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Marina Antunes [Celluloid 05.28.21] Kenya action adventure

MJ Basset has always been a conservationist, beginning her career as a wildlife photographer and documentary filmmaker before making the jump to narrative features including Deathwatch, Solomon Kane and Silent Hill: Revelation. Over the past decade, Basset has shifted almost exclusively to working in television but of late, she's returned to feature filmmaking, mixing her passion for conservation with her other love: action movies.

This mixing of passions stared with last year's Rogue and continues with Endangered Species. The new feature stars Basset regular Philip Winchester and Rebecca Romijn as Jack and Lauren Halsey, a well-to-do American couple who take the family on a dream vacation to Kenya. While on a self-guided safari, the family has an unfortunate run-in with a rhino that leaves them stranded in the wild, and just as it appears that things can't get any worse for them, the Halsey's are rescued by a group of men who prove to be even more dangerous than the wilderness.

The film also stars Isabel Bassett, Michael Johnston, and Jerry O'Connell.

Endangered Species is part family drama and part social commentary wrapped in the trappings of a solid thriller, with high stakes and some very impressive action sequences.

We recently had a chance to speak with Basset about the film including her shift into indie filmmaking, shooting in Africa during a pandemic, convincing actors to take risks and much more.

Endangered Species is available in select theaters and VOD on May 28th and will available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1.

Quiet Earth: The last two films that you've made take you back to your early passion for conservation and animal rights. Can you speak on why the shift to tackle this subject matter now?

MJ Basset: Why did I take so long to make films that have a point? It grew out of a lot of things. One is that I'm a happier person now. I'm more honest about who I am and what I think. For the longest time in this business any job was a good job, right? The notion of saying "I'm only going to make things that are important me..." I just wanted to make a living so I could raise my family and pay my mortgage. That gets to a point where you go start to think that there must be more to what I do than that. So with Rogue, Endangered Species, and hopefully with the next film that I'm doing as well, they're all slam dunk action, adventure, fun movies.

I like to do. I like to physically go out, go to exciting places, blow stuff up, crash cars, shoot guns. It's great but I do think there should be more to them than that. And so now I'm a little bit happier to sort of put myself out there. To me the biggest conversation is that our planet is dying. How do we fix it? How can we, as a collective community of people, have a conversation about it. My little movies, though they're inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, are at least about something. So that's kind of what I wanted to do. I love conservation nature; it's been important to me my whole life and I hate the fact that my generation - even though when I was 15 years old, we knew about acid rain, we knew about environmental changes and we were talking about them - we still didn't do anything. So I've handed a future to my children and my grandchildren, which is equally crappy. That's terrible.

It's interesting that you talk about the legacy we're leaving for younger generations because this is the second film you've made with your daughter...

It's great working with your family and I try and do it as much as possible. And not just Isabel who was also in the movie, my oldest daughter Madeline was head of makeup as well and she did all the gory bloody stuff and got to make Rebecca [Romijn] look cool. My son is in the business as well and one day I'll bring him into one of my movies.

Isabel was brought up with the same values I have so she's concerned about the environment and passionate about it so it was an easy ask to do that. The difference between us is that she is a writer who doesn't really like genre stuff. She likes drama. For her it's always about the real human drama and what she writes on her own is much darker and much more dramatic. I bring her into this world of silliness as far as she's concerned.

I couldn't get her into Star Wars or any of the Marvel movies. She thinks they're ridiculous. Right? And she grew up in a house full of those things! But she doesn't like them at all. So what she does for me is that she grounds me a little bit and keeps me honest to character, which I really like. She doesn't want to be an actress but she's in the movies because it's one less person I have to pay. It's one less person I have to accommodate. Plus she knows the character and she's an incredible supporter of me on the set.

These are very small movies. They cost a couple of million dollars which is nothing in the grand scheme of things. So I have to use my resources carefully and make the best movie I can with the resources I have. I would rather make a poorly resourced movie where I'm left alone to do what I want to do rather than have a bunch of studio executives looking down my neck because I'm spending a hundred million dollars, which I wouldn't know what to do with anyone.

Speaking of budget... both Rogue and Endangered Special were shot in Africa. I expect there were additional challenges with shooting on location in Kenya?

