“We called [North America] the most extreme continent, and we always talked about it being an extreme continent, and every single month there was something else to remind us of why that was true.” — Huw Cordey, North America series producer
“By all measurement, [North America] is the most extreme continent on the planet.” — North America executive producer Keith Scholey
In separate conversations with Huw Cordey and Keith Scholey, producers of Discovery Channel’s new seven-part natural history series North America, the word “extreme” came up quite a bit. Over the course of three years producing the series, they and their primarily British production team (people whose previous work has included classics of the natural history genre like Planet Earth and The Blue Planet) had plenty of time to experience the extremes of the continent — extremes that those of us who live here may take for granted. The wild weather shifts. The intense storms. The vast array of landscapes and wildlife.
So how does one introduce, or re-introduce, a continent to those who already live here, given that this is Discovery’s first independently produced landmark natural history series, and given that it is primarily geared toward the network’s American audience?
“The challenge is we wanted to surprise Americans about America,” Scholey says. “We always wanted to very much bring [the series] to an American audience, and also a modern American audience. I think the genre of natural history always has to be reinvented.”
Some of the reinventions that you may notice throughout North America that seem especially geared toward an American audience can be found in the tone, pace, music and narration of the series, which bring some elements of the “extreme” themselves, and may surprise those accustomed to more traditional natural history filmmaking, especially from the Brits. Tom Selleck narrates the documentary in a pretty straight-talkin’, gruff, laconic, Western-hero type of style, and Bon Jovi contributes the series’ rocking theme song — rock music turns up in various scenes in the series as well, a rather uncommon occurrence in nature documentaries.
“Obviously, when you’re making films for a British audience, the audience is slightly different,” says Cordey, reflecting back on more understated series like Planet Earth. “And Discovery, they have a very clear idea of who their audience is. So it was tailoring natural history for their kind of audience. … Just to sort of marry it up with the audience that they know they’ve got, and perhaps bring it to a sort of younger audience.”
North America’s clear aim at Americans is also found in its writing, where the entire continent is frequently referred to with the United States’ moniker “Home of the Brave,” and lines such as “only the tough who fight for what they want can call it home” and “defending what’s yours” crop up in relation to animals such as wild mustangs. While at first it may seem odd to impart nationalistic ideals and motivations onto animals, in talking with Scholey, lines such as that make a sort of sense when put in relation to what he and other producers realized when originally thinking of making a series about North America.
“Most of [North America] was really uninhabitable until barely a century ago,” Scholey says. “Once you understand that, you then discover that all the natural history that’s associated with it is actually battling against a very, very tough place to operate. You have to be very adaptable, you have to be very tough. And all the things that kind of interestingly go with the spirit of the American, you see in natural history. Because both are forged by the same thing.”
This is all not to say that North America only focuses on the United States, since, of course, the continent comprises more countries, and is fact filmed in many locations. Cordey estimates that “probably 50 percent of it was filmed in the USA, about 30 percent of it was filmed in Canada and about 20 percent in the rest of the countries. I think one of the surprising things about North America is it doesn’t begin in Mexico. … What I hope, if [audiences] only get one big geography point from the opening program, it is that North America begins at the Darien Gap in Panama and goes all the way to the northern part of Canada.”
Animals from these areas and everywhere in between are spotlighted in the series — from sea turtles laying eggs in Costa Rica, to wolves on the hunt in Labrador. While it seems like at this point there may not be much left new for these filmmakers to discover and photograph, they still manage to surprise with moments like a scene in Florida that Scholey tells us about, where they managed to capture, for the first time, “an actual wild shark predation by a great hammerhead on another shark, which has never been done before. And all within sight of Palm Beach.”
But even these expert filmmakers get frustrated at times, and the big cats of North America — particularly the mountain lion — proved to be quite camera-shy.
“[America’s big cats] are awesome,” laughs Scholey, “but they are very, very difficult to pin down.”
“I’ve got a lot of respect for mountain lions,” adds Cordey, “particularly since we didn’t manage to film them properly. They managed to elude us. They were the one animal that we put quite a lot of effort into and didn’t really get a decent sequence out of. But we got some stuff with jaguars, great stuff with bears, and wolves — all the iconic species of North America.”
Ultimately, Cordey and Scholey both ended up awed by their experiences on North America, and hoping that that awe can be ignited, or reignited, in the North American audiences watching the series.
“When you spend a bit of time in North America,” says Cordey, “you sort of realize why so many people in the USA don’t have passports, because you can have 30 or 40 completely different experiences around the continent.”
“You guys have it all!” laughs Scholey, about the wide range of temperature, climate and geography in North America. “I just hope that we’ve lived up to [North Americans’] expectations, but also I hope that it just really reinvigorates North Americans’ interest in their place, and they feel really proud to be part of it. Being a Brit, I’d love to say my home was as fantastic, because [North America] is an incredible continent full of amazing natural wonders.”
North America airs Sundays at 9pm ET/PT on Discovery Channel beginning May 19.
Swift fox: Credit Discovery Channel
Aurora over Alaska: Credit Nick Lyon/Silverback Films