How NatGeo’s ‘Queens’ Had to ‘Literally Rip Up the Rule Book’

The Wrap Screening Series: The creative team discussed their nature docuseries, which is the first to explore animal matriarchies in the wild

The all-women creative team behind NatGeo’s “Queens,” the docuseries narrated by Angela Bassett that centers on powerful female leaders and matriarchies in the animal kingdom, assembled for a discussion following a Sunday afternoon screening in Los Angeles. As part of our screening series, Wildstar Films CEO and executive producer Vanessa Berlowitz, showrunner and writer Chloe Sarosh, director of photography Sophie Darlington, director and producer Faith Musembi and composer Morgan Kibby were joined by The Wrap’s Raquel Harris, who moderated the 25-minute conversation. The “Queens” team shared stories about how the project came to be, being part of a women-led production and what the series says about female power in society.

The idea for “Queens” was borne out of a conversation Berlowitz had with NatGeo executive Janet Van Hissering, who suggested they explore females in the natural world as a full-fledged series. After discovering there hadn’t been a show that explored the matriarchal side of things (“Surprise, surprise,” Berlowitz said), it was full steam ahead.

“We thought, obviously, the time was right,” she said. The first task was to put together a “brilliant” female production team.

Enter Sarosh, who was on maternity leave when she got the call from Berlowitz. The “Queens” showrunner admitted she was reticent to come aboard due to her status as a new mother. “‘This is exactly why you’re going to do it,’” Sarosh recalled Berlowitz telling her.

Raquel Harris with the “Queens” team: Vanessa Berlowitz, Chloe Sarosh, Sophie Darlington, Faith Musembi and Morgan Kibby (Randy Shropshire)

“We literally had to rip up the rule book and find a completely different way to make a series like this,” she said. “This is revolutionary to make this series and it wasn’t always easy. But it was a hugely satisfying thing to do—in the office, on location, in post-production. Just phenomenal women and incredible men that supported us because there actually aren’t enough women to make a series like this. But hopefully, we are the first in a real change and we’ll leave a legacy.”

There’s a bit of history being made with “Queens” behind the camera. Musembi is the first Black Kenyan woman to direct and produce episodes of a major landmark series.

“It means everything,” Musembi said of her groundbreaking achievement. “When we talk about natural history, wildlife series or films, most of them are filmed in Africa. But the irony, up until a few years ago, is a lot of the people who make the series aren’t Africans. It blows your mind a little bit—like, why is that?

“When something’s made that way, it excludes the people who are living with the animals, the actual stakeholders. So to include black and brown voices in this, it has to happen. It’s the way forward and the world of the natural world needs it to happen.”

During the discussion, Darlington, who was responsible for framing the visuals on “Queens” as director of photography, also spoke about the lack of women in key roles such as cinematography and camera work. Kibby, who worked on the series’ arresting music score, praised Sarosh’s openness to be creative and different.

Because “Queens” is a docuseries about animals, which often has a very specific audience, it was vital that the creative team make it as accessible as possible. “We wanted it to be relatable,” Sarosh explained.

She added, “These are phenomenal, female, powerful stories and then they evolve and sometimes the characters inspire you to write. Other times you’re trying to weave (in) science in a way that feels entertaining and exciting. But we have always been unapologetically dramatic about these stories because they are. It’s not straight natural history, it’s a blended drama. It’s been incredibly fun and creatively freeing to do.”

Typical action sequences like big fights, big hunts and the flowing manes often seen in nature docs aren’t prevalent here. “It was a big risk for us to purposely turn away from the things that natural history usually does,” Sarosh said.

And also issues of consent. “It’s fundamental to a lot of the societies that we followed,” she noted. “But these queens are not all benevolent across the series. You will see some real characters and some pretty hardcore behavior as well. There are all types of female leader.” Berlowitz singled out the “badass, gangsta granny orca” as one of those characters on “Queens.”

Wrap Screening Series
Raquel Harris, Vanessa Berlowitz, Chloe Sarosh, Sophie Darlington, Faith Musembi and Morgan Kibby (Randy Shropshire)

As for the biggest challenge the team faced? It had nothing to do with being out in the field.

“It was the weight on our shoulders,” Sarosh said. “When we would got out about ‘Queens,’ there was very much a sense of, ‘Oh, that series the girls are making.’ But in that moment, we realized the weight of the fact that not only did we have to make something good, we had to make something great because everyone was waiting for us to fail across the board.”

“We’ve carried that weight for four years. We cannot tell you what a privilege it is to to see people’s reactions to these films,” she continued. “It may not be for everyone. We’ve all heaved that collective sigh when we realized it is good and people are enjoying it. Thank goodness because it was a risk, a huge risk.”

Berlowitz said they’d “like to” explore more matriarchal societies because there are “plenty more stories where these came from.”

“What’s really exciting is scientists are revising their thoughts,” she said. “They’re looking at classic patriarchal societies and going, ‘Maybe the females do have more power than we realize. We just haven’t been looking in the right way.’”

Watch the full discussion here.

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