Nature: Radioactive Wolves Preview

May 31st, 2011

Nature returns this fall for its 30th season, with the premiere of Radioactive Wolves on Wednesday, October 19.

Twenty-five years after the historic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, filmmakers and scientists set out to document the lives of the packs of wolves and other wildlife thriving in the “dead zone” which still surrounds the remains of the reactor.

Watch a preview here:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5itkt_Ii8jU&w=400&h=240]

James Levine: America's Maestro – A Q&A with Filmmaker Susan Froemke

May 31st, 2011

Susan Froemke (Photo: HBO)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with Susan Froemke, director of American Masters’ upcoming feature, James Levine: America’s Maestro, to discuss the making of the film.

The program explores the life and career of Maestro James Levine, The Metropolitan Opera’s Music Director, responsible for transforming the Metropolitan Opera’s Orchestra into one of the finest in the world. Here, Ms. Froemke talks about working with Levine, his unique approach to conducting, and his innate musical talent.

James Levine: America’s Maestro airs Wednesday, June 1 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Ms. Froemke answered our questions via email.

Inside Thirteen: Can you discuss the role Maestro Levine played in transforming the Metropolitan Opera’s Orchestra into what it is today?

Susan Froemke: I learned during the filming that when Levine became the music director of the Metropolitan opera in 1974 at age 31, he felt that the Met was a great orchestra but one that needed improvement in certain areas.  He also believed that opera was in a state of quiet crisis and told the New York Times at the time, “I often think, my God, I’m going to be in the generation that sees this whole thing die.”  For him, what was at stake was the quality and emotional content of the Met’s performances.

James Levine in 1971 (Photo: Hastings-Willinger & Associates/Met Opera Archives)

Levine’s dream was to bring the Met orchestra up to the level of the Cleveland Orchestra at its peak. “I wanted to hear the Met orchestra play Mozart operas with the sophistication and communication of detail like George Szell’s Cleveland Orchestra.” In the 1960’s, Levine had studied for six years with Szell, first as an apprentice and later as an assistant conductor.  Szell, a Hungarian born autocrat, had built the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the country’s finest symphonic ensembles. It bothered Levine that many people thought an opera could be performed better in concert with a symphony orchestra on the stage than with an opera orchestra in the pit. He felt that this shouldn’t be the case.  He said, “The orchestra that plays in the pit should produce a panorama of

So Levine accepted the job of music director but only after he was able to obtain control over casting, musical staff, directors and designers. This was the first time in the Met’s history any conductor had held this position.

His vision was to bring the Met into the contemporary era by broadening and expanding the orchestra’s repertoire, increasing the capacity of the orchestra, chorus and ensemble, and rotating the repertoire with new productions.

To do this, he made a commitment to stay in New York and developed a kind of collaborative stability with the orchestra that existed in opera before the jet age when maestro’s built orchestras.

David Langlitz, principal trombone, recalled in one interview, “In rehearsals, I’d see him work slowly over a period of weeks, sometimes even months, looking for a particular sound, looking for a particular interpretation, and just patiently going with it, going through it, working with a player. That’s the way to build an orchestra:  we feel as if what we’re doing is valued.”  Numerous players echoed this sentiment.

He really invigorated the Met orchestra, making it into a world-class ensemble.

During one of our last shoot days, Levine told me, “After all the work I’ve done over the 40 years with the orchestra, I find they are more dramatic, more lyric, more vocal, more consistent, more committed, more able to deal with the pressure than any other orchestra. And there’s stability to the way we work that produces a different kind of result than you can get in any relationship that is more ad hoc. You can’t conduct that. They have to know how to do it.”

IT: Was there anything you were surprised to learn about Levine and/or his career during the making of this program?

SF: I knew that Maestro Levine was a genius musically. I saw it every time I filmed him rehearsing with his orchestra, working with a renowned singer or coaching a young artist.  What I wasn’t aware of was his business acumen—something often lacking in artists.  During his tenure at the Met, he has always had a vision of where he wanted to take the company. When he sensed during the late 70’s that the Board leadership was weak, he was savvy enough to ask for more artistic control so there would be no creative backsliding. When top management positions became available, he lobbied for people whom he could partner with successfully to achieve his goals. He always kept an eye on the box office even while introducing new, unfamiliar productions from modern composers in the 70’s and 80’s.

