Guest Column: ‘Beast’ Producer James Lopez Says Going on Safari in South Africa “Awoke Something in Me”

Guest Column: ‘Beast’ Producer James Lopez Says Going on Safari in South Africa “Awoke Something in Me”

Making Beast was my first time in Africa, but it won’t be the last. I landed in March 2021 to prep the film in Cape Town, South Africa, and to begin our location scouts. The very first place we visited actually ended up being one of the places we filmed, in the Limpopo region, near the border of Zimbabwe. We found an amazing valley location on the other side of the country on a giraffe reserve where the commute to set was literally a 20-minute safari vehicle ride into the valley.

Now, I’ve never been a big nature or animal lover; I never went camping. I don’t get all mushy over animals. But something about being there changed me. I found myself doing things I never thought I would do, like getting out of the safari vehicle around wild animals and touching a white rhino’s coarse hide when it came right up to 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 jumped into safari vehicles and took off. I was a little nervous as they were showing us the watering hole, the great tree we could film near. In my head I was saying, “I want to see some animals!” Just then we crested a hill and a herd of giraffe was running alongside the vehicle! It was just amazing to me. As we got farther into the property, I realized that if you’re kind of still, scanning the horizon and really paying attention to detail, there were animals all around us.

A scene from Beast featuring (from left) Idris Elba, Sharlto Copley and Iyana Halley.

Courtesy of Lauren Mulligan/UNIVERSAL PICTURES

As we drove back to the lodge the sun was going down, and I was bummed because I really wanted to see an elephant. In a place where it’s hard to get cell service, my phone weirdly started buzzing like crazy, and I was looking 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. In that moment I was very appreciative of what I get to do for a living, that my feet were firmly planted on the motherland and I was getting to do this as my job.

Later we stayed at 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 became fast friends. With spotty Wi-Fi and no television, I had nothing to do on weekends but go on safari. Neil would come pick me up, like, “Do you want to go on a game drive?” And we’d go find the animals — rhinos, giraffes, baboons.

Neil, a wildlife ranger, and two rhinoceroses in the Limpopo region of South Africa. “Neil took me and the cast to track rhinos and two of them walked up to the vehicle,” recalls James F. Lopez.

Courtesy of Eddy Matchette

The scariest moment I had was my last Saturday in Limpopo. Neil asked if I wanted to go see the elephant herd. The entire time I’d been there, I never saw more than two elephants at a time. So we took off late that July afternoon and drove hours to a part of the property I’d never seen. Then we got stuck in a muddy road … with the sun going down … out of cellphone range. Neil announced, “I don’t have my radio.” I said, “Excuse me?” He said, “I don’t have a way to get in touch with the lodge. But I’m going to get out and run back to where we saw campers. Just stay right here.”

All I was thinking about was 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 lovely South Africans get out and, in their thick South African accents, say, “Broo” — which means brother — “we had a feeling you would get stuck!” They had rope and chain, and after a few failed attempts pulled us out.

“We found this herd of elephants on my last day in Limpopo,” says Lopez (right), whose producing credits also include Little and What Men Want.

Courtesy of Eddy Matchette

We started driving back toward the lodge, and Neil apologized: “I’m so sorry you’re not going to see the herd and it’s your last day here.” Right as 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’ve got to tell you something. There’s an elephant who’s going through musth [a periodic condition that bull elephants go through characterized by elevated hormones and aggression], and he’s the biggest elephant on the property. He’s going to charge our vehicle.” I’m like, “Excuse me?” He said, “Just do exactly what I say.” Meanwhile, the trees start to part and this huge elephant walks out, so massive compared to the others. It was very scary.

Neil said, “OK, he’s going to charge the vehicle. We’re going to sit still and then I’ll hit the gas and drive toward him and he’s going to stop — 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 boss.” The elephant walks over and he knocks a tree down, showing off for the females. Neil knew everything that elephant would do, including charging us as soon as we got in front of him. He chased us down the road and made that loud elephant noise. I was giddy — I couldn’t believe it. And to top it off, we came upon a large dust cloud in the road on the drive back, and [there were] about 200 large, loud baboons going off to roost for the evening.

Courtesy of Eddy Matchette

We also filmed in the Orange River Valley, near the border of Namibia, and stayed at Tutwa Desert Lodge. Because we filmed during the day and were surrounded by a fence, we didn’t have lots of 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 power cable, so the lights went out one night!

A ranger named Norman took me and the cast out on safari into the rocky, arid desert where you can see for miles, and we saw a lot of wildebeests, zebras, springboks and giraffes. Norman stopped the vehicle abruptly and pointed out the tracks of a leopard dragging its kill. He got out of the vehicle, like, “C’mon!” We were wary, to say the least, but he promised that leopard wouldn’t be around in the daytime. So we went, and eventually found a ditch with half a dead springbok laying in it. There was no way I was going back at night, but our DP returned after dark and saw the leopard feeding.

Being on the continent of Africa and seeing the animals in all their majesty in their natural habitat awoke something in me that broke down fear barriers within myself. It’s hard to describe, but there was something spiritual about it. Five months in, I was ready to get the hell out of there, but I found myself missing it immediately.

Lopez’s weekend safari experiences in South Africa often included zebra sightings.

Courtesy of Eddy Matchette

This story first appeared in the Aug. 17 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.