Just a day after it was announced that China had submitted “Wolf Totem” as its official entry to this year’s Academy Awards, its director Jean-Jacques Annaud still seems bemused, if not outright shocked, that he finds himself talking about it. After all, it was not long ago he was considered persona non grata in the country after his 1997 drama “Seven Years in Tibet” angered Chinese officials with its depiction of the Liberation Army’s invasion of Tibet through the memoir of Austrian climber Heinrich Harrer, a friend of the Dalai Lama’s. However, Annaud, a genial, easily excitable Frenchman who has been one of cinema’s most adventurous filmmakers ever since his celebrated debut “Black and White in Color,” was naturally intrigued when a decade later he was met with a group of producers from the Beijing Forbidden City Film Corporation at his door. They didn’t have the wrong address.
Armed with a copy of Lu Jiamin’s wildly popular 2004 novel about a student dispatched to Mongolia at the height of China’s Cultural Revolution in 1967 to teach Mandarin to the children of nomads and become enamored with the local wolfpacks, they couldn’t have found a more ideal choice for “Wolf Totem” than the director who has long made it a point of his work to explore the relationship between man and the environment, memorably telling the story of cavemen in “Quest for Fire” and viewing a hunt from the perspective of the animal in “The Bear.” It was his familiarity with working with four-legged creatures that drew the attention of the Chinese as well as his ability to fashion grand-scale epics, but what they couldn’t have anticipated is just how invested Annaud would become in telling a story that was so resonant to a culture that was not his own, becoming the second most-read book in China after Chairman Mao Tse-Tung’s “Little Red Book.”
Touched by his personal connection to the material, recalling when he first went outside of his own experience just out of school after being deployed to Cameroon to teach film as part of his military service, Annaud made countless trips to Beijing and Inner Mongolia well before presiding over a 160-day shoot and even waited four years so that wolves could be raised and trained from their infancy at a zoo in Harbin. (To further assure authenticity, it was the director rather than the film’s Chinese producers who insisted that the film be in Mandarin rather than English.) When coupled with the latest filmmaking technology from 3D capture to drones to get the most from the extraordinary landscapes in Mongolia, Annaud’s passion once again illuminates an intimate tale writ large, able to conjure the grandeur of the natural environment with all the beauty and danger that it brings while finding compelling drama in the story of a young man that questions his place in it.
During a recent visit to Los Angeles, the globe-trotting director spoke of his attraction to the best-selling novel, how he brought some of its more spiritual elements vividly to life on screen and his relationship with the late James Horner, who composed a typically soaring, extraordinary score for “Wolf Totem” before his untimely death this past June.
How did you get interested in the book?
It’s a kind of book that’s quite rare. In 2007, I read in the French press that there was this book dealing with Mongol culture, with wolves, and protection of nature. It was a great success in China, so I read a few excerpts and I said, “Wow. There’s something here that’s really intriguing.” Then I had the visitors from Beijing who came and said, “Would you be interested in making a movie?” I said, “That would be a dream, but I felt I was not welcome because I did this movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet’” and they said, “No, no, don’t worry. We have changed. China has changed,” and they were very pragmatic. [They said,] “We don’t know how to do the movies you do, and we think you’re the right person to do this.” The simplicity of the way they approached me made me feel confident.
I also wanted to know more about China. I was fascinated with this country when I was a kid and I had this desire one day to better know it, so I flew to Beijing and I visited Mongolia with the writer of the novel, who showed me all the places where the true story happened. Of course, it took a long time to make the adaptation because it’s a complicated book. But the fascinating thing is I was given total freedom. I carried on and cast [the actors] the way I wanted. I did a long, long scout in Mongolia and every evening, I would have the dinner with actors from the region. It was a way for me to just be immersed in Chinese culture, Mongol culture, wolf culture. I met a lot of wolf specialists. I’m enchanted that I did that because I was given absolute freedom, which was exceptional in any country.
From what I’ve read, you also had a personal connection to the story based on your youth in Cameroon.
Yes. When I finished in Finch School, I was sent to Cameroon. Africa had no appeal to me at all [at that time], but the second I arrived, I fell in love with it. It changed my life. Suddenly, I realized that I was just a slim, pretentious student in France, and I opened my heart to Africa. It changed my perception of life, therefore I identified with this Chinese man coming from university and going to Mongolia to teach the Mongols some Mandarin. The scenes of understanding other species, not only in other ways of life for humans but bears or tigers or wolves is something I like. I like to try to understand nature, life, and how it works. For those reasons, I felt it was a great movie to do.
You shoot on find extraordinary landscapes in Mongolia, but the film speaks to the importance of conservation and I understand that much of the grasslands aren’t what they once were. Was it difficult to find your locations?
It depends where you go in Mongolia. Some of the places are mines and factories, but you still have today what you see on screen. I didn’t cheat, I just went at the right moment of light. We scouted and decided, “Okay. We’ll come here in June, because the light is going to be so and so.” Basically, there is still some wonderful wilderness in China and there is a consciousness now that the destruction of nature has to stop. When I started, conservation was something that people were not really realizing that they had to do something about. Now, with all the accidents that have been happening, with the pollution of rivers and the air, [everyone] at every level in China understands that something needs to be done. You just cannot carry on this way.
That also was what was so interesting for me is that I like to think that movies can be more than movies. Yes, this was a great story between the young man and the young wolf and of the young man discovering another world [with] nature around. But the fact it could have an influence on the behavior of China towards nature is something that matters to me a lot. I was very touched that a lot of people around me – my producers, my actors – they all agree on that. They want to make sure that China keeps the beauty of the land. I was very pleased to be part of that movement.
