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INTERVIEW | “One Lucky Elephant” Director Lisa Leeman on Her Doc That Took 10 Years to Make

INTERVIEW | "One Lucky Elephant" Director Lisa Leeman on Her Doc That Took 10 Years to Make

Lisa Leeman’s documentary, “One Lucky Elephant,” tracks the nine-year odyssey of circus producer David Balding as he tries to find the star of his circus, the elephant Flora, a good home. Leeman caught up with indieWIRE to discuss the genesis of the project and what it was like working with an elephant.

Click here to read indieWIRE’s review of the film. It opened today at New York’s Film Forum.

The movies she makes

I sometimes joke that I make “sideways social issue films.” My films do explore issues confronting society, but rather than make hard-hitting advocacy films, I tend to make intimate character-driven films that follow someone grappling with an issue in a deeply personal way. And I tend to follow them for a number of years. In the case of “One Lucky Elephant,” we followed David Balding over a 10-year period! I believe that narrative and character-driven stories are a powerful way to create social change, that real change starts in the heart and moves to the head.

The feature docs I’ve directed may seem radically different on the surface. “Metamorphosis: Man Into Woman” follows Gary, a transgendered person, over three years as he morphs into Gabby. “Out of Faith” follows three generations of a Jewish family being torn apart by conflicts over interfaith marriage. “One Lucky Elephant” explores David Balding’s relationship with Flora, the elephant. But whether I’m exploring gender roles or cultural loyalties or interspecies relationships, all my films at heart are about finding one’s place in our complex world.

“Metamorphosis” was a fantastic first-film experience, premiering at Sundance in 1990, winning the Filmmakers Trophy and going on to be broadcast on PBS’s acclaimed series POV. It was a dream come true… and then when I didn’t get any offers to direct my next doc I started editing indie docs, and did that for over a decade.

Why it took 10 years to make “One Lucky Elephant”

It truly took ‘a village’ to make “One Lucky Elephant.” The film originated with Miriam Cutler, a film composer and our co-producer. Miriam had been the resident composer for Circus Flora almost from its inception in the ’80s, and she was fascinated as she watched Flora grow up as a single elephant among humans, wondering how Flora felt about her life.

When David decided to retire Flora in 2000 and try to send her back to Africa, to live in the savannah with other elephants, Miriam became obsessed with getting a documentary made about her. She asked me to direct and I actually turned her down at first, saying I didn’t make films about animals. Little did I know that this would become a film about people and how we treat animals. Miriam persisted and found collaborators who were equally passionate in our producers Cristina Colissimo and Jordana Glick-Franzheim. The three of them convinced me to go to St. Louis and direct a shoot of Flora’s final performance with Circus Flora.

That was in May 2000. It was the first time I’d ever touched an elephant, or looked into an elephant’s enigmatic eyes. I was intrigued, but then David’s plan to take Flora back to Africa encountered difficulties and the film’s tentative funding fell through. We all had to move on to other projects, but Cristina and Jordana stayed involved with David and Flora. They formed a non-profit, Ahali Elephants, to raise money to support Flora and helped David explore options for a permanent home for Flora.

Between 2001 – 2004, Cristina and Jordana filmed three scenes that became critical to the film. In 2007, we all decided to revive the film. I edited a 17-minute ‘sampler’ and armed with that, a treatment, and the New York Times Magazine cover story “Are We Driving Elephants Crazy?,” we started applying for grants and then took our first pitch meeting. Executive producers Lizzie Friedman and Greg Little (Sandbar Pictures) came on board. We filmed on and off through 2008 and 2009, editing over a year and a half, and premiered the film at the Los Angeles Film Festival in 2010. Since then, the film has screened in festivals from Amsterdam (IDFA), to Israel and Greece, and across the U.S.

Finding the story in the elephant

I always knew that the strength of this story was in David Balding and Flora’s relationship. Elephants are very social creatures and Flora and David had really bonded over the years. They are intertwined, for better or worse. So I wanted the film to be an intimate, character-driven story, with David and Flora as equal protagonists.