IT: How does Levine differ from other prominent conductors, and what makes his approach to music and conducting unique?

SF: I’m not really an authority on this subject but I can offer some anecdotal observations. Many of the Met musicians that I spoke to agreed that Levine–to some degree–ushered in the “love conductor” era. As demanding as his musical ethos is, it’s still a far cry from that of the old-fashioned tyrant conductors like his mentor George Szell or Herbert von Karajan.

In 1987, I filmed Karajan during the Salzburg Summer Festival rehearsing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (one of the world’s best) for a rare Wagner concert.  Karajan was exacting in his instructions, often insulting the players as though they were schoolboys. He drilled them over and over on certain passages, barking at them until he finally got the sound he wanted. Levine couldn’t be more different. He absolutely does not believe in being confrontational because it doesn’t build relationships. If some player or singer is having a bad day, he will never criticize them then. He is aware of human limitations.

Michael Ouzounia, the Met’s principal viola player and longtime friend says, “He gives musicians a certain latitude for being temperamental.  I think he feels that his function is to get the best performances out of the forces, and not to be imposing because he doesn’t really believe you can impose. He grew up in a milieu where fear was a component of orchestra playing, but that doesn’t suit his personality. He developed a way to get great results without being autocratic.”

Ray Gniewek, a former Met concertmaster agrees, “His approach is one of understanding. It gives players, especially those who had played under stricter conductors, confidence that he was going to help you through a difficult spot, not challenge you.”

I think Levine’s understanding of human psychology and the role that confidence plays in delivering a strong performance is one of his strongest assets.

IT: What do you think played more of a role in informing Levine’s career, instinct and innate talent, or his training (as a pianist and conductor) and musical upbringing?

SF: I believe James Levine was born to do what he was meant to do.

There is a wonderful story I heard about his childhood. When he was two years old, his father and mother would always sing him to sleep. The next morning, he would climb out of his crib and pick out the tune–sung to him the night before–on the piano! He was a child prodigy whose parents made all the right decisions on how to encourage his talent and educate him.

While filming, Jimmy told me: “I was born with a degree of talent that is impossible for me to understand frankly. It’s sort of like being born with a voice. I was very fortunate that almost every aspect of music, whether it was artistic style, content, or technical fascinated me and I had very good teachers.  Right from the beginning, I was able to learn in a sort of continuous flow. I didn’t really have any problem.”

A young James Levine plays piano (Photo: James Levine)

When he was a kid, he used to listen to the Saturday Met opera broadcasts. As a ten year-old, he traveled to New York every other week during the winter season to take lessons from Rosina Lhevinne on the piano. He said that he probably went to two opera performances every couple of weeks at the Met. Later, while he was in Cleveland, he studied quite a bit with Pierre Boulez.  He remembers: “I brought music to him, asked him questions, and had a kind of Socratic dialogue with him. When people ask me today, where do you get an education like that? I guess it’s always true that you have to produce it for yourself. You have to go after it. I think I worked for everything.”

Levine feels that it’s important to continue to learn and he does, from his orchestra players and contemporaries. He expects it. But he also believes: “I’d been given a lot of talent and I thought it was part of the deal that if you’re one of those people who gets a lot of talent, you have to be responsible to it. So where the passion for the art form is concerned, I find it necessary to use every fiber to keep making the work better.”

IT: This is not the first film you have made centered on the Metropolitan Opera and more broadly, classical music in general. What attracted you to making films about this genre?

SF: First of all, I thank my lucky stars that I’ve been able to produce so many classical music films. Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, and I started making films together 25 years ago. At the time, I was making documentaries with Albert and David Maysles and Peter would introduce us to great musicians who were often experiencing critical life changes. This was perfect for our cinema verite style of filmmaking, which Peter became a practitioner of as well. We made films on Vladimir Horowitz, Mstislav Rostropovich, Jessye Norman, Osawa and many others. Each film had a very different narrative but each also contained extraordinary musical performances whether in rehearsal or concert.

