South Africa Stands in as Plymouth in NatGeo Channel’s Telling of the Pilgrims’ Tale

NatGeo Channel Uses South Africa as Plymouth Stand-In for Pilgrim Tale
National Geographic Channels/David Bloomer

National Geographic Channel famously claims to have an obsession with accuracy that holds its science- and history-themed documentaries up to a higher standard than typical cable fare. Rigorous research into the look and feel of a subject are meant to infuse authenticity, and result in entertainment that can also inform.

And, like competitor Discovery, the Fox Cable Networks-owned channel has been forging its way into producing quality scripted content. Earlier this year, NatGeo scored with “Killing Jesus.”

Now, National Geographic is mounting its most ambitious project yet: “Saints & Strangers,” a two-part epic that debuts Nov. 22, and relates the story of the Mayflower landing, and the relationship between the first colonists and the Native Americans who greeted them. The massive cast includes “Mad Men’s” Vincent Kartheiser, “Black Sails’ ” Ray Stevenson and “Apocalypto’s” Raoul Trujillo, in authentic Abenaki Indian garb. But there is one part of the production that’s truly not authentic to the story: the filming location.

To re-create the world of 17th-century New England, the production headed to the vineyards of South Africa’s Stellenbosch wine country. There, the producers began to build their replica of the first permanent British colony in America. Eventually, the spacious Rustenberg farm served as a backlot for a crew that fashioned everything from wooden colonial houses to rifles to period costumes.

“It’s a high-premium program for us, and something that we’re committed to investing in.”
Tim Pastore, NatGeo

“It’s such a can-do place,” says “Saints & Strangers” exec producer Gina Matthews, noting the South African crew’s attention to detail. “The show is, to a T, historically accurate. It’s not an interpretation — it’s our history.”

While South Africa sports competitive rebates, “Saints” is National Geographic’s most expensive scripted series, although execs would not disclose numbers.

“It’s a high premium program for us, and something we’re committed to investing in,” says Tim Pastore, NatGeo’s president of original programming & production. “We committed to putting the money into the cast and the talent.”

Filmed in July and August, the crew used fake snow and imported trees from New England to create the crisp New World setting of 1620 Massachusetts. Post-production relied on CGI to scrub out the surrounding mountains and add the water of Plymouth Bay.

One of the greatest challenges was training the actors playing Native Americans to speak western Abenaki, a dialect of the eastern Algonquin language spoken in the Plymouth region in the 17th century. According to dialect coach Jesse Bowman Bruchac, western Abenaki is spoken fluently by fewer than a dozen people today.

Open For Business
South Africa attracts a hefty number of foreign shoots with its attractive incentives
20% Cash rebate on all local spending
25% Cash rebate on local spending if some post-production is done in South Africa
35% Cash rebate on the first 6 million Rand ($419,000) if a production originates in a country that has signed a formal co-production treaty.
25% Cash rebate on the remainder of local spending of a formal co-production treaty project.
$437m Money generated by the South African film industry in 2012, according to the most recent study by the National Film and Video Foundation.

For “Strangers,” actors learned their lines in English, using it as a track, according to Bruchac. They then laid western Abenaki across it. “The actors speak it to absolute perfection,” says Bruchac. “They (worked) at it even harder than I could have imagined.”

For cast member Trujillo, who plays Massasoit, the leader of the Pokanoket tribe, learning the language represented “the first building block (that) allows us to create this world view.”

The degree of authenticity is in keeping with the show’s efforts to avoid telling the often sanitized story of the Pilgrims’ first Thanksgiving. “(This is) not a romanticizing of the story,” Trujillo says. “It shows the humanity of everybody involved — or the lack thereof.”

Pastore stresses that going beyond the history books was vital.

“As we move into becoming a premium network for science and nature and exploration, we thought, ‘What better story of survival and exploration and adventure story than the one of the Pilgrims and the Mayflower, and those first few years after they landed in Cape Cod.’ ” But, he adds, “The story you thought you knew or understood is truly an unfamiliar tale.”

Shot, appropriately enough, in an unfamiliar location.