Magazine article Variety

U.S. Series Makes South African PILGRIMAGE

Magazine article Variety

U.S. Series Makes South African PILGRIMAGE

Article excerpt

National Geographic Channel famously claims to have an obsession with accuracy that holds its science- and history-themed documentaries up to a higher standard than typical cable fare. Rigorous research into the look and feel of a subject are meant to infuse authenticity, and result in entertainment that can also inform.

When Fox bought the channel in September, it carried that passion into scripted content - an area where competitors like Discovery are already making headway, and where NatGeo scored earlier this year with "Killing Jesus."

Now, National Geographic is mounting its most ambitious project yet: "Saints & Strangers," a two-part epic that debuts Nov. 22, and relates the story of the Mayflower landing, and the relationship between the first colonists and the Native Americans who greeted them. The massive cast includes "Mad Men's" Vincent Kartheiser, "Black Sails'" Ray Stevenson and "Apocalypto's" Raoul Trujillo, in authentic Abenaki Indian garb. But there is one part of the production that's truly not authentic to the story: the filming location.

To re-create the world of 17th-century New England, the production headed to the vineyards of South Africa's Stellenbosch wine country. There, the producers began to build their replica of the first permanent British colony in America. Eventually, the spacious Rustenberg farm served as a backlot for a crew that fash- ioned everything from wooden colonial houses to rifles to period costumes.

"It's such a can-do place," says "Saints & Strangers" exec producer Gina Matthews, noting the South African crew's attention to detail. "The show is, to a T, historically accurate. It's not an interpretation - it's our history."

While South Africa sports competitive rebates, "Saints" is National Geographic's most expensive scripted series, although execs would not disclose numbers.

"It's a high premium program for us, and something we're committed to investing in," says Tim Pastore, NatGeo's president of original programming & production. "We committed to putting the money into the cast and the talent."

Filmed in July and August, the crew used fake snow and imported trees from New England to create the crisp New World setting of 1620 Massachusetts. Post-production relied on CGI to scrub out the surrounding mountains and add the water of Plymouth Bay.

One of the greatest challenges was training the actors playing Native Americans to speak western Abenaki, a dialect of the eastern Algonquin language spoken in the Plymouth region in the 17th century. …

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