America: The Story of Us” premiered on the History Channel in April with a foreword from President Barack Obama, bringing the network a record audience of 5.7 million. Despite a mixed critical reception, it’s up for four Emmys — nonfiction programming: cinematography, picture editing, sound editing and writing.
Ironically, though, the series was shot in South Africa, apart from some establishing shots lensed in the U.S. “We were looking to re-create America from 400 years ago, so we needed something not built up, with plains, prairies and scrubland. It would have been hard to film America’s past in America’s present,” says Jane Root, who exec produced the series through Nutopia.
The weather also played a role, as filmmakers could swap America’s winter for Cape Town’s summer.
The proximity of the locations was another selling point. “If we’d shot in the U.S., we would have had to travel across 20 states, whereas South Africa offered us landscapes (that looked) like how America used to look, all within an hour of Cape Town,” Root says.
The production used services provider Film Afrika, and Root believes the budget went further too, especially with the Department of Trade and Industry rebate. “You’re able to hire at a higher level. We were able to find the best crew from Oscar- and Emmy-nominated projects like ‘District 9,’ ‘Blood Diamond’ and ‘No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency.’ As a result, we got something that looked really beautiful.”
Having been involved with “Planet Earth,” Root wanted a similar sense of scale that would make the series feel like a huge event. “We wanted to take history out of the dusty, cold library and prioritize the excitement, so it’s full of heroic moments and jaw-dropping CGI.”
Root is British, and Nutopia has an office in London as well as Maryland, but she’s quick to say she doesn’t think of this as “a British production in South Africa. I live in America and our approach is that this is a global production. We’re very used to conference calls.”
Next up, Root says they’re planning a history of Africa.