Making "The Crimson Wing – Mystery of the Flamingos"

In 2001, I met Matt in the Mambo Café, a bar in Arusha, Tanzania.  In truth, we picked each other up.  What was intended as a one night stand became a love affair and he asked me to travel with him to Lake Natron, where he was filming a small documentary.  The long rains had begun, and the loping plains that lead to Natron were green, covered in wild flowers.  We camped in the southwest corner of the lake, beside the Engaresero River.  Here, the river trips through a deep, secret river canyon, cascading over tiers of granite and under a canopy of palms and vines. 

Together we climbed Mt. Lengai, the active volcano on Natron’s southern shore.  The lake, oily with high concentrations of salt, often seems to float in its heat haze; Lengai pins it, stabs it to the earth, so that the whole landscape appears to tilt toward the volcano. Matt fell in love with me on the climb.  I carried his heavy camera without complaint, and he reckoned I had the chops for marriage.  I wasn’t so impressed:  he’d forgotten to pack a flashlight, and we had to stumble down Lengai’s rugged, 45-degree slope in the dark.

 I have a feeling that Natron’s dust is a magic powder; it entered our bloodstream and we kept looking for ways to go back.  And Natron seemed to reach out to us.  The ending of Away From You takes place at Natron – something I hadn’t anticipated, and happened mysteriously during the writing.  When the main character, Ellie, lets go of the anger that’s informed her version of the past, she comes untethered, and wanders out:  “The landscape shape-shifted around her, became uncertain as a dream.  Mountains tilted.  The distance roared in her ears and the clouds came like giant hands across the sun.” 

Back in Mambo’s we bumped into a friend, Stefan Hoerchel, who showed us footage of the lake he’d taken from his microlight.  Seasonal algae blooms turned the lake vivid shades of red and pink, settling in swirls and rosettes.  The lake’s unique alchemy of water and weather also caused a giant salt island to form in the middle – the perfect crèche for Lesser flamingos.  More than 80% of the world’s four-million are born there, but no one had ever filmed this extraordinary spectacle.

For four years Matt and I struggled to shape a story that reflected Natron’s mystical quality, and yet had a strong natural history element concerning the flamingos.  In 2006, NatureDisney, a new player in the wildlife film world, decided to produce our film.  We had a tiny budget and just over a year.  Like acolytes, we committed ourselves to the lake and it opened up to us a mythic and epic beauty which filled the camera’s frame.  The film was our love letter.

But so much didn’t make the final cut, or happened when the cameras weren’t on.  Once, Matt and I were walking along the shore, and a wall of dust, perhaps a thousand feet high, moved up from the south, through the corridor between Lengai and its sister mountain, Gelai, bearing down toward the lake, toward us, like a computer-generated special effect.  A strange stillness precluded the dust storm, the herds of zebra and wildebeest stopped moving, and the lake turned dark, opaque, sinister.  Then the wind descended, a Biblical oppression, so that Matt and I flattened ourselves onto the sand.  The dust was so dense we couldn’t see more than a few feet.  Within minutes, it passed, a dervish, howling up the lake towards Kenya.

Watch "The Making of Crimson Wing"

Watch "The Crimson Wing Featurette"

Good Film Guide: Pre-Release Interview

Telegraph Newspaper Article: Filming the flamingos of Tanzania's salt flats