We started out to make a film about David trying to do right by Flora, who he’d he’d adopted 16 years earlier and made the star of his circus. He dreamed of returning her to Africa and that’s the story we thought we were following. It seemed like a simple, feel-good story. But it wasn’t that simple. As David learned more about the situation of elephants in Africa, where poachings take place even in protected reserves, he decided to reconsider all the options. The problem is, there aren’t many good options for a mature 10,000-pound elephant who’s lived with humans most of her life and couldn’t fend for herself in the wild.

As the story unfolded over a period of 10 years, I learned how elephants live in the wild and how rarely elephants’ needs are met in captivity. I realized that David and Flora’s story is not only the redemptive story of a man trying to right a wrong he didn’t even know he was committing years ago (raising an elephant alone, training her to perform in the circus), it’s also a cautionary tale.

Watching David try to find the best home for Flora was to see, finally, that she’s caught between two worlds and belongs fully to neither. She was raised among humans, but they cannot fulfill her deepest needs; she needs to be with other elephants, but she hasn’t learned how to integrate with her own kind. She’s a fish out of water, whether with humans or with other elephants.

Too many challenges to choose from

There were so many challenges in making this film. When we revived the film in 2007, we didn’t have access to Flora and it took nine months to get permission to film with her. (You’ll have to see the film to find out where she ends up!) A big challenge was that the main characters, David Balding and Carol Buckley, had very different ideas about what was best for Flora and that was a source of pain for everyone. They all had Flora’s well-being at heart – but then, who can really know what an elephant wants?

And then, of course, a huge challenge is Flora can’t speak for herself. We had to be careful not to anthropomorphize (project our feelings onto Flora), but still recognize that elephants are smart and emotional creatures, and that Flora was fully aware of what was being done with her. Elephants’ faces don’t reveal emotion like cats or dogs do, so we ended up holding on shots of Flora’s face, and eyes, so that audiences can ponder what she was feeling.

And the other main character, David, had told the surface story of Flora a million times – he’s a circus producer! So my job was to get him to open up and reveal himself in deeper ways than he had done before. David told me many times that he prefers not to dwell on painful times in his life, so I’d apologize for taking him back to those hard times, and then do so again and again. David was pretty gracious about me dragging him through things he’d have preferred to forget.

What a happy ending looks like

One of my greatest joys connected to the film was when an audience member came up to me after watching the film and said he’ll never look at elephants in the circus or zoo the same way again. We’ve actually had a lot of responses like that.

This isn’t an overtly “social issue film;” it intimately follows David and Flora’s journey over 25 years. It doesn’t have “experts” decrying the mistreatment of elephants in circuses and zoos.

But at its heart, this film does ask that we reconsider our relationship to animals. I want to open hearts and minds to the possibility that we should reconsider how we regard and treat animals, and ultimately the earth herself. That perhaps our impulse to dominate our surroundings, whether it’s other species or our environment, is misguided. If the film gets people to see animals in a new light (as fully sentient beings who want to be happy and autonomous), I’ll be thrilled.

I must confess that after making this film, I started treating even my cat differently. The film doesn’t provide answers, but it does raise a lot of questions. I leave it to audiences to grapple with the questions.

“Rashomon,” because of the very different points of view of the people in our film.

“Wild Parrots of Telegraph Hill” as a lovely example of an intimate character film about humans and animals.

“The Tiger Next Door,” about a man in Indiana who keeps tigers in his back yard.

The Danish film “The Swenkas,” a beautiful doc which uses the device of a fictional vagabond storyteller to poetically narrate the film. I had our storyteller sequence all storyboarded out, but ultimately we didn’t need it. Instead, David leads us through the film.

Up next
I’m currently co-directing a feature doc for theatrical release about the renowned swami Paramahansa Yogananda with Paola di Florio (“Speaking in Strings,” “Home of the Brave”). He was a great Indian mystic who brought spiritual yoga to the West in the 1920s. Our film explores the power and influence of yoga in the world, its origins in India, how its modern-day practice has brought east and west together and how it teaches us to balance the ever-present inner struggle between the soul and the human ego.

I’m also planning the release of the feature doc “Crazy Wisdom,” which I produced with the director, Johanna Demetrakas. It’s about the influential and controversial Tibetan Buddhist teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rimpoche, who was called both “the bad boy of Buddhism” and “one of the greatest spiritual teachers in the 20th century.”

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