Interview with director Mark Linfield on family, parallels between human and monkey society, and his new film 'Monkey Kingdom'

by ParentCo. April 27, 2015

Mark Linfield is the co-director of the latest Disneynature film, "Monkey Kingdom." He previously produced and directed "Chimpanzee" and "Earth," and produced three episodes of the Emmy-award winning series, "Planet Earth."

Parent Co: I haven't seen the film but I've seen the two trailers. I was so surprised and happy to see Jane Goodall's face in one of them.

Yeah, she's been a great ambassador for Disneynature. We first got her on board for the Chimpanzee film. She was such an obvious fit for that. What was very clear was that she's got such a passion for all wildlife and for introducing younger generations to ecology and to looking after the planet. She turned out to be a brilliant fit for the label going forward in general.

When Jane started out, it was interesting, there were lots of hard line scientists saying you couldn't treat chimpanzees or monkeys like ... you couldn't anthropomorphize them in any way. You couldn't give them human names. You had to call them B6 and B12 and all this sort of thing, and you had to be very hard. She was one of the first people, after her long study, to slightly rebel against that. To say, "Look if you spend time with these animals it's really clear that we're more similar than we are different.”

They absolutely have personalities. It's absolutely valid to talk about them in the same way that you might talk about a human friend. In fact, in some ways it's almost unscientific not to.

With a film like this where, of course, we do have stories that seem quite human really, it's actually very useful to have Jane, because Jane can step in and say, “Look, this is actually a very valid approach or interpretation of what these animals are doing.” It's completely up with contemporary science. It's not a flight of fancy.

(In the film) there’s a story about a new mum, Maya, the way she uses her street smarts to bring up her kid. Lots of the scenes feel very human. Having both Jane and our scientist Wolfgang Dittus, who's worked with these monkeys for almost 50 years, if those guys say this is good science that ought to be good enough for anyone, really.

Right. To say that it's not like, as the director of the film, you went looking for a story and sort of forced this into some sort of plot line or something.

No, exactly. I think that's one of the things when you see the film you think, "My God, how'd they get some of this stuff? Were they lucky that Maya did these things, or …” What's interesting is because we'd worked this location (in Sri Lanka) before and we knew the monkeys, we knew the scientists, we broadly knew that the story would be about a low ranking female growing up, or I should say, trying to make a better life for herself. Particularly as her infant grew up in the space of this unjust society.

We knew that because every single group of Macaques at this location, and there are 36 groups, that scene is happening in every single group. Every single group had a bottom ranking female. That bottom ranking female had an incredibly difficult task to make a living and rear offspring. The only way they can really do it, because it is such an unjust society, is to be resourceful and innovative and brave.

Whenever a monkey in a monkey group discovers a new food source, or discovers a clever way of doing something, it's always the low rankers that do it. They don't have the hard luck in life to be born with a silver spoon in their mouth like some of the monkeys, where basically they get to monopolize all the food and go to the top of the tree where the fruit's ripest because it gets the most sun.

Animals like Maya aren't even allowed into the tree because they're sort of low status. They had to come up with ingenious ways to make an alternative living. We knew there would be a story in there somewhere even before we arrived on location. We sort of knew we were going to be targeting a low ranking female in a group. We set out to find an interesting low ranking female in a group that had some other interesting characters. That was what we spent more of our first trip doing really.

How long was the process for you?

We spent about two and a half years actually filming. From pitching the idea to finishing it, it was over three years. Which is quite a long time.

It is. Do you have children yourself?

I do. I've got a little six-year-old and to be honest with you, that was one of the hardest parts of the whole process for me. They grow so quickly. The difference between three-and-a-half and six-and-a half, which those are the three years of his childhood that I was making the film during, he's changed so much in that time. I must say, in that time he's become mad keen on wildlife particularly.


Yeah. I would send him little iPhone clips from location of, “these are the monkeys daddy was with today” and I'd spin round and film myself sitting close to them and send it back to him. He used to love the clips. I'd be constantly sending him photographs. He still hasn't seen the finished film yet. He's going to see it next week. Can't wait to show it to him.

