EXCLUSIVE: What do Will Smith, Chris Hemsworth and Jeff Goldblum have in common? They are driving a revolution in factual programming led by the world’s biggest stars, and this revolution is being steered by one company above all: Jane Root’s Nutopia.
The Washington/London indie’s Co-founder Jane Root has spent recent months overseeing Disney+ trio The World According to Jeff Goldblum season two, which dropped in November, Smith’s Welcome to Earth, coming tomorrow, and Limitless With Chris Hemsworth, which is slated for next year.
Leading this talent through factual adventures has been a whirlwind but Root stressed that Nutopia didn’t go out of its way to ensure A-list-led docs were a specialism.
“We were never like ‘let’s become a company purely working with these amazing people’,” she told Deadline. “It really crept up on us, through following a sense of what was interesting.”
Smith’s Welcome To Earth, which is co-produced with his King Richard indie Westbrook Studios and Producer Darren Aronofksy’s Protozoa Pictures, drops on Disney+ tomorrow (Dec 8) and is the product of a relationship with Nutopia that started when he narrated Aronofsky’s One Strange Rock for Nat Geo.
In Welcome To Earth, the superstar takes his passion one step further by visiting deserts and volcanos, as the double-Academy Award-nominee showcases his boundless curiosity and enthusiasm for the natural world, guided by elite experts (pictured).
“One Strange Rock really changed things as we’d been tasked with finding a show about earth sciences that could rival [BBC1 mega-hit] Planet Earth,” added Root, a former President of Discovery Networks International and BBC2 Channel Controller who is also exec producing Jada Pinkett Smith’s African Queens for Netflix.
“Will only did a bit of filming for it but at the end he said ‘I’d love to do it again, but this time I really want to go’.”
The show pushed Smith to his limits, as did Limitless for Thor star Hemsworth.
Root positioned the two major challenges when working with talent of this level on this kind of show as “schedule” and “injury.”
Of the latter, she said: “If Thor gets delayed because Chris has an accident on our shoot then Disney’s share price will be impacted – that’s the pressure we’re under. Our stars’ great skill is not letting that get in the way of being in the moment and doing their job.”
Then there is the scheduling question, with Root and Westbrook Studios Head Of TV Terence Carter regularly joking that “Will’s schedule” is their favorite topic of conversation.
“We want the shoot to be as frictionless an experience as possible so there’s no time for things like camera setup – you have to have another crew ready.”
Covid-19 added an additional layer of stress as costs increased and time pressures worsened.
For Welcome To Earth, the production team built a Covid-19 laboratory in the basement of their Icelandic hotel, bringing chemists on site and carrying out around 100 tests per week, with leftover tests donated to the Icelandic government.
Root paid tribute to a team comprised of the likes of Nutopia Head of Production Caroline McCool and producer Graham Booth for keeping things running smoothly.
Experience in drama has handed these stars an “intimate” quality when presenting factual shows, Root went on to say, none more so than Goldblum in The World According to Jeff Goldblum.
The 69-year-old may not be clambering up volcanos but he has a “thoughtfulness about the world” that has driven the success of the show in which he meets influencers and experts to discuss topics ranging from ice cream to video games, she said.
“Some actors are utterly different every time they perform but stars like Jeff bring something special,” added Root. “You feel like you’ve been really intimate with people like Jeff for a long time.”
Root doesn’t want to stop here and has a number of other A-list factual ideas in development, utilizing Nutopia’s position as a “company that is grounded in knowledge, not entertainment.”
“When I was BBC2 Channel Controller I used to tell producers to think about the phrase ‘clever pleasure’,” she concluded. “My mantra is looking for things that are clever and sophisticated. They take really different forms and are probably what unites The Office with Welcome To Earth.”
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