In the course of the filming, we would have to discover the narrative so, on one level, I never considered that I was making a film in a certain genre. I was more concerned with storytelling, character development, and capturing the drama as it unfolded before the camera–just as I would be with any subject. But deep down, I always knew that I could count on a few astonishing performances from these great artists that would complement the narrative action in each film. I was never disappointed. These films tell great human stories but they also give the audience the best seat in the house during an outstanding musical performance. That’s the great appeal to me of this genre.

IT: At one point in the film, in an interview at The New York Times, Levine refers to himself as a “teacher conductor.” We also get to watch him working with the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. How much do you think Levine’s love of teaching has shaped his role in the opera community, his repertoire, and how he views himself?

SF: Maestro Levine is a self-professed “teacher conductor” and I think, within the world of classical music, no one disagrees.  It’s his modus operandi.  It is how he has built the Met orchestra into one of the world’s best.  When you watch him rehearse, he talks throughout telling the players in detail what he wants and why. He makes them repeat a phrase until he feels they have it in their minds and can do it without him. Through this approach, the orchestra becomes more agile in their ability to play in a large variety of styles which, in turn, has allowed Levine to expand their repertoire.

James Levine and Plácido Domingo (Photo: Susan Froemke Productions)

It’s uncanny how so many singers–from Placido Domingo to very young artists–have told me that they learned more from Levine in one hour of coaching than in three years spent at a vocal school. Another consistent remark I heard was how he has an almost psychic ability to know exactly what a singer needs at any given moment. With his ability to clearly communicate the necessary instruction and through positive reinforcement, he leads the singer to a new understanding of text or technique.

I believe Maestro Levine is driven to teach because he feels it the most important work that he does. Through numerous rehearsals, he knows he can achieve a performance that is the intent of the composer. And that is always his greatest goal.

IT: What was the hardest part of making this documentary?

SF: For me, the hardest part was not being able to include more scenes of Levine working with the singers in the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. There were 12 singers in the class we filmed and we had marvelous footage of Levine working with them, especially when they first began the program and were quite “green” despite their talent. His intuitive, passionate coaching was just fascinating to watch. The depth of his understanding of the text of some of the world’s most famous arias, which the students were attempting to sing, was revelatory. You can see I’m a fan!  His work with them probably changed many of their career trajectories.  It communicated so strongly what his genius is that I really regret not being able to incorporate more of that footage into the film.

Vine Talk: Polishing Off Pinots from Oregon

May 26th, 2011

Tonight on Vine Talk, join Stanley Tucci and celebrity guests Joe Bastianich, Steve Buscemi, and Emily Bergl as they taste Pinots from Williamette Valley, Oregon.

Ray Isle, Steve Buscemi, Stephanie Caraway, Emily Bergl, Stanley Tucci, Joe Bastianich (Eduardo Patino Photography)

Vine Talk airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Aspiring wine connoiseurs, check out Vine Talk‘s Wine Demystified blog for tips on wine and cheese pairings, the right temperature for various wines, and much more.

Did you know? Brooklyn-born actor Steve Buscemi won both the 2011 Golden Globes and SAG for Best Actor (Boardwalk Empire).

Watch an excerpt from the show: the panel discusses how to “rough up” wine before drinking

[vimeo 24012584 w=400 h=225]

Vine Talk – Episode 8 – Roughing Up Your Wine from Vine Talk on Vimeo.

Great Performances: Carnegie Hall 120th Anniversary Concert

May 25th, 2011

On May 31, Great Performances celebrates the 120th anniversary of Carnegie Hall with  a concert featuring conductor Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, along with special guests, pianist Emanuel Ax, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, violinist Gil Shaham, and Tony Award-winning actress and singer Audra McDonald.

The concert features the works of Beethoven, Dvořák, Duke Ellington, and George Gershwin. The evening’s program includes Gershwin’s An American in Paris, Beethoven’s Triple Concerto in C major, Op. 56, and Ellington’s “It Don’t Mean a Thing if it Ain’t Got That Swing.”

Carnegie Hall’s 120th Anniversary Concert airs Tuesday, May 31 at 8 p.m. on Great Performances.

