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Interview: Daniel Battsek on Film and National Geographic

In a span of 50 years, the world’s lion population has dropped
from 450,000 to as low as 20,000. Through gripping, up-close footage, The Last
follows the true story of one of these remaining lions, a mother
determined to secure survival for her family amidst a daunting field of

Thumbnail image for Daniel Battsek Final.jpg

The Last Lions, opening in theatres this Friday, and Restrepo,
in the news currently for its Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature,
are just two of the captivating stories National Geographic Films brings to
life for audiences nationwide.

In the following interview, President of National Geographic Films Daniel Battsek shares
the inspirations that have driven him over the course of his career in film.



The Last Lions opens in theaters Friday, February 18. Restrepo is nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature and is currently available on DVD.

In college you majored in social and political studies. What was
the moment when you realized that the film industry is your calling?

In college, I took a degree that
was interesting, but that left me with plenty of free time, and during that
free time I set up a film society. Showing films was pretty much all I did in
college, and I realized that just because I had a particular taste in a movie
did not necessarily mean that it was shared by that many other people. So the
initiative gave me a very good grounding in how to market films and also how to
try and educate an audience into loving movies that it didn’t think it
necessarily would love.


“I loved movies, so I just
showed what I loved and just did it as an experiment really.”

So you liked to show films that people might not have gravitated
towards themselves?

It was interesting to try and get
people to understand that film is an incredible art form that has an enormous
amount of variation, and that a movie can be in black and white, a movie can be
in a foreign language, and that doesn’t make it any less accessible. So I guess
my primary aim was to demonstrate the breadth of film as an artistic endeavor.
That’s a very grand way of saying what I thought I was doing: basically, I was
a student, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I loved movies, so I just
showed what I loved and just did it as an experiment really.


Do you have a genre that you’re particularly drawn to?

I have various filmmakers that I
really love. I love the whole New Wave, French New Wave, Godard, Truffaut, etc.
I’m a huge Stanley Kubrick fan. I love “Apocalypse Now.” My top ten movies tend
to shift around on any particular day. I suppose I’ve tended towards
non-Blockbuster type movies, but then again, there are plenty of Steven
Spielberg films that I’ve loved.


You’ve worked for several film companies. What is the National
Geographic film? How is the process different looking for these films?

I see it almost like going back
to my roots. When I started out, I started in an independent production distribution
company in England. That was at a time when independent distribution was at
quite a low ebb and people were talking about the end of independent production
and distribution in the UK. Quite often that is the time, if you’re
entrepreneurial or if you have a passion, to say “you say it’s dead, we say
it’s alive.”

And back then it was a time when there were incredible filmmakers.
It was pre-Tarantino, but there were fabulous French filmmakers like
Jean-Jacques Beineix and films like “Diva,” which sort of kick-started an
audience into understanding how exciting film could be and I think we’re at
that place again now. People talk about how, because a lot of the studios have
closed down their specialized units, somehow independent film is over and I disagree.
I think National Geographic, because of the strength of its brand, the great
people that we have working here, and the enormous number of stories that
National Geographic can tell, is in the right place for us to be stretching our
limits and really making a mark on filmmaking and film distribution.



Are there any upcoming films that you are especially excited

The great thing about being in a
small company is that you only do what you love. It’s like having kids
basically. You love all of them equally. I think we’ve got some incredibly
exciting product, starting off with a true National Geographic core movie made
by award-winning filmmakers and National Geographic explorers Dereck and
Beverly Joubert called The Last Lions. Then following The Last Lions, we
have two wonderful films both of which take place in Africa, or at least part
of the stories do. One is called Desert Flower (seen at right) and the other is called The
First Grader
. Those are some of our first movies for 2011, and I think each of
them offers a different audience segment a really interesting and entertaining

If you were going to make your own film, what are one or two
scenes that you could imagine being included in it about your own life?

About my own life? I think I
would definitely either start with or have a flashback to post my college
graduation. I went to Australia thinking that because there was a bunch of
filmmakers that I knew from their films that somehow I would just bump into one
of them and they would give me a job. I guess it was a very typical young
person’s view of how things worked.

I ran out of money and ended up working in
an Italian restaurant in Sydney washing dishes. As it so happened, that was the
restaurant that many of these filmmakers that I was so determined to meet used
to eat at. So purely by accident I ended up in the right place at the right
time, and I would come out at the end of the evening and there would be Gillian
Armstrong or George Miller or Phillip Noyce or Peter Weir, any of those Australian
filmmakers that we know so well. And they obviously took pity on me and
eventually one of them gave me a job on their movie and that was basically the
beginning. So I think that if I were making a movie, I definitely would have to
include that somewhere.


How did you approach the filmmakers?

That was sort of how it was in
Australia those days. You just went up to someone and told him or her that you
wanted a job, you love movies, and eventually one of them said, “Oh, ok.”

And the first job how was it?

It was a runner’s job on a movie
set. It’s not glamorous and it doesn’t appear to be getting you anywhere. If
you stick around long enough then maybe you get lucky and someone says at some
point, “Hey, you know a lot about this movie, don’t you?” and you say “yes,”
and then they say, “Well, we’re about to distribute the movie. Can you come and
tell us about what the making of the film was like?” And that was, as I said,
much more because of luck than anything else, but that’s the way it started.


So you found opportunities to learn more in those early stages.

Yes, that’s what it’s all about. I’m
sure there are books about all of this, but ultimately I think the best way to
learn is to just get on and do it.


Valentine Quadrat
Interviewer Valentine Quadrat is
Standards & Practices Coordinator for the National Geographic Channels and
a volunteer for National Geographic Live!. She received her B.A. in
Government, secondary field in Italian and citations in French and Czech at
Harvard. Prior to joining the National Geographic team, Valentine traveled to
Sweden and Finland as researcher-writer for Let’s Go Publications, interned in
the Press Office at the U.S. Embassy in Rome, danced with a professional ballet
company, and jumped from the world’s tallest bungee platform in Macau, China.