This film also appears to be very cutting edge in terms of how it is filmed, particularly the 3D element, but I imagine after taking so many years, the technology changed dramatically. Did you feel the ground constantly shifting below your feet?
No, I always have used new technologies, but I don’t like to show it. I like to hide how I do things. This was not my first experience in 3D. I started here at Columbia [for whom I made “Wolf Totem”] in the days of Peter Guber, [making] the first 3D fiction movie since the ’50s called “Wings of Courage” and it had Val Kilmer in it. But when I did that first experience in IMAX 3D, I said, “Okay. I’m not going to touch it anymore because I saw there are lot of bad movies in 3D. People just like the gimmick and they didn’t understand that films are about storytelling.” But for this one, the technology is much better now because we have two cameras and it’s much smaller. I also wanted to have the proximity with the animals, and share their space, so this is why I decided to do it in 3D.
I’ve been shooting digital now for the last 15 years. I was the first in Europe to use digital cameras and new tools have always been very appealing. I feel it’s very dangerous if you don’t try the new tools. I remember when the computer revolution [happened], most writers didn’t want to use computers. I would say, it doesn’t mean you’re writing better, but it’s easier when you do the modification. This industry is reluctant of new things. It took sometime for a lot of filmmakers to get rid of 35mm cameras and I was happy to see a new technology because you can do more things. The danger is to only use technology as a gimmick, but if you use it to tell a story, it’s great.
So [on “Wolf Totem”] I used the brand new 3D camera, made by Arriflex. I had a brand new grading room in Atmos, [another] very new technology. But I used the old idea that nothing replaces an actor or the eyes of a real wolf. If you believe that you get the same thing with computer generated images, it’s wrong because what you get is the soul of a person who makes it. If you have a great computer artist, you can get a great character. But usually, the work is done on the other side of the planet, somewhere in Tunisia or in Ethiopia, by somebody you’ve never met and [you think,] how do you have the soul on screen? It disappears in the tube. Here, I just use long lenses and patience.
Speaking of soul, the crux of “Wolf Totem” concerns the spirit of the wolf, which is a major part of the book, but is a little different in how it’s handled cinematically. How did you approach it?
When you make a movie, what transpires on screen is the soul of the people who do it — the actors, the director, the [director of photography]. It’s interesting to see that what’s essential in movies is usually not in the screenplay. It’s on screen though. It’s all those thousands of decisions. Here, instead of making theories about how to capture the soul of the wolf, I assumed that looking at them, showing their eyes will show their soul — it will show what they feel, what they want, what they fear.
If you look at any animal, if you have a dog or a cat, but especially dogs, you can read what they want. Are they sick? Are they not well? Are they tired? Do they want to go out? Do they want to eat? Do they feel guilty? You can read that. Wolves, because they are predators, have wonderful eyes because it is their tool – it’s tool #1. One of my movies “Enemy at the Gates,” when I shot Jude Law and Ed Harris as snipers, you have to hide and you have to strike at the right moment. So very often when I was shooting with those wolves, I was looking at their fabulous eyes and I think I’ve shot those scenes before, but instead of being a hairy creature like that, it was beautiful Jude Law. Wolves are snipers. It’s the same … patience and strength of the eyes.
Finally, the score is extraordinary and sadly one of the last we’ll get from the great composer James Horner. What was your collaboration with him like?
This breaks my heart because not only was James an essential artistic partner, but over the years, he became an intimate friend. We were very shy, both of us, to tell about our life or experiences. I’ve been working with him for 30 years. The first time was on “The Name of The Rose” a long, long time ago and then we did the “Enemy of the Gates” as well. We spent a lot of time going to concerts together. Here as well, he was the first person to see the movie and the only person to give me comments at this early stage. I always trusted him because we are friends. I remember I said, “James, we know each other so well that is now your movie.” He called me a few days later and played on the piano of the theme, and he was spot on. I said, “Don’t even try it. Anything else, I love this.”
We recorded in London, spent three weeks together in a studio at Abbey Road. Unfortunately, he had this thing of flying in the morning with an old jet from the Korean War and I spoke to him about it. I said, “It’s dangerous what you do with the airplane,” and he said, “Yes. But I need it. I need to escape from this world of Hollywood. I need to be close to the sky,” which I understood. He said, “If something happened, it would be fate.” Unfortunately, fate happened, sooner than I expected. I was in Moscow when this happened a few weeks ago. It’s a big loss for me, both on personal and professional level. He was so shy, so modest, so humble. This man is a miracle. The way he was playing the piano all the time…in a way, he was an alien. He was living here [pointing to the sky], not in the woods. There were a lot of tinkling little bells in his garden. A very, very unique person.
What’s interesting is when we were in London, he said to me, “Jean-Jacques, where are the studio people? Don’t they need to hear the theme?” I said to him, “There’s no studio people, James. What I need is your heart. Just go ahead. I know you won’t be wrong.” He loved music from Mongolia, which is very, very special and his producer Simon Franklin came to me in Beijing and we recorded for 15 days with a lot of musicians from Mongolia, It’s one of those things where you didn’t have to make many notes. You just tell a person with such talent to do their best. Don’t even think about the audience. Just give me your heart in the images you’ve seen, and this is what you hear. When we recorded, James would always have the orchestra rehearse it once and would come to the booth and say, “So, what do you think?” I said, “James, the only comment I have is I love your music and I love you.” It’s a rare relationship. That’s why it’s a huge loss for me.