Interview: Director Mark Linfield Talks Disneynature “Monkey Kingdom”

We had the opportunity to speak with Mark Linfield, director of the charming and inspirational Disneynature film Monkey Kingdom. There were quite a few suprises during the interview, including finding out how long macaque monkeys can live (50 years) and the fact that Linfield has experienced some of the monkeys from Monkey Kingdom previously during his 18 years visiting this part of Sri Lanka. It is really hard to impart just with words how passionate Linfield is about the film and the monkeys he spent 3 years with, and how so much of this passion is also fueled by humor (in a British accent, no less). This was a fun interview.

Linfield has been filming wildlife for nearly 25 years, with 3 Disneynature films now under his belt: Earth, Chimpanzee and now Monkey Kingdom. We do have a review of the film and Blu-ray here.

Director Mark Linfield, copyright Disney

MS: We really enjoyed Monkey Kingdom.

ML: We really loved making it!

MS: During the entire movie, I kept wondering if the monkeys knew you were there. And of course, we find out at the end that they are dangling off your cameras and such. How involved did you get with them during filming?

Copyright Disney

ML: That’s a good question. The first thing to say is that we worked with some scientists out there who have been studying them for 50-odd years. Because no monkey is older than 50, every single monkey has been born into a world where there is a scientist in the distant background with a notepad, taking notes. What we did, we wore exactly the same beige uniform that the the monkey researches wear. And the monkeys just basically ignored us, just thinking we were one of these boring scientist people. And that was one of the things that enabled us to get very close to them without disturbing their behavior, you could really record what was going on. I think it’s really a counter intuitive thing. I think most people think in order to get really natural behavior, you need to go to some far flung jungle and find monkeys who have never seen people before. But actually, that wouldn’t work at all because they’d be very nervous, they’d be looking over their shoulder. They’d see you or hear you coming long before you’d ever see them. We actually find when we film genuinely naive animals, that it is quite hard to get really actual behavior, ironically, as if no one is there…where in a situation like this, you really can be completely just ignored by them.

As to whether we get involved with them, we get quite emotionally involved with them (laughing). They might be ignoring us, but we get so into their lives….if you are following them around the clock and all you are talking about when you get home for dinner is “Did you see what Maya did today?”…all of our talk about breakfast and around dinner is about monkeys and we are filming them around the clock for two or three years. You definitely get very emotionally attached to them, and it is really quite strange when you finish a production and you leave, you kind of find yourself wondering what such and such monkey is up to. They have such distinct personalities, it is odd to suddenly have them removed from your life.

Maya, copyright Disney

MS: Do you have any contact with the researchers to find out what Maya is doing now?

ML: There is a way for us to know, the communications aren’t brilliant…bad phone lines and we are very busy and they are very busy. But we do keep in touch from time to time and to find out what is going on on the ground. But you know, these animals live a long time. I’ve known some of the individuals in the Monkey Kingdom film on and off for 18 years because I’ve visited this part of Sri Lanka and this monkey site for 18 years. And some of the monkeys were around when I first visited. So in that sense, I’ve been keeping touch with them in a very long-running way.

MS: And how did you choose Maya? Lets say say she didn’t have a compelling story, at what point do you choose a different monkey?

We chose Maya because the most interesting thing in macaque society is this hierarchy…if you are near the bottom of the hierarchy, then you have to really, really try extremely hard just to make ends meet, just to make a living. You get pushed off the best food, you aren’t allowed to sleep in the safest part of the sleeping tree. Females at the bottom of the hierarchy are…they have a very tough life. It is always those females that are ingenious, inventive, risk takers..they are always the most interesting animals. It (the story) isn’t the fat cats at the top that get first pick of all the fruit. Monkeys at the bottom of the tree, they have really, really interesting lives. So what we decided to do, was to find a low-ranking female who was not unattractive to look at…you don’t want one missing half of its limbs, its eye and all the rest of it. We tried to find a group that had an attractive territory, with a good looking, low ranking female who proactively was trying to improve her lot. We surveyed a lot of different groups with the help of scientists until we found Maya. And we decided that that was our animal and we were going to follow her. We were pretty sure that she was probably going to do some interesting stuff because she was already proving that she wasn’t just going to be a pushover and take it lying down when we met her. So we followed her, and sure enough she proved to be very ingenious. She was the one who was wading out into the lily ponds, discovering new kinds of food sources and all that stuff. That is quite a common theme, one that repeats itself through all macaque groups…it is the lowest ranking monkeys that are the most interesting to follow. And that is where our story came from.

Director Mark Linfield and Disney Ambassador Jane Goodall, copyright Disney

MS: I found the hierarchy very suprising and how the animals treat each other. You learn a lot from a movie like this.

ML: I’m glad you did. I think superficially, it’s a very family friendly movie…but actually, just below the surface, it’s easily the most in-depth portrayal of monkey life that has ever been made. I think you could watch it on either level, which is what I like about it – it appeals to different age groups because of that.

Kip in Maya’s arms, copyright Disney

MS: Was it hard to keep up with the monkeys? You show them in town, in a birthday scene…how do you keep up with them as they roam through their lives?

ML: Well, most of the time they don’t travel enormous distances. They have home ranges of half a kilometer or a kilometer at most where they’ve got their territory that they protect from other monkeys and where they know the fruit trees are. That was one of the things we were looking for when we chose the monkey group, one with a nice territory. So you know where to find them because you know they are usually going to be in that territory. Also, what we did to make sure we found them was to take them to bed every night. We put them to bed in the sense that you follow them just as they are going up to their sleeping tree and settling down for the night. We know where they’ve gone to sleep. Then we come and find them in the morning before they wake up. So they are exactly where you left them the night before. Sometimes if you lose them in the morning, it can take a half a day to find them. That is really annoying, because in that time something really interesting could have happened. So we tend to never lose them.

Director Mark Linfield, copyright Disney

MS: It took 3 years to create Monkey Kingdom. At what point do you say, “I’ve got what I need”?

ML: (Laughing). Well, the thing is, you can always keep going. And if we were still filming now and we added another couple of years of filming, the film would have just gotten better. You kind of stop filming when, to some extent, the money runs out. You’ve got to start editing because it’s due in the cinema (laughing again).

MS: In the film, you have wild animals – big cats, snakes, bears. How do you protect yourself and the crew?

ML: Do you know, it’s funny and not a very sexy answer, but the truth is that it is very rarely as dangerous as people think. We often joke that the most dangerous thing we do is – on most productions – get into the car and drive to the airport. We have very good guides who know the animals, and it’s very rare that those animals are very dangerous anyway. The one exception that we probably had was working with polar bears. To polar bears, humans are actually on the menu…and you are probably prey, so you do have to be pretty careful with polar bears.

MS: What is it that you want to convey with Monkey Kingdom? I learned a lot from the film, what is it that you want viewers to take away from it?

ML: I think I hope the people will connect with the monkeys as our team did, and come to realize that they are sentient, fascinating creatures that deserve our respect. The world would be a poorer place without them. And like so many other animals in their surroundings in the film, we can’t take it for granted that they are always going to be there. The great thing is, that they are now and they are there to be saved. But we shouldn’t assume that that is always going to be the case….for our children. It isn’t a preachy film, it doesn’t talk about conservation at all – not overtly. But whenever you make a film that is impressive and people come away feeling that an animal is interesting and suprising, and worth saving…and it is nice if it was around for my children to see.