As a filmmaker, as any person, but I think especially in a lot of creative fields, you're often faced with that decision: the choice or the necessity to spend a lot of time away from your family in order to create whatever you're working on. It's a big compromise.

To be honest, some of my colleagues have gone bush with their whole family. I've got a couple of friends who literally have gone out to location- say they had a three year project to make a film in Africa - they've all moved out there and taken their children out of school and they've sort of self-schooled them in the bush, or maybe taken a teacher with them. The kids sort of growing up barefoot in the jungle, you know for three years and then home schooled a little bit.

I think children are so amazingly flexible that you can actually take a child out of the school at this age and give them a different sort of education and then plug them back into the school system and actually they do remarkably well. I've seen it in my colleagues a number of times. We're quite tempted, my wife and I, to go away possibly on a Disneynature film coming up next, and actually maybe go away. Work in the bush for three years and then come back. That's sort of something we're considering.

That's exciting. That's an adventure worthy of it's own documentary.

Yeah, quite. No, it could be good.

I'm also curious about, as you mentioned, this group of monkeys has been studied for nearly 50 years.

50 years. Yeah.

Once I read that it sort of made sense, because my big overriding question is, "How'd they do that?" I'm sure you hear that a lot. Like, "How'd you get so close? How were you able to be so intimate?"

You're right, yeah. Well, the study is absolutely the reason in this case. Weirdly, or counterintuitively, if you want to film monkeys doing completely natural behavior the last thing you want to do is to go into a bit of rain forest and find some monkeys who have never seen people before and try and film them. You would think, "Oh they're the most untouched." Actually, of course, they’d see you coming long before you saw them and the whole time you're trying to film them they'd be nervous and looking over their shoulders. The last thing they'd be doing is behave naturally.

Whereas at this study site there isn't a single monkey that's as old as 50 years. Every single monkey has been born into an environment where there's been some guy standing there in camo trousers and a notebook. It's completely normal just for them. We're just like another tree or another part of the environment. Because of that, they don't react to us at all. They're just getting on doing what a monkey would completely naturally do.

Strangely you can be incredibly close to them, but because of the scientific study you're seeing completely natural behavior. They're not influenced by your presence at all. The other great thing about having the scientific study there is the scientists can help us to predict what the monkeys might do next.

Your answer to how do they get that? In wildlife there are more one's that got away than in fishing. You constantly see something that just happened and, "Oh, gosh, I missed it." You're always one step behind with the camera, you know. If you see something good and you're not already filming it, you've missed it.

The great thing about this is having guys here on our side helping with the power of prediction. They'll say, "You see that one coming up to that one? He's higher ranking than she is. He's about to slap her,” or "She's about to slap him." You know that's about to happen so you can be running, you can be cutting over and you can get it. It was a fantastic luxury to have that knowledge.

What was your grand takeaway from your experiences as the filmmaker and then is there something you hope for your audiences as far as what they walk away with?

My take away from the film, I suppose, is the animal subjects, the macaques, they just never ceased to charm me and endear me and surprise me with just how smart they are. They genuinely have sort of emotional intelligence. The more you spend time with them, the more you don't really see them as, quote, animals. As I said, I think many primates are more like us than they are different. These guys are just so much fun. I hope that people, when they watch the film, feel the affection that the whole team developed for the monkeys. I hope it sort of comes out through the film.

The other thing I really think this particular Disneynature is strong in is that it's a very rich place, Sri Lanka. The animals are really varied and they have their own character. It's not like South America. It's not like Africa. There's this unique, suite of characters that have an atmosphere all of their own. They aren't animals that people are particularly familiar with. I think people will be surprised with the richness and diversity, and the kind of lack of familiarity.

Because let's be honest, there's a lot of wildlife films, or semi-wildlife films, on TV nowadays. They're so often about the same thing, you know. The same animal in the same place with a slightly different storyline. I think this feels fresher and I think it will be an introduction to a new place with new casts of creatures for people. I hope that they'll be won over by them and therefore will want to save them.

