From a South Africa nature reserve to the silver screen, multi-hyphenate Peter Meyer chats to Emma Curzon about his upcoming wildlife documentary.
Peter Meyer had an unconventional childhood, to put it mildly.
Born in Durban to a South African mother and a British father, the future director of The Boy from the Wild grew up in the Karkloof Valley Nature Reserve. This nature lover’s hidden gem, with its hilly surroundings acting as a ready-made barrier against poachers, was set up in Kwa-Zulu Natal by Peter’s father, James, who added a luxury hotel and turned the newly-purchased land into a thriving wildlife sanctuary.
Meyer grew up with the wilderness in his backyard, interacting with everything from elephants to nyala antelopes—and facing snake bites, rhino charges and an overprotective mama wildebeest to boot. It’s one hell of a life story, so it’s no surprise that it eventually became The Boy from the Wild: a book and, now, a documentary that’s been picked up by Apple TV.
We rendezvous on Google Meet. I’m in my bedroom; he’s in his studio in Wandsworth, a converted penthouse at the top of a former synagogue (playing host to his photography business, The Meyer Studios). They’re recovering from a power cut, and Meyer is a few minutes late thanks to trouble with his 4G connection. I can’t see his face but he sounds positive, upbeat and friendly, brimming with enthusiasm about his documentary and, more importantly, the story he’s using it to tell.
Let’s Start At The Very Beginning, A Very Good Place To Start
Initially, Meyer had no expectations of working in film. Instead—after studying in Switzerland—he broke into the hotel industry, becoming one of Hilton’s youngest directors at the age of 26.
Then, in 2014, he was working in Dubai when his father called with heartbreaking news: he was dying from cancer. “So I completely packed up where I was in Dubai and said, look, I’ll come in and spend whatever time I have left with him.” After James’ death Meyer fell into a slump, preoccupied with his own pain and grief and with supporting his mother, Mandy. “I sort of lost the drive for hotels… priorities changed, you know, outlooks changed, different perspectives.”
His transition into acting and modelling came at the advice of a family friend, who told him to “just do something fun”. “And I thought, shits and giggles, why not? Let’s have a bit of a laugh.” He made his on-screen debut in a car commercial, and “it just kind of grew from there, really.” By 2018, his work as an extra included Allied (2016, starring Brad Pitt and Marion Cotillard) and Transformers: The Last Knight (2017). Still, he’d never considered getting behind the camera. “I certainly, when I was on set, saw how the directors were working, but it wasn’t that I was inspired by them.”
The lightbulb moment came on the set of The Commuter (2018), when he met none other than gravelly-voiced action hero Liam Neeson. “I spent about two weeks on set with him and we got to chatting, and talking about where I was from and growing up.” Neeson thought it was “a really great story”, and it didn’t take long after that for Meyer to find a ghostwriter (Graham Spence). The Boy from the Wild was published in nine months, and quickly became an Amazon bestseller.
“He said, make it into something bigger”
“But it was then that I realised,” he explains, “that I wanted to film something as potentially an extended trailer for the book.” And he promptly flew to South Africa to do just that. “We were filming away, and it just so happened that the head of National Geographic and Disney was staying at the property. And he was fascinated by the story… he said to me, make it into something bigger. So I went from making a five-minute short film, to this 40-minute documentary.” Taking on the role of director was a no-brainer: “I knew what I wanted, I knew what could be done, I found the right team to make it happen. And it kind of came quite naturally.”
The Boy from the Wild was an incredibly personal project, so the stakes were high—Meyer freely admits that “I did it as a tribute for my dad more than anything.” Yet at the same time, it’s a love letter to conservation. “I wanted to actually tell a good story versus the sob story—most [stories about endangered wildlife] are really painful and sad. I mean, we were originally on Amazon Prime at the same point as… what was the one with the tigers and Joe Exotic? Tiger King, yeah. And I mean, we don’t have the entertainment factor of that. But when you see some of those sad stories about what happens to animals—the killings, the poaching, whatever—it was just nice to tell a [positive] story at that point.”
“Something can be done”
It’s the work of people like his father, he thinks, that gives us cause for optimism. James started with a few animals rescued from captivity: “Now, there’s hundreds of them in a natural environment in a safe habitat. You know, that was the key message [of The Boy from the Wild]: I’m hoping that from a conservation angle people see that there is something that can be done.”
Sadly, many of those who can do something just don’t care enough to want to. All over the world land is denied protection, species are driven to extinction and indigenous tribal communities face persecution and violence. And for all the wholesome stories about wildlife making a comeback during lockdown, the Covid-19 pandemic has just as often dealt heavy blows to conservation efforts. It’s become a “smokescreen” for governments to roll back environmental protections, with increasing poverty and decreased security budgets causing a rise in poaching. Naturally, I can’t resist asking what Meyer thinks needs to be done.
“I mean, the challenge that I find very, very sad is that even without the pandemic, establishments and large corporations rely on tourism to protect animals. That should never be the case.” So while companies need to make sure that ecotourism recovers, they also “really need need to make an emphasis on getting the government support, to get funding to give a bigger emphasis on protection.”
I Believe The Children Are Our Future (Teach Them Well And Let Them Lead The Way)
But another important factor, perhaps even more crucial than the tourists? The kids. “This is something I’ve been saying—since I was incredibly young—is having been a boy learning those lessons, we need kids to be educated throughout. I don’t feel that in our lifetime, governments are going to make the impact that’s needed. It’s the next generation that will, and it might be too late by that point for some species. But if we start to teach kids in schools, get kids to understand things about wildlife—if we can start to make those changes, everything will filter later on.”
So once he’s done with The Boy from the Wild, what’s next? Well… as it turns out, he might not be done with it for a long time yet. “I’d like the film and the book to turn into either a series or a feature film.” He’d need backing from a bigger studio, of course, because right now “from a financial perspective, I’m not big enough to make that. But it would be really nice to get a story like that out there.”
“Wipe off the bruises and get going”
When I ask what he’d say to other aspiring actors and filmmakers, his response is immediate: “As long as it’s your passion, go after it. I always believe success comes from the things that you’ve really put your heart and soul into.” That said, “don’t be afraid of failure. Particularly in this industry, you’re going to have mistakes, you’re going to have mess-ups.”
The key—in life as, I’m assuming, in conservation—is to “take those kinds of challenges and roll with them, to turn them into good things. It was something my father installed in me… if [you’re] prepared to have those falls, just wipe off the bruises and get going again, good things will happen. I think that’s what life’s about, you know?”
The Boy from the Wild (book) is available for purchase on Amazon and free with Kindle Unlimited. The documentary will be released worldwide on Apple TV this year.
Interview conducted by Emma Curzon
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