Jean Jacques Annaud: Dancing with Chinese Wolves

| September 4, 2015

Acclaimed Oscar winning director Jean Jacques Annaud was born in Draveil, south of Paris, France, Annaud attended the prestigious L’Institut des Hautes Etudes Cinematographiques. He graduated at the age of 20 and quickly achieved success directing commercials. Two years later he was sent to the French Cameroons as an Army Film Director by the National Service.

While in Africa, he trained locals to make their own movies while working on a series of educational films for the natives. The experience convinced him to film his first feature, Black and White in Color, in Africa, and he took a year to raise the money. His hard work paid off with an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film in 1978.

Annaud’s follow-up, Coup de Tête (or Hothead) (1979), established his reputation in France, and his next film Quest for Fire (1981), a unique story of primitive man set 80,000 years ago, won French Cesar Awards for Best Picture and Best Director. He won the Cesar Award again directing Sean Connery in an adaptation of Umberto Eco’s challenging novel The Name of the Rose (1986), set in the 13th century. His next project made international stars out of a bear cub and a nine-foot two-inch Kodiak in The Bear (1989), which related the friendship of the two animals with virtually no dialogue.

In 1997, Annaud released one of his most controversial films, Seven Years in Tibet. Starring Brad Pitt, the film was panned by the critics and Annaud was barred from entering China due to creating this film, which told the story of China’s invasion and continued occupation of Tibet.

He began the new millennium with a war thriller, Enemy At The Gates (2001), starring Jude Law, Joseph Fiennes, Rachel Weisz and Ed Harris. He returned to working with animals when he wrote, produced and directed Two Brothers (2004), about twin tiger cubs who are separated by humans, then later reunited under trying circumstances and also made the controversial film The Lover.

His latest film returns him to familiar territory dealing with animals in a harsh environment. His latest film is the Chinese language film Wolf Totem based on the classic novel and set in the midst of the Cultural Revolution in 1967. The film revolves around a young Beijing student, Chen Zhen, sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilization from the south and the nomads’ traditional enemies – the marauding wolves – to the north; humans and animals, residents and invaders alike, struggle to find their true place in the world.

Paul Fischer caught up with the acclaimed director at Sony Studios in Los Angeles for an exclusive interview.

Paul Fischer: Now your film Seven Years in Tibet is still banned in China. How surprised were you that they approached you to adapt this famous Chinese book?

Jean Jacques Annaud: it’s one of the first contradictions that I first I understood. When those people first showed up in Paris and asked to work on this marvellous book I immediately reminded them that I was probably not the right person for that. They then pointed out that China has changed and then they looked at each other, smiled and said ‘plus we are pragmatic. We don’t know how to make movies you do and we need you.’ It was so simple and the body language was just right and I trusted them.

P.F. What did they see in your work? Was it your work with animals?

JJA. No I think it was the movie The Lover and I got the explanation through a film critic from China who pointed out that it was probably the only movie from the west where a Chinese man is shown with dignity and aristocracy and respect. And that touched me a lot. So I see that I have a sort of simple but rather deep relationship with the Chinese people. They also loved Enemy of the Gates. So the people who visited me in Paris studied my films in film school and were therefore very familiar with my work.

PF. What are the challenges for a Parisian filmmaker to delve into these facets of Chinese culture and history especially this aspect of the cultural revolution?

JJA. During the Cultural Revolution France was very fascinated with the experience and there was a very strong Maoist party, so we had a lot of coverage in the press about this which was pretty favourable. And I was fascinated with that when I was a young man, reading in the press every day about the Cultural Revolution. Over the years I wax offered several very interesting films about Mao and read a lot of books about the Cultural Revolution and so it was extremely interesting for me to have a movie set in that period. I understood why they came to me. It’s because a lot of Chinese directors don’t know anything about Mongolia. I had three communities to deal with: the Han community, the Mongol minority and the wolves. So despite their dislike for Seven Years in Tibet, they understood one thing, and that is I have respect for minorities and for people who live differently. This is why I was left free because they knew that I would say my voice . They didn’t interfere with anything I did and didn’t even show up on the set. It was great.

P.F: What surprised about you about shooting in Mongolia and what challenges did you face?

JJA: What surprised me was that within the borders of China there were places that were still absolutely virgin and so remote. We were 17 hours from Beijing and the closest airport was 400 miles away. So we’re talking about the extreme north of inner Mongolia, a little place called Wulugai at the border of the Republic of Mongolia. And it’s so unchanged, very isolated lots of little brick shepherd houses. But it’s still very remote. People are still in local costume, they speak the local language and there’s a revival of this.

P.F: With the wolves how much was shot live and how much was CG?

JJA: There are some 3000 shots in this movie. I think 18 are CG. Only when I could not do it with puppets or real animals did I use CG. For instance there is a scene where there is a dog biting the neck of a wolf, and I couldn’t do that.

PF: Was it hard to find the wolves?

JJA: We raised them. We bottle fed them, after having acquired them at three weeks old and had to wait for three years to have adults. Then we had three generations. The older generation we started raising in 2009, the second generation in 2012, then the 2013 generation is the babies. As all the babies were born in March, we had to calibrate our schedule according to the growth of our little hero.

PF: What do you think this film has to say to an international audience?

JJA: It’s a movie that’s not the typical animal movie where the animals behave nicely. It’s different, so I know it’s difficult in a market where people have the taste for certain types of movies that are calibrater to what is supposed to be the taste off America. This movie is more sincere and therefore has a different flavor.

PF” Do you hope to do something very different next?

JJA: I have been turning down so many movies about animals. That’s not to say I don’t love nature. I think we are in the moment of our planet where we have something to do. One of the things that excited me about Wolf Totem is that without America and China deciding that we can decide to survive on this planet in these coming centuries, nothing isa going to happen. I felt it was quite wonderful to be led free and give my voice on a cause in which I believe. I mean my first cause is to make a movie that people can enjoy, but I also love if a movie can be a little more than a movie.

WOLF TOTEM OPENS IN SELECT THEATRES THIS FRIDAY.

About the Author:

Paul Fischer I've been an entertainment writer going on for three decades. Born in Australia, I began writing for Australian papers and was the first Australian journalist ever to interview both Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. I moved to Los Angeles at the end of 1999, and apart from my teaching career, have written for Film Monthly and Dark Horizons.
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