Exclusive: Mike Rowe Talks "Human Planet"

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NOTE: My interview with Mike Rowe appears below a bunch of discussion of the documentary Human Planet. Jump to the "Interview" heading if that's what you're here for.

Human Planet premieres Sunday, April 10 in the US on Discovery. Two episodes air each night, running from 8-10pm EST on April 10, 17, and 24. Check your cable listings for more details, and set your DVRs -- again, this is a huge justification for why you bought a big shiny HDTV.

This time around, Mike Rowe will narrate the series. Most people know Rowe best as the host of Dirty Jobs on Discovery. But my favorite work of his was a stint hosting QVC in the early 90's. Rowe has a special kind of charm -- he's simultaneously an everyman, a pitchman, and a funnyman. His voice is a huge part of his appeal -- Rowe has the ability to intone opinions about pretty much anything, and his rich voice gives it insta-gravitas. He also makes a lot of jokes, making the whole gravitas situation complex and uncertain -- which is where the funny comes from.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I learned last week that Mike Rowe will narrate Discovery's version of Human Planet, their latest BBC co-produced mega-documentary. But why would Mike Rowe, a known wise-ass (albeit a beloved wise-ass with a great talent for voiceover), be narrating a serious documentary? I can't tell you why exactly this call was made, and I also can't tell you what it sounds like -- because the versions of the documentary I've seen are narrated by somebody else (somebody else who's American). To make things more complex, the BBC version was narrated by John Hurt. So there are at least three narrators involved in this thing, and the Rowe narration is a big question mark right now. He has done serious voiceover work before (lots of it), so he's capable of turning off the jokes. But part of what I love about his work is that jokey quality. There's not much room in this documentary for jokes. (Note: this is a very similar issue to The Donaghy Probletunity that arose when Alec Baldwin narrated Great Migrations: when you take a guy whose main gig involves jokey gravitas, how can you hear his narration as sincere?)

In past mega-documentaries, much has been made about the differences between the BBC and American versions' narrators. On both Planet Earth and Life, Sir David Attenborough provided the BBC narration. For the US versions, Sigourney Weaver voiced Planet Earth (capably, but not as well as Attenborough) and Oprah Winfrey did Life (to the real consternation of many fans). When the Blu-ray versions came out, I bought both of them -- with the Attenborough narration. So there's a lot riding on this narration; viewers really care about this stuff. I like Mike Rowe enough that I think his narration could rival Hurt's BBC narration of Human Planet. But we'll have to wait and see.

The final reason that Rowe's narration is such a big deal is that, frankly, Human Planet needs some narrative help. It's generally in the same vein as the previous mega-documentaries Planet Earth and Life, but this time the focus is on people, not nature. It's about how people live their daily lives under extreme conditions. And that's something Rowe has experience with, at least from his Dirty Job days.

The Problem of a Human Narrative

Here's the thing about Human Planet: the producers appears to have gotten their subjects to tell the audience that everything is gonna be okay. They wrap up each segment with the main documentary subject saying something about how he or she is grateful to have caught a whale, or survived a trek across a barren wilderness, or stolen meat from a lion, or caught a bat so his family could eat a bit of meat, and so on. Every segment has this weird wrap-up moment at the end, where it feels very much like the producers asked the subjects to tell us that they're happy with their lot in life, despite living in dangerous, destitute, or (at best) exotic situations. Sometimes these statements ring true, and you get a nice moment of resolution (there's nothing inherently wrong with many of these people's situation, and I'm not saying they should be unhappy because they're not living western lives) -- but frequently these wrap-up segments fall flat, and I found myself thinking: "Why do we need to wrap up these segments with such a tidy ending?" I can't comment on the producers' intent, but as a viewer, it felt formulaic to have all these people telling us that everything's cool in their lives. It would have been better just to cut to a wide shot and move on.

