Places I Remember with Lea Lane

Serengeti: Creating A Wildlife Series, With Emmy Winners Simon Fuller And John Downer

July 27, 2021 Simon produces 'American Idol' and 'So You Think You Can Dance'; John directs nature series. Together they capture life and death realities on the plains of Tanzania for Discovery+. Season 1 Episode 26
Places I Remember with Lea Lane
Serengeti: Creating A Wildlife Series, With Emmy Winners Simon Fuller And John Downer
Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

You might not expect a producer of  pop culture phenomena like 'American Idol' and 'So You Think You Can Dance' to create a dramatic wildlife documentary series. But when Emmy-Award-winning producer Simon Fuller met Emmy-award winning doc director John  Downer, a "perfect partnership"  began.
-- The result is the Serengeti series, set on the plains of Tanzania, with Serengeti 2 currently available on Discovery+.
-- Simon and John generously share inside info on how they created the series -- from the camera work to the difficulties of working with story lines, climate change complications and finding and staying with story lines with wild animals we get to know by name.
-- They also talk of their exceptional crew, including the voiceover artistry of Academy Award-winning and Emmy nominated actress Lupita Nyong’o. 
-- They each end with a special personal memory of the Serengeti. A wonderful podcast!
All six episodes of Serengeti 2 are available on discovery+. Viewers can join the conversation on social media by using #SerengetiII and following Discovery on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and Twitter for the latest updates.
Simon Fuller  is a British entrepreneur, artist manager, film and television producer. He has managed talent that includes David and Victoria Beckham, Annie Lennox, Steven Tyler,  Amy Winehouse, Carrie Underwood, Kelly Clarkson and The Spice Girls. He is in partnership with the duo Jennifer Lopez and Marc Anthony.
John Downer started his professional life in 1981 at the BBC Natural History Unit, later creating John Downer Productions.  He pioneered a number of techniques for wildlife filmmaking, in particular by putting cameras on birds, and by filming birds from the air using various airborne filming platforms.
Podcast host Lea Lane blogs at, has traveled to over 100 countries, written nine books, including Places I Remember, and contributed to guidebooks. She's @lealane on Twitter; Travelea on Insta; on  Facebook, it's Places I Remember by Lea Lane. Website: placesirememberlealane.comPlease follow, rate and review this weekly travel podcast!

*Podcast has been edited for clarity.

Lea Lane  00:04

Hi, I'm Lea Lane, an award-winning travel writer and author of Places I Remember: Tales, Truths, Delights from 100 Countries. On this podcast we share conversations with travelers about fascinating destinations and memorable experiences around the world.  Countless wildlife films have been recorded on the grassy plains of the Serengeti, in Tanzania, East Africa, and with good reason. This is the home of the great migration of wildebeest and one of the natural wonders on planet Earth. Serengeti National Park is a World Heritage Site close to 15,000 square kilometers teeming with millions of wild animals. If you've been lucky enough to have traveled to the Serengeti, you understand the magic, you can take a land vehicle to follow a pride of lions or soar over the plains at sunrise on a hot air balloon safari to watch herds on the move. And if you haven't gone is another way to experience that magic. Our guest today are any winner Simon Fuller, producer of American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance and John Downer, Emmy winning wildlife documentary filmmaker Simon is the creator and producer John the director and producer of the documentary series Serengeti, available on Discovery plus, now in its six part second season, Serengeti to the documentary captures beauty as well as brutality and the daily challenges of life and death. During a year on the Serengeti plains, you see these wonders up close, dramatizing the life cycles of the animals from different angles, seeing and understanding them in a way you never otherwise could welcome Simon and John, Simon, for much of your super successful career, you focused on pop culture, you were even manager of the Spice Girls. What inspired you to join with John in producing this documentary series?