Check out photos from the concert:

Vine Talk: Sipping Sancerres from the Loire Valley

May 19th, 2011

Tonight on Vine Talk, join host Stanley Tucci, wine experts Ray Isle and Emilie Perrier, and celebrity guests Cheyenne Jackson, Gay Talese, and Chef Joey Campanaro as they sample wines from the Loire Valley in France.

Gay Talese, Emilie Perrier, Chef Joey Campanaro, Ray Isle, Cheyenne Jackson, Stanley Tucci (Eduardo Patino Photography)

Vine Talk airs Thursdays at 10:30 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Gay Talese discusses “wine culture” (or lack thereof) in his hometown in Southern New Jersey:

[vimeo 23788291 w=400 h=225]

Vine Talk – Episode 7 – Gay Talese: Wine Culture from Vine Talk on Vimeo.

Coming Up on Great Performances

May 18th, 2011

This season, Great Performances features an eclectic mix of shows, ranging from a “live film” interpretation of Verdi’s Rigoletto to a guitar festival featuring Eric Clapton. Check out a lineup of what’s coming up:

May 26 at 8 p.m. – Iphigenie En Tauride: Susan Graham and Plácido Domingo star in Gluck’s take on the primal Greek myth, conducted by Patrick Summers.

May 31 at 8 p.m. – Carnegie Hall 120th Anniversary Concert with Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic: Carnegie Hall commemorates its 120th anniversary with a gala concert featuring Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic, with special guests Emanuel Ax, Yo-Yo Ma, Gil Shaham, and Audra McDonald.

June 1 at 9 p.m. – Nixon in China: John Adams conducts his opera about Nixon’s 1972 encounter with Mao, directed by Peter Sellars in his Met debut and starring James Maddelena as Nixon.

June 5 at 9 p.m. – Jackie Evancho: Dream with Me in Concert: 10-year-old soprano Jackie Evancho makes her solo concert debut, performing interpretations of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Pie Jesu” and Puccini’s “O Mio Babbino Caro.”

June 6 at 9:30 p.m. – Eric Clapton Crossroads Guitar Festival 3: In June 2010, Eric Clapton gathered the world’s most talented guitar players at the third Crossroads Guitar Festival. All profits benefited The Crossroads Centre in Antigua, a treatment and education facility Clapton founded to help people suffering from chemical dependency.

July 7 at 8 p.m. – Don Carlo: British theater director Nicholas Hytner makes his Met debut with Verdi’s historic epic starring Roberto Alagna and Simon Keenlyside.

July 15 at 9:30 p.m. – Rigoletto from Mantua: Plácido Domingo stars in Andrea Andermann’s cinematic interpretation of the Verdi opera, recorded live last September in Mantua, Italy.

Plàcido Domingo and Julia Novikova in 'Rigoletto from Mantua' (Cristiano Giglioli)

July 21 at 8 p.m. – Le Comte Ory: Juan Diego Flórez, Diana Damrau and Joyce DiDonato star in Rossini’s French comic opera, directed by Bartlett Sher.

Diana Damrau, Juan Diego Flórez, and the cast of the Met's 'Le Comte Ory' (Marty Sohl)

Freedom Riders Panel Discussion

May 16th, 2011

On Wednesay, May 11, WNET hosted a panel discussion with Freedom Riders filmmaker Stanley Nelson and four people who participated in the historic protest. The event took place at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture in NYC.

Freedom Riders airs tonight at 9 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Watch the conversation:

Enter to win a copy of American Experience: Freedom Riders on DVD, the companion book, Freedom Riders: 1961 and the Struggle for Racial Justice, and a THIRTEEN tote bag.

Director Duane Baughman Discusses the Making of Bhutto

May 10th, 2011

The day after Benazir Bhutto was assassinated in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, political consultant, film producer and director Duane Baughman was on the phone with his colleague Mark Siegel, who had been a close personal friend and confidante of Bhutto’s.

In their grief, the two hatched a plan to shoot a film about the Pakistani politician, and three months later they were in Islamabad, camera in hand, recording footage for Bhutto. Here, Baughman talks about the challenges of making the film and what still chokes him up to think about.

Bhutto airs tonight at 10 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Interview courtesy of Independent Lens. For more interviews and other Independent Lens film content, visit their blog.