The thing about South Asia is there's a huge pressure from the human population. It's very populated. The population's growing fast, so of course, guess what? The forest gets squeezed. I don't know that as a place, it's on the radar. Everyone knows about the Amazon disappearing and all these other things, but I think ... I would hope to put the wildlife of South Asia slightly more on the map with this film. That would be fantastic.

You mentioned that you're working with this “unjust” population. I'm wondering how effectively these animals garner compassion, or is it through Maya, through the mother, that she's who most people will relate to and sort of embrace.

Maya's just like any mum. She's trying to do the best by her kids. It's just that for Maya it's more difficult than it is for many human mothers just because the society is so unjust. Although you could argue, actually, it's not so different as it is for human mothers.

In macaque's society, particularly for a female, where you're born determines your station in life. By station in life I mean if you're born low ranking you get the last choice of the food, you get pushed to the edge of the group where you're more at risk from predators, you're not allowed to sleep in the safest place on a sleeping branch. For example, at night all the monkeys will line up in a row on the branch. The safest place, and the warmest place is in the middle. That's where the high rankers are. The low rankers are right on the outside where they can be cold or they can be picked off by predators. A very unfair life.

Does that mean they don't share compassion? Or don't have compassion because the high rankers are exercising or enforcing this society? I would say, "Do humans not show compassion?" Well, of course they do. Does this sort of thing go on in human society? Of course it does. Just like I was saying at the beginning, they're more like us than they are different, for better and for worse. You see so many parallels.

Yeah. I wonder if that's going to be hard for some humans to face? Of if they'll even know what they're feeling when they're thinking, “Hey, that's not fair!” or, "That's not right." But absolutely that happens every minute of every day in the human world, too.

They probably will. It happens every minute of every day and they probably will feel that when they watch this film. What's great about it is that Maya has a few answers. Like many low ranking animals, she's scrappy and she uses her street smarts to make the best of a bad lot and does extremely well by her kid and makes some smart calls. It works out well in the end.


Did you learn anything about parenting from these animals, and from Maya in particular?

(Laughs) Gosh, I could learn quite a bit about parenting given that I've spent a lot of the last couple of years in South Asia and my child spent most of that time in England. I think they could teach me a hell of a lot about parenting.


The males are not very active fathers. You could say that I've taken a leaf from their book, but the mothers are incredibly compassionate mothers. Very protective. Particularly the low ranking mothers like Maya, because their infants are more likely to be whacked, if they overstep the mark. For example a low ranking adult wouldn't ever lay a finger on a high ranking infant, or the infant of a high ranking mother, no matter how annoying they were being. But the infant of a low ranking mum can just get whacked for fun by anybody. This class system even extends to that, and so low ranking mothers are even more protective of their infants. They have to be. The way in which our star monkey looks after her infant is incredibly endearing.

I don't know what lesson that is for me, but I'm certainly touched by the parenting skills of the female monkeys, anyway. Maybe not so much the males.

When you’re back together, are there things that you do to reconnect after a long time away? Or to just stay feeling connected day to day?

The best thing, wherever possible, and it's so much easier now than it was earlier in my career, is to stay connected while I'm away. To send emails and pictures and, if you can, Skype. That is the best thing, so when you come back there isn't this period of reintegration.

It used to be terrible, and luckily, during these days I was sort of courting my now-wife, and of course we didn't have a child like we do, it was really difficult. It was often no phone call and then satellite phones came in. That got a bit better, although they were incredibly expensive. Then we got a fax machine and you'd be sending written letters, but it was very, very difficult. It's so much easier now.

I think now it's just the best thing to use technology to try and stay connected whilst you're away. Then when we get back, first thing we do is try and take at least a long weekend off and just go somewhere all together. I go through all my pictures with them and they feel a bit more connected to what I've been doing. It's hard, no doubt. It is the toughest thing about this job.

People say to me, "What's the hardest thing? It must be wading through those swamps, or being stung by wasps and bitten by mosquitoes and getting quite ill,” which we do sometimes, "It must be awful." I say, without exception, the hardest thing is missing family. There's no question. That's by far the hardest thing.



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