GEORGE KOUROUNIS on CONQUERing FEAR WITH CURIOSITYThe Canadian documentary filmmaker George Kourounis chases tornadoes and got married on an active volcano. Unsurprisingly, he has a tried-and-trusted method of beating phobias
For George Kourounis, great weather starts at a force-10 gale – which is a stroke of luck, as his job as a documentary filmmaker takes him from one extreme situation to another. For his long-running TV series Angry Planet, Kourounis films tornadoes and wild animals, and climbs into the deepest, darkest caves on Earth. The 45-year-old Canadian knows the precise definition of fear. Fortunately for him, he also knows how to overcome it.
THE RED BULLETIN: When we first tried to do this interview, you were busy chasing Tropical Storm Erika. The cyclone raged across the Atlantic Ocean and wreaked large-scale destruction. Why do you seek out danger?
GEORGE KOUROUNIS: I didn’t find it that time – Tropical Storm Erika broke up. Which was disappointing. No, but seriously, it’s not about danger for me. I chase storms because I revere them. Plus, it’s not as dangerous when you know what you’re doing.
Do you still get scared?
Yes, of course I do.
How to do manage to take the risks you do?
Fear keeps me on my toes. Without it, you feel too sure of yourself and end up making mistakes. I embrace fear.
Doesn’t it have a paralysing effect on you?
Fear is in the mind and you have to counteract it, ideally with curiosity.
Can you give us an example of how you counteract it?
OK, let’s take the fear of snakes… Keep looking until you come across something about snakes that you find interesting, such as their smooth skin, their bite, whatever. Then gather as much information as you can about that aspect of snakes and about snakes in general. Your curiosity has to surpass your fear, and that’s exactly what happens when you research anything thoroughly. I guarantee it. People are only afraid of things they don’t know about, which is why you have to learn everything about your fear, so that you’re able to control it.
When was the last time this method helped you in your filmmaking?
Recently, I shot a film about polar bears and we were sitting in the tundra, about 20m from a male. Male polar bears have a reputation for being very aggressive, by the way. So I had sought out every conceivable piece of information about these fascinating animals. A friend, who I’ll call the bear whisperer, had taught me how to behave in order to survive.
So fear didn’t control you?
It can’t. As soon as a polar bear notices you, it’s all about timing. If you’re sure that the bear is wavering, take one or two steps towards him and growl. Then stand your ground. And then repeat the process. By doing this, you’re showing the bear that you are dominant. Under no circumstances should you yourself waver, turn around or run away altogether. If you go for that course of action, the polar bear will attack straight away.
What can we take from that if we don’t hang around polar bears? Do the same rules apply to, say, a strong fear of public speaking?
It’s the same trick, but swap curiosity for enthusiasm. After all, when you’re invited to speak on a subject, it’s normally one that you’re very partial to. You have to infect the audience with your enthusiasm. If that doesn’t work first time around, don’t worry. Practice makes perfect.
Do you ever worry that people might emulate you and injure themselves?
I can’t stop people copying me. Everyone has to work out the meaning of life for themselves. Mine is to travel around the most extreme locations in the world, to come face to face with the wildest animals and to chase the most dangerous storms, and document it all. Maybe that’s my lesson: that wonderful things happen when you do something uncomfortable. That’s when life starts to get interesting.