Endangered Species stars Rebecca Romijn (X-Men) and Jerry O’Connell (Showtime’s “Billions”) this gripping adventure tale unfolds beneath a brutal African sun. Jack Halsey takes his wife (Romijn), their adult kids, and a friend for a dream vacation in Kenya. But as they venture off alone into a wilderness park, their safari van is flipped over by an angry rhino, leaving them injured and desperate. Then, as two of them go in search of rescue, a bloody, vicious encounter with a leopard and a clan of hyenas incites a desperate fight for survival.
I had the absolute pleasure of speaking with filmmaker MJ Bassett about her new film Endangered Species, which is full of action-packed sequences with heart and emotion at the core center of it all. We touched on her collaboration with daughter Isabel Bassett and how her passion for the ecosystem is interwoven throughout her action movies.
This interview has been edited for content and clarity.
Sadie Dean: What was the creative process like writing with your daughter Isabel Bassett and adapting this story by Paul Chronnell?
MJ Bassett: Yeah, it was an interesting process. I like making movies on the African continent and I'm very passionate about conservation in nature. That's been a lifelong interest really, my primary interest in natural science over and above filmmaking. I'm fine finding projects that has allowed me now to bring these things together, which are essential I think to my creative and personal happiness. I made the movie Rogue with Isabel co-writing, which is about lion farming. We were looking for another project and a script by Paul Chronnell, I think was originally called Kruger came across my desk and it was about a family vacation that goes wrong. I thought this is great. Now, it wasn't the movie that I wanted to make, and so we bought the rights from Paul and I told Izzy I want to use this as a basis of an idea and rewrite the script from the ground up in a form that I wanted to do with conversations that I want to have. We've written so well together because she's my daughter and we have this kind of shorthand. She doesn't like the genre at all, she likes human drama. So anytime something is on fire or something is crashing or being noisy or something which is kind of slightly outside of what she would consider to be a grounded reality, she’s like, “I'm not doing that!”
I'm very good at structure because I'm a director, I know what it is I want to film. And also, because I’m the producer, I know what I can afford. So, I'll write a detailed structure and say to Iz, “Give me your version of what this would be, just vomit this script out in any way you like.” Doesn't have to be tidy just gave me this structure, why would you go with it, she writes that I read it, and then I'll rewrite on that basis and I'll send it back to her and she says, “This is wildly stupid.” [laughs] It’s unlike any partnership with a parent and child. And we can be rude to each other and there's no kind of fallout from that. Because we aren’t going anywhere. She's a very good writer and in her own right, building her own career quite successfully. This is one of the last things she’ll ever want to do with me because she also hates the fact that I’m essentially the boss. [laughs] Even if she writes something I'm going to be like, “I don't want to shoot that or it's not going to work or these are the practical reasons why I can’t or why would you do that, you know I can’t shoot it.” It becomes a kind of a familial antagonistic creative endeavor, which then goes on to the film set. And she’s acting in the movie as well and she owns that character and she also tries not to get in the way of my directorial process with the other actors because they'll say, “Well you wrote this, what do you think?” and she says, “It's not my job. I'm just acting, ask the director.”
It’s been a fun experience. I love working with my family, my daughter was my makeup artist as well. Iz is the actor and writer, and Madeleine is the makeup artist. The more of my family on set, the happier I am.
Sadie: She's great in this role and I feel like there's got to be some nuances that she pulls from your relationship into her character, and then of course how do you turn that off when you're on set? And also, being the writer and being in a scene with all these characters and knowing their lines.
MJ: Yeah, it's not like, “I think we were supposed to be doing this.” As a director, I really like going outside that and seeing what an improvisation is going to be, keeping it loose and naturalistic. Sometimes a lot of actors will give you something different. Is it better? And that's the completely controlling idea. How can we explore it? When I'm working with Phillip Winchester who I've worked with for years, that shorthand is great. If it's a newer actor, like Rebecca who I haven’t worked with, how can I help you get to where you need to be all in that to service story and character. That’s it. That's what they want to do with the character and if they drift outside the parameters of the story, then we have to have a conversation. It's very different when I'm doing something like television which I just came off a TV show called The Terminal List, which Chris Pratt is starring in and producing, and as a director on the set there I have no overview of the script. They say the words that are written because there’s a showrunner and there are producers and the studio who signed off on the script. So, I have to deliver that. With this, my little movie, I’m the producer and the director and the writer and have full autonomy to kind of play around, and that's where I get my real creative kick, working with actors trying to find a better way of saying the same thing. And sometimes just seeing words I wasn't sure about coming alive in a good actor’s mouth, that's the greatest, you’re like, “Oh my god, it really works.”
