To make Beast was my first time in Africa but it won’t be the last. I landed in Cape Town, South Africa in March 2021 to prepare the film and start our location scouts. The very first place we visited ended up being one of the places we filmed, in the Limpopo region, near the border with Zimbabwe. We found a great location in the valley on the other side of the country in a giraffe sanctuary where the commute was literally a 20 minute safari vehicle ride into the valley.
Now I have never been a great nature or animal lover; I never went camping. I don’t get mushy with animals. But something about being there changed me. I found myself doing things I never thought I’d do, like getting out of the safari vehicle near wild animals and touching a white rhino’s rough skin as it headed straight for the vehicle – crazy stuff like that.
The first scouting day in Limpopo was my first safari experience. We were met by some rangers and staff, and without even unpacking, we hopped into safari vehicles and left. I was a little nervous when they showed us the watering hole, the big tree where we could film up close. In my head I said, “I want to see some animals!” At that point we reached a hill and a herd of giraffes ran next to the vehicle! It was just great for me. As we got further into the terrain, I realized that if you are a little quiet, scan the horizon and really pay attention to details, there were animals all around us.
As we drove back to the lodge, the sun was setting and I was disappointed because I really wanted to see an elephant. In a place where it’s hard to get cell service, my phone started buzzing strangely like crazy, and I looked down when I felt the vehicle come to a stop. The ranger said, “James, look up.” And there was an elephant right in front of us! I got emotional – I actually shed a tear. At that moment I was very grateful for what I can do for a living, that my feet were firmly on the motherland and that I was allowed to do this as my job.
Later we stayed in a lodge next to the property where we were filming, and I befriended a ranger named Neil, an Irishman who was so knowledgeable about animals, and it was amazing. We quickly became friends. With faltering wifi and no television, I had nothing to do at the weekend but go on a safari. Neil would come pick me up, like, “Do you want to go on a game drive?” And we were going to look for the animals – rhinoceroses, giraffes, baboons.
The scariest moment I had was my last Saturday in Limpopo. Neil asked if I wanted to go to the elephant herd. The whole time I was there I never saw more than two elephants at a time. So we left late that afternoon in July and drove for hours to a part of the estate I had never seen before. Then we got stuck on a muddy road… as the sun was setting… out of cell phone range. Neil announced, “I don’t have my radio.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, ‘I have no way of contacting the lodge. But I go out and run back to where we saw campers. Just stay here.”
All I thought about were the hyenas and leopards coming to kill me. But 10 minutes later I heard a vehicle: it was Neil, running in front of the campers. These beautiful South Africans step out and say in their thick South African accents, “Broo” – meaning brother – “we had a feeling you were going to get stuck!” They had rope and chain, and after a few failed attempts they pulled us out.
We started driving back to the lodge and Neil apologized, “I’m so sorry you won’t be seeing the herd and it’s your last day here.” The moment he said that, I looked to my right and started yelling, “There they are!” There were 22 elephants! Neil said, “We found the herd, but I have something to tell you. There is an elephant that goes through musth [a periodic condition that bull elephants go through characterized by elevated hormones and aggression], and he is the largest elephant on the property. He is going to charge our car.” I’m like, “Excuse me?” He said, “Just do exactly as I say.” Meanwhile, the trees begin to part and this huge elephant walks out, so big compared to the others. It was very scary.
Neil said, “Okay, he’s going to charge the car. We sit still and then I accelerate and drive up to him and he stops – he’s bluffing.” I thought, “I hope you’re right!” And it happened exactly as he said it – four times. Then Neil said: “He’s going to knock down a tree to show us he’s in charge.” The elephant walks up to him and he knocks over a tree to show off the females. Neil knew everything that elephant would do, including attack us as soon as we were in front of him. He chased us off the road and made that loud elephant noise. I was dizzy – I couldn’t believe it And to top it off on the way back we came across a big cloud of dust in the road, and [there were] about 200 large, loud baboons roost for the evening.
We also filmed in the Orange River Valley, near the border with Namibia, and stayed at Tutwa Desert Lodge. Since we were filming during the day and surrounded by a fence, we didn’t have many encounters, but as we built a very authentic village from scratch for a scene, elephants kept knocking down trees. A hyena actually chewed through our generator’s power cable, so one night the lights went out!
A ranger named Norman took me and the cast on safari into the rocky, arid desert where you can see for miles, and we saw lots of wildebeest, zebra, springbok and giraffe. Norman stopped the vehicle abruptly and pointed out the tracks of a leopard dragging its prey. He got out of the vehicle, like, “Come on!” We were wary, to say the least, but he promised there would be no leopard during the day. So we went, and finally we found a ditch with half a dead springbok in it. There was no way I would go back at night, but our DP returned in the dark and saw the leopard eating.
When I was on the continent of Africa and saw the animals in all their majesty in their natural habitat, something woke up in me that broke through the fear barriers within me. It’s hard to describe, but there was something spiritual about it. Five months later, I was ready to get out of there, but I immediately found myself missing it.
This story first appeared in the August 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.