In David Attenborough: A Life On Our Planet, instead of having one of the most well-known broadcasters featuring the planet, the film has the planet feature Sir David as its advocate. Coming from the man who has seen it all in his lifetime – the Earth’s wilderness at its peak, and unfortunately now at its nadir – this documentary is the famed naturalist’s witness statement.
In a recent interview with Matthew Sherwood for the Factual America podcast, British filmmakers Keith Scholey and Colin Butfield, David’s long time collaborators, provide first-hand insights into the making of the movie, and the experience of working with David.
During the conversation, the filmmakers praise Sir David’s approach to work, his experience behind and in front of the camera, his understanding of the value of technology and what the new filming techniques have to add to moviemaking. They reveal that the footage is mainly unscripted, apart from the voiceovers, but even those are still just scripted versions of Sir David’s reflections about certain themes and the questions surrounding them.
While the two of them were working with Sir David on the series Our Planet. “We then realised that all the big changes that have happened to the world, the really significant ones, have all happened in David’s lifetime. And we just thought that it’s extraordinary. This is a guy who’s probably seen more of the world than any other human that’s ever lived. Let’s hear what he has to think about what he’s witnessed, and crucially, what he thinks we should do now. And that’s really what the film’s about.”
The way a crucial story is told requires a real knack for balancing the tone between the grave reality, a serious call to action, and a hopeful denouement. Keith explains: “Simplicity in this film was everything. Because the real problem with the environmental crisis is that the world is confused. And the idea of this film was to try to tell a very simple story. And how everything just ties together as a set of consequences. And so once you tell a simple story about why we’ve ended up having a problem, you can then tell a very simple story about how you can get out of the problem,”
Through this method, the three areas requiring focus are clearly outlined: food, emissions and waste. As Sir David put it, “It’s really about us; forget about trying to save our planet, it’s about saving ourselves.“
One of the movie’s striking features is the beginning. Keith advises why they chose to open with the Chernobyl scene: “We filmed in Chernobyl for the Our Planet series and it was the perfect parable to go with what’s happening with the environmental crisis. In both showcases a big accident can take away our ability to live in this place. And then the other key thing about Chernobyl is that although humans left, nature carries on. And so the moral of the story is that our civilisation may not be able to survive the changes that are coming, but nature will find a way.“
As much as some wonder how much energy David has got left, Keith jokes, “Don’t ever bet on it being David’s last one. Because we’ve had hundreds of David’s last ones. And I’m sure there are a lot more to come.” In fact, the legendary broadcaster’s drive is not likely to come to a halt any time soon, as Keith notes that, in terms of mental age, “David’s about 50-52 in how he thinks and how he does things. He’s got no interest in retiring whatsoever.” and “As time is running out, he’s doing everything he can now to help to make a difference.”