MJ Bassett on ‘Endangered Species’

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Far from home. Far from safety. Far from over.
Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.

MJ Bassett takes us on a thrilling journey through the Kenyan wilderness in her new film Endangered Species.  

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 (Winchester) 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.

Endangered Species stars Rebecca Romijn (X-Men), Philip Winchester (“Law & Order: Special Victims Unit”), Isabel Bassett (Rogue), Michael Johnston (“Teen Wolf”), Chris Fisher (“Raised By Wolves”) and Jerry O’Connell (“Billions”). The film is directed by MJ Bassett (Rogue) who co-wrote the film with her daughter Isabel Bassett.

Check out my Q & A with MJ!

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
What inspired you to tell the story?

MJ: I’ve been involved in conservation and natural history my whole life, it’s my great passion. I wanted to be a wildlife vet when I was a kid, I ran wildlife hospitals, I flew falcons, I was a vet assistant for five years when I was a teenager and I worked on TV in the UK when I was young as a wildlife host, talking about science and nature. It’s hugely important to me and always has been. I kind of went off piece and became a filmmaker and I’ve been looking for a way to bring my passion for natural history and my love of blowing shit up and crashing cars and shooting guns into a kind of simplified frame. I managed to do it in Rogue, the film I made with Megan Fox last year where we talked about lion farming and we made that into an action movie. When I was making Rogue, I came across a script by a guy called Paul Chronnell, which was a safari gone wrong for a family. I liked the idea so I bought the rights to the project and rewrote it using my own ideas, with my daughter, Isabel Bassett, to make it into the kind of a conversation that I wanted to have, in terms of its conservation message, its internal family dynamic and how I was putting it together. I mean, some of the incidents are based on real things. The rhino attack in the middle of the movie is something that nearly happened to myself and my family when I took them to Kruger Park many years ago, where I let my teenage son drive our car and we came around the corner with a white rhino right in the middle of the road that didn’t want us to be there. I remember trying to get him to reverse the car as quickly as he could and the rhino peeled off and didn’t do any damage but kind of ‘Oh, that’s a great set piece and a good reason.’ Leopards traditionally put their prey in trees, I read a few stories about leopards that attack people and put them into trees. So bits and pieces were made up of things I’ve read about or things I’ve experienced, and then other elements, in terms of the poaching and the destruction of the wildlife, is just what I want to talk about, the conversations I think need to happen. So, bringing all those things together and getting to go to Kenya was a chance to make the movie I really wanted to make.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Was the whole film shot in Kenya?

MJ: Yeah, well it is a lockdown movie. It was supposed to be shot straight after I made Rogue in South Africa, and I’d gone off to do a TV show called Halo, which I didn’t actually get to make because the pandemic came along and closed down production. I was in lockdown in the UK, my producing partner Molly was locked down in Los Angeles and we were trying to figure out how the hell we could make this little movie. South Africa was completely closed to international travel, but Kenya was still open. And I always wanted to go to Kenya because it’s one of the last great places in the world to see the megafauna and the big herds. We called the Kenyan production companies asking if we brought this film here, could we make it happen. They read the scripts and said ‘yeah we can do that.’ It’s a very contained movie in many respects. There are five people in the film, we’re out in the wilderness, we could isolate ourselves from COVID or get our cast create our bubble and go there. The whole movie was shot in Kenya and a couple of national parks over 18 days, it was a very quick shoot with very few resources and a very small crew. But we went in and did it, kicked his ass and left.

That’s insane, 18 days!

MJ: I’ve done quite a lot of television and television schedules are very tight now, so you get a certain sense of, ‘okay, this is how I can make a day work’ and because I wrote it and directed and produced it, there was a lot of freedom to, if something goes wrong you can pivot really quickly. Having creative freedom actually allows you to work faster. TV is different because there’s so many things in that pie and you have to service the studio and the showrunner and everybody else. When you’re doing it yourself, it’s actually a little easier to be nimble.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
What was it like working with the cast?

