Seasons/Jacques Perrin (director), Stephane Durand (writer)

The writer/director team who brought us Winged Migration and Oceans now proffers a saga of animal life on land. This magical, hypnotic film goes back 20,000 years to a time before agriculture, when our hunter-gatherer forebears lived alongside animals with no thought of domesticating them. It takes us back to a time of natural order and resplendent biodiversity, when humans allowed animals to be their teachers. And it urges us to return to that time, to treasure the wild planet we inhabit, to make room for other species once again, and to care, each and every one of us, for the magnificent gift of life, which is not ours to own. •Availability: Opens in select cities November 25, with national rollout to follow. Click here for theater listings near you. Thanks to Gary Springer, Springer Associates PR, for arranging this interview.

 

DT:  What was your motivation for making this incredibly beautiful, unusual film?

JP: We always try to have aesthetics, but we didn’t make the movie for aesthetics. First is the theme of the movie. As you see, the planet can be so beautiful because of the diversity of trees, plants, and animals, but the diversity of animals is only in our minds, because in Europe we have fewer animals today. That’s why we begin the movie 11,000 years ago, because in this epoch we saw so many animals. If we consider wild animals today, it’s only in our mind, because we don’t have them anymore.

It is so important to know we are all wild. We were all wild. Before, animals and humans could live together. When we live together, there’s a notion of freedom. And freedom means wild. We can recoup that. We can return to that, to have new lands with animals and many plants. That moment is beginning just now, more or less in a good way, but in a good way when we understand what agriculture does. When we see how few fish there are in the sea, when we see attacks on nature and the planet, it’s terrible, but we didn’t make a movie on terrible things. Why make bad things? When we made the movie we were cautious; we know it’s not good but we feel good, because we believe in hope. And when we made the movie, the aesthetic is more or less hope. An expression of hope.

 

DT: You recounted 20,000 years of the history of Earth’s wild animals. Meanwhile, you depicted the evolution of humans through the eyes of animals. I thought that was a very interesting choice. Can you talk about that?

SD: You’re right. We wanted to tell this story about wild Europe 20,000 years ago through the point of view of the wild animals. One of the subjects is human beings coming into Europe as hunter gatherers at the beginning, and then new people coming from the East, the Middle East, and they start to cut the trees and grow cattle, grow crops…

JP: We make so many fiction movies, but so few movies on animals. We make five thousand movies in the world, ten thousand, without seeing animals except a very charming little dog in a garden. No! In this movie we tried to create space at the dimension of the animals. Animals give us the notion of freedom. They give this impression. If we have all the animals in the zoo, in some closed area, we don’t understand. We don’t understand the way of the wind, the way of nature.

SD: What we realized in doing this movie is that we share the same territories with wild animals. We share the same history. We wanted to show what happened in antiquity, during the Middle Ages, during the Renaissance, but from the animals’ point of view, and it’s why we made this sequence about the First World War, for example.

 

DT: I found the scene where the wild horses are fighting really terrifying. For me, this scene really exemplified the magic of cinema, because you have a camera there, and crew, and equipment, but it ends up being something so raw and so powerful and so terrifying.

JP: Our camera was always on the same plane as the animals. Always. We were a meter, a meter and a half away, not fifty meters. Very occasionally we used a tele lens, but very little. We wanted to always be near the animals. If they went very fast, we went very fast. If they ran, we ran at the same moment. So the technique had to change, had to be created for that.

It’s the same with humans. When I speak with you, I look at you. I understand because I look at you. For animals, we don’t understand if we’re five, ten, twenty meters away. We must be very near to understand their mystery. For the movie about birds [Winged Migration] and for the animals in the sea [Oceans], we were also very, very near. Not like photography. We are not photographing. We are looking at movement. We want to be near the movement.

 

DT: The animals seemed to have great trust in you, given how close you were to them.  How did you accomplish that?

SD: It depends on which sequence you’re speaking about. There was shooting in the wild, with wild animals, when we would take a long time to hide and be close to the wild animals. Sometimes that was impossible, because in Europe animals have learned to be very shy and have been afraid of humans for centuries and centuries. So we use hand-raised animals, imprinted animals. We took small babies from zoos and parks with us, and we were part of the pack of wolves. We worked together. We lived together.

JP: For these kinds of animals, they are not wild, but they are free. That means we never trained the animals to do something. We didn’t teach them movement. They were absolutely free to make their own movement. It’s us; we adapted our technique to the function of the movement of the animals. We are at the orders of the animals. They are free. They give the impression of being wild, but they are only free.

 

DT: Were you using long lenses to get close to the wild animals?

JP: Ninety-five percent is near the animals.

 

DT: Jacques, what sparked your interest in making nature films?  You started out producing for Costa-Gavras.

JP: I made several political movies with Costa-Gavras. When we make this kind of movie about nature, we have something we must defend all over the world. Twenty years ago, people didn’t realize how badly we treated nature. I think it’s political. We can live better if we are in agreement with nature, with the trees, with the plants, so for that reason, it’s political. It’s not only the aesthetic—“Oh these birds are so beautiful, these fish are so beautiful, these animals are so beautiful.” They are in life more than we are. When we made Winged Migration, many of the birds flew more than 5000 kilometers one way and then back, every year. Humans can’t match that performance.

 

DT: Was that political aspect in the script? The animals were very adorable, but the encroachment of humans was what was driving the story.

SD: That’s really what we wanted to make you feel. We put the wild animals in front of the camera, while behind them we saw the human beings, some living like animals, some cutting the trees, some building big castles and making war. Some animals are afraid and disappear from Europe, while other animals are opportunists. They try to live with humans, like the owls in the castle, in the fields, even in the battlefield, as we saw in the sequence of the First World War. Animals try to find their food in between the bones and the bullets, and it’s really important for us to show this power of wildlife.

