Hey friends! Barbarella here to say that I enjoyed speaking with MJ Bassett as much as I enjoyed watching her latest film, ENDANGERED SPECIES. The movie came out in Select Theaters, on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies on Friday. It will be on Blu-ray and DVD this Tuesday, June 1st. The director always has something to say in her films, and this one is no exception. Filmed in Kenya while most other areas were locked down, the movie captures what I consider to be, in many ways, a more realistic family vacation. It stars Philip Winchester, Rebecca Romjin, Isabel Bassett, and Jerry O’Connell. I had the opportunity to speak with MJ about filming in Kenya.
Well, I have to say, ENDANGERED SPECIES was a lot of fun. I really enjoyed this one.
“Oh, thank you, honey.”
I was surprised that it wasn't shot in South Africa. What informed your decision to shoot in Kenya, and what was that experience like for you?
“It was supposed to be shot in South Africa, but then COVID came along and changed the world. I finished ROGUE in South Africa; I love it, and I shoot there a lot. I love the people there, and I love the crews. I nipped off to go make “Halo,” then COVID closed “Halo” down, and I ended up getting stuck in the UK wondering what the hell I was going to do with myself for endless months in an Airbnb. I’d had this movie, ENDANGERED SPECIES, ready to go because I was always planning to do it after “Halo.”
“I spoke to my producer, my same producing partners on ROGUE. I said, "Well, we can't go with South Africa; nobody is opened up to international travel. Where else can we go?" I looked around the map of the African continent, and Kenya was still taking people in, so we thought, "Okay, can we go to Kenya and do this?"
“I've always wanted to go to Kenya. It's just one of the great iconic wildlife places on Earth. For me, it was like this is the best result ever, to go to Kenya and make this little movie. Kenya was a most extraordinary country. [We had a] small crew and some local Kenyans. I managed to sneak a few South Africans up from Johannesburg and called my friend Philip Winchester, and got Rebecca and Jerry, and we sort of flew in and did eighteen days of shooting and then got the hell out.”
Did you have any time to explore Kenya outside of just when you were shooting the film?
“Well, the prep time is the best for me because I got to pretend that I needed to go and see lots of places that I really didn't need to go and see for the movie, but absolutely needed to see them. I went to a lot of the wildlife parks, which I knew I wasn't really going to shoot in, but we got to travel around. I had a very good whistle-stop tour of the whole country.
“But we shot mostly in a park called Amboseli, which is really, really famous because it's the park that's in the shadow of Kilimanjaro. These global shots of an elephant with a snow-capped mountain in the background, this is kind of an iconic Africa shot. That's Kilimanjaro, that's Amboseli park, and I got to photograph that thing, which is what I've always wanted to do, so I have a photo I took of an elephant in front of that mountain.
“We started the shoot there and then halfway through the shoot, for the second half of the movie, we moved to Northern Kenya, where the landscape's a little bit more brutal. Even though in the movie, it's kind of all set in Amboseli, it's actually split up at a couple of different locations. But yeah, it's just amazing.
“Kenya was going through its own COVID problems as well, but they were very sensible about it. They're very grown up about their approach. They had fewer cases, and the protocols were easier to follow, but it was a real challenge making a movie in the midst of this global crisis.”
Right. So how much does the Halsey family dynamic reflect your own family dynamic, or does it at all?
“Well, I wrote the movie with my daughter, who was in the film playing the daughter, so it's kind of like she wrote what she knows. My family has gone through a lot with me, as well. Obviously, I came out as trans, so there's a whole other dynamic which hadn't even begun to be touched on. But the notion of a slightly overbearing father, a mother who hasn't quite achieved what she wanted to, a daughter who is trying to break away from the family dynamic and discover who she really is, a boyfriend who's very woke, and the son who's come out as gay, that’s not specifically mine, but I know elements of all of those people. I know what it was like to play the part of an overbearing father figure, to my detriment, and I know what it's like to have somebody come out to you from being that person coming out, so there's that dynamic.
“And then there's also the going-to-Africa thing, which is what I've done. I did that with my family, as well. This movie is not autobiographical, but it's drawn from experience. I love African countries, South Africa and Botswana, places like that. And we've done those things. When my family was young, we drove around the corner and saw a rhino, and it nearly charged the vehicle. There are moments in the movie which absolutely reflect real life experiences.”
This is kind of a related question, but in movies, people often go on vacation to resolve issues with their relationships, but sometimes vacationing can add strain to a relationship. Have you ever taken a vacation to improve a relationship? And if so, how did that work out for you?
