How often have you heard someone say, “They just don’t make movies like they used to?” Sure, many of today’s films feature nonstop action and mind-boggling special effects. And there’s a place for that. But even popcorn flicks supposedly aimed at families these days often come freighted with unwanted content. Profanity and innuendo can make us long for a simpler, more innocent time, a time when we didn’t feel compelled to cover our kids’ eyes, plug their ears or have awkward conversations about certain social issues before we had planned.
Writer, producer and director Richard Boddington shares that longing. And his latest film, Phoenix Wilder and the Great Elephant Adventure, harkens back to the kinds of movies many of us who grew up in the ’60s, ’70s or ’80s fondly recall watching.
Boddington is unabashedly an advocate for the preservation of African elephants and stopping the illegal ivory trade, as you’ll see in the interview below. But he’s equally interested in telling a story that will appeal, as he says, to people from ages “2 to 102.” And other than a few moments of mild peril that might be a bit intense for really young or sensitive viewers, I think he’s delivered on that.
Boddington is working with Focus on the Family to promote his film, which will be released via Fathom Events on Monday, April 16, and this blog interview is a part of that promotional relationship. (Editor’s note: This interview has also been lightly edited for clarity and length.)
Adam Holz: Richard, many of our readers may not have heard about your new movie, Phoenix Wilder and the Great Elephant Adventure. Tell us about the story here.
Richard Boddington: Phoenix Wilder is the story of an American orphaned boy who is adopted by his aunt, who lives in South Africa. When Phoenix gets to Africa, he goes out on safari. He becomes lost from his party. The next day he discovers an elephant that’s been trapped by elephant poachers. He frees the elephant, and they become fast friends. Over the course of the movie, Phoenix learns about the horrors of the elephant poaching crisis when he encounters a dead elephant and accidentally runs into an elephant poacher’s camp. He vows to try and stop it.
Both he and the elephant that he’s named Indlovu, which is Zulu for elephant, decide to take on the poachers together, and they have a number of little skirmishes with the poachers. Finally, Phoenix and the elephant are key players in taking down the head of the elephant poaching syndicate. Then he’s found by his aunt and uncle. The elephant’s family is reunited, and they go back to the African wild. So those are some of the main plot points.
Holz: It kind of felt like a boy-meets-dog movie, only in this case, the dog is an elephant. They almost have a Lassie-and-Timmy-like relationship in some ways.
Boddington: Yeah, it was important for me to have the audience feel that there was a definite bond between the boy and the elephant. … I think that the advertising for documentary projects have failed on this subject because people haven’t been able to make an emotional connection with elephants yet through cinema. A documentary doesn’t really do that. And the 30-second spots for World Wildlife Fund don’t really do that. They’re good, and it’s a great idea. But my idea was to take it to a whole new level.
Holz: The elephants are mostly being poached for their ivory tusks, right?
Boddington: Yes, for their ivory. They’re being shot to fuel human greed. There’s really no other way to [say it]. The statistics, as you saw in the movie at the beginning and the end are quite horrific. It’s tragic.
Holz: As I was watching the movie, it just felt like the kind of story we don’t see much of these days, an adventure movie involving a young boy and his new animal friend. But it didn’t involve content that made it inappropriate for a young audience. I grew up in the ’70s and ’80s, and it kind of reminded me of the Wonderful World of Disney movies that used to play on Sunday night. Why make a movie like that today when the rest of our culture seems to be getting more and more extreme?
Boddington: For exactly those reasons. I grew up loving those movies as well. And the live-action family movie is something that the Hollywood studios abandoned about 20 years ago. Disney washed their hands of it, even though in the ’60s and ’70s they were the world leaders of that genre.
Holz: That’s true.
Boddington: They still make a few here and there. But it’s disappointing how the studios think that they have to push the content to upper edges of the PG rating by throwing in the odd swear word, so that they can maintain a PG rating but not be classed as being too soppy or saccharine. My feeling as a filmmaker is that none of that has any value to the story. You don’t need it. All you’re doing is cutting off parts of the audience.
My motto is,”2 to 102,” That’s my audience. You should be able to sit down with your kids and watch one of my films with your grandparents and with your kids and everybody enjoys the experience, nobody is offended. And if cinema can be used at the same time to present a very difficult subject matter to a young audience, [that might influence] the future of our planet. … I chose the elephant because it’s a very high-profile, keystone species. And I’d spent a lot of time in Africa and seen all this first-hand. And I thought it would be great to bring a narrative film to bear on this subject. And this is the first narrative movie that’s been made about the elephant poaching crisis.
