Opening April 4th, the exciting new IMAX 3D documentary, “Island of Lemurs: Madagascar,” takes audiences on a spectacular journey to the remote and wondrous world of Madagascar, where lemurs arrived millions of years ago as castaways and have since evolved into hundreds of diverse species. Narrated by Academy Award winner Morgan Freeman, the film highlights the tireless efforts of trailblazing scientist Dr. Patricia C. Wright and her lifelong mission to help these highly endangered creatures survive in the modern world. The documentary reunites Freeman with Drew Fellman, who also wrote and produced the 2011 IMAX 3D documentary “Born to Be Wild 3D,” and director/cinematographer David Douglas, who was the director of photography on that film.
At the film’s recent press day, we sat down at a conference with Freeman, Wright, Douglas, Fellman, and Madagascar native and international recording artist Hanitra to talk about their entertaining, family-friendly film, what makes lemurs so captivating, why they have become an endangered species, what inspired Dr. Wright to dedicate her life to working with lemurs, how the filmmakers captured the lemurs on film in their natural habitat using IMAX 3D, what attracted Freeman to the project, his narration process, his commitment to bringing attention to other life forms on our planet, his thoughts on the educational value of film and television, and Hanitra’s collaboration with the filmmakers on the film’s vibrant soundtrack.
Here’s what they had to say:
QUESTION: What is it about these animals that particularly endears them to you? What’s the special quality that makes you love them?
MORGAN FREEMAN: I don’t know lemurs. This is the first time I’ve had this close a connection with them. However, I have a friend who has a place in the Caribbean and he raises them. On a visit to his place a year ago or maybe more, I was introduced to them up close and personal. They’re obviously in a little bit of trouble, and he’s doing what he can to help rejuvenate their population. I got a little bit of history about them, but not nearly as much as I did doing this movie. They’re terrific little creatures.
DR. PATRICIA WRIGHT: There are several reasons why I like them. One of them is they’re so special and they’re like nothing else on Earth. They’re beautiful animals, but each one is so different. There’s 103 different species. Some eat bamboo. Some eat seeds. Some eat leaves. Some eat insects. Each one of the species does their own thing and every one of them is cute in its own way. There are many reasons, but the reason I stayed in Madagascar as long as I have working with the lemurs is partially because they’re so endangered. Ninety-one percent of them are either threatened or critically endangered or endangered, and I feel that I can maybe do something, and I think this film can do something so that they will survive into the future.
FREEMAN: (to Dr. Wright) What is the major problem that they have? Is it habitat encroachment or are we eating them?
WRIGHT: I think probably the deforestation and the slash and burn fire maintenance are a major problem and it has been for a while. It used to be that the village elders who had all the wisdom would say, “Do not eat the lemurs because they are so much like us. Their hands, their faces, they are special and sacred.” But recently, people aren’t listening as much as they should to the village elders, and so hunting has become much more of a problem. And that’s a problem for lemurs because very often, like that extraordinary Indri that Morgan did so well on camera, the Indri gives birth once every three years. How lucky Drew and David were to have one born just at the right time for that extraordinary film. But if you have an animal that gives birth once every three years, and there’s just not very many of them, and they’re big and they’re good for hunting, then that’s a problem. Hunting has become recently more of a problem than it has been in the past.
FREEMAN: What are we doing? There is a book called “Ismael.” It’s a trilogy (by Daniel Quinn) in which the author explains that we are turning everything on this planet into food for humans. We’ll eat it, and if we can’t eat it, we’ll kill it and take its place and just move it out of the way. The amazing thing about Madagascar is there were no humans there when the lemurs got there, so they flourished. And life does without us.
Q: Morgan, we just saw you in “The Lego Movie.” How do you do it? You must be in 16 movies in one year.
FREEMAN: Well it doesn’t take very long to do them. “Hey Morgan, would you mind doing this part in this movie. It’s only for a week.” “Wow! I could do 52!” (Laughter)
Q: When you were asked to do the narration for this, did you say, “This is my voice of God that I’m doing” to tell the story of these amazing animals?
FREEMAN: No, no, no. I don’t know if that comes across to people, but no, I’m just a barefoot boy who made good.
Q: You’ve worked with these gentlemen previously. Did you already have an interest in lemurs before they approached you about this or was it just coincidental?
FREEMAN: It’s just coincidental. They said, “We’ll be making this movie about lemurs in Madagascar, and we would like to call upon you again to do the narration for us. We did very well with ‘Born to Be Wild’ so if you’re of a mind to do it, we’d be happy to have you.” It’s IMAX and Warner Bros. and all the people I like anyway. We learned we’d be doing something that might give some succor, some attention and consideration to the other life forms on our planet. I’m happy to do it. It’s an obligation.