“I could not afford any vacations when I was younger. We always had kids in the beginning of our married life. So that was, we're stuck with the kids. All vacations are basically exercises in stress management. You know?”
“The only time you don't have any stress is if you go on your own. So that's kind of my take on vacations."
I love the character of Jack so much.
“Like every good character in a movie, he's a very flawed man. Philip Winchester is so immediately likable. He brings his likeability and this kind of vulnerable toughness, which is terrific, but he plays a man who works in the fossil-fuel industry. Because the movie has this underlying environmental conversation going all the way through it, I wanted to have a character who was morally in a gray area. Even though the industrial revolution has been amazing and the world has benefited enormously, fossil fuel unquestionably damaged the environment. And our use of oil and plastics and those things is terribly detrimental, and our world is slowly dying underneath us.
“And a man who propagates and participates in that has to ask questions. Because, like he says in one of his speeches, "I just wanted stuff. I wanted things for my family. I thought that's what was important." What's really important is family and the world that you live in. The poacher makes a pretty good argument. He says, "I kill rhinos, but that's nothing compared to what you guys do. You're planet killers." I genuinely think that's a conversation to have. It's not like everybody's bad, but we have to better look at our world differently.”
Would you talk a little bit about how Jerry O'Connell got on board? Did his wife drag him along? What was it like working with him?
“So, yeah, casting-wise, Philip Winchester, who plays the dad, I knew, so I just called him up and asked him. But who was going to play the mom was a really interesting question because we were in the middle of COVID, so not many people were prepared to travel, particularly American actors who were very concerned about all of the horror stories going on at the time. Rebecca's name came up, and I really liked her because she's an experienced, older woman now, and I liked that. She still looked beautiful. She's still terrific in so many ways, and she's a mom, and I really wanted somebody who was a mother.
“Rebecca had been to Kenya before and wanted to go back there, and she said, "I want to bring my family with me because I'm not leaving them during COVID." And we're like, "I think our little budget can afford that." So, she said, "Yeah, I'll bring my husband." And I didn't know that she was married to Jerry O'Connell, because she just kept saying, “Jerry.” So, [we were] like, "Yeah, bring Jerry." Because I had said that it was a very small movie that we're all pitching in, she said, "Oh, Jerry really wants to help. He's happy to come and just lift boxes and do whatever you require." And I'm like, "Yeah, yeah, great. If Jerry wants to carry a box, that's fine by me." And then I realized that she's married to Jerry O'Connell, and it's like, "Oh no, Jerry can help. He could be in the movie."
“He's an incredible energy on a set. He's funny; he's intense. I think Kenya really affected him, because he'd never been there before. He was completely overwhelmed by this place and the space and the vibe of it all, but everybody I've taken to shoot in an African country has come away feeling the same way. The continent is magical.
“Jerry just totally embraced it. He knew it was two or three days of work, so it wasn't much at all, but he completely grabbed the character by the scruff of the neck. I'm really into improvisation and just talking around a scene and the stuff that I've written. I'll be off camera; I'll be throwing lines and ideas as they're doing their scene sometimes, if I feel like an actor can cope with that. With Jerry, you'd be saying like, "Oh, I love what you did with the stick. Just do that. That stick's great." And then it'd become part of the scene, and then you build the scene with people who can do that. He's a fantastic energy, a great presence. Loved him to pieces, a complete accident that I got him.”
There's a little bit of rule breaking in this film. Are you more of a rule breaker or a rule follower?
“What's a rule? You see what I did there? You get older and you get conservative, and I try definitely not to be that person. I'll break a rule so long as it doesn't hurt anybody. Let's say that. I don't want my transgressions to have a negative effect on other people's lives.”
Okay. Last question: Of what are you proudest regarding ENDANGERED SPECIES?
“Oh, my goodness. That we managed to make a really decent movie in eighteen days in the middle of a global pandemic.”
And that is an accomplishment. ENDANGERED SPECIES is currently available in Select Theaters, on Apple TV, and Everywhere You Rent Movies, and it will be available on Blu-ray, Tuesday, June 1.
I will share the trailer with you below, but I hate spoilers, and this will give EVERYTHING away. Seriously, if you're going to watch the film, either don't watch this trailer or just watch up to the rhino attack part then turn it off, otherwise, it will spoil every single surprise for you, cutting the fun factor down dramatically. Seriously, do film marketing classes not teach the fine art of attracting an audience to a film without spoiling every potentially impactful moment?
All right, I'm hopping off my soapbox and heading into the great outdoors.