There are moments in the movie on set when I’m getting really emotionally engaged, Isabel is delivering this powerful performance or Phil Winchesters is giving like a five-page dialogue at the end, and you’re going, “Wow, this really works!” [laughs]
Sadie: That must be so satisfying for all of you. With your background as a wildlife photographer, how much does that come into play as a director?
MJ: Well, I mean, because the movie is made about something I'm passionate about it was easy to kind of infuse it with that. My understanding of Natural History and animal behavior, again it's part of my life, and so the rhino sequence is actually pretty much based on something that almost happened to myself and my family at Kruger Park. Several years ago, after I finished shooting, I took everybody to Kruger and very arrogantly I rented a vehicle and I said, “We don't need a guide or drivers, I will find animals” and we completely did, and I let my son drive when he was 17 years old. And as he drove around we came across a rhino in the middle of the road. And it was exactly the same situation, the rhino didn't like us being there and started pawing the ground and lowering his head and I was like, “Let's back up really, really quickly.” And he was trying to back up and he wasn't a very good driver at the time, now the rhino didn’t charge us and it didn't flip the vehicle, but I remember the behaviors that I wanted to put that in the movie.
Same thing about the hyenas and how they move and how they behaved. That was all CG creatures, I didn't want any live animals on the set. I don't really believe in it, I don't believe in exotic animals being used if you can avoid it at all costs. Then just the place itself in Kenya, it’s so awe-inspiring, in a very real way it's awe-inspiring. And having my director of photography Brendan Barnes, he’s a young South African director of photography who I worked with on Rogue – it’s his landscape, it's his world. But he works with me in a way to kind of capture this. Just the light and the place. We only had 18 days to shoot the whole movie so we're really moving quickly. Every time there is something beautiful, we stopped our van, “Get out and shoot the scene here now! It’s a wonderful backdrop. The lighting is perfect, let’s shoot it.” Everybody has to be on their toes, a sort of guerilla filmmaking technique which I really like and embrace.
Sadie: How many times did you find yourself chasing the light?
MJ: All the time. We were in Equatorial Africa in Kenya, we crossed the equator several times and the light is extraordinary but it also goes very quickly. So, if you're facing the magic hour, there is no magic hour, it’s a magic 15 minutes. And also, the skies are incredible, the clouds are beautiful so some days you have it overcast, sometimes it's beautifully sunny, you've just got to shoot accordingly and be very flexible. It's not a $100 million movie where you can wait. Or you could say we're going to replace the sky afterward. This is the world we live in, it’s very real. It will be a bit wobbly around the edges in some places, but it's gonna hopefully feel like you're there. And that's what I wanted more than anything, I wanted to make a movie where you felt like you were in Kenya, you went to Central Africa, and you felt the dust a little bit. If I’ve done that at all, then it’s succeeded.
Sadie: Your end credits and your message at the end definitely sat with me, and I'm still thinking about it. The fragility of the world and wildlife. Every character you had is breaking the rules, either for the thrill of life or the thrill of life from poaching, without respecting the land or the wild animals. It just shows you how fragile life is.
MJ: Totally, totally. For the movie there’s a bunch of ideas running through this, obviously, you know, a young gay character coming out to his parents and you're dealing with that so there's kind of familial tensions, but you have a father who works in the oil industry, there's no doubt that the planet is in trouble, the fossil fuel industries contributed to that so there's culpability there. There's culpability from the poacher and how he's exploiting using the world, everybody's got a position, and Jerry O’Connell who plays the poacher, I think he’s absolutely brilliant because he makes good arguments. He talks about how indigenous people should they be allowed to use their resources in the conversations that any conservationist should be having. And I really like the opportunity to do that and the fragility of our world, particularly of human life itself, the fragility of the planet we live on. And if I can make a movie which is an exciting genre piece of filmmaking, first and foremost, put it on, watch it, enjoy it, get a kick out of it, be thrilled by it, but after that, if you’re like “that movie was about something” it feels to me like I've achieved a little bit more. For a long time in my career, I was just doing jobs because I wanted to make a living and I wasn't happy with myself and then I found personal happiness. And I made a decision to make movies about things, about being able to have conversations within myself. TV, not so much because that's more prescriptive and studio driven, but my little movie that's what I want to do now, and if I can do that every time, I'll be happy.