What impact do you hope this film will have?

I hope it will bring a more compassionate, moderate face to Islam and to open more eyes to Pakistan’s struggle and its daily significance to America, the West, Christianity, and women and girls everywhere.

What led you to make this film?

Like millions of others, I admired Benazir — her intelligence and independence, but mostly her bravery. My own mother’s strength has always been a model to me. The portrayal women heroes is difficult to find on film. Changing that is what motivated me.

My personal friendship with producer and close Bhutto family friend Mark Siegel provided the access that allowed me to pull back the curtain on a country and family whose indelible imprint on Pakistan has an everyday impact on the foreign policies of America and the West. My day job as an American political consultant stirred my interest in telling the unlikely story of a heroic woman whose life was a fascinating struggle between triumph and tragedy, between the forces of peace and violence, of moderation and extremism.

What were some of the challenges you faced in making this film?

Filming in Pakistan. Filming anything political in that country is difficult. Getting people to open up without fear of retribution from the entrenched establishment throws roadblocks in your way every day. Safety is always a concern. Our hotel, the Marriot in Islamabad was blown to the ground and 88 people were killed three days after we wrapped our first shoot in Pakistan (see the timeline for more on the 2008 bombing).

Searching for, uncovering, and then restoring hundreds of hours of never-before-heard-in-public audio tape of Benazir in her own voice was an incredible challenge that we embraced and wound up wrapping our entire narrative around. It allowed us to let people who never knew this woman get a real sense of who she was, her temperament, her tone, her personality, and leave with a truer grasp of what makes this very human woman tick.

How did you gain the trust of the subjects in your film?

Two words: Mark Siegel. This film absolutely would not have happened without him. A day after his close friends’ death, I was speaking with Mark and to be expected, he was absolutely inconsolable. I suggested to him that we put his grief to work by preserving Benazir’s legacy on film. Three months later we were shooting in what used to be Benazir’s living room.

What would you have liked to include in your film that didn’t make the cut?

More details about Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto’s two-plus years of imprisonment. How he used those hours to teach, tutor and literally transform his eldest child — through prison bars — into a political force rivaled only by Zulfiqar himself.

Tell us about a scene in the film that especially moved or resonated with you.

Seeing Asif Ali Zardari describe, for the first time on film, the moment he knew his wife was dead is especially emotional for me. Knowing that theirs was an arranged marriage, that he’d spent half of their marriage in jail, and to see the true love that had grown and was now lost: I still get choked up.

What has the audience response been so far? Have the people featured in the film seen it, and if so, what did they think?

We were the best reviewed doc at Sundance. Variety, The Hollywood Reporter, Reuters, all gave thumbs up. But the best reviews came from Benazir’s children who all attended the premiere.

The independent film business is tough. What keeps you going?

The business isn’t so tough. Portraying subjects is. Starting and finishing anything offers its own great reward.

Why did you choose to present your film on public television?

ITVS/PBS/Independent Lens are revered forums. I’m honored to have our film presented on a network known for having the guts to tackle weighty issues.

What question have festival audiences asked you most?

“Who murdered Benazir?” Watch the film. You tell me.

What didn’t you get done when you were making your film?

My garden.

What are your three favorite films?

Glengarry Glen Ross. All the President’s Men. Lost Horizon.

What advice do you have for aspiring filmmakers?

Tell a story only you can tell.

There are no craft services on an indie doc’s set. What sustains you on a shoot and in post-production?

A creatively made cheeseburger.

Bears of the Last Frontier: A Q&A with Bear Biologist Chris Morgan

May 5th, 2011

Chris Morgan (Joseph Pontecorvo)

Inside Thirteen recently spoke with bear biologist Chris Morgan to discuss the making of Nature‘s upcoming three-part series, Bears of the Last Frontier.

The series takes a look at Alaska’s bear population, one of the largest in the world, to see how these fascinating and intelligent creatures live in the wild.  Here, Morgan talks about his experience in Alaska and the importance of preserving, protecting and respecting bears and their natural habitat.

Bears of the Last Frontier airs Sundays, May 8 – 22 at 8 p.m. on THIRTEEN.

Enter to win an autographed copy of Morgan’s companion book, Bears of the Last Frontier.

