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Directors Alastair Fothergill, Keith Scholey and Jane Goodall talk 'Bears'

"Bears" hits theaters this Friday, April 18.
"Bears" hits theaters this Friday, April 18. Disney

On April 15, Examiner.com was invited to participate in an intimate roundtable celebrating Disneynature's new film "Bears," which hits theaters this Friday, April 18. The event was held at Buca di Beppo after a screening of the film. The stunning documentary follows a family of grizzly bears, which live in Alaska and features some hilarious and unique narration from actor John C. Reilly. The film's directors Alastair Fothergill and Keith Scholey were in attendance in addition to legendary ethologist Jane Goodall. Jane is a Disneynature ambassador. Read highlights from our interview below:

Since you knew that children were going to be seeing the documentary, did that change your narrative and what you decided to show?

Alastair Fothergill: Absolutely, Keith and I have worked in TV for a long time, made series like “Planet Earth” and “Frozen Planet” and “Blue Planet” and cinema is a very different experience, in the first place, people don’t go to the movies to be taught things, they go to be entertained, to escape, so the animals we choose very specifically are ones that we believe there's a really good story to tell. We want people to get emotionally engaged with the animals just as they might do with any human story. But also the big screen is great because if you’re fortunate enough to go out into nature, it’s a big surround sound, big experience, and working on telly, it's always been frustrating, that everything gets smaller on telly, and we can, if it works, take people to Alaska, you can be with bears on the screen, they are big on the screen, they are bigger on But with that comes a massive responsibility, and these are family movies, and you know, there are elements that are things that bears do that aren’t….For instance, male bears eat bear cubs, it doesn’t surprise you that that isn’t in the movie, but at the same time, it would be dishonest to not tell nature as it is, red and tooth and claw. I think our movies are true to nature, and there are baddies in our movies because every movie needs a baddie, but actually, there are no baddies in nature to be honest, they’re all perfectly adapted for what they’re doing. The wolf is a very clever opportunist.

Keith Scholey: To answer your question, we are very very aware of that audience, and we are very very very careful to mix the sound, I mean the battle between Sky and the rival male was a very dramatic moment, when we were there, we were genuinely really frightened that Sky’s cubs were going to be killed. Is it powerful in the movie? Yes! We were quite careful about how loud it is, the noise going on with those bears was pretty loud, and it was pretty loud in the movie, but yes, we are very sensitive to our audience.

How did you choose the family?

Keith Scholey: I think the family chose us. Basically, how we work, when we make a wildlife film is you go to a place, the best place you can find with the bears, and you go out and you look at a wide cast of many bears, and we were also looking for say a case of a mother with cubs, one that is actually calmest, and happiest with our presence. You quickly work that out. There are some bears that are okay with you, but they’re not that open, there are other bears, mama bears, who say when they want to go fishing, they leave your cubs with you to babysit, and that is absolutely true. Because they know that some of the male bears are more weary of you, so they won’t come as close to you as people, the mamas are bright, they work out, “I'll leave my cubs here, they are actually quite safe because no male bear is going to come near them.” We are always looking for a bear that’s really very very trusting and also very relaxed, because as wildlife filmmakers, you want to not really be there, you just want to watch what plays out, as if you aren’t there.

So was your unit or camera crew cub sitters?

Alastair Fothergill: We had a number of different teams, and we were always focused on what's the best at that time, so some of them really concentrated on the males fishing for example ... and so it depends what's going on, but by and large when the mama bears and the cubs come around that always became the focus, because you never know how long you got the opportunity for.

How do you not get attached to these animals, and if you do get attached to these animals, how do you leave?

Jane Goodall: Because if you’re in the wild, it would really be bad for the animal to be left, but if you become attached to the animal and you love them, you want to leave them where they're happy. For example, lots of people like baby chimps, and that means you’ve taken the baby from its mother, that means it will never learn how to be a proper chimpanzee, that means when it gets bigger and stronger around age 7, what do you do with it? The group doesn’t want it, because it doesn’t know how to behave like a chimp, so they end up at very bad zoos, so wild animals belong in the wild.

What is the number one message you want your work to convey to humans about the animals?

