Movies, Books & Disney+

Interview with Disneynature Ambassador Dr. M. Sanjayan About “Monkey Kingdom”

We were delighted to have the chance to not only interview director Mark Linfield, but also Dr. M. Sanjayan about the inspiring Disneynature film Monkey Kingdom. This is a wonderful film for the whole family, and Dr. Sanjayan shares the title of Disneynature Ambassador with Dr. Jane Goodall, a fact that seemed to humble him the moment I mentioned it. Dr. Sanjayan and Dr. Goodall are both champions for the conservation, and they can be seen in the special features of the film.

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Here is our interview with Dr. M Sanjayan. You can also read our review of the Monkey Kingdom film & Blu-ray here.

Mousesteps: What does it mean to be a Disneynature Ambassador, a title you share with Jane Goodall?

Dr. Sanjayan: It is a pretty big honor to share that title with Jane, and also to be part of the Disneynature family. So basically, I am a conservation scientist. I work to save nature. I help represent Disneynature and that brand because so much of the films that they do, virtually every film Disneynature has made, has had a really big connection back to the natural world – and has has had a give-back program to nature. The first week of ticket sales, Disney gives back to conservation on the ground. Being a Disneynature Ambassador means that I get to represent both Disneynature films, but also the conservation work that happens in the real world.

Mousesteps: What type of relationship did you have with director Mark Linfield on the set?

Dr. Sanjayan: I’ve become friends with Mark, I’ve been a a big admirer of his work, because he and Alastair Fothergill – who is producer and director –  have done a series of really stunning films, both for Disneynature and outside for the BBC. We really hit it off, we got along great. I spent a few days with them in Sri Lanka on the set. He got to know these animals really, really well. I just so happened to be born in Sri Lanka, it was just sort of a coincidence that Disney was doing a film in the country I was born in. I didn’t grow up there, but that is where I originally came from. So it was really quite fun to give Mark a little insight into the culture, and sort of a human primate side to Monkey Kingdom.

Mousesteps: I did a little research, and I read that as a child, you had a birthday cake incident that is similar to what is in the film.

Dr. Sanjayan: It’s true. When I was about 6 years old, my mother made me a birthday cake. The cake was on the dining room table… I watched a monkey come through the window, grab the cake with both hands and jump to the windowsill, look back at me and fling itself back out the window and into the forest. I screamed, and my mother didn’t really believe me. She initially thought that I had chucked the cake away or done something with it. (Laughing), It was a bit traumatic. But it does happen, it really does. After that, we actually had to put grates on the window. When you grow up in some parts of Asia, you grow up in Africa…you really do have just a veneer of separation between you and wildlife. Frankly, it happens in the United States too – people have deer munching plants in the yard, things like that. Where human life begins and wild nature starts is often blurred, and in this case, I think Monkey Kingdom shows that really, really perfectly….both by putting the story in an ancient human kingdom that has sort of disappeared, an ancient culture civilization that had gone away. It is filmed in real ruins at a World Heritage Site. But also by showing that porous boundary where people are and where the monkeys live.

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Mousesteps: We have deer, but you never expect monkeys will come into a house! It is interesting to hear about different places around the world, what can happen with animals and humans.

Dr. Sanjayan: Yes, and to be honest, if you saw a deer coming into Sri Lanka, into a garden – that would be pretty surprising. In Sri Lanka, deer are really only seen in the national parks or in very rural areas. They tend to be a bit skittish, because they are sometimes hunted – so they tend to be secretive forest animals. You don’t see them that commonly. If you see a bunch of deer, you will stop the car and look, whereas monkeys are everywhere.

Mousesteps: How invested did you get with the animals in Monkey Kingdom, including Maya?

Dr. Sanjayan: Well, personally I got to see Maya – because Maya showed up on the days that I was there. But the film crew really got invested in it. The amazing thing about this group of monkeys is that they’ve been studied for over 40 years. It’s probably the longest study of any primate outside of humans that has been done. They’ve been studied really closely, so scientists knew who was doing what, and who will go where, and what the social structure is and the dynamics and all of that. When the filmmakers come in, they had that body of data to work on. They didn’t have to start from scratch. Now given that, the crew spent nearly 3 years onsite really getting to know these monkeys. And because you get to know these individuals, you can follow them and you can really tell an incredible story.

Mousesteps: What surprised me about the filming was…I thought through the whole film, ‘Do the monkeys know the film crew is there?’ And it turns out that the monkeys were hanging off the cameras at times.

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Dr. Sanjayan: The crew filmed me for the DVD, I was filmed talking about conservation. They had me on some of the ruins, and they were filming (laughing). As they were rolling, these monkeys start wandering in. And they literally sit just a few feet behind me, on the rock staring straight at the camera. It was really incredible. There is a whole scene where the monkeys are playing with the dog, and that is a real interaction that is happening. It is a fantastic scene, because you are curious about who is watching whom.

Mousesteps: Was there anything that surprised you about the monkeys themselves?

Dr. Sanjayan: There is some footage that they captured that was really amazing. For me, there are two moments that are really incredible. First..and I didn’t really quite appreciate this, how many interactions these monkeys have with other animals. So you see interaction with the deer, and the dog, and with the squirrel and mongoose. You kind of think that each animal lives its life in its own way with its own kind. But you don’t realize that maybe they have pets as well. There is sort of this real interaction with these other species. That I found to be fantastically fascinating. The other thing that I had never seen was footage of these monkeys diving underwater. Now I know that there are some primates…there is a macaque in Japan that sits in hot water to warm up in the winter months because it snows out there. But I have never seen monkeys really diving underwater, and the footage of them swimming underwater with the fish going by…that was just fantastic.

Mousesteps: What would you want viewers to take away from Monkey Kingdom, what would you want them to learn from the film?

Dr. Sanjayan: I want viewers to be entertained, because first and foremost that is what it will take to make them watch the whole film. But more than that, I want them to be amazed at what nature still has to offer. And how close our connection is to nature, and how we can see in these wild animals so much reflection of our own spirit, and our own sense of longing, achievement, wants and wishes. If we take care of nature, then nature in return will take care of us.