Inside Thirteen: What first interested you in studying bears?

Chris Morgan: When I was 18, I came on a life-changing trip to the U.S. where I worked at a summer camp in New Hampshire designed to teach kids about conservation and wildlife. One day a bear biologist visited and I started to talk to him about the work he was doing in Northern New Hampshire. And I was hooked, more than any of the kids, I think! I just couldn’t believe that you could be a bear biologist in life.  I bugged him for weeks and finally he relented and picked me up in his pickup truck one night and took me down to his study area.  We pulled up outside this garbage dump, which had 14 black bears on it lit up by moonlight.  It just blew my mind! I’d only seen one black bear in the forest near the camp prior to that. I spent the whole night tranquilizing and tracking these bears.  It changed my life – I was set to become a graphic designer back in England.

IT: How did you cope with being out in the wilds of Alaska for so long? What was the hardest part of the experience?

CM: I was out there on and off for a year. There were times when Joe [Pontecorvo] and I were camping and isolated for weeks at a time, but I love that. I’ve spent a lot of time in the wild in very isolated places, but in our first location, the Alaska Peninsula, the density of bears is like almost nowhere else on Earth. What was unique about that for me was camping and being in that environment for so many consecutive weeks – it’s such an immersive experience in the bears’ world.

Some of the hardest parts were the misery of a long drive on a motorcycle. Once you’ve crossed the Arctic Circle, it’s a psychological milestone, but then realizing you’ve still got hundreds of miles to go before you reach the north coast of Alaska…it’s just a colossal place and it really is representative of these amazing, large wild animals that we were filming.  The other thing I think people assume about film is that it’s glamorous and easy.  We put a lot of hard work in and many, many sleepless nights in order to get the shots that we wanted.  When we were filming bears in the northwestern part of Alaska, we were in an area were the western Arctic caribou herd is. We put in a heck of a lot of time looking for these half-million animals, so we could then find the bears.  We ended up with lots of sleepless nights and just basically taking catnaps.  Joe is a very hard worker – he’ll film as long as there is light, and that’s a problem when you’re in the Arctic in the summer, because there’s always light!

IT: What are the key differences between the three types of bears?

CM: They are three very distinct species.  The bear numbers give away a lot about their personality. There are probably 35,000 brown bears in Alaska, and 180,000 black bears, so they’re a little bit more numerous and flexible around humans because there’s more of them.  There are probably 2,000 or 3,000 polar bears, and those populations are also shared with Canada and Russia.  There are much smaller numbers of polar bears because they are highly specialized and they feed exclusively on meat. The brown bears (also called grizzly bears) are the consummate generalists; they’ll eat everything from berries to Arctic root plants to a moose carcass, when they come across it. Black bears need forest, so where you have forest in Alaska, you’ve got black bears in good numbers.  Brown bears will also inhabit forests, but they will extend above the tree line and into the Arctic where it’s just wide-open tundra and no trees in sight.

There are a lot of similarities in terms of behavior. Generally speaking, brown bears are more likely to become defensive and charge than black bears.  Black bears are more likely to run in the opposite direction, even if they have cubs.

IT: How did you make the bears feel comfortable in your presence? Have there ever been any incidents in your encounters where the bears were not so friendly or trusting?

Brown bear cub (Joseph Pontecorvo)

CM: In the case of the female with her cubs in the first episode, those cubs had never seen people before us.  They’d just come out of their dens, and they were super inquisitive. They took it in like little sponges, like baby humans do. The cubs were playing around and the mother would just give them a stare or turn around while they’re running circles around her, like “alright, calm it down, don’t attract attention.”

On one occasion, a big male bear did charge us.  He just got momentarily confused because a female ran behind us that he was chasing.  I think he saw us as another bear – competition for his gal!  He just charged right after us, and it’s a heart pumping moment.  It’s not unusual for bears to charge people or other bears to give them a message, “hey you’re too close” or “you’re threatening me.” We’d not been doing any of those things, but they don’t talk, so they’ve got to express their concern in some way.

