M.J. Bassett—the director and writer of Lionsgate’s latest film, Rogue—is about as multifaceted as they come.
However, she didn’t always aspire to be in film. At a young age, she realized she had an affinity for animals. Bassett tells LIVEKINDLY that when she was younger, she actually wanted to be a wildlife vet.
“That’s what I wanted more than anything. And I was a veterinary assistant during my teenage years as a part-time job. And then I ran a wildlife hospital as a teenager. I was the youngest person in the UK to be licensed to do that at the time,” she says. “And then I used to fly falcons. I gave talks on wildlife.”
But at the age of 16, Bassett’s career path took a detour. “I left school and trained as a wildlife filmmaker. And then I ended up on TV in the UK, again still in my teens, presenting wildlife shows for young people.”
She then bought her first video camera and started making drama films. In 2002, her first feature film, a horror flick called Deathwatch, debuted. Since then, she’s written and directed several action and horror films—including 2006’s Wilderness, 2009’s Solomon Kane, and Silent Hill: Revelation, which was released in 2012.
Wildlife Conservation and Film
Bassett never forgot her early roots in animal conservation. With her latest film, which is now streaming on-demand on platforms like Prime Video, Google Play, and iTunes, Bassett has finally been able to take her love for animals full circle. And while she’s always had an affinity for animals, she says coming out as transgender in 2016 has amplified her compassion and made her a better filmmaker.
“It allowed me to be happy for the first time. I was married, I have children, I had a wonderful life, I had a career, but there was an undercurrent. I’m [now] living the life that I’ve always wanted to live. Maybe it’s a bit later than I planned. But I am privileged to be able to do that,” she says.
She continues: “Rogue is the first movie I’ve made since I came out that was entirely me. And hopefully, the compassion which I’m now comfortable sharing and talking about and the emotional availability that I have, which perhaps I never had before, have allowed me to kind of live, I hope, a better life. And it’s so hard to explain, but I feel like I’m living a fuller, richer life now.”
The movie—which Bassett co-wrote with her daughter, Isabella—blends Bassett’s liking of film and animals through its eco-environmental theme. It focuses on lion farming in Africa. Rogue centers on the story of Samantha O’Hara, who is played by Megan Fox. O’Hara leads her team of battle-hardened mercenaries on a mission in Africa to rescue a governor’s daughter who was kidnapped by an extremist group. After the extraction goes wrong, the team has to take refuge overnight in an abandoned farm.
“It turns out the farm is not entirely abandoned. It was an old lion breeding farm and there may still be a lioness around,” Bassett explains.
“Now they have no weapons, no communication with the outside world, they’re at the bottom of the food chain and they have to survive the night,” she continued.
What Is Lion Farming?
While the story Bassett presents in Rogue is fictional, the reality of lion farming in Africa is very real.
“I knew that lots of people hadn’t heard about it,” Bassett says. “Twelve-thousand lions in farms across Southern Africa, which are being used for their body parts and the hunting industry. And the cubs are being used for tourism—for photographic opportunities. And I thought well that’s something I can put as an underlying idea within a story.”
Although wild lions are now an iconic African species, they also once roamed parts of Asia and Europe. But lion populations are decreasing. The International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species lists them as vulnerable. And in West Africa, lions are listed as “critically endangered,” reports Panthera—a wild cat conservation organization.
According to National Geographic, 94 percent of the species in Africa has disappeared. Wild lions are now only present in parts of sub-Saharan Africa. The considerable decline in lion populations is largely due to human-caused activities. The commercialization of livestock agriculture in Africa has resulted in habitat loss for the species. Illegal bushmeat hunting, trophy hunting, and the trade of lion body parts are also to blame.
But when it comes to humans’ predatory relationship with animals—and the world at large—Bassett says lion farming is just the tip of the iceberg.
“The lion farming aspect is one tiny, tiny aspect of the larger issues in how we’re treating our environment. You know the climate change, the destruction of the planet, the lack of consideration, just the leaving of litter, and using a piece of plastic. We look around the planet and the planet is struggling to survive as an ecosystem because of the pressure of seven billion humans living on it,” she explains.
Raising Awareness Through Film
Through her work, Bassett is hoping to raise awareness for the state of the planet and humans’ impact on the natural world. This, she says, is especially timely during the global COVID-19 pandemic.
“I think people have been reconsidering their positions in the world during the pandemic. I think it’s made us all realize that the planet, our position on the planet, is not unassailable,” she explains. “You know, wherever we go the pandemics and the diseases come with us,” she adds. “I think for the first time in the modern world, we’ve all had to stop and take a breath and say, wow, we are not the masters of this universe. The microorganisms are the masters.”
Bassett is already doing her part to lessen her impact on the world by eating less meat. “I’m vegetarian on the whole, but I will eat meat if I know where it’s been sourced, if I know it’s organic, if I know it’s been treated respectfully. That’s my compelling thing. I eat so much less now because I can’t source it,” she says.
“I respect the native people who look at their animals and they treat them in a respectful way. What I hate is the factory farming process. I hate the fact that animals have been commoditized. You drive to Northern California, you see vast farms where the cattle are treated just like a product. And they’re not. They have a life and they deserve to be respected for their life,” she continues. “You have to know where your food comes from. We don’t teach our children that enough. If you’re eating meat, something has died for you. Be respectful of that and value that. And I think if we valued our world a lot more we probably wouldn’t be in half the trouble we’re in.”
Bassett says she’s happy to be in a place in her life where she can create films that amplify conservation issues. And she hopes they will have a lasting impact on viewers.
“The smaller stories of rhino poaching, ivory trade, you know, even the killing of pangolins—just the way we approach the animals in our lives,” Bassett says. “If I can get somebody to spend just a beat to reconsider or to be aware of something they weren’t aware of before then for me the movie’s done its job.”
She adds: “We have to learn respect for the environment, respect for the animals that live here. And that’s been my compelling journey all the way through.”