Holz: Wow, that’s really interesting. And I’d love to talk about just the elephants for a minute. Phoenix, the young boy, interacts a lot with one particular elephant in this movie. I was curious, where do you find a trained elephant? Or are they all really as docile as they seem in this movie?
Boddington: Well, no.
Holz: That’s what I figured. You probably don’t want to just wander into the bush and climb onto an elephant.
Boddington: No, you’d be dead in about … well, when you got about 100 feet out, then you’d be dead. The African elephant is a notoriously bad-tempered, very dangerous animal. Very, very, very dangerous.
Holz: So there’s a bit of fantasy involved here?
Boddingon: Oh, totally. The elephants we used in the movie live on a private reserve in South Africa. And they are owned by a man named Sean Hensman. Sean has been training elephants since he was 8 years old. The elephants are free-roaming on this massive property. So they’re not kept in barns or pens. They don’t have any leg holds, as you saw in the movie. They roam free over this huge property on the African bush belt. Before they can interact with humans at the level you saw in the movie requires 20 years of training.
Boddington: Yeah. An elephant’s lifespan is pretty much equivalent to a human’s. They go through puberty and reproduction and old age at the same scale as humans do. They live to be about 75 to 80 years old.
Holz: I didn’t know that.
Boddington: So, basically, the elephants are late teens, early 20s before they’re allowed to interact with humans at the level you saw in the movie. Also, there are two elephants in the movie, so I guess we fooled you.
Holz: Yes, you did.
Boddington: They are interchanged repeatedly throughout the film. In fact, sometimes they’re interchanged in the same scene, because one elephant is a specialist in doing one action, and the other elephant is a specialist in doing a different action. The thing about the elephant is that they are unquestionably the most intelligent animal on this planet. I don’t care how smart you think your dog is, an elephant is 50 times smarter. Their intelligence is off the charts.
The stuff that I’ve seen them do and learn, I’m talking in a matter of minutes—I want to give you an example. There’s a scene in the movie where Phoenix is training the elephant about the dangers of guns, and he has a stick that’s in the shape of a gun. And he throws it on the ground, and the elephant walks forward and steps on it to confirm that he understands. So that whole action was taught to the elephant in exactly 10 minutes on set.
Holz: That’s pretty amazing.
Boddington: Sean came to me and said, “OK, just give us 10 minutes to go over this action with him, and we’ll be ready.” We gave him exactly 10 minutes, we threw the gun down, we gave him the command, he walked forward and stepped on the gun. Literally 10 minutes. So while working with elephants has some challenges, intelligence is not a problem. … When Sam (Phoenix) is working with the elephants, what you don’t see is that just outside of camera view, there’s a whole line of trainers on both sides. So, if anything were to look amiss or look like it was going bad, Sam would be yanked out immediately and the trainers would step in.
Holz: I figured that. But it’s really interesting to hear about it. You know, in some ways the film reminded me as well of director Carroll Ballard’s film, like The Black Stallion and Fly Away Home. And the one it really reminded me of is his more recent movie, Duma, which is about a boy and his cheetah, also set in South Africa. Was Ballard an influence on your moviemaking style at all?
Boddington: Well, let’s just say I’ve seen The Black Stallion about 18,000 times.
Holz: I’ll take that as a yes.
Boddington: Yeah, I think The Black Stallion is one of the great masterpieces of film. It gets dragged out onto TCM once in a blue moon, which is nowhere near enough. It’s fantastic. Today’s audiences would look at it say, “Wait a minute: You have 30-minute period here where nobody says a word of dialogue. Are you crazy?” But it’s amazing.
So if you’ll notice in Phoenix Wilder, because audiences just don’t have the tolerance these days for silence, the way Sam talks to the elephant. They basically have these full-on conversations where the boy speaks to the animal. It’s also a way for smaller members of the audience to keep up with the story and understand what’s going on.
Holz: Richard, Phoenix Wilder is going to be released via Fathom Events. Where can people find information about seeing this movie?
Boddington: It comes out April 16, which is World Elephant Day, at 6 p.m. all across the nation. We’re in 726 theaters. It’s going to be close to everybody, no matter where they are nationwide, all 50 states and every [major] city. … I’m doing a big outreach with Focus on the Family. So we’re really partners in this, which is great. … The values of the movie, I think, will be shared by your audience—even the elephant has a family that he has to save!
Holz: I found myself writing that down as I watched the film. This is a story about an orphan. It’s a story about adoption. It’s a story about a family.
Boddington: Yes, very much so.