‘Savage Kingdom’ Preview: Inside Nat Geo Wild’s Version of ‘Game of Thrones’

Mandi Bierly
Deputy Editor, Yahoo TV
Yahoo TV

If you’ve always thought the women are the most interesting characters on Game of Thrones, you may enjoy the Nov. 25 premiere of Nat Geo Wild’s Savage Kingdom assuming you can handle the brutal reality, and heartbreak, of a lioness and a leopard struggling to further their bloodlines and hold their territory.

The three-part miniseries follows the power struggle among lions, leopards, hyenas, and wild dogs in the remote wilderness of Savute, Africa. Each two-hour episode, shot by award-winning Botswanan filmmaker Brad Bestelink and narrated by GoT‘s Charles Dance, is told from two animals’ perspectives. The premiere, “Clash of Queens,” follows lioness Matsumi, Queen of the Marsh Pride, as she tries to build her numbers for a looming battle, then Saba, a leopard known as the Phantom Assassin, who’s ready to have her first cubs.

In the exclusive clip above, we see the solo hunter Saba run into a pack of wild dogs. It’s a tense moment, but nothing like when Matsumi’s and Saba’s storylines cross…

Yahoo TV spoke with Ashley Hoppin, executive producer for Nat Geo Wild, about the relentless of the miniseries, the females’ plight, and whether we’ll ever feel anything for hyenas.

I had to watch “Clash of Queens” while clutching a pillow. First question: Is that the reaction you’re hoping for?
That’s one of the reactions. I really think it spans a whole gambit because we captured the drama of everything that happens out there, from family interaction, to getting to hunt, to providing, to loss, to hope.

Our filmmaker, Brad Bestelink, has lived out there his whole life. He’s seen all these kinds of things unfold. He’s filmed them for the last 15-20 years. He’s known a number of [these animals] for many years. To have that kind of insight into a world that we embedded for almost two years in one small location — that’s what gave us the riches from which to tell the stories that we tell and the characters that emerge, because you see them going from being a cub or being adolescent to becoming a matriarch. Because we covered it for so long, it is gripping. It is very raw. It’s very real. That’s part of what differentiates it for me, as a wildlife filmmaker.

What was the inspiration for the new character-driven, Game of Thrones-style narrative?
If you look at [Savage Kingdom], there are clans. You have matriarchs, you have patriarchs, you have wannabe heirs that want to take over, you have struggles with siblings, you have territorial disputes. All of those things are exactly what George R.R. Martin created in Game of Thrones. So for us it was just like, ‘Wow! We can actually open up our genre to a whole new way of storytelling.’ How do we tell a story that we all know, when, in the past, convention had you typically highlighting certain areas and maybe shying away from, as you said, the pillow-gripping moments? In our case, we show it all: We show the motivation, and you sort of understand it. [In the premiere] you see one major event from two different points of view. You know exactly why Matsumi goes [and does what she does], and then you see Saba. You think, “Oh, my gosh. Poor Saba.” Then you see it from Saba’s point of view.

If you show it all, it’s very real and very grounded, and it lends itself naturally to our version of scripted drama. People are always seeing the Disney-fied version of wildlife, where a team has gone out and shot for six weeks, eight weeks, to get a certain behavior point. We’re actually saying, “Here’s the real deal. Here’s what it’s like to live day to day. Here’s what these animals go through to survive.” So you get attached to both the characters and the real-life drama they go through — which we all go through, in our own ways. But if you see what they go through, it may actually also help you go a step further in terms of conservation and preserving where they live, which is part of the mission of National Geographic. So for us it’s a win-win.

Recently BBC America aired The Hunt, a nature series also focused on the struggle to provide and survive. There were moments of levity in that. Even though this miniseries is called Savage Kingdom, I was still surprised by how intense and unrelenting the premiere was.
For me, it’s intensely brutal, but it’s also intensely emotional. You find yourself rooting for the characters, rooting for a clan. You feel each character. You understand what it takes to survive, and it justifies what they go through. They need to eat.

I never realized how difficult it was to be a mother lioness or leopard. The idea of having to leave your cubs alone, hidden but unprotected, to go hunt … I just kept thinking, “Where are the dads? Do something!” It’s painful to watch.
But that’s how it works. Everything we portray is reality, and the truth is, in the lion world, the alpha female kind of runs things. The males use their brute strength, but females do the hunting. We often have a pride with one or two males, and they will come in and use their extraordinary weight to bring down a large buffalo, but the females are the ones calculating and strategically getting most of the food. They’re not the ones divvying it out — the alpha males always eat first — but that’s how it runs. In the wild dog pack, the alpha female, and the alpha male hunt together, and everyone sort of looks up to them. It’s a natural hierarchy that comes with that group. Hyenas, it’s the females, they’re stronger.

Saba [the leopard] has this elegance and this cunning that punches through with efficiency. Everybody else has a clan; Saba’s on her own. She’s a single mother, and with her two cubs she makes her way. She is in the heart of the territory. She has two different lion clans around her, she’s got the hyenas around, and she’s got the wild dogs, who are incredibly voracious hunters.

The fact that you have the Breaking Bads and the Game of Thrones and all the different dramas, it’s created a world in which people are receptive to that kind of drama and that kind of storytelling. We’re not making stuff up — this stuff is the real circle of life. We had the luck, the foresight, and, with Brad, the talent to capture it. It really is the reality, which is the world’s best drama. So we simply took ours and thought, “We’d like to evolve our genre.” It’s important. We are all absolutely committed wildlife people, and I would love to have people who are new to wildlife watch. That’s our dream. Because then they fall in love with the world around them, and then they change the way they see the planet. Again, that’s a win-win for everybody.

Hyenas always seem to be the villain of nature series. What might we learn about them that we haven’t seen before? Can you make me like a hyena, basically?
That’s interesting. The hyenas are often seen as the very teethy, muscly scavengers that make a horrible noise. I think by dedicating an entire episode to them — and you get into their family, and you get into their plight and what they face — you create sympathy. I’ve worked on a couple of hyena films, and this one takes it to another level. This one allows you to see what it takes for them to survive, and it is as dangerous and challenging as it is for the lions, who look like they are the natural rulers of the savanna.

The hyenas, they’re not as gorgeous, physically, to many people. But they are incredibly impressive. As you dig into the film, we don’t go into analysis or information about what’s going on, but through the drama you learn incredible respect for each of the characters. I think in the hyena film in particular really stands out because, as you suggested, people are predisposed to not loving them, and yet I would bet that anybody who watches the show will have a newfound respect by the end. That was our intention. It was very easy to do because we had that kind of long-term storyline to put out there.

Savage Kingdom premieres Nov. 25 at 9 p.m. on Nat Geo Wild.

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