Q: Dr. Wright, in the film you said you were a social worker before becoming a scientist. How do you go from being a social worker to being at the forefront of saving lemurs? What is that story?
WRIGHT: It’s a long journey, definitely. I was working as a social worker. This was a long time ago. And also, I was going to a Jimi Hendrix concert after my social work job was over and I got there a little early. So I walked across the street from the Fillmore East and there was the pet store. I love animals. I’ve always loved animals since I was a little girl. I fell in love that day with this little monkey. It wasn’t a lemur. It was a little monkey with really big eyes, a beautiful animal. And it led me down the trail of getting a Ph.D. in Primatology. And then, after I got my Ph.D., my first job was working at the Duke University Lemur Center in Durham, North Carolina, and that’s when I fell in love with lemurs.
Q: How was the concert?
WRIGHT: (Laughs) It was Jimi Hendrix.
Q: One of the things on my bucket list was to meet Morgan Freeman and it’s awesome to make your acquaintance today.
FREEMAN: It’s a pleasure to make your acquaintanceship.
Q: I’m wondering what’s left on your bucket list?
FREEMAN: I have a film company and I want to make a film that gets a Best Picture [award] from somebody.
Q: I’ll do it.
FREEMAN: I love people who agree with me.
Q: The lemurs seemed very comfortable with humans. For the filmmakers, when you brought in all your equipment, how did they react and how long did it take for them to be comfortable and for you to be able to capture them without them being disturbed by your cameras and lights?
DREW FELLMAN: Well, I guess with each different lemur group, there was always a process. I think one of the things the lemurs are thinking is, “Are they going to eat me?” or “Can I eat it?” meaning whatever we’re filming with. A lot of the lemur groups we worked with, they’re a lot of the same lemur groups that scientists have been working with for decades sometimes, so they’re comfortable being around small groups of people and we’d just be very quiet and move slowly. Sometimes we’d set up while they were sleeping so they didn’t see all of that hustle and bustle going on and we’d just be very patient. I think working with animals a lot of it is just the energy you put out. If you put out a very calm, cooperative, non-threatening presence, they relax. But if you’re there and you’re stressed and you feel like, “We have to get this shot in the next two minutes!” then they’ll want nothing to do with you and they’ll stay way. A lot of it is just being open to them and hoping that they reciprocate that somehow because it’s totally up to them. I mean, these are all wild animals in the movie that are free to participate or not. All we can do is try and make it as great of an experience for them [as possible], otherwise they’re out of it.
DAVID DOUGLAS: It was great that we had the guidance of Pat Wright and her scientists to get us into the right positions and to brief us on the daily habits of the various species we were working with so that we could place ourselves in their circuit of operations. They do things for logical reasons. They have a day that they have to put in like everybody else and they’ll work around us. All we really need to do is find interesting relationships to reveal as they go about their daily business and do the best we can to present their spectacular beauty to our audience and help us all understand what a complex and interesting life they have without us and how valuable that is.
FELLMAN: The lemurs typically at some point would ask, “Well, who’s narrating? Is it going to be Morgan Freeman again?” And we’d go, “We really hope so. We’re going to try really hard to get him.” And they’d be like, “Okay, we’re in.” (Laughter)
Q: Mr. Freeman, there’s a certain gravitas that you bring in telling these stories. Do these stories get told unless you attach yourself to them?
FREEMAN: Yes and no. If I don’t do it, someone else will, and I’m a little reticent to say, “Just as well.” There are a lot of us who do this kind of work and do it quite well, so yes, it comes out as well as it does because I do it, but it would come out that good if someone else did it.
Q: How do you maintain the integrity of what your story says about the lemurs?
FELLMAN: You go to Madagascar and see for yourself this is the best way. It just gets told better. A lot of the things you see in the movie, these are things that Pat’s been seeing for 30 years, and there were things that Dave and I on the different scouts we took to Madagascar saw and were amazing to us. That’s why it’s in the movie because it’s something we saw and we thought, “Oh my God, if only people could see this.” They would understand something about these animals and they would have the same extraordinary experience that we had watching them. It really is just as simple as that. It’s us spending time there and then just getting together and talking about all the great things we saw, the highlights, and that’s what we would try to build the movie around. The things you’re seeing in the movie, the Sifakas dancing, and the Indri singing, those are the things that just blew our minds. That’s just as real as a trip to Madagascar gets. Hanitra is from Madagascar and she grew up in the forest and certainly nobody knows more about it than her. (to Hanitra) How does it feel to you what you see in the movie?
