Updated: 22nd April 2018

The Real-Life Game of Thrones: Inside the Bloody New Wildlife Series Savage Kingdom

Warring clans engage in a bloody struggle for power. Sound familiar? Forget Westeros. Savage Kingdom reveals the bloody, gritty drama of natures true Circle of Life. “>

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Its a disclaimer that TV viewers are more likely to associate with a gritty HBO series or cable drama, not a wildlife docuseries. But thats exactly the point of Savage Kingdom.

While the new NatGeo WILD series was in development, the network would refer to the production in-house as Big Game of Thrones. Its a name that would never stick for obvious copyright reasons, but which accurately described the bold new nature series the network was funneling resources intonot to mention the buzzy new direction it hoped the product would take the entire genre in.

Savage Kingdom is a three-part special about warring clans engaged in a bloody struggle for power and control over the kingdom. Sound familiar? Subbing in for Westeros here is rural Botswana, with families of predatorslions, leopards, and hyenas among thembattling like Lannisters, Starks, and Targaryens in a clash of wits and blood sport merely to stay alive as a drought approaches.

Narrated by Charles Dance, who himself played Tywin Lannister on Game of Thrones, this isnt your typical nature documentary.

We werent out to tell you how fast a lion runs or how much it has to eat in order to store up enough energy, Brad Bestelink, the fourth generation Botswanan filmmaker who produced and directed Savage Kingdom, tells The Daily Beast. Its about kings and queens and jealousy and power.

The Game of Thrones analogy first developed early on in the shooting process as shorthand to explain the dynamics of what they were seeing and trying to film. What resulted became more exciting than a scripted drama.

We couldnt have written some of these things better, he says. We have fathers killing sons. We have clashing between queens. What we want people to realize is that animals lives are as exciting as fiction.

As exciting. And as brutal.

There is so much blood in Savage Kingdom.

You hear the sound of flesh and ligaments between torn from a carcass as a predator feasts on its prey. You watch as a baby is literally eaten, and then as his mother returns to find the remains. Its hard to watchnot only because its graphic, but because the series turns these animals into characters you invest in.

Theyre not wildlife shot clinically from a telephoto lens. You watch Saba, the leopard, and Matsumi, the queen lioness, as they stalk and hunt for prey to feed their young, barely staving off starvation. They betray, kill, mourn, and struggle just as humans do, to the point that, several times during our interview, Bestelink slips and calls them people.

Each episode is told through one predators point of viewFriday nights second episode is from the perspective of the hyenasbut together as a series paints a stark portrait of the kill-or-be-killed reality of a very un-Disney-like Circle of Life.

I think broadcasters too often water down the reality of what predators do, like they think well be afraid of it, Bestelink says. Getting the platform to be able to show life the way it really is for these predators will just waken people emotionally and make them care about them more because they know the daily struggle and the fight they have to have just in their everyday lives.

Theres a reason an approach like this has never been done before. Its no easy task.

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Savage Kingdom is easily Nat Geo WILDs most expensive endeavor, taking five crews over two years to capture more than 20,000 hours of footage, all of which was shot with cameras capable of 4K resolutionlending the series both its rare cinematic quality and its hefty price tag.

Bestelink, whose wife was also among the series filmmakers, estimated that the average shooting day ran 18 hours long. The crews would sleep on the roofs of their vehicles. No showers. No fridges to keep food fresh. Youll be stalking a leopard and you might not see her for three days.

It takes a certain kind of personality to do this and spend the amount of time we did, he says. Its very remote, very isolated. And you have to be bush-wise people. You get out of a car, and at any point you could be killed.

Thats a warning Bestelink has carried with him since birth. Generations of his family have worked in conservation and tracking. His great-grandfather worked in tsetse fly control efforts. His grandfather was a licensed crocodile hunteruntil he was killed by a black mamba snake.

Bestelink himself has three very significant tattoos on his body: an elephant, a crocodile, and a lion, each representing an animal that has nearly killed him.

The elephant mauled his vehicle while he was inside it, completely smashing it up. Once several crocodiles tried to attack him while he was sleeping in a canoe on a wildlife shoot. Another time no less than 13 lions surrounded him while he was in the grasslands on foot. He called to his wife who was about 400 meters away, and who luckily heard him and drove a vehicle to the standoff to chase the cats away.

Theyre reminders to keep my life in context and keep me vigilant and, hopefully, alive, Bestelink says about his tattoos. The reality is that I spent my entire life out in the bush. The past 20 years Ive spent more time with predators than I have with people.

While he has no designs that Savage Kingdom will spark that kind of passion, what he does hope is that it will trigger at least a percentage of the emotional investment in these animals that he and his wife developed in the thousands of hours shooting them.

He has been with the shows lion and leopard for nearly four years. He watched the lion grow from a cub. Theres a showdown between our two regal heroines thats so heartbreaking in Fridays episode that, after filming it, Bestelink had to leave location for several days to emotionally recover. Some scenes in the series his wife still cant watch. Theyre too brutal. Shes too close.

And thats a good thing. The more we can make people emotionally invest in these animals and wildlife and places, the better off we will all be, Bestelink says. Thats really what Savage Kingdom is about: Trying to speak to another audience about how exciting and dramatic these animals lives are and how theyre so worth investing in, so worth following, so worth loving.

Its a greater ambition for the network, too. Savage Kingdom follows a year after Nat Geo WILDs vigorous documentary Wild Yellowstone, which employed cutting-edge technology and filmmaking techniques pioneered and popularized by action sports filmmakers, lending a muscular, athletic, even sexy energy to a genre often written off as bland or nerdy.

The program was the first phase in what Geoff Daniels, executive vice president and general manager for Nat Geo WILD, last year called Natural History 2.0. Savage Kingdom is that efforts worthy successor.

Attaching Game of Thrones branding to a natural history docuseries is a not-so-veiled move at attracting a younger audiencethe kind who might not typically be attracted to wildlife programming. And invigorating the production with the same kind of operatic, emotional, and, yes, bloody narrative devices isnt just titillating to that demographic; its all the more impactful because its larger-than-life themes are, in fact, grounded in very real life.

I think there are so many people who love animals and want to love the genre, but who never actually have been drawn into the experience and transported by it, Daniels said when we talked to him last year for Wild Yellowstone.

Event specials like it and Savage Kingdom turn that audience on to the genres dramatic potential, kindling a sort of childlike wonder and passion for the animal kingdom, then engaging them in different creative and narrative ways that will enable the kingdoms safekeeping for generations to come.

Because, as Charles Dance, in his grandiose Game of Thrones narration, advises, The kingdom doesnt care who lives, who dies. Every cub must learn how to kill, just to survive.

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