There's one particularly terrifying segment in the documentary in which disfigured sulphur miners (who are extracting sulphur from an active volcano, gravely injuring themselves in the process) bring their haul back to a weigh station to get paid. The miners talk about how they're glad to be able to feed their families, since -- and this is true -- the pay for the mining job is better than for other jobs. They need the work, they need the money to feed their families. The narrator tells us that the miners won't be able to do their mining jobs for long, because the sulphur takes such a toll on their health. We see the miners laboring without protective gear, burning their lungs with fumes that will make them sick, disfigured, or dead. (You can read a good writeup here of what this job is really like.) The problem with this segment in the documentary is that it then wraps up and moves on. The real human story here is the tragedy of these miners -- what happens to the old-timers? We don't get to see. What story are we shown instead? An incredibly beautifully photographed sequence showing men gathering sulphur from a volcano. So I'm sure this made sense to the producers, because it is certainly an extreme condition that's visually stunning (and it is -- let me be clear, the photography is insanely beautiful). However, the story of the humans here is much, much bigger than hauling sulphur up out of the pit. They deserve more thorough treatment, if this is supposed to be a documentary about them as people in extreme situations. Their extreme situation is not just mining, it's poverty. As it is, their plight is briefly mentioned, we get some sense that they have chosen to do the job because it pays well despite the danger, and, boom!, we're on to the next stunning segment. This just feels wrong.

UPDATE (13 April 2011): after watching the first few broadcast episodes, they seem to have been re-cut and differ from early screeners, removing some of my objections. There are still wrap-up moments at the end of segments, but we no longer see the subjects themselves saying corny things about how happy they are. Thank you, editors! Also, the Rowe narration is excellent.

What Human Planet Gets Right

This is the team that brought us Planet Earth and Life, both of which are fundamentally stunning exercises in documentary photography, and created on a scale that's almost unimaginable -- years of production spanning scores of locations. The HD photography here is just as beautiful as you'd expect. Also, the focus on people (despite the wrap-up segments) makes this documentary different from its predecessors in the series -- it's not a nature documentary, it's a documentary about people and their relationship with the natural world. This is smart, because it gives us opportunities to see what is fundamentally nature photography -- for example, a remarkable sequence in which an eagle is outfitted with a camera on its back and we get to see the eagle's-eye-view as she hunts (see clip above) -- but it also allows us to sit with the people who are training the eagle to hunt, and to understand their narrative.

In general, Human Planet does a good job of showing us how people live. In parts this feels like a documentary about hunting (since so many segments are specifically about killing animals for food), but then we see really interesting and bizarre stuff. My favorite example is the segment about a group of Buddhists living at an altitude where no trees grow, so there is no wood to burn in order to cremate their dead. So when a member of the group dies, the one non-Buddhist (stop reading if you're squeamish) chops up the body and feeds it to vultures. This is sort of horrifying (although we don't see graphic footage of the actual hacking, we do see the axe). But it's also a really good example of a practical challenge that a culture has figured out how to face. That's a good subject for a documentary, and it's handled well -- except, again, for the weird "circle of life" comments by the documentary subjects at the end of the segment.

The other remarkable aspect of Human Planet is its behind-the-scenes footage. I only saw a snippet of this, but found it fascinating -- the narrative of the filmmakers interacting with their subjects is just as interesting as seeing the subjects themselves doing their thing. So when the home video releases come out, you will want to check out the special features showing how this documentary was made -- it took years, and it took a shocking amount of work. And it's interesting to see the filmmakers explain how they do their thing.

Interview: Mike Rowe

From Flickr: The star and crew of "Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe" showed up shortly after dawn to start the day's filming at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Rowe was briefed on what to expect by USFWS biologists Jeremy Conrad and Lisa Jameson. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

I couldn't resist sending Rowe some questions. I wasn't sure he'd have a chance to answer them in time for this review, but I'm glad he did -- I got them late last night, and appreciate Rowe taking time out of his schedule to tell me some jokes. I've loved his work, both the jokey stuff and his genuine concern for blue-collar workers (check out his podcast for some of this, or see pretty much any episode of Dirty Jobs). True to form, he was game, and replied with humor, despite what I assume is an insane production schedule at his day job. Imagine his deep, rich voice as he answers my dumb questions.

Higgins: John Hurt narrated the BBC broadcast of Human Planet.

Rowe: That's correct. The BBC version is also much longer than the American version. They did 8 hours, we're only doing 6. Studies have proven that British viewers are lot more patient than American viewers.