It's all challenges. When you go to South Africa, which I've shot in a lot, has quite good resources and good infrastructure. Kenya is a country that is struggling much more. I didn't intend to make the movie in Kenya. I tended to make the move in South Africa but because of COVID, South Africa closed down, and with so many countries closed down, getting people to a place to make a movie was the hardest thing. North America is obviously a great place to shoot and there are crews, there's infrastructure, there's finance, but it's a little bit dull for me. There's not the challenge, right? Plus it's a much more studio/corporate way of making a film. With Kenya, you go "how are we going to do it? We can't have these tools. We can't do this, we can't do that, but we can do these." And the place is extraordinary.

Kenya was the only place that was open in central Africa at the time where we could go and make the movie. That's was great but how do we do it? I sat down with my producing partner, Molly [Hassell], and we figured it out: if we do this if we lose this budget, do this. These people will come and play these people won't. So we bring a crew down to 25 people maximum, we bubble ourselves, we do our COVID tests and then we go a hundred miles into the wilderness and make the movie. There's a challenge!

Again, there's a challenge to making the movie and it's very different from working in Hollywood. One because we shooting in an environment that is genuinely dangerous. There are wild elephants, there are buffalo, there are hippos are lions. The list of dangerous things is quite long. Now those animals don't, aren't actively trying to kill you, but if you are in their world and we have to have rangers with us to keep an eye on it.

The biggest problem actually was elephants on the set. There just elephants everywhere and sometimes you just have to stop shooting because of an elephant. As a naturalist, this is the greatest thing ever but as a film director, it's like "somebody got the elephants off the set please!" It's a wonderful thing to have to happen and it infuses everything you do. I'm driving around with my tourist cap and there are all these animals to see and you try and make the movie be that kind of film so that the audience watching it get some tiny sense of the world.

I was going to ask about this a bit later but since we're talking about the animals, I'm assuming you didn't use any real animals in the film/

No, no, no. We didn't use any animals on the set at all - apart from the animals that turned up without permission. They're all digital. I don't want to use live exotic animals on a set of particularly mammals because they get very stressed and if you're dealing with big species, it's also very dangerous for everybody involved.

With Rogue it was a digital alligator and maybe it wasn't as good a digital job as I'd like it to have been. These, I think, are slightly better. Knowing that I can't use real animals, I have to shoot in a certain way. In the whole movie, there are only 30 digital shops, which is very small for a modern movie. I literally plotted them out very carefully.

The rhino incident sort of comes from my own experience. I took my family to Kruger National Park when they were young. I rented an SUV and we drove around and I thought I knew what I was doing. I know about animals, we'll find all the big five. I let my son drive and he was maybe 15 years old at the time. We came around the corner and there was a huge white rhino right in the middle of the road, almost exactly like in the movie. We thought it was really cool until the rhino lowers its head and pounds the ground and starts coming towards us. We're yelling at Tom to put it in reverse and to go backward... The rhino peeled off and there was never any danger, but I remembered that moment and thought that was going in a movie one day. How the scene plays out in the movie is with slightly more unpleasant consequences for this family but that was the experience.

You've been working quite extensively in television for the past few years. What tools or skill sets have you picked up working in television that you applied to filmmaking? Has working in TV changed your approach to filmmaking?

Efficiency. That's what you learn in making television. They never give you enough time. With TV it's very prescriptive. It's different when I produce my own TV but when I'm a jobbing as a director I'm just coming in they're saying: here's the script, this is the cost, these are the costumes, this is the set. There's nothing you do other than look after the onset experience. Now a good showrunner will include the director in the discussions and you can maybe have an opinion, but really that's how it is. It's not how it works. What you do have is a certain amount of time to deliver what they want. I like TV directing. It's a good experience, but I couldn't do that without also going to do my movies.

With the movies, I'm writing, producing, and directing. It's entirely mine. And I get to shoot in the way that I shoot. I could never have made Endangered Species in 18 days if I didn't know how to make television in 10 days, 12 days, 14 days, you know? So that's what you learn: efficiency.

It will be nice to go back and make a movie like the old days. I remember one of my first movies Solomon Kane, I had like 50 days! I wouldn't know what to do with 50 days today. I'd be so meticulous. You don't get to be meticulous wish short shoots. But my style has evolved. My personal style, when I'm shooting, and I don't mean TV, is light loose and kind of evolves in the moment.

