When Serengeti debuted on Discovery Channel on Aug. 4, the six-part mini-series became the highest-rated nature documentary on television in six years among the 25-54 demo.
And for good reason. Created by Simon Fuller and directed and produced by wildlife filmmaker John Downer, the compelling and often intense series, which runs through Sept. 8, follows families of lions, zebras, baboons, cheetahs, elephants and hyenas over the course of a year as they face life-and-death struggles daily.
Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o’s narration anthropomorphizes the animals to heighten the emotion. Also adding to the tension and drama is Will Gregory’s expansive score, which spans multiple musical styles including 1970s cop shows and traditional African vocalizations. In addition to composing the music for the series, Gregory — who is half of the British electronic duo Goldfrapp — wrote several songs for the series with Lola Lennox and Cathy Dennis.
Gregory talked to Billboard about the challenges of getting inside a hyena’s head, the delight of writing for baboon babies and “walking a tightrope” to get the tone right.
Billboard: How did you get involved in Serengeti?
Will Gregory: John Downer’s been making programs for 35 years, and about 20 years ago I started doing bits and pieces with him. He was very minimal and wanted the animals [and] the reality to be totally dominant. It was quite good because I didn’t really like music and wildlife at that point. I thought it was gilding the lily. But as the years went on, I think he's softened to music and began to realize the place that it can play in creating drama and also his stories have become more dramatic. And then once Simon Fuller got involved in the songs of Serengeti, he’s so much in the music side of things and appreciates the drama and the power and the pathos that music can bring. He wanted the story of the Serengeti to be much more that you did identify with the animals — anthropomorphic. Once you take that approach, it’s actually quite hard to take the music out. It's becomes part of the texture of the experience. So actually we found it necessary to keep the music in just because of the hyper-reality of the drama that was being explored.
When did you start working on it?
I was doing sketches for this in November 2017 and went right the way through 2018. Not full time, but certainly keeping pace with their various edits. They were feeling their way with how to express the story. At one point the animals were going to speak, the narration was going to more direct, and then that changed. Simon was very clear right at the beginning that he thought there should be songs in it. I think the series and music push the envelope with natural history. Anything that makes people empathize more with the pictures and empathize more with the situation that the animals are in and realize how their day-to-day struggles with life are just like ours, the more the better.
Almost every scene is life and death. There were times when you played that up and then other times when the score served as a counterpoint to the tension. How did you make those choices?
Sometimes it's great to lay back a bit, because otherwise you’re duplicating what everyone's already seeing. I'm a big [Ennio] Morricone fan and some of his tensest scenes were just a bass drum doing a beat every few seconds and you just think, “Well that's brilliant because that’s all you do need.” There are masters who have gone before that one’s inspired by, and that’s certainly a lesson that he and many other great film composers can teach. One is how to just stay out of the way. Let the performers, in this case the animals in acting their lives, be enough and don’t crowd them. It’s quite difficult, isn’t it? You’re walking a tightrope. Music is such a color that you don’t want to bleach the picture out. I don't know how I do it, basically. Getting the tone right took a while at the beginning.
Were there certain animals that were more fun to write for, like the baby baboon, where you bring in a lot of woodwinds?
The baboons are just so human. There’s a social pecking order and the fact that if you’re not with the chief you don’t get to eat the best food… So incredibly like a mirror to human society. It made me think of ‘70s cop shows, that rough and tumble of being streetwise. There’s a language there that goes through The Streets of San Francisco and Kojak to more modern things. It was lovely to play with those references for the baboons.
Which animals were the most challenging to score?
The hyenas are so unpleasant. They look mean, they’ve got these horrible jaws that crunch bones, they steal, they kill the young, they’re these scavenging brutes. But once you realize there’s a matriarchy, a learning passed down from one generation to the next, you realize even they have magic and a story. It was a journey with them particularly because they are so often seen as the baddies…and, of course, the black-maned lions are just indiscriminate, murderous psychopaths [Laughs].
As you mentioned, Simon made it clear there would be songs, which you and Lola Lennox created and she sang. How did those evolve?
Getting the songs to fit and not suddenly sound like they had burst out of another program and they weren’t conspicuously grafted on was quite hard actually. Just to try and let the music build and then her voice would come in and then start singing some lyrics, that took a lot of work and tinkering. Simon’s brilliant at inspiring you and making you see what his vision is. They were more melodies [that I wrote] and then I would try to get John Downer to throw some lyrics at us, so when Lola arrived a lot of them just needed singing, but Lola would change the words and make them suit her voice. A couple of them she started from the ground up with the lyrics, including the elephant song and the hyena song. Then Cathy Dennis came in because Simon knows how brilliant she is — we all do. We wrote a song together called “Wild Hearts,” which in the final episode blooms out in song form.
There are several instances where you bring in traditional African instrumentation. How important was that to you, since this was shot in Tanzania.
As the episodes go on, it felt right to start layering that area in. What happened was we were desperate to find an African choir and we chanced upon this wonderful man called Sam Jones, who goes to Africa regularly, particularly to Tanzania, to make live recordings of musicians. He knew all these wonderful musicians and singers so I was able to give him some demos of some cues and they recorded them. You’ll start to notice more and more Africans musicians appearing [as the series progresses]. We did feel that was very important. But I didn’t want to start out with that because it feels like the story is a bit like a Greek tragedy. It’s timeless and culture-less. It’s obviously in Africa, but I didn’t want to emphasize with African music because they were the story of every animal and to be too location specific with the music immediately, it felt like you weren’t emphasizing the more general spirit.
Your career is so versatile — you’re now working on the Royal Shakespeare Company’s new production of King John — but many people also know you as half of Goldfrapp with Alison Goldfrapp. What’s the status of Goldfrapp?
We’re having a little hiatus. We did seven albums over the past 20 years or something. She’s doing amazing stuff — a lot of photography and she’s been making videos — and I’ve been stretching out in other areas, which is all great fuel and battery charging for when we come back together. It’s a really good time to just have a little pause and a recharge. I’m sure we will get together, I just don’t know when.