Simon Fuller  01:54

Well, yeah, I mean, you mentioned pop culture. And that's something I'm really, really interested in. And I think in the epicenter of pop culture right now is people's interest in nature and concern about the environment. And so I was very drawn to it. And I personally love nature, love my animals, and courses, any any human should be right now pretty concerned with the environment. And I was just really wanting to do a show that kind of had a different take on nature. And I had this idea of, you know, I think humans, as a species, we're a little arrogant, we think we have the answers to everything. And I tend to believe that maybe the answers to everything is comes from nature. And I was wondering how I could create a show that kind of presented nature in a different way that was more relatable to the viewer. And so we saw these lives through the, through the eyes of the animals, as opposed to the human. And as we started our sofas, we might relate better to the animals and understand their existence actually isn't too different to ours. Yeah. And I had this idea while on safari, in Tanzania. And I was so excited about it, the more I thought about it, the more excited I became. And then I had this dawning realization that I don't know how to film animals. I'm not an expert in the field I'm passionate about as a as a human. And I could understand how it could be successful, but I needed a partner. And to cut a long story short, I did my research pretty thoroughly, and one name kept coming up over and over again as as to someone who was best of the best. And it was this gentleman called John Downey who I didn't know I knew him by name, we actually have some history together, which I we probably both forgotten, but um, I tracked him down and phoned him up and said, John, I've got an idea. I'd love to meet with you and discuss it. So I flew to London to the Connaught Hotel, which is my favorite Hotel in London. And we met in the in one of the those beautiful two bars they have. And John arrived coming from Bristol. And I said, Look, you may think I'm crazy. But this is the idea. I started talking for about 30 seconds. And John said, this is brilliant. I completely agree with you. There's a massive idea here. I think ever since then, we have the perfect relationship. And he's the genius that captures all those wonderful shots. And I contribute what I believe is that is a relatable journey for this show to hopefully touch.


Lea Lane  04:20

A terrific combo. John, you're an award winning documentarian. You've done wildlife features on gorillas and penguins, and so forth. What were some of the biggest challenges directing Serengeti and Serengeti 2? 


John Downer  04:33

Well, we weren't going to tell a story. I mean, as Simon said, when we met up, we discussed it. But what was so brilliant is that kind of where my filmmaking was going, and the kinds of things I was thinking about were exactly what Simon was talking about. And what was absolutely perfect for this because, you know, I have told dramatic stories, you know, dramas in the animal world, but this was something else and the wonderful thing thing was, I've always been interested in technology. And that takes you into the animal world, that you can see what life is like from the inside. But the technology was just about to take this quantum leap into whole different areas, doing what used to be really difficult, still is difficult, but the technology is there to achieve it. Because a lot of the things I wanted to do, you know, with the cameras and position the cameras, you know, were impossible before or really hard. So I had this array of amazing camera devices at my disposal, we tested them for about six weeks in the Serengeti, so find out, you know, what was really delivering without disturbing the animals and would allow us multiple viewpoints on the same event, you have to have in a drama, you can't just rely on, you know, a long shot or whatever you need those those cutaways. She needs us emotional shots, picking up the reactions to the animals, I suddenly had this toolkit to play with, and some amazing talent, you know, camera talent, and a lot of young people as well, who were were anxious to try new things, not not what is normally seen in conventional documentary. So they kind of grabbed this, this idea, and they ran with it. And you know, that they needed, obviously some careful direction in terms of, you know, what stories we were telling and how we're going to tell them, but they, you know, put in the hard slog 14 hours, days, or even longer, you know, to capture the amazing material, and capture it from multiple viewpoints. So there was a each camera team had multiple cameras and ways of capturing imagery, but we had also multiple teams, and they could come together or pause or whatever. So that was quite unique. And it was the perfect timing for something. So you know, ambitious .


Lea Lane  06:55

Well as a dramatized story of real animals, we empathize with their lives, we root for them, we laugh with them, we mourn with them, we hope for them. And we get to know them. There's an especially moving storyline of elephants mourning the loss of a mother and a sister. And there's a love triangle among baboons. I mean, it's just very special in that respect, how long did it take to capture all of these? 


John Downer  07:19

Well, that was just under two years, which was extraordinary. I mean, most five life films, you know, they take three years minimum, sometimes take four, we had to condense the whole process, but this is what I was saying about multiple camera teams, multiple cameras to capture enough behavior. And it was the storylines, were born out of the reality of the animals lives. And so, you know, we have a lot of incredible material to draw on. And if you take that incredible scene, you know, those morning elephants, no one's seen anything like, we know about elephants for more, and, you know, I filmed, you know, some morning seats before, you know, the interest in the bones or whatever. But this was on another level. And that congregation of elephants together has never been filmed. And you know, those sorts of things. You can't write into the story, you know, you can't write and expect to catch and capture them. So you're guided by the incredible behavior that you capture. And that becomes part of the ongoing storyline. I mean, that's what makes me so excited about this concept, you know, allows us to capture the extraordinary, and weave it into a story that people can relate to, that informs the life of the animals that we're, we're featuring in a way you can't do with conventional, natural history documentary, right?


