Directors Guide of America Magazine
September 1998

Mark Stouffer: Wild American

by Kathleen Fairweather

He chases some of the worlds most dangerous predators in the wildest of places: locations so remote, they are miles from anywhere resembling civilization as we know it. He eats moose fat and brains, dog meat, and, he suspects, dishes made from human flesh. He has been shot at, chased, and falsely accused of presidential assassinations in third-world countries. He has survived numerous brushes with death, including a bout of malaria and exposure to diseases with names that are difficult to pronounce, much less cure. He has been stranded in deserts, jungles and frozen tundra--far from food, shelter and medical care.

"He" is the fictional character, Indiana Jones, right? Wrong. He is a real live film maker and wild life documentarian Mark Stouffer who related just a few of these challenges he has encountered in the making of some of his many wildlife films including National Geographic's Tigers Of The Snow, Secrets of The Wild Panda, Survivors of the Skeleton Coast, and Braving Alaska. Stouffer also has a special on bush pilots in development, and, is currently roaming across exotic locales for his current film, Pursuit of The Giant Bluefin, also for National Geographic.

Stouffer admits he is luckier than most of his peers, "I get to live out my most extreme adventure fantasies. At the time when I made Braving Alaska, I felt fenced in myself. I wondered what it would be like to live miles from civilization."

After making that film, which featured people --both individuals and families who left the lower 48 for the most isolated and self-reliant existence possible, Stouffer lost his own desire to escape. "In a sense, I lived out my life through them. I went through all four of the seasons there and got it completely out of my system."

Other opportunities in adventure film making soon followed. The Braving Alaska film demonstrated to National Geographic that Stouffer could get the job done, despite harsh and extreme conditions. He quickly proved his mettle again with another National Geographic Special shot in the Namibia desert, Survivors Of The Skeleton Coast. Stouffer recalls the biggest challenge of that project: sand. "The wind blew so hard there, that it completely buried our jeep. We spent two whole days just digging it out."

Stouffer describes how he came to be involved in the making his most recent film, Tigers Of The Snow, which was nominated for 5 Emmy's. "National Geographic came to me after two other attempts to film the Siberian Tiger had failed."

Stouffer explains that the earlier film teams had been thwarted by illness, freezing temperatures, or, they were simply unable to find this large, yet elusive creature. According to Stouffer, "This is the first time ever that the Siberian Tiger has been captured on film. Up until now, not one frame of film in the world of this rare and dangerous tiger existed."

"We encountered every problem under the sun on this film: pirates on the road, animals that couldn't be found, poisonous bugs and parasites, spoiled food of questionable origins. You had to be crazy to take this on. I knew that if we were successful, this would be a big hit on a visceral level. Audiences everywhere would connect with this awesome and frightening animal."

"There were some real hair-raising times on this shoot. This is an 800 pound man-eater we were filming. I had nightmares about being eaten by a tiger-- after he played a game of cat and mouse with me. There is no safety-net on this kind of film."

Stouffer recounts some of the other hardships and perils he encountered on this project. " I spent three weeks on a Russian helicopter. Looking for the tigers in the air was extremely dangerous: we had to fly under tree level in order to search for the tigers. We were also dependent on our Russian experts for information about the behavior of these animals. For example, they had briefed us on the habits of these tigers, and told us not to worry, tigers don't climb trees. We thought we would be safe filming from a high treetop, and rigged our camera mounts up in the trees. Of course we were a little concerned the first time we saw a tiger up a tree 75 feet in the air, swatting and raking his claws at our chopper. I'm here to tell you, tigers can climb trees. "

"I also had some interesting moments when I crawled 25 feet on my hands and knees into a dark, waist-high cave to retrieve a tiger cub for this film. It was very frightening for me to be inside that dark cave--the home of the most powerful predator in the world. I could smell the animal scent of the mother tiger and see big chunks of her hair on the rocks. I thought to myself, 'Well Stouffer, you wanted adventure'. I also thought if I got killed in there, I deserved it for being in that dangerous situation."

