Close your eyes. Now tell me your first reaction to the following words: natural history documentary.

If your response was some combination of the words gazelle, lion and slow-mo awash with the lyrical inflections of one Sir David Attenborough – prepare yourself for something a little different.

Far from the polar ice caps or the Amazon River, documentary filmmaking is undergoing its own evolution.

“A film is a film," documentary filmmaker Mark Lewis says. "And its purpose is to not only inform but to entertain, so I’ve tried to mix my films with a certain amount of science and a certain amount of urban-myth or folk law, or character observations."

Lewis has spent a 25-year career reversing the old adage familiarity breads contempt, and re-fascinating his audiences with the animals closest to us – rats, chickens and cane toads.

“Most of the natural history films really concentrate on what I call the safari animals (tigers, lions and elephants), and I was attracted to stories about animals that had some sort of relationship with us,” he says, ahead of next month’s 3D release of Cane Toads: The Conquest.

The film will open across 40 cinemas in June and marks his second outing with the Sunshine State’s mascot and first with 3D technologies.

So, why the fascination?

“The cane toad story is such a good one it’s a funny one; there’s a wonderful theme about the environment; there’s a theme about invasive species, of course.

“And especially what I found with the first one [Cane Toads: An Unnatural History, 1988] is that even though it’s a uniquely Australian story it's also very much a universal one … the subject seems to travel."

Second time round, the cane toad is proving an equally successful export, as the film ticks off the international festival circuit to critical acclaim.

But it’s not just the toad that they’re reacting too.

The filmmaker laughs as he describes his relationship with German auteur Werner Herzog – “It's funny because I have a funny weird relationship with Werner Herzog and he made a comment about the most recent film… he said something like ‘its full of subversive humour.’

“I like to challenge the traditional documentary filmmaker, as much as have fun with my stories,” he explains simply.

After a rigorous research process, Lewis managed to dig up a broad spectrum of commentators scientists, politicians, locals, artists and farmers – to tell the toad’s story.

“By virtue of doing that I found that the observations of real people be it a farmer in Queensland or a politician in the Northern Territory or what have you – to be just as interesting and just as valid as any of the scientists,” he explains.

As Australia’s first 3D digital production, the independent feature was bound to include its fair share of challenges, but Lewis admits that the 22-week shoot was more than a little testing.

“It was very arduous, especially in Northern Territory and Western Australia we’re shooting in 44-46 degrees everyday; in QLD we shot through the flood – we had a lot of rain. There’s nothing that can prepare you except for this ambition of hoping to make something that connects.

“Not only did we take on an extreme challenge, but a challenge when camera systems weren’t developed for 3D and it was very difficult to build rigs.”

Although generous in his praise of crew and the Silicon Imaging SI-K2 used for the film, Mark Lewis concedes that pioneering new technologies comes with its own limitations.

“It slowed us down, we had a lot of equipment, we had a lot more crew; you couldn’t be as spontaneous as you wanted to be,” he continues, “sometimes it would take several hours to set up a shot.”

For his next project Lewis is sticking with Australian icons as he tackles the fictional biopic of Australia’s favourite housewife Dame Edna Everage.

Having collaborated with David Mitchell and Barry Humphries on the script, it's now a matter of funding, but for Lewis there’s more pressing issues at hand – “a year after finishing this film (Cane Toads: The Conquest) I’m trying to start a new life,” he laughs.

And what about the cane toad?

“I’m happy for them,” says Lewis, “to some degree, I’m more than a champion of the cane toad, because I think one needs to retaliate against all the stupidity that goes on.

“And in the end I don’t really think it’s as dangerous or destructive as people try to make out.”

A pro-cane toad natural history filmmaker?

Must be that subversive humour Herzog was talking about.

Cane Toads: The Conquest is released in cinemas on June 2. Check out the official website here.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.