HANITRA: You kind of took it as a joke, but lemurs are very intelligent actually. They know what they’re doing. For us Malagasy as people, it is wonderful that the people here have brought lemurs all the way to Hollywood. For us, it’s just a normal thing to see them doing their stuff, a hundred varieties doing all different things. They’re really intelligent. The shameful thing about it is not all Malagasy people are able to go and see them in the forest. There are people who have never seen them in Madagascar because it’s not like they are jumping around everywhere all over Madagascar. They’re only in very scattered places where they are now. And yes, we do eat them now, Mr. Morgan Freeman, because people are poor and hungry. So, I am so thankful that they are coming here because I hope that this will help keep them alive.
Q: What is their lifespan?
WRIGHT: The lifespan in the wild for the Sifakas, the ones that were the dancers, is over 30 years, between 30 and 32. For those little mouse lemurs, we’ve been keeping track of them in the wild, too. And so far, we have some that are over ten years old, and they’re just the size of a mouse. They fit in your hand. A mouse lives two years. A mouse lemur lives probably twelve. So, there really is a great difference with primates. I just wanted to make a comment about the science and whether it’s true, because when they first approached me and asked me to be scientific advisor on this film, I was a little skeptical. I didn’t want the lemurs being made fun of. I wanted people to really understand how beautiful they are and how their lifestyle is a lifestyle to be respected. These two guys are scientists really in their hearts asking the right questions, thinking about how the animals would actually be doing things. They’re really good. It didn’t take me long to figure that out. I was very proud to be part of this team.
Q: Mr. Freeman, you’ve now narrated many great and educational documentaries both on film and television. What is it as an artist that you love about the art form of documentary and the educational value of film and television?
FREEMAN: I think the educational value is what comes first. I’ve always thought that the most effective tools we have for disseminating information, i.e. education, is television and film. People are glued to television. Our children, we can’t get them out into the park. So, if we can find the right stuff to present to them if they are going to be watching television. I’ve kind of said that I have this belief in disseminating useful information concerning the planet and the diverse biology of it. I’ve just dedicated myself to being available for anything that helps that along. The art of documentaries, I don’t know anything about it. But if somebody wants to do one about a subject that I’m interested in, then yeah, I’m available.
Q: Can we talk a little bit about the soundtrack? The songs that were familiar to us were wonderful, but the songs that were unfamiliar were absolutely gorgeous.
FELLMAN: One thing I’ll want to start off by saying is we met Hanitra completely by coincidence in Madagascar. We were down visiting Pat, and at the same time while we were scouting for the film, Hanitra had come to Ranomafana (National Park) where Pat works with a group of local musicians in Madagascar to try to have them exchange with musicians in local villages. We just crossed paths on our separate missions. We had dinner together one night and she handed us the CD and we listened to it as we were traveling around Madagascar and just totally fell in love with her music. It just kept popping up in our minds as the soundtrack to this movie and we started throwing some songs in there when we were putting it together. It worked so perfectly, which was great because we’d become great friends while we were making the film and we’d spent a lot of time together. It was so great that we were able to use her.
HANITRA: I went to Ranomafana and I knew Pat from a long time ago because of her work in Madagascar which is really tremendous. In 2011, I had this idea of starting a project called “Artists in the Environment” because in Madagascar only artists are really listened to correctly. People are bored with politicians and people who always give an education and the environment they don’t really listen to. I had this idea of gathering a bunch of artists to go camping in the forest and try to transform the forest and what is in it into formal arts, whether it’s painting, poems, music and things like that. So there I met them by coincidence and they were talking about IMAX and I’d never heard of it. They tried to show this IMAX film of the elephants down there and I still didn’t understand what IMAX was. Also, when Drew proposed that I was going to do a version of “I Will Survive,” I’d never heard “I Will Survive” before. And so, all I could do was put myself into the place of the lemur and I wrote Malagasy words for “I Will Survive” because I really felt that we were all just trying to survive down there in Madagascar. It’s been a wonderful journey with these people who worked long now on this for three years.
Q: Morgan, your voice is magical and takes this film to a whole new level. What is the narration process like for you? Do you get a chance to look at the film first or footage of it?
FREEMAN: Process. Get the script, read the script. Generally there is footage that I get to see so I know what we are talking about. And then, it’s just a matter of sitting in front of a microphone and reading. [DEEP VOICE] You know I have these incredible pipes so all I have to do is sit down and do it. (Laughter)
FELLMAN: Yes, he has an amazing voice, but it’s so much more than just the voice. It’s his tremendous skill as an actor interpreting what somebody else could read with a lovely voice that would come off as somewhat dry, scientific information. But it’s his amazing ability to interpret it and draw the emotion and feeling out of the story and deliver that.