Sadie: Yeah, little movies with a big message. I think you're on the right track.
MJ: Little movies with a big message.
Sadie: Coming back to Rebecca and Rebecca's character Lauren, that fragility. She's so badass in the beginning, and then without insulin, she could easily slip and we could lose her. You have so many moving pieces.
MJ: Yeah, it takes nothing. And the other thing is humans in the middle of any part of Africa, where you are so vulnerable to nature itself and it takes you back to a kind of primal experience. Even with us, we have rangers with us all the time because there are megafauna sitting, the lions and hyenas and leopards and elephants, and the buffalo and hippo and there’s crocodiles by the river. You don't turn your back on the river, there are crocodiles in there, and these things will just take you as if you are nothing, you’re just more flesh out there. And it really makes you connect with the world in a way which I think so many of us in the developed world don't do anymore. And that lack of connection means that we can abuse nature, in a way that you know means nothing to us, because for most people, the last white rhino or the black rhino disappeared, it’s gonna have no consequence on our lives. It will be a profound tragedy, and it speaks to how we view the world and I think if you can kind of stop that a little bit, we can make a difference.
Idaho's just introduced a bill to kill 90% of its wolf population. Everywhere you look, I don't quite understand the thinking behind this world, what we're doing for the last great wildernesses in the Amazon, there's got to be solutions to the problems we're having. I think the only conversation to have is the planet is dying, how do we fix it? We are, as a species collectively, we're brilliant. We can think our way out of problems, like they say in The Martian “We should be able to science the shit out of it.” Because if we don't, it really will be over for future generations. Forget the fact that megafauna will go, even life on earth will become unsustainable.
Those are the conversations we should have, it's always too big and frightening of a problem, you have to deal with it in little, tiny, tiny bites because if you just go, “Well yes, the giant ocean currents are failing,” that means the weather patterns are going to change. And there's nothing we can do about those. So, let's try and fix it. Let's practically do it, people can keep making money, capitalism doesn't need to collapse. But we've got to do it differently.
Sadie: Yeah, for that longevity. I hope you keep making these movies that are entertaining and educational and that people are actually paying attention and taking those messages to heart.
MJ: Thank you. Well, I will advise people to give me a little bit of money to do it.
Sadie: What’s next for you story-wise, that you're excited to tell on the big screen or small screen?
MJ: Well, the next one, I've just done The Terminal List with Chris Pratt, which is going to be a great fun action TV show. I'm about to prep the third of my eco-action projects, which is an ocean-based one. We're going to be talking about the destruction of the ocean habitats, whilst shooting guns and blowing shit up, which is how I like to do it. And then I'm going to do an episode of Reacher for Amazon as well, which is another new thriller series based on the Jack Reacher character. I'm kind of hopping around and doing a bit of corporate TV, and then still trying to do my own things as well, so hopefully, I'll stay busy for a little while longer.
Sadie: I hope so. And are you collaborating with Isabel on any of those projects?
MJ: She's off doing her own thing, she's busier than I am. I can’t get her on the phone even, but yeah, I'll drag her in.
Sadie: MJ, thank you so much for speaking with me. I look forward to your work in the future and those little movies with a big message.
MJ: Thanks, Sadie. I really appreciate your support.
Endangered Species is available in Select Theaters, on Apple TV and Everywhere You Rent Movies on May 28th! Available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1st!
IN SELECT THEATERS: May 28, 2021
ON DEMAND AND DIGITAL: May 28, 2021
ON DVD AND BLU-RAY: June 1, 2021
DIRECTOR: MJ Bassett
WRITERS: MJ Bassett and Isabel Bassett
BASED ON A STORY BY: Paul Chronnell
CAST: Rebecca Romijn, Philip Winchester, Isabel Bassett, Michael Johnston, Chris Fisher and Jerry O'Connell
SYNOPSIS: Starring Rebecca Romijn (X-Men) and Jerry O’Connell (Showtime’s “Billions”) this gripping adventure tale unfolds beneath a brutal African sun. Jack Halsey takes his wife (Romijn), their adult kids, and a friend for a dream vacation in Kenya. But as they venture off alone into a wilderness park, their safari van is flipped over by an angry rhino, leaving them injured and desperate. Then, as two of them go in search of rescue, a bloody, vicious encounter with a leopard and a clan of hyenas incites a desperate fight for survival.
RUN TIME: 101 minutes
GENRE: Action / Thriller