Stouffer compares this experience to the luxuries afforded feature film makers and jokes about the "catering" on this project. "I know we ate a lot of dog in Russia. I'm not sure, but I think we also ate human flesh. We were buying our provisions out of an open-air market, from one vendor in particular. One day, our interpreter was reading the newspaper, and suddenly let out a big shriek. It seems that some one in the market had been selling spoiled meat, and during the investigation, they traced this meat back to our vendor, who it turns out was buying his "meat" from a morgue. I actually have no idea what we were eating. They cook everything over there in borscht--it all tastes the same."

Stouffer's extreme style of film making certainly is not for the squeamish, or, faint of heart. During a filming expedition in China, he relates how he awoke one morning to a strange looking "stick" on his sleeping bag. That "stick" turned out to be a cobra.

Yet Stouffer insists he wouldn't have it any other way. "There's no cappuccino where I go," he chuckles. "But there is also no TV, hotels, radio contact, or phones." Stouffer also adds seriously, "There is no safety net, either, including medical support if needed."

In fact, Stouffer travels with a skeletal crew typically consisting of one cameraman, a camera assistant and a sound man. Each of these operators must be able to do the other's job "I've lost cameramen to sickness, bad food, fouled water, and injuries. In case of an emergency; everybody must be able step in and take over another job."

That also includes giving blood. According to Stouffer, the number one danger in this type of film making is bleeding to death.
"I always make sure that I have someone along on the shoot who is HIV negative, and has my own blood type. I have also learned not to stitch myself up: I use gaffer tape instead."

How does the union work with productions such as these? Stouffer responds that, "The DGA has been very supportive of the kind of work I do. They understand that my films are shot under difficult and dangerous conditions which limit the crew to myself, a cinematographer, a camera assistant and a soundman."

Under these conditions, a waiver is granted and limited in the words of the DGA, to "reality" shooting (i.e., no re-creations, no performers) and is granted on a non-precedential basis. Stouffer adds that the DGA can be helpful by understanding that not all films are feature films. "I would like to see a special documentary category within the DGA. This would be helpful in streamlining documentary film making and might also help with the problem of some film makers avoiding the union altogether."

"The DGA needs to look at special circumstances, particularly where documentary films are concerned. It would be useful if there was a revised schedule for lower budgets that reflected the reality of most documentary shoots. Since most documentary film makers can't afford the DGA minimum, the DGA should consider revising the schedules to reflect this reality."

It would seem likely that a director who has faced some of the worlds harshest elements, and has risked his life in the pursuit of footage of some of the worlds most dangerous animals would have an easy time of it in the celluloid jungle known as Hollywood. "Not so." says the five time Emmy Award winning director. Stouffer cites his forays into the world of feature films as being among his biggest challenges to date.

With five Emmy Awards, a host of film festival awards and a list of credits that includes Warner Brothers Wild America, a feature film based on Stouffer's own life with his film making brothers, Marty and Marshall Stouffer, it is not hard to imagine Stouffer himself behind the camera, directing his own feature.

"What's wrong with this picture?" he muses. It is indeed curious, that in a town where it seems that every kid bartender is awarded a three picture deal: why a film maker like Stouffer, whose work has made him one of the most admired documentarians in the world, is meeting resistance in the feature film arena.

"I think I am a victim of my own success," Stouffer confides. "Everyone thinks of me in terms of my wild life niche. I've also made a couple of my own features like Man Outside, and The Man Who Loved Bears, plus, I have directed some very succesful music specials on John Denver.

"It's frustrating," he adds. "It's as though I'm continuously swimming upstream. I'm wildly successful on the TV side, yet my television credits don't seem to be worth much in the feature world. I have been to the 'navy seal' boot camp of film making. I can make a lot from very little. I'm ready for a different challenge in the world feature films. I have honed my story-telling skills and have made a lot of people money."

"Features are the next level for me. I've been making wildlife films for over 20 years including over 120 episodes of Wild America. I want to make the kind of film I like to watch. The kind where you grab a bag of popcorn, sit down, and have fun."

"I've always followed my instincts in what I want to do and I've made a conscious decision to broaden my horizons in film making. Compared to what I do, features seem like heaven. I've run out of food, water and gas while making documentaries. On Warner Brothers' Wild America, I worked with Irby Smith and Jim Robinson. I had my own assistant, plenty of good food, trucks full of equipment, running water, cell phones, hotels. I thought, wow, I'm getting paid for this."