Jane Goodall: I think the main message to understand is that every animal is an individual, just as we are individuals, and that they matter, we should respect them, we should respect their right to be where they are, and once we get to understand them, we are more likely to want to protect them, and they need our help.

This relates to the fight scene, would you have intervened if something happened?

Alastair Fothergill: There’s nothing you could do, I mean to be honest, I don’t want to get between a male bear, those guys are very very very powerful, but our first rule as wildlife filmmakers is to never intervene. You only leave footsteps, and partly for our own selfish needs because we want to film natural behavior, and if you end up interfering with that natural behavior, you’re not going to be able to get what you want. We always say “animals first,” and that effects our whole modus operandi, the whole way that we work.

As a follow up, instead of violence, how about something like starvation, in the chimpanzee movie, Oscar was on the verge of starvation.

Alastair Fothergill: I’ve been in many situations where I have seen very very hungry animals, and it's impossible, because even if in that one instance, we might be able to provide Oscar with some food, I’m not going to be there in a month’s time, and any situation where people have tried to feed animals have always ended in a disaster. A) Because they can’t keep it up and B) because the animals become too used it. In fact, one of the key things working with bears, because bears are omnivores like us, they eat lots of our food, is we never ever allow any of our food to get anywhere near them. Because, as you know, in the southern states, you've got an issue with black bears, if you go to Yosemite, the one thing you have to learn is to keep your food in a tin because bears are clever animals, so the people we were working with in Katmai National Park, we were unbelievably careful with the food in the camp and making sure the bears never thought of human things as a source of their food.

Jane Goodall: Let me add on to that, it’s a bit different if you’re doing research, and you have a permanent research station. So with the highly endangered chimps, gorillas and banobos, if it’s a sick one, we try to help them ... if you were studying Pygmy, people, and one was sick and you didn’t help them, you would be a pretty nasty person, that’s how I feel about chimps, but it's different, coming and going out.

Whose idea was it for John C. Reilly to narrate in a witty way and to voice what the bears were thinking?

Alastair Fothergill: As Brits, Keith and I, for us that was almost the hardest thing ... Disney was great with that, they said to us “You guys know how to make wildlife films, go out and do it.” But in the end, they got the writers from “Wreck-it Ralph,” they got these amazing people that work in animation, it was quite funny working for them, because they can make their stars do whatever they want, and they kept saying “Can the bears do this?” so we said, "No they can’t do this." But they were very helpful for us in that narration and the humor is … we’re two great nations separated by a common language, and we needed help with that.

Keith Scholey: I think what we always wanted to do was make sure whatever was said was always respectful for the animals, truthful to the animals and there is a line that if you take it too far, you can I think fall over that edge. You can laugh with animals, you must never laugh at them and that’s a very fine line, and I think respect, once you kill the respect for an animal, you’ve lost everything.

So in the narration did you actually have John C. Reilly watch the film first and then do it?

Alastair Fothergill: We spent a long time writing the narration with help from the guys from Disney, John’s got a limited amount of time, but he gave us a lot of time, and what was really interesting ... he started looking at these bears, and he said what he thought they were thinking, and a lot of the best lines like, “I’m taking my clam for a walk” I don't think that was in the original narration and we went back, we refined it. Another was “He looks like my father watching the telly,” that was entirely his line, and he ad-libbed it and he’s great at that. He’s a bear and he’s a bear in human skin.

You are a DisneyNature ambassador, what does that mean, and what will your contribution bring?

Jane Goodall: It started with the “Chimpanzee” movie, and obviously I was a pretty good choice to promote a film on chimpanzees, and we have this network of Roots and Shoots youth around the country, and so it seemed a very good fit that we could inform them and the box office for the first week actually went out to the chimps, a percentage of it. It was so successful with all our networking and whatever Disney was doing as well as everybody else, so they called up and said “It was absolutely fantastic, we’ve never had box office like this before,” and I said, “do you think we could have two weeks for the chimps?” And we did. Anyway this time it’s going to be for National Parks Foundation to help maintain the parks, which is really important. So I think the idea of being an ambassador was just formalizing well, I loved these wildlife movies, I feel it’s terribly important for young people to get that emotional connection with them, so why not do “Bears”? So I’m doing it.

A portion of ticket sales from April 18-24 will go to the National Park Foundation.