve her position or dream of eating from a higher branch.

RATH: "Monkey Kingdom" follows the macaque monkey Maya as she strives to make a better life for her and her son. Mark Linfield is the co-director and producer of the film. I asked him how he chose his main character.

MARK LINFIELD: If you're born into the top of macaque society, it's a bit like royalty. You automatically get to eat the ripest fruit at the top of the tree, life's lovely. If you're born at the bottom of the pile, like Maya, you know, you really have to be quite smart to make ends meet. And, you know, for Maya, she's kind of like any female human, if you like, trying to do the best for her kid. But she's got the weight of macaque society pressing on her as well. And that's what made her such, you know, an inventive, ingenious monkey - was she had to use her street smarts to get out of this sort of social straitjacket that she was in.

RATH: This group - Maya's group lives in the ruins - among the ruins of this glorious Buddhist temple.


RATH: Basically another troop of macaques declares war - forces them out.


RATH: Were you expecting anything like that and where did you think it was going to go?

LINFIELD: Macaques are constantly at war with each other.


LINFIELD: So it wasn't so surprising. There are 36 groups in the ruined city and surrounding forest in Sri Lanka in this location. And if you're a group of monkeys with really good real estate - you know, you've got great sleeping trees, great fruit trees - you are constantly going to be eyed-up by other bigger groups. And when those groups grow in strength, they're going to try and take your patch. You know, it is warfare. It happens.

RATH: So please don't take this as a rude or impertinent question, but we've heard a lot in recent years about fakery in wildlife documentaries.

LINFIELD: Yeah, yeah.

RATH: We've even done some stuff about it on this program. And I'm wondering with something like this, where the stories are so fantastic and dramatic and in some ways a little bit perfect, how much dramatic license can you take?

LINFIELD: I think what the - one of the reasons that these monkeys are relatively easy to film in some sense - and by that I mean the sense of being able to get close to them - is that there's been a monkey study there for 50 years. Round the clock, pretty much, these animals have been studied by researchers and they're known incredibly well, so they were incredibly good at deciphering the monkey's behaviors and also helping us to anticipate what would happen next. So pretty much, unlike any other location, you can stay one step ahead of the monkeys.

RATH: So it's a bit like a reality show. You have these great characters, just set the cameras running and let them do what they do.

LINFIELD: Well, yeah. I mean, although I have to say, every single animal is doing something interesting pretty much all of the time. But if you don't stay focused, after two and a half years of filming in the field, which is what we spent, you would just end up with hundreds of hours of wonderful material but not being able to make head or tail of it. So you really have to decide which characters to follow. And once you've committed to them, of course, you hope that their story becomes interesting.

RATH: Well, what would've happened - I mean, you're not interfering with what's going on - but, say, you know, Maya's about to be eaten by a monitor lizard, which could've happened.


RATH: Would you just sit back and you got to let nature do what it does?

LINFIELD: Absolutely, absolutely. You really have to. We do have a rule of not trying to intervene. I mean, it's hard not to become emotionally attached to the animals...

RATH: Yeah, I would think so.

LINFIELD: ...Because they're so engaging; particularly after all this time, it's very hard. But we do, as a rule, just not and just hope things work out.

RATH: You know, Mark, when I was a kid, I felt like you could see great nature documentaries in the theater. And then it seemed like, you know, with all the stuff that came on TV, what from PBS to Discovery, Science, Animal Planet, that kind of died out.


RATH: Disneynature has done six of these now.


RATH: What's behind the comeback?

LINFIELD: It's great, isn't it?

RATH: Yeah.

LINFIELD: I mean, I just think it's the most fantastic thing. You know, what we've tried to do here with Disneynature is to bring, you know, the wild's best stories to the big screen, which is, you know, where we think they belong, because these are some of the best images that you could possibly capture. Many people won't have a chance to go to these places and this is the nearest thing they'll ever get. You can't really achieve that with television to the same degree.

RATH: Mark Linfield is the co-director and producer of the new Disneynature film "Monkey Kingdom." Mark, it's been great speaking with you.

LINFIELD: Thank you very much.


PETER GABRIEL: (Singing) Monkey, monkey, monkey. Don't you know you're going to shock the monkey. Shock the monkey.

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