You have to take every possible precaution. I don’t approach the bears – if they graze past us, that’s a different thing. We were camping with electric fences around our tents – bear fences that zap 5,000 volts on a bear’s nose when it tries to come near your tent.  Hopefully it doesn’t in the first place because the other thing you do is keep your kitchen and your food storage area a hundred yards away from where you’re camping.  Never put food in your tent. You have to make sure the bear doesn’t relate you to food, because that can end in a dangerous situation, for the bear and for the people.  I also carried bear spray the whole time. You never want to surprise any bears – make sure they know you’re coming, and that you shout out “hey, bear” every so often as you’re walking down the trail.  Don’t threaten females with cubs, don’t approach a bear that’s sitting with a carcass of food – just common sense things.

IT: What were you most surprised to learn during your observations in Alaska?

CM: What really opened my eyes were the interactions between these bears during the breeding season, and how busy the place got. There are so many bears there, the females ended up being just as competitive as the males were for their love interests.

Overall though, I was surprised to learn how adaptable these animals are, and how different they all are. By the end of the third hour, it’s clear that any two bears you meet are as different as any two people you might meet.  These are super smart animals, and because they’re smart they’ve got this ability to have different personalities and dispositions.  They’re all individuals.

IT: What was your favorite location you visited in Alaska?  What has been your favorite place your adventures studying bears has taken you?

CM: Probably my favorite place on the entire planet is the Alaska Peninsula. It’s like stepping back in time to 10,000 years ago.  You could drop down at any moment, and it would feel the same.  There aren’t many places in the world that feel that way. It’s one of the last really wild places that we have in the world and there’s something incredibly magical and special about that fact.  You definitely feel like you’re the outsider when you’re there.  Like it says in the film, it’s the bears’ world, we’re just visiting.

Svarbard, or some people call it Spitsbergen, is another one of my favorite places, in the European Arctic. It’s a Norwegian sovereignty – about 500 miles north of northern Norway. I’ve guided expeditions there for years to show people polar bears. It is mind-blowingly beautiful, like someone chopped off the Swiss Alps and plunked them in the middle of the ocean.

I love the north, and I’m drawn to the Arctic. The tropics are amazing, but for some reason I’m drawn to the coldest places because it makes you question your ability as a human, and you can’t help but respect a polar bear when he’s hunting seals in the pitch darkness all winter and it’s -40 degrees.

IT: It is asked in this episode, “How much wild are people in Anchorage willing to tolerate?”  How much of a threat to Alaska’s bear population are humans and the urbanization of Alaska’s wild?  Is anything being done to protect them or keep them “wild”?

Black bears crossing the road (Nimmida Pontecorvo)

CM: Anchorage is on the front line of what we call the wildlife-human interface.  It’s where the wild ends and civilization begins.  With a place like Anchorage, it’s like a dot of civilization in a sea of wilderness.  There are wild animals in people’s backyards and on bicycle trails through parks in town and places where you’re perhaps not used to seeing a 1,000 lb brown bear or a moose or a black bear family. Most of the people in Anchorage are very accepting of having these wild neighbors and it’s partly why they live in Alaska.  A lot of this Alaska pride comes through, like “Yes, we live in the wildest state in the Union.”  It’s really refreshing.  Sometimes things do go awry, where you’ll have a loose animal in someone’s backyard causing damage, or, in the worst-case scenario, you may have a person attacked by a bear.  But it’s very rare considering the number of bears around.  The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has a team that consists of the two people that are actually in our film – Jessy Coltrane and Rick Sinnott. Their job is being on the front line of where the humans and wildlife meet.  Sometimes it means them going in and capturing bears or tranquilizing a moose and removing them from a situation where they’re really close to people.

It’s great, because we can use places like Anchorage as a model for co-existence with humans.  It’s more of what this planet needs. These animals, in many parts of the world, are really highly threatened and in trouble.  You look to Alaska and you feel like this is the last place in the United States where at least the near future is secure for these bears.  I live in Washington State; we’ve got about 20 grizzly bears here.  I work on that population and I work with members of the public in these rural towns in grizzly bear country to help them understand what grizzly bears are, what we need to do to have more of them here, how we can live with bears.   I live that every day, so going to a place like Alaska is an eye opener in terms of the possibilities for a place that’s still got these large populations of animals.  The window will always be open.

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