MJ: The film is based around a family so the key to the whole movie is what’s the family going to be like? With Philip Winchester, who I’ve worked with for years and years and years, I loved him for a dad because it’s a very different role for him. He’s not running around with a gun and being heroic and jumping out of burning cars, he’s, you know he’s a grounded, very flawed man, so I knew Phil was going to do that. And he was willing to travel during COVID, because that was the other thing, people had to be willing to take the risk. Lots and lots of actors were nervous or weren’t prepared to travel or weren’t allowed to travel. Rebecca (Romijn) had been on my list for a while because I think she’s a really strong female presence and I like her,  she’s done some great work. She was interested in coming but wanted to bring her family, and I thought ‘okay, I think we can accommodate that,’ and it turned out because she is married to Jerry O’Connell, who’s also a really fun and great actor who I don’t think has been used in a terribly interesting way so far. Jerry wanted to come along and just help and I said, ‘well, help by being in the movie. You can be the poacher.’ Jerry was great. And my daughter plays the daughter and because she co wrote the script with me, she knew that character inside out and she was going to be there anyway and we could save some money with her, and she’s a really talented young actress. Chris Fisher, who plays the boyfriend, was a South African artist who auditioned for me for previous roles, and I’d remembered him and I loved his kind of loose hippie-ish vibe. He’s basically that guy. And Michael Johnson, who plays the son who’s recently come out as gay, had never left America. His first experience of leaving America was flying to Kenya and seeing giraffes in the wild… I took Michael to Amboseli National Park because they’ve got some of the biggest wild herds of elephants in the world and he was in awe, just like ‘those are real elephants and that’s Mount Kilimanjaro!’ And, you know, I think if you’re going to leave a country, go to another spectacular place and Kenya is an extraordinary, extraordinary country. And I think it kind of profoundly affected a lot of us… It was a really good unit of people who were prepared to work in these circumstances and we came together as a family. There was lots of squabbling and laughing and having meals together and it was what we wanted and I pointed a camera on them.

How did you settle on Endangered Species as the title?

MJ: That was a title given to me. The movie was called ‘Kenya’ for the longest time because we couldn’t think of a title and the Lionsgate said ‘Endangered Species.’ I thought that was a really good title for the movie because it’s kind of exactly what it’s about. It speaks to the thriller element of what the movie really is and what the movie is really about. And so, after realizing that I should have thought of it myself a long time ago, it became the title which I completely embrace.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Jerry O’Connell’s character brings up a really good point about the parallels between poaching and the oil industry, could you explain that just a little bit more and like why that was important to add in?

MJ: Well I mean, for me, the movie is an excuse to have these kinds of conversations. There’s a message from me at the end of the movie and the film exists for those kinds of things. I wanted it to be an entertaining action family drama, that’s its job, but for me personally, it’s about being able to have conversations with people to say what I’m about to say, which is, there’s no doubt that the fossil fuel industry has contributed to the environmental destruction of the planet. We’ve all been a part of it because we all use those resources. But as a species, we’re now pushing our life support system to the brink of destruction, to the point where things are gonna change so profoundly that we can’t sustain the seven billion of us who exist, let alone all the wildlife that is trying to hang on by claws and toes while we destroy the planet that it exists on. So having Phillip Winchester’s character as an oil man who has done what he thinks is right by his family, which is provide stuff, you know, provide money and things and yet he realizes that’s not what it’s about. And Jerry O’Connell’s character, who’s a poacher, who’s destroying individual creatures, killing elephants, killing the rhino, he’s selling them for personal profit, makes the argument that shouldn’t indigenous people be allowed to use their resources? And I think it’s an important conservation conversation to have, whether we’re Inuit people up in Alaska, or northern Canada or in Russia, wherever it is, you know, hunting whales or walruses and keeping their populations alive or as the Khoisan people in the Kalahari hunting animals for their needs. What’s wrong with that? The problem is that there are so few of these things left. Westerners have destroyed all our megafauna. We basically destroyed our wildlife. Jerry makes the conversational point that what he’s doing is nothing compared to what the industrialized nations are doing, nothing compared to the pollution that China is putting out into the world, you know, these industrial nations are doing more damage than any of these developing nations. Those are conversations that are definitely worth having. And it’s important, and if my little movie can get that conversation going, then this was all worthwhile. I’m very proud of the fact that Rogue, my last movie, may have contributed in a tiny, tiny way to the fact that line farming in South Africa is now being made illegal. I don’t know that it did but if it did, then it was worthwhile. Then the film exists for a good reason. So that’s kind of why I’m here. I like to blow shit up and do the genre stuff, but somewhere in there, whether it’s just one scene or one character, there should be somebody who’s got a moral framework that you can have a conversation about.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add?

MJ: I want the movie to be an exciting movie for people to watch, that’s first and foremost Another thing is there are no real animals in the movie, in terms of the rhinos and the tigers, they’re all CGI because we didn’t want real animals on the set. But we were, on a day to day basis, visited by elephants, buffalos and hippos. So, the experience of making the movie with this kind of profound and wonderful natural experiences, I hope that the audience gets some Africa, some Kenya, from watching the movie and if they get that, then I’ll be happy.

Photo courtesy of Lionsgate.
Endangered Species in Select Theaters, on Apple TV and Everywhere You Rent Movies on Today! Available on Blu-ray and DVD on June 1st!