Mark Deeble and Victoria Stone had one ambition when they started work on their stunning and heartbreaking new documentary: to make audiences fall in love with elephants so they would help save them.
This became even more apparent to the couple while shooting The Elephant Queen, which tells the story of Athena, aged 50, who travels 160 kilometres with her herd to find a new watering hole because of a severe drought.
The filmmakers repeatedly found themselves in proximity to poachers hunting their protagonists – and were
so appalled that they considered changing the focus of the project to the impact the slaughter of these gentle giants was having on other wildlife.
But Deeble and Stone quickly realised that to galvanise people and activists, they first had to make audiences fall in love with these beautiful beasts. Rather than dwelling on the worst of humanity, they decided to celebrate the wonders of the natural world.
Why the time was right for 'The Elephant Queen'
Making a documentary about elephants had been a long time coming for Deeble and Stone. After attending the Royal College of Art in London, where she studied fine art photography, Stone wanted to use her skills for something she "really believed in and was fascinated by". Soon after meeting Deeble, who had completed a zoology degree at Imperial College London, their "passions and interests came together" and they "fell in love with telling stories from the wild".
In the past 30 years the duo have worked on a wide variety of wildlife documentaries. "We have lived and worked in the bush," Stone tells The National.
"We brought up our children in the wild. We've had elephants around us, and part of our lives. We had never felt ready to take them on." That was until a severe drought took place towards the end of 2009. Watching the female elephants show such "incredible empathy", and seeing the "tight bonds" in these families, instantly made Deeble realise they "needed to tell the story of one of these amazing matriarchs".
Why elephants are so important to the planet
Deeble and Stone weren't interested in teaching their viewers everything they needed or wanted to know about elephants. Instead, they want to tell an emotional story that would be both entertaining and accessible, and would allow them to experience the natural world.
Having seen elephants interact and connect with many other animals, they also wanted to show they were integral to the survival of smaller creatures, insects and the ecosystem as a whole. "The elephants are the architects of the watering hole environment," Deeble says. "They are central to the life of the savannah. With all of our films we want to show the collectivity of the wild, all the way down to the smaller creatures.
“We see the elephants as the axle of the wheel that spins, then the likes of the dung beetles and chameleons are all situated and spinning off them.”
For The Elephant Queen to work, though, Deeble and Stone had to find the perfect star to take on the titular role. They knew they were after a "big-tusked, charismatic matriarch" who also had a small family that would each be "recognisable enough to be characters".
What the pair didn’t realise was that it would take 18 months to find her.
Casting Athena, the show's charismatic protagonist
Once Deeble and Stone set their eyes on Athena and her tiny family they knew instantly she was right for the documentary. Not only did she have tonnes of charisma, she was also "very well tempered".
For the next six or seven weeks, Deeble, Stone and their crew of six took time to bond with Athena and her brood. "She had a bit of attitude as we initially followed them," Deeble admits. "If we got too close, they'd look at us, and then we'd back off. But then one day, we found ourselves between Athena and her youngest daughter, Princess.
“We thought we were in trouble, but Athena let out a low rumble and this made Princess move around us. It was like the final test, and from that point on we had unparalleled access.”
Over the next four years, between 2013 and 2017, the crew lived alongside the elephants and other animals in Kenya's Tsavo East National Park during filming. They took only six weeks off each year, spending the rest of their time "immersed in the wild". Being so close to the elephants made Stone realise how similar they are to humans, especially when it comes to their emotions. "We wanted to show that in the film, because elephants are so like us."
Working with Chiwetel Ejiofor
In 2017, once filming was complete, and they'd managed to bring a variety of moods – even humour – to the plight of the elephants, the pair were on the search for a "rich storytelling voice" to narrate the documentary.
"I always imagined it would be someone who said: 'Come and sit by the campfire with me and I am going to tell you a story'. They would take you into it," Stone explains. "It needed to be a relaxing voice, one that wasn't pushy and was gentle. We wanted the voice to be all-encompassing." They found all that and more in the dulcet tones of Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor.
The star of 12 Years a Slave gently guides the audience through Athena's journey, while dovetailing into comedy, tension and tragedy when the time is right, too. But while the addition of Ejiofor undoubtedly made more people interested in The Elephant Queen, Apple's purchase of it at Toronto International Film Festival in September helped Stone and Deeble complete their mission.
The deal made the documentary available to 1.5 billion screens through the tech company's new streaming service, Apple TV+.
Apple's first foray into the streaming service market launched on November 1, amid much fanfare. The Elephant Queen was one of the linchpins of Apple TV+'s big launch, alongside other star-studded productions, such as Reese Witherspoon and Jennifer Aniston's The Morning Show, and The King, starring Timothee Chalamet and Robert Pattinson. So Stone and Deeble were in esteemed company.
"When we started eight years ago, we were a totally tiny, completely independent film," Stone says. "Our dream was to make a film that would reach the broadest possible audience. It was important to us to get to people who don't already like and aren't enthusiastic about wildlife.
"We want to inspire a huge audience to fall in love with elephants and even get behind them, so we can all make a difference to elephants on the ground."
The Elephant Queen is available to watch on Apple TV+