The Filmmakers Behind Nat Geo’s “Queens” Discuss Mentorship and the Importance of Paying it Forward

“Someone in our industry said, ‘Oh, Queens, that series the girls are making,’” shared showrunner and writer Chloë Sarosh. National Geographic’s newest wildlife series is unique, not only for its focus on female animals around the world, but also in that it’s helmed by a female-led production team. “I knew at that moment that not only did we have to make a great series, we had to make something that was better. And to sit here four years later with all these amazing women and go, ‘Well, just look at the series those girls made,’ feels really good and really important.”

(National Geographic/PictureGroup)

(National Geographic/PictureGroup)

The leaders behind Queens reunited in Pasadena last month, joining the TCA Winter Press Tour and walking the red carpet at the show’s world premiere event, the likes of which are typically reserved for star-studded high-profile Hollywood projects. “We set out to reveal female leaders in the natural world for the first time, which, crazy as that sounds, no one had made a landmark series on this before,” revealed executive producer Vanessa Berlowitz. “We all looked around and went, ‘Surely, that's wrong.’ But in the process of doing that, we actually revealed the power of having female leaders behind the cameras and amongst our team.” While the on-camera talent of Queens are legendary animals admired around the world, the team did attract a big name as narrator. “She is the absolute queen,” Vanessa said of Angela Bassett. “We've got storylines that make Succession look tame. She could really get her teeth into that. But it was as much for her the ethos of what we were doing and achieving here that she really connected with, and she's been a huge ambassador for us in that space.”

One of the most interesting aspects of Queens is the way the series has opened new doors for diverse voices in wildlife filmmaking. “As a Kenyan woman, up until Queens, there were no inroads for me to work in the industry because everything is staffed out of England or other Western countries,” explained Faith Musembi, who makes her directorial debut with the series. “There was just no way I could have worked on it unless I moved to England, got a job, then came back to Kenya. I didn't really have a specific dream of working in the industry because it just was never in the consideration of anything. It wasn't possible. And through a series of things that happened, I had the opportunity to work on this premium wildlife show, and it's because the team was incredibly intentional about saying we are going to work with in-country filmmakers.”

“I think it will have a huge influence, seeing women out there doing things, women from parts of the world, places in Africa, where women are not expected to do that sort of thing with their lives at all,” shared Justine Evans, director of photography and one of a handful of veteran filmmakers on the series. While the job of a wildlife filmmaker is to disappear behind the story, the seventh episode offers a look behind the scenes at how the show was made, which shines a spotlight on how this medium is no longer a man’s world. “It is so important for people to be seen in the public eye doing something. It's a feeling that women can come out of the shadows, not just in wildlife filmmaking, but just generally in life. That there is a freedom to choose. That you can decide to do something and just go for it without these feelings of obstacles. I mean, I've been doing a lot of thinking since being on this project, and I just remembered the other day that when I was a kid growing up in London, there were pubs that had ‘Men Only’ sections in them. It’s unbelievable that that was even a thing, but that was my starting point. And then getting into wildlife filmmaking, there only being men on teams, we've come so far. And this just feels like it's going to move it on so much more.”

“When I got into wildlife filmmaking, I was mentored by Hugo van Lawick, who was Jane Goodall's partner and recorded her for all her famous National Geographic shows,” revealed director of photography Sophie Darlington, who had the joy of getting to become a mentor to a new generation of women in the field on this project. “He obviously was not afraid of strong women, so I had a particular type of mentorship. But I hadn't ever imagined I would be in the position to mentor. I still feel that his mentorship left a huge imprint on me because it was always about a conversation, it was always about a collaboration. And with Queens, we have got as much out of the mentoring as I think the mentees have. It's gone both ways and the absolute value of having Faith from Kenya on the ground giving us a unique insight and helping us all tell a better story, isn't that smart? Isn't that the way we should be going forward?”

“You're with people like Justine and Sophie who have this wealth of knowledge,” shared cinematographer Erin Rainey, who not only got to receive mentorship from two of her wildlife filmmaking heroes but also got to pay it forward, mentoring new filmmakers on their first project. “I think it is different when it’s a woman because there's different things, challenges that you face in the fields. There's questions that you can ask that you wouldn't be able to ask anyone else, about hygiene, kids, whatever it might be. You can have these really honest conversations with them, and how your future is going to look. And then passing it on is really important, too. Sophie and Justine have probably fielded so many questions from aspiring female cinematographers, and now we can all share the load and create a community that can uplift each other. I think that's the really cool thing, as well. It's kind of come full circle and become an umbrella, and I think that's what Queens is all about.”

“I've actually never worked within this genre before, so it was a totally new adventure for me,” shared composer Morgan Kibby. “The editors who work within this genre are brilliant with music because the cuts and the storytelling are so dependent on music to fill in the gaps where perhaps narration is not going to be.” Morgan was also surprised to discover how much freedom she had under the leadership of showrunner Chloë Sarosh. “Throughout my whole career I've had so many people say, ‘Oh, we really want you to do you,’ and it's a lie. It's just not true. So you'll get like 70 percent there, and then you see them slowly tiptoeing back. That's been my experience, which it's fine. It happens. I'm in service of other people's visions. But Chloë did not do that, and I actually didn't expect it to play out that way.”

National Geographic has always had its pulse on progress and change, a brand whose yellow border is iconic because of the magazine that started it all. Queens is a milestone moment for wildlife filmmaking, and the magazine’s March issue celebrates that with a cover story about hyenas, who are featured in the series. “With hyenas, I'm really excited for viewers to see a different side of them,” said photographer Jen Guyton. “We kind of got poisoned by The Lion King into thinking that they're these cowardly scavengers that are a little bit gross. They're actually these incredibly intelligent social loving mothers, and I think that that really comes through in both the magazine story and the series.”

Queens premiers tonight at 8/7c on National Geographic, and begins streaming tomorrow on both Disney+ and Hulu. You can hear more incredible stories from the women who brought the series to life in our interviews from both TCA and the premiere event in the embedded videos above.

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Alex Reif
Alex joined the Laughing Place team in 2014 and has been a lifelong Disney fan. His main beats for LP are Disney-branded movies, TV shows, books, music and toys. He recently became a member of the Television Critics Association (TCA).