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News imageTom Mustill - Director of The Bat Man of Mexico
By Jason Peters
13 June

An interview with member, Tom Mustill, the director of The Bat Man of Mexico, a Natural World Special, first showing on BBC Two at 9pm on Friday the 13th of June 2014.

What's the story of your latest film?

It's about a man called Rodrigo Medellin, who is a Mexican conservationist. His great passion is bats, and the film charts the end of his twenty year effort to pull a species called the Lesser Long-Nosed Bat back from extinction, and follows his journey alongside the bats on their migration, which takes them 1500 miles across Mexico from giant underground volcanoes to desert islands. What's rather special about the film is that it is a pretty audacious success story - Rodrigo and his team have brought the bats back from a very precarious level, and now their populations are thriving.

Climbing down into the bat volcano.

Following the bats was a 24 hour job, fuelled mostly by mexican coffee!

What was the hardest thing to film?

The infra-red filming inside the bat caves was pretty gruelling. Crawling and squeezing through thousands of years of bat guano and all the bugs that live in it with hundreds of kilos of camera equipment, then setting up infra-red lamps (only the camera operator can see the light from these, through the camera) in the hearts of the bat colonies where the temperatures are in the forties and humidity approaches 100% is very challenging and exhausting. Sometimes you have added bonuses like snakes hanging from the ceiling. I spent my 30th birthday covered in crap in the pitch darkness, sweating and panting in a place called the 'chamber of hell'.

Tom (left), producer Peter Fison (centre), cameraman George Woodcock (right) in the cave of the serpents, masks to protect against lung diseases.

Drone aerials filming.

What was the highlight?

We roped our way down into a giant forest sinkhole in Calakmul, which is a giant bit of jungle near Guatamala. There's an enormous free-tailed bat colony there, one of the biggest in the world, and they come out every night before the sun sets - so you can film them in daylight. We'd heard it was pretty impressive but nothing prepared us for the spectacle. No-one knows how many bats live there but it could be up to a few million. Suddenly it goes from being quiet, with just the sound of the forest, to this gentle roaring noise as all the bats fly out and whirl around and up the sinkhole in a huge living tornado. Their combined wings make a wind which is really refreshing, and rustles the leaves of all the trees. There were loads of different birds of prey swooping in to grab the bats, falcons, owls, eagles, jays, which all seemed to happily live on a nightly bat-diet. The bats would then spread out across the forest into the setting sun. It was almost difficult to take it in it was so vast, like a living Victoria falls but going upwards.

Filming deep underground was hot work.

Filming vampire bats in an underground mayan ruin.

What was the lowest point?

Well at one stage we were hit consecutively by two Hurricanes on the Pacific Coast, and a Tropical Storm on the other side. We just couldn't find the bats. Fortunately after a few weeks we tracked them down, but that was a very anxious time, trying to think about what the film would be if we couldn't find bats that it was about. There were some pretty standard wildlife filming bits, when recce-ing a cave on an island we'd swum ashore to myself and a researcher got stung by a swarm of hornets, George (camera) got bitten by an over-friendly peccary, I put on a backpack full of stinging ants!

One night I decided that we should try and film some night sky timelapses over the Mayan temples near the Bat Volcano at Calakmul. I decided it would be nice to sit on top of the temples with the various time-lapse rigs while Pete (producer) and George (camera) went to film the bats at the sinkhole an hours drive through the jungle away. They assured me someone would come pick me up 8 hours later. In retrospect it was a terrible idea. There's a very creepy atmosphere in a ruined once great city in the jungle at night. Climbing up and down the pyramids awkwardly carrying tripods and camera kit and watching out for drops meant suddenly large glowing white stones carrying the inscriptions and pictures of great long dead rulers would suddenly loom out at you.

I found myself alone on top of a giant ancient sacrificial altar getting freaked out by foxes and convincing myself I'd heard a jaguar. Fortunately I had a beer and a very depressing novel by Cormac McCarthy which I used to distract myself from the mosquitoes. I was very glad when I heard the sound of a motor engine many hours later.

Tom's 30th birthday (oldest person on the production team) was a chance for a wash and a break from filming in 'the chamber of the devil'.

George the cameraman in his tent in the desert, watching remote cameras.

Why should people care about bats?

Without bats life would be rubbish - they regulate the pests that would otherwise plague us and eat our crops, they spread the seeds of the plants that we use for timber and fruits, and they pollenate the flowers of other plants that we'd be pretty sad to live in a world without. Like bees, but in the night-time. The bats in the film are important because they feed off agave nectar on their migration, and over millions of years they've become co-dependent on agave plants. Without the bats many species of agave might not be pollenated at all, including the ones that get turned into Tequila and Mezcal. Without that pollenation the plants become inbred and weak. And in fact the tequila crop has failed a few times recently, without bats these Mexican spirits would also be endangered.

But aside from how useful they are, they're just great animals. I didn't realise before we started making the film that some bats hunted birds, or that there were over a thousand species of them. Or that some have suckers instead of feet!

Setting a cable dolly at the top of a mayan temple deep in the rainforest.

Tom and George filming ancient cave paintings, a three kilometer underground walk into caves under a mountain.

What was your first bat experience?

That was when I worked in conservation just after University. I was living in Mauritius working for the Wildlife Foundation, and someone brought in an orphaned baby flying fox. The team there hand-reared it, taking turns to carry it around hanging on their shoulders, feeding it milk through a candle-wick and later tiny chopped up bits of fruit. We got to watch him learn to fly, and he quickly grew enormous, but was very friendly and inquisitive and gentle. When you stroked the side of his mouth he'd instinctively yawn, and he smelled like lemons. My mother came to visit and he prised oven her handbag and had a look around inside. Later when he was older he'd fly across and land on you and wrap his wings around your head which was quite disconcerting. I think it was then that I realised that I hadn't really thought about this amazing bunch of diverse mammals that lives out of our sight and experience - in the night sky.

Waiting for the snakes to come out.

When the car broke down George had a chance to finally have a haircut!


BATMOSPHERES: Wild tracks from filming 'The Bat Man of Mexico' by Oimustill on Mixcloud

Visit: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p020f8sz
Like: www.facebook.com/batmanofmexico

The Bat Man of Mexico


Tom hosted a The Bat Man of Mexico Premiére, a super evening at the Lyst Studios, Hoxton Square, London on the 8th of June 2014... A very enjoyable evening spent with the crew that produced a fantastic film! Bravo Tom et al!! :) See some photo's from the event on flickr.

The film is up for the Wildscreen Festival People and Nature Award!! :)


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