We were newbie producers: Rom had done one wildlife documentary, and I had no experience at all. There was little chance of National Geographic Television commissioning us to do a film on king cobras.
In our naiveté, Rom and I wrote to the best wildlife filmmakers in the world, asking if they’d collaborate. Some said they were busy until their next lifetime, while others didn’t bother to respond.
Fellow Indian filmmakers gently suggested we had a bomb. No matter what the snake’s emotional state, it always had the same expressionless face. We’d never be able to sustain a 52-minute documentary. In fact, no film had ever been made on one species of snake.
A film crew from Bristol, U.K., arrived at the Croc Bank to shoot a sequence for a series called Nightmares of Nature. The producer-cameraman Richard Matthews had just made the spectacular Crater of the Rain God. Rom and I liked his relaxed manner, problem-solving skills, and his fantastic shots, and we wanted to work with him. If Richard had any misgivings about our ambition, he didn’t show it.
National Geographic was happy with our collaboration and we got the commission. The first months of filming were rough. Richard was working on another film and sent a cameraman who normally filmed tiny creatures in small sets.
Every time we asked him, “Did you get the shot?” he’d reply, “Light was too low,” “The snake was too far away,” “The snake came too close to the lens.” We grew despondent, uncertain if we were getting any shots.
In those days, prior to high-definition video, we shot on film that was sent to Bristol for processing and transferring to video tapes. Usually, producers saw this raw footage called ‘rushes’ or ‘dailies’ the same day, but we could only see them after many weeks.
We were working virtually blindfolded.
Then Richard arrived. Although he operated a clunky film camera too, he was much lighter on his feet. He didn’t wait for the creature to crawl into focus; instead, he worked around the animal. We didn’t have to ask if he got the shot; not only did he get it, but he had the action covered in various focal lengths, essential for an editor to create a story sequence. He made filming wildlife seem effortless.
The king cobra film won an Emmy for Outstanding News and Documentary Program Achievement in 1998. Neither Rom nor I knew what an Emmy was; Richard said it was big. When Rom heard he had to wear a tuxedo to the event at Marriott Marquis at Times Square, New York, he said, “Bah! I’m not going.”
Richard tried to change Rom’s mind, “It’s the biggest thing in television.” But Rom was adamant and his golden statuette came in the mail.
We produced other films with Richard. On one shoot, an unreasonable cameraman was giving me hell. Richard commiserated saying he began his career in filmmaking as an associate producer, and he had such a bad time with an A-list cameraman that he decided to become a cameraman himself. His camera work was so good, I had mistakenly assumed he turned producer after gaining his spurs as a cameraman.
At the turn of the millennium, the bottom fell out of the wildlife documentary business. Commissions were harder to get, budgets shrank, and production values plummeted. I quit producing, while Richard decided this was the right time to move his young family to his native South Africa.
He began to specialise in aerial filming, testing gear, and building contraptions to get better shots. Rom and Richard continued to bat ideas back and forth for films and television series. But none materialised.
In the first week of March this year, an e-mail from Richard’s former assistant brought tragic news. Richard didn’t survive a plane crash in the Namibian desert.
Who knows what Rom and my history as filmmakers might have been had Richard not taken a gamble.