Lea Lane  08:42

The documentary is sometimes graphic, but not in an exploitative way. It does show fighting, and it shows kills and loss, but also love and I was worried when I watched it, I hate to see, you know, a tough kill. But it was done beautifully. I felt the natural pace of it. I didn't feel offended or frightened by it. I think, for children, would you consider this even for young children a series that they could watch?


John Downer  09:10

I would, I would I think that's very important. And I always try and make films that are suitable for our family. I think it's important that children see the reality of life out there. We're very careful how we edit it, not to make a graphic, but we don't shy away from it, because that's the reality of life that's out there. And so we're really cautious, particularly if it's a character that we've grown to love how we handle any of those moments of death, because of those human sensibilities.


Lea Lane  09:41

yeah, I felt that sensitivity all the way through this, which I really appreciate it as a viewer who loves animals. It was real, but it was sensitive. On episode six of this podcast, I talked with Paul Berra, quote, the CEO of the San Diego Zoo wildlife Alliance, and he emphasized that quote, life thrives but it has to move. How does this movement play out in the documentary?


John Downer  10:05

Well, it's it's moving all the time. And that's what we're showing is it's not, you could look at the Serengeti and say, the animals within it, the lions, the baboons, wherever, they're just gonna go through the same routine through the seasons. And although the first one was seasonally driven, the second wasn't. And most of the elements we captured, that were the central storylines were not what anyone expects, mainly because animals are so adaptable, they do not go in as I was taught, when I was doing zoology, pretty much the state, we're programmed to do things, they're not there. They're sentient beings responding to the problems that life throws at them. And the more you spend time with animals, you realize how adaptable and sensitive they are. And therefore that's why we empathy, because you can, you can understand so much of it is like, well, that's just like us. And that is really important. And what was really important on this, this one, and took us totally by surprise and totally changed. The storyline was the stall and the floods. And that has happened because of climate change. Something so far away that was causing fires in in Australia was causing, you know, the hugest rainfall in Africa and flooding the very animals that we were family. And then if you see it, you see them struggle, but you see them thrive, in the end, thrive, or most of them to thrive, thrive. Because of our adaptability, we find a way through. That's where I think hope flies if we give them a chance, but that will became quite an important part of that storyline.


Lea Lane  11:41

It's a good lesson for us. Now a vulture flies overhead throughout the series looking quite beautiful the air, but a constant reminder of the fragility of life. John, I know you pioneered techniques for wildlife filmmaking, in particular putting cameras on birds and filming them from the air using various filming platforms. Can you tell us about that?


John Downer  12:00

Well, I've tried every technique, as you say, I, I've filmed I made one of my first films ever made was about birth first flight. So I was really interested in that viewpoint in terms of how how we get it, how we use it. And it became emblematic, really of an overview. It was almost the voice of Serengeti, but it wasn't, you know, it wasn't ever a stated what it was, but it had it had that feeling of being up there with them, and also the role of what their role is within the Serengeti, because it's very easy to compartmentalize animals into goodies and baddies, you know, the values kill things, scavenge things, and all that what was important there was to, you know, give them quite a big role that was sensitive to that role, you know, and functions are in quite a few places in danger. And so that became they're not these horrible beings. They can be when they're trying to survive to the level that, you know, might they might be confronting over the kill, but it was trying to use it in a way that hadn't been used before and also presents to those animals.


Lea Lane  13:07

Yes, when I noted that, it was it was good. With Serengeti to Simon and John welcome their entire team back from the first series, including composer will Gregory and Oscar winning actress Lupita and young Oh, who has lived in Kenya, as the storyteller. Were used to male narrators, Simon, how do you think the pages voiceover affects the documentary?


Simon Fuller  13:27

I absolutely love her voice. As you say, historically, we were far more used to males. I'm not quite sure how that happened for me, and I know John agreed, you know, the female perspective is very important, you know, to someone who isn't the expert that John is. It was a little surprising to me in some ways to see how the role of the female in Serengeti in nature generally is quite different to how people might imagine it. And you know, and I think that that sort of empathy that a show like this, really, the heart of Serengeti is, is envy. And I think that mothers view that matriarch perspective, is, just adds to me more emotional weight to everything. So I absolutely love Lupita. She's sensational in every way. And I've just watched as John and her go through the scripts. It's just so elegant. And she adds something to everything. And you know, and having come from Kenyan heritage, her father still lives there. It has authenticity. So it takes so many boxes, and I don't think we could have rushed for anyone better than Lupita.