I'm much more reactive to what could be good. So in Kenya when we were shooting there, sometimes you'd be driving along and go, "Oh, that's an amazing piece of landscape. The light's perfect." Everybody gets out and we shoot the scene there. It's those kinds of moments which you simply can't do in television because it's too corporate. It's too structured. People would have an absolute freak out if you do that. Whereas getting to shoot in these slightly out of the way, places where it's me and my team, who I trust, and my producer that I work with, she trusts me and there's no studio oversight. It's because of us if the movies are good and it's because of us if the movies are bad. There's nobody else having an influence and that to me is really creative freedom. And I get to talk about things that I'm interested in talking about, like conservation.

Does it make it more difficult to find people that will work with you as far as like cast and crews, when you're so spontaneous and shooting in the moment?

Well, a lot of them sort of discovered that's how I'm working and they're like a bit horrified. You try and surround yourself with people who work the way you work. It's during conversations prior to going on the shoot, that I discuss how I work. There's nothing wrong with other ways of approaching things but I try and build a relationship with people. Like start with Megan Fox on Rogue. She'd never really worked the way that I work and she's a big star so we tried to accommodate her a little more but I think she ended up liking it.

Same with Rebecca on this. It's very rock-and-roll the way I work and you discover it really quickly together on an 18-day schedule. What you don't get is time to talk. You don't get the opportunity to really discuss details. It's more like, let's turn the cameras on add see what you do. That's the moment and it's really not for everybody. It's not for everybody in a crew. It's not for everybody in a performance. I totally respect that, but it's how I like to do it and I have fun that way because, for me, the experience of making the film or the TV is what I love. I don't really like prep, it's too much talk and I don't really like editing because it's too isolated in a room - even though it's great to remake your film that way. I love shooting. I love it.

Is having somebody like Philip Winchester, who you've been working on with forever, somebody that you can rely on who knows exactly how you work. Does that help set the tone for the set?

Yeah. You have to. I mean, the one the people on the call sheet, the lead actor sets the tone. Because Phillip knows me, he's kind of bomb-proof and completely immune to all my madness. The thing is that I'll ask him to do the moments that are difficult for Phillip moments - this was a very different character for him so it was a super challenge to play somebody who he didn't really like as a person and he had to figure out a way into the guy and to find that he's not a villain. He's just got values that are very different and which may be wrong, certainly from my point of view, the character's values are wrong. Philip comes round to a place where he understands that his values were wrong and there was a price to be paid for that.

Having Phil who's a personal friend in real life, and be able to say "Hey, I'm going to go to Kenya and make a movie during a global pandemic. I don't really have very much money. Would you like to come and play?" And him agreeing, that's amazing for me. At the same time, he's not a pushover. He knows the character and he wants to talk about how to play it. It's an engagement, it's compensation. I love that about the job.

What was the most challenging part of shooting Endangered Species?

There's a moment that didn't make it into the movie. Weirdly enough it was the most challenging. I was trying to do a reverse sequence over a river that was full of crocodiles and I was trying to persuade everybody that the river would be safe. The local people said they'd get rid of the crocodiles in this bit of the river and we watched them going into the river and try to drive the crocodiles out of the way and put a net across to clear a path. I remember dressing up and going into the river to prove that it was safe. I'm really frightened of crocodiles because I genuinely respect them. I remember a few moments when I was in the water thinking "Am I doing the stupidest thing ever?" And the answer was probably yes.

You mentioned in passing that you have a new project that you're working on, are you able to tell us anything about it?

It fits into this world of eco-action movies. This one is going to be all about ocean conservation a little bit more, again buried beneath a big genre, heist thriller movie on a sinking boat with sharks and that kind of stuff. So that's what I'm going to be doing that next. Just about to start building the set for it and figuring out how to do it.

I've just done an episode of "The Terminal List" with Chris Pratt for Amazon which will come out early next year. That's my TV job and now I'm going to try and do another one of my silly little movies.

I hope you keep making so-called "little" movies because we love them. They're so much fun.

Endangered Species is available in select theaters and VOD on May 28th and will available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1.

Recommended Release: Endangered Species

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