FREEMAN: See, I can’t say stuff like that. (Laughter)
FELLMAN: It’s really his tremendous skill as an actor more than just the lovely quality of his voice.
Q: You add a great texture to it. What I love about your voice is that it’s so unique.
FREEMAN: Even so, you can’t take too much credit for someone’s writing. There is that to be considered always.
Q: Can you talk about your camera work and those sweeping, heaven-like shots? I thought the cinematography was amazing with those incredible sweeping pans from heaven down to earth. I’d like to know more about how that was done.
DOUGLAS: One of the things we noticed immediately on our scout was that we would have to be able to follow the lemurs up into the trees in order to tell their story. And so, that just meant we’d have to get off the ground somehow. We took a number of devices that could let us slow the camera to do that. A 3D IMAX camera is about a 60-pound instrument. It’s not small. It’s quite a bit of overhead if you’re talking about flying. We took a tower which could extend up into the trees that was the smallest instrument we could carry through the forest that we could set up and still reach the fifty feet up into the trees and operated it remotely from the ground. Another platform that we made use of was unique. It was the first time I’d ever done this. It is a balloon called the cinebulle and it came from France with its pilot, and he’s preoccupied in his career with supporting the scientific community about fifty percent of the time and the film community the other fifty percent. He’s developed this little balloon. I say little but compared to other balloons it’s a fairly huge thing when you’re trying to set it up in the trees. It will carry two people and it’s like a little lawn chair, and we were pushed right against each other with this IMAX camera stuck in between us. There’s really no landing gear. It’s just your legs are straight out in front of you until you take off and then it’s your feet hanging down underneath there. It’s got a big electric motor and a fan on the back. We can direct it to some extent as long as there’s no wind. But what it does to you around lemurs and around creatures in trees is that it’s quiet enough that they will ignore your presence because they have very little terms of reference for a balloon coming by. Whether that’s a threat or not, they’re not sure and they’re willing to cut it some slack.
FREEMAN: How do you get back on the ground?
DOUGLAS: You just fly back and start to let some air out of the bag. (Laughter)
FELLMAN: When this thing would land in Madagascar, it was insane. Everybody would come running out into the fields. Hundreds of people would just come storming the cinebulle to see this amazing sight.
Q: I loved the fact that it was in 3D. This is the first time I’ve had a lemur tail in my popcorn while being entertained.
DOUGLAS: It’s a perfect subject for 3D. Wildlife in the forest is a great place to shoot in 3D. 3D is something that I think has been misapplied a few times in recent years, but this is a place where it brings a special dimension and involves people, and it doesn’t call attention to itself. At least that’s what our hope is.
Q: For the filmmakers, what do you think is the hardest scene that you did?
FELLMAN: Actually getting to the scenes is the hardest thing that we did. Once we were there and set up, then we could actually breathe. But it was all hard. I would probably have to say working with the ring-tales was perhaps the hardest because that terrain is so difficult. It’s the sort of thing where you just get lost in a second without all the guides we had there. It’s a huge boulder field that the ring-tales are jumping through and around and living in all the cracks of that, and it was very, very hard to get around. (to Douglas) What do you think?
DOUGLAS: I totally agree. That place is called Anja and we just got lost there every day. We’d leave equipment in there because we didn’t want to hike it all the way down and try to bring it back up the next day. And then, we couldn’t find the equipment the next day.
FELLMAN: There was one day there where I set my walkie-talkie down and it just slid down this hill down into this narrow 80-foot crevice. And you could just hear it go. And then, of course, the kids there tried going after it and we were like, “No, no, no, no, it’s gone,” which is a very hard thing for someone in Madagascar to accept that this thing that has some value, is useful, and is just right there is not worth retrieving.
Q: You couldn’t send a lemur down to get it?
FELLMAN: (Laughs) No.
Q: Since you’ve narrated so many nature films and science specials, if you weren’t doing the acting, could you see yourself potentially working with the animals or having a career in the science field?
FREEMAN: I think you have to be left-brained to a certain extent to understand science. I can talk about it, but I can’t do it. I was a B student in math simply because my teachers liked me as an actor. (Laughter) It’s true. They’d say, “If you were really smart enough, you wouldn’t have made a B in my class so you get a B.” My math professor actually told me that. So no, if I wasn’t doing this, I have no clue because I have no other talent.
Q: Dr. Wright, there’s a line in the movie that really resonated when you said, “I’m happiest in the forest alone with the lemurs.” How do you feel today? Is this okay? Does this make you happy?
FREEMAN: Be careful now. (Laughter)
WRIGHT: (Laughs) Not as happy, but it’s okay.
Q: Another line has to do with the writing, which is, “The best stories about nature are those that never end.” Thank you for not ending this. The story continues. We need a sequel! We want more!