Higgins: So who's better, you or John Hurt?

Rowe: John Hurt is annoyingly good. Shockingly good, actually. When I watch him act, I am humbled. When I listen to him speak, I weep. And yet, I am thrilled and eager to usurp him whenever possible. Professional narration is a cruel and nasty business, and as this series clearly illustrates the most deserving characters don't always prevail.

Higgins: I remind you, Hurt played the crazy space bazillionaire in Contact AND Kane (the first guy to get an Alien on his face/bursting from his chest) in Alien.

Rowe: Right. But both of those performances pale next to his work in The Proposition. Best Australian western ever. Rent it. Watch it. Be amazed.

Higgins: Various websites claim you pitched a product called "Al Edwards Oatmeal."

Rowe: Yes, I've seen those sites as well. I've also seen websites that claim I'm replacing Regis Philbin and Charlie Sheen.

Higgins: Is this a real product or an internet prank?

Rowe: Al Edwards Oatmeal is very real and quite delicious when supplemented with an equal quantity of brown sugar and whiskey. However, I have no professional or gastronomical history with this particular product. (Interestingly, John Hurt has been the voice of Al Edwards Oatmeal for many, many years. I plan to replace him shortly.)

Higgins: Please describe why it's superior to other celebrity-endorsed oatmeals.

Rowe: All I can tell you for sure is that any oatmeal not endorsed by Wilfred Brimley is something I'd be willing to try. I've got nothing against Quaker Oats. And I have a great deal of respect for Wilfred's talent and his remarkable resume. Lately though, the angry grandfather thing has become a little frightening. I love a good curmudgeon, but this new level of grumpiness does little to stimulate my appetite.

Higgins: I assume you're aware of the popularity of YouTube videos showing your QVC hosting days.

Rowe: Yes. My finest hours. Thank you.

Higgins: My question is -- how were you able to be so loose with that gig?

Rowe: You mean aside from the oatmeal and whiskey? I guess the short answer is "exhaustion." QVC had no training program back in 1990. In those days they were desperate for people who could do the job, or at least pull off a fair impersonation of a home shopping host. So anyone capable of talking about a pencil for 5 minutes straight was immediately hired for a three month probationary period and sent to the graveyard shift where they either figured it out on their own or went up in flames. (Seriously, that was my audition. Look into a camera and talk about a pencil for 5 minutes.) To this day, the most honest and entertaining television I've ever seen featured new QVC hosts trying to figure out how to do their job in front of a live audience. I knew a guy that got so nervous he fainted three times on the air. And a woman who actually threw up on the fake diamonds as she was describing them. Too damn funny to make up.

Higgins: It seemed like you were totally aware you'd be fired as soon as anyone in management saw your segments.

Rowe: One of my first goals in home shopping was to be fired from home shopping, and I'm proud to say that was accomplished shortly after my debut. The truth is I never should have been hired in the first place. I auditioned to settle a bet, and accepted the offer out of a weird mix of professional curiosity and financial desperation. I was rehired however under some fairly extraordinary circumstances, and spent the next three years on the overnight shift, languishing under a kind of double secret probation. Most of that time was spent daring management to fire me again, which they eventually did. I can't blame them. I had a habit of falling asleep on the air, making fun of the products, and belittling callers. It was a miracle I made it as long as I did.

Higgins: So did you have some other job lined up or what?

Rowe: I've never had anything lined up in my life.

Higgins: Any plans to release more episodes of your podcast?

Rowe: Yeah. I'm gonna write down all the QVC stories and see if I can get John Hurt to read them. It's the least I can do.

And that's that. We'll have to see what Rowe does for Human Planet. I have faith that Rowe's narration will fundamentally change the experience of this documentary -- Mike Rowe isn't John Hurt; he's America's John Hurt.

Human Planet premieres on Sunday, April 10 in the US on Discovery. Two episodes air each night, running from 8-10pm EST on April 10, 17, and 24. Check your cable listings (and set your DVRs) for more details.

(Photo of Mike Rowe courtesy of Flickr user USFWS/Southeast, used under Creative Commons license.)

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April 8, 2011 - 10:06am
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