Lea Lane  14:34

She is wonderful for voiceover I agree. Will there be a Serengeti three? 


Simon Fuller  14:39

Yes, of course. Of course, there will be yes. Yes. We have some very, very exciting plans coming which I'm probably not allowed to share with you. But I mean, John and I has turned out to be one of the best partnerships. There's plenty more coming from us.


John Downer  15:00

I mean, it's two way, you know, I couldn't have wished for a better partner. It's extraordinary that we come from very different directions. But to say in the same way we all we want to do is to bring things to, you know, a large audience and involve them and inspire them. And but his partnership between us has been really unbreakable. And it's been fantastic. And we never disagree or rarely disagree. If we do disagree, we find the common solution and system as a perfect, perfect partnership.


Lea Lane  15:30

Well, I think it shows in your work.


Simon Fuller  15:32

Yeah, I was just enjoying listening to you ask John questions. I was sitting there thinking great. I heard this before, but I love listening just to the two of you talk.


Lea Lane  15:41

Oh, that's so sweet. Well, the name of the podcast is Places I Remember. So I'll ask each of you to please share one special personal memory about your experience of the Serengeti. John, do you want to start?


John Downer  15:54

I suppose I've been, I have so many, but I suppose most pertinent to this is that, you know, Simon said, he'd found this wonderful place. And, you know, the Serengeti was engaged in reserves. And he'd stayed there. And, and he said, You should go there, you know, got me on a flight to go there and, and see what it's really about. And it was beautiful. But I know it. So I know, Serengeti, so well. So it wasn't expecting it to be. Wow. And that's what I felt when I went there. And I think it's it's a little bit about everywhere in the Serengeti, there's, it is a special place, and you immediately feel at one with the animals when you when you go to new places. And that's what I felt then. And they've kind of rekindled my love of Africa, because I hadn't been for quite a long time. Although I've been many, many times, but but not recently. And so it was a wonderful moment to say, Yes, this is where I want to be, and then know that we're going to make something special from that place.


Lea Lane  17:02

That's wonderful. Simon, what about your special memory?


Simon Fuller  17:06

I mean, for me, the special memory. This is sort of part one and part two, the part one was I actually I mean, I've been to Africa many, many times to many different countries and great number of wonderful trips and Safaris. There was one trip where I actually went specifically to just recharge my batteries and to think about projects my career. And that was the trip where I came up with the idea of Serengeti. So that was obviously found and important. But the part two to that was that I got to take my three young daughters there, after Serengeti had broadcast, always, we were making at least, and shared the wonder of that beautiful part of the world with them. And so to see them see an elephant in the wild and a lion and all the many, many beautiful creatures we saw to see their reaction to it for the first time. They were five and and well, actually, they were younger than they were. They were three and a half and eight now at the time. Nothing will ever beat that. For me. That's the memory I would take to my grave. It was just the innocence of young humans and the innocence of nature meeting and, and that purity and the love. No, it wasn't fear. Actually, it was just or it was just that will be a memory I will last forever and ever.


Lea Lane  18:23

Thank you so much for those. And thank you both Simon Fuller and John Downer, Emmy award winning producers of the documentary series Serengeti and Serengeti 2, available for streaming on Discovery. Plus, we appreciate what you've created. And I highly recommend experiencing this magnificent presentation of nature without having to travel beyond your armchair. Thank you again.


Simon Fuller  18:46

Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.


Lea Lane  18:53

Thanks for sharing travel memories with us. My book, Places I Remember, is available on Amazon and in bookstores, in print, on Kindle, and I read the audio version. Please subscribe to this podcast and consider giving us a review. Until next time, join us wherever in the world we're going.

Why Simon moved to nature documentary from pop culture: "through the eyes of nature"
John tells of the challenges directing the series
Elephants and baboons-- moments of special empathy
How long it took to film the series:"you're guided by the incredible things you capture."
Young childen can enjoy
Animals are adaptable
Filming from the air
Entire crew returns, including Oscar-winner Lupita
"Perfect partnership"
Special Serengeti memories of John and Simon