 

DT: What’s the most important thing that we humans can do now?

JP: Don’t’ worry too much about political things. Politicians always speak too late. I think the solution comes from the individual human being. A man lives near a lake and takes care of this lake. People who work in agriculture must understand why they should not use pesticides, insecticides. It’s up to each of us, you, me, to understand that we have a treasure. But it’s very fragile, this treasure, and year by year the diminution is terrible.

Sometimes we make good decisions, like what happened six months ago in Paris, with COP 21 [the Paris Accords]. That’s good. COP 22 [Climate Change Conference in Marrakech, November 2016] wasn’t so good; they didn’t say, “We’ll do that,” only “We hope we can do that” because people are afraid of so many things.

The most important is that nations must say enough, It’s our planet. Actually, it’s not our planet, it’s their planet, and if species disappear, it’s a disaster. We’ll be discussing an article in the New York Times about the disappearance of some species, but when a child hears someone say we must lose an animal, they don’t believe it. They see animals in the country, they see animals on television, and they know it’s wrong that we have less. What we can do is make movies, write books, begin some little associations, believe we can change things. But not political.

SD: At the end of the movie we are optimistic, because experience shows that in North America and in Europe lots of wild animals are coming back. Huge elks and bears and wolves, and big birds like vultures, raptors, cranes, they’re all coming back in North America and Europe. So nature is doing better now than fifty years ago. But not all nature, because animals in the countryside and farmland—small birds, butterflies, snails, frogs—are all going down and down and disappearing. There are different kinds of biodiversity. For some animals the news is very good; in Europe there have never been more bears than there are today. So that’s good, and that’s why we’re optimistic.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2016

 

 

Wolf Totem/Jean-Jacques Annaud

When two young Chinese intellectuals from the city are sent to Mongolia to “educate” the indigenous population during the Cultural Revolution, they receive an education of their own. In a landscape of supreme beauty, they learn firsthand what it means to survive in the wild, only to face the threat of encroaching industrialization.  Throughout run the wolves, who are both predator and prey, friend and foe. Wolf Totem is based on the best-selling autobiography by Jiang Rong, which caused a huge sensation in China for its message of environmental conservationism. Availability: In theaters nationwide September 11. Thanks to Denise Sinelov, Required Viewing, for arranging this interview.

 

DT: I have to confess that I was in tears when they were pursuing the wolf at the end of the film.

 

JJA:  You’re not the only one. The driver of the jeep was crying after the first day of shooting that scene. I asked him, “Why are you crying? What’s wrong?”  He told me, “All through my youth, I was a military driver, and we were after wolves. In order to sell their fur without holes, we would exhaust them. I did this every day; this is the traditional way.” Then he said, “Now I realize…and I have pain for what I did.”  That was reality in those days.  Of course now it’s forbidden, but it was a very emotional shoot, because those stories were witnessed by not only Jiang Rong, the novelist who told his own story, but all those people around me who said, “We did that years ago, so we know how it was done.” I shot almost in the very place where these things used to happen, so I had Mongols around me who were familiar with what I was showing on screen.

 

DT:  Wolf Totem is based on Jiang Rong’s novel, which was an autobiography published under a pseudonym. It was considered very controversial and very dangerous.  Did you have to de-escalate the controversy in order to make the film?

 

JJA:  No. To my great pleasure and astonishment, I perceived that I was almost required to be free and to say my heart, so I did the movie the way I wanted. When I read the novel, at first I was flabbergasted that it was written by a contemporary Chinese author. Then I found myself in a group of Chinese people who were keen about conservation, about the purity of the landscape, the quality of the food they eat. I realized the contradiction of China: industry got so powerful as it needed to bring the country to a contemporary level, but everybody was aware that something had to be done to stop the chaos and the pollution.

I was told that because I’m a foreigner, a neutral—well, not so neutral, because I had done a movie they didn’t like at all called Seven Years in Tibet—they trusted me on two things: genuine respect and love of China, and a free voice that was not a political voice. I have a rule:  What I believe belongs to my movies, and I prefer to be a quiet person in my daily life.  I don’t sign petitions, I don’t belong to political parties. I’m independent, and they probably perceived that. I was left with incredible freedom, total freedom, because they believed that my views were neutral. Also, I saw that it’s a very universal problem. What happened in that period of Cultural Revolution happened in other regimes. When I was in Africa, I saw exactly the same thing.

 

DT:  When you were shooting Black and White in Color.

 

JJA:  Yes.  Some of my friends coming from agronomy universities in France got to Africa and started cutting the forest to plant coconuts or pineapple or coffee. They ruined the land forever, but they did it thinking it was the right thing to do, so it was something that was above a political system.  It was something that still carries on today when you look at the destruction of Africa, the rain forest in Brazil.  It’s today, and there’s no Marxist regime, I don’t think. Through the symbolism of wolves, it was interesting to get into a movie that was very universal in its message and very specific. It’s very interesting to do something that’s extremely specific in a particular region of a particular country but that’s symbolic of what’s happening everywhere.  That was the excitement.

 

DT:  The film is incredibly moving on many, many levels, but as I mentioned, what really brought me to tears was the wolves’ être, their being. You can’t really say the wolves acted, but how did you direct them?  I know you raised them from cubs.

 

JJA:  Not me, my trainers. It’s a relationship of trust. They’ve got to trust their trainer, and the trainer has to trust me, therefore the wolves will trust me.  They will understand immediately who’s in charge on the set.  At the end of the shoot they loved being actors, because they loved being looked at, they loved to be applauded when they did well, and they were part of a game. I cannot ask a wolf to be interested or curious, or I cannot ask