Billed as a coming-of-age tale, BBC Films' The Meerkats is an attempt to mount a resolutely big-screen experience. Melanie Rodier reports.
Now in post-production, James Honeyborne's The Meerkats is the first theatrical nature documentary from the UK's BBC Films.
Co-financed by The Weinstein Company (TWC), the film is a collaboration with the BBC's Natural History Unit, the broadcaster's acclaimed department which has had plenty of experience in the field, including features such as Blue Planet and the upcoming Earth.
'At BBC Films, we'd been talking with the natural history department about ways to work together on a documentary,' says producer Joe Oppenheimer. 'It was the success of March Of The Penguins that pushed us. We were thinking about animals that would pull people in.
'People loved penguins, as they walk on two legs and have an anthropomorphic quality,' he says, pointing out that meerkats have the same 'human' feel. 'They're very charismatic, characterful mammals. They have fascinating parallels with humans. Physically, their behaviour, how they work as a family unit.'
Oppenheimer suggests that meerkats have been seen often on TV, but they have never been shown in context. 'Usually, you just see how they interact with each other, but you never see what their neighbourhood is like too.'
In the film, audiences will be able to observe the wild meerkats interacting with rhinos and giraffes.
Honeyborne, an experienced wildlife documentary film-maker, and Oppenheimer wrote a treatment where they explored the general behaviour of meerkats and looked at what might happen if they filmed them.
The Meerkats started production in November last year and shot for several months with multiple cameras in South Africa in the Kalahari desert, on the largest private reserves in the country.
'It's all about holding your nerve, constantly making decisions about calculated risk, trying to minimise the risk,' Oppenheimer says of the filming. One particularly difficult moment was when a jackal moved into the meerkats' neighbourhood, making them skittish and difficult to film. But there were also highlights, such as capturing on film an eagle chick hatching in a nest.
Oppenheimer says that during the filming, it was essential to be aware of the difference between film and TV. 'We filmed a lot of 35mm, in scope, which doesn't happen in TV. We were also trying to raise our game in sound and take it to the next level,' he says.
Last year the film-makers cut a two-minute promo and took it to Cannes, where it generated much interest. TWC came on board as a co-financier and international distributor.
'The Weinsteins had been keen to do a documentary for a long time. They have a very eclectic mix of films. This type of nature documentary was a particular passion for Harvey. He seized on it happily,' says Oppenheimer.
He prefers not disclose the budget - which he describes as 'more than has ever been spent on a film like this before, but still equivalent to a low-budget drama.'
The film is planned to start rolling out theatrically around the world in September. It will then be screened on TV.
Oppenheimer counts Japan and France as potentially some of the biggest territories. The producers hope The Meerkats will match the box-office success of Luc Jacquet's film but they are not pitching it as the next March Of The Penguins.
'We want to sell it as its own thing,' he says.
At the end of the day, it's a 'family film about a cute hero surviving against the odds', Oppenheimer says. 'It's closest to a coming-of-age tale for kids.'