Tempting Fate

Project: Killer Elephants...
October 1, 2000

Project: Killer Elephants

Description: In recent months, young bull elephants in South Africa’s Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park have started displaying puzzling behavior – patrolling the park in packs and killing rhinoceros. The delinquent bulls were orphans and have never had the guidance of adult elephants, so a proposed solution sees the introduction of ten mature bulls from Kruger National Park. Will the adults teach the rebellious youngsters how to suppress their aggression?

Producers: Vivica Parsons, Natalie Humphreys, Imago Productions (U.K.)

Director: Howard Reid

Coproducers: Discovery International, Imago Productions

Budget: us$170,000

Barring death and taxes, few things remain constant – and a broadcaster’s involvement in a project certainly doesn’t make that list. In the case of Killer Elephants, outside indecision created a dilemma: continue with what promises to be a good story, even though it might be financial suicide, or just let it go. For Norwich-based Imago Productions, the decision wasn’t simple.

The elephants of the Hluhluwe-Umfolozi National Park, normally stable and docile creatures, had become rampaging, murderous thugs. It was a story full of questions, and an opportunity for a remarkable film. But who was going to pay for it?

February 16/00: Humphreys finds herself fast-tracked into a film concept. One of Imago’s regular dubbing mixers has a close friend who happens to be the head of the conservation division undertaking the elephant relocation project in Hluhluwe-Umfolozi.

Humphreys contacts Imago’s regular South African cameraman, Russell Belter, putting him on stand-by for the shoot. He has already heard of the elephant trans-location project and has contacted the people involved at both Hluhluwe and Kruger.

March 1/00: Humphreys phones Angela Rumland at Discovery International in Bethesda, U.S., to put the idea to her, offering a possible time line. She expresses an interest, and suggests Chris Haws at Discovery Europe as a contact. Haws promises to consider the film.

March 20/00: Haws rings back. He has a development meeting at 4:00 p.m. Can Imago come up with a brief explaining what the film will look like? The producers come through, and the Discovery development team asks for, and receives, a more detailed treatment within a week. The possibility of a full commission looks good.

March 31/00: Phone conversations continue. The other Discovery Channels have to decide if they will buy into the project, but the May start date is approaching. (Each member of the DCI family decides independently if a film is for them and, therefore, if they want to support it financially.) MIPTV comes and goes with no movement.

May 2/00: The elephants’ translocation dates are moved from the beginning of May to the end, buying some time.

May 4/00: Imago and cameraman Russell Belter put filming arrangements in place, pending a confirmation of the commission.

May 5/00: Another meeting with Chris Haws. Time is running short, and still no decisions from the rest of the Discovery family on buy-ins. Conversation begins about bringing in a third party distributor to help cash-flow the shortfall, but both sides agree that it will be difficult this late in the game.

May 11/00: A call from the Discovery business units on both sides of the Atlantic. No decisions, but a promise to fast-track the project, keeping the hope for a full commission alive.

May 15/00: Confident everything will fall into place financially, Imago begins the search for a director. It begins with a call to Howard Reid (The Desert Prince – Café for Discovery; Mysteries of the Mummies – Channel 4 and PBS). He has just finished a book manuscript and has a 12-week window before starting another project for C4. His availability fits the Imago production schedule almost to the day.

The Discovery business unit in London asks for the final rundown of what would be required for the film in order for them to raise the full commission.

May 16/00: Discovery International phones. The U.S. isn’t coming on board, meaning a big chunk of the budget isn’t on board. The film has gone from a full commission to something else…

Final confirmation for travel arrangements and fees have to be confirmed by the next day. It’s now or never.

They decide to go, even with the project on uncertain financial ground.

May 19/00: Director and crew travel to Kruger to begin the two-week shoot in the northern half of South Africa.

May 22/00: Filming starts with a helicopter round-up

of one of the pairs of male elephants. The first hitch: for safety reasons, Kruger authorities refuse to let the film crew ride along. Belter wants the shot whether he’s there or not, however, and rigs a special riflecam – a small DV package that can be attached to the tranquilizer gun. It’s one of three cameras to capture the action.

The first dart brings down an elephant, just as Belter (who is on the ground) pans from the elephant to the chopper. No problem, the second camera will catch the drop. Too bad a tourist watching the proceedings stumbles into the second cameraman just as the elephant goes down, causing him to miss the shot. Reid is flabbergasted at the turn of events – until he sees the riflecam footage, which captured the action brilliantly.

Both animals are carted 350 miles to Hluhluwe. The crew stays in Kruger to get the necessary interviews before moving on, figuring they can catch the arrival of another pair at Hluhluwe. Unseasonable rains bog the truck down in mud, and by the time it is freed, the elephants have been rattled. When the door is opened at the other end, the first charges out on a rampage. One of the wardens has the presence of mind to capture the event on his DVcam, and a pencilcam Imago had put in the truck also picks up the sequence.

May 24/00: Reid and the crew run into an adolescent elephant – just standing on the road, waiting to be filmed. This is ob, a 25-year-old male who is delighted to play up to the camera and demonstrate lots of ‘delinquent’ behavior. The lead actor is in place.

Oddly enough, the crew finds they have captured a lot of aberrant behavior, but not much ‘run of the mill’ elephant footage. They decide to go to Pilanesberg National Park, where the terrain is more open and there are fewer places for elephants to be as reclusive as they are in Hluhluwe. The crew encounters ecologist Gus van Dyk, who has been working on the problem of elephants killing rhinos. He gives a great and unexpected interview, which may end up being the wrap to the film: will elephants, possessing the incredible memory they do, remember the kill? Will it engender a blood lust? Van Dyk is convinced the story isn’t over.

May 31/00: Last day at Hluhluwe, and another stroke of luck. Reid and the crew are packed and pulling out when a call comes on the radio that another dead rhino has been found. It’s a fresh kill (right by the side of the road), and the carcass shows clear tusk marks. It is an important sequence they didn’t have.

June 12/00: Post-production begins. One week is spent creating a select reel for Discovery Presentations, and three more on editing to rough-cut.

The better part of July is spent waiting for broadcaster approval.

August 22/00: In a conference call, Chris Haws gives approval of the fine cut. The film will be ready for MIPCOM, where the producers hope to find the important missing partners.

About The Author
Daniele Alcinii is a news reporter at realscreen, the leading international publisher of non-fiction film and television industry news and content. He joins the rs team with journalism experience following a stint out west with Sun Media in Edmonton's Capital Region, and communications work in Melbourne, Australia and Toronto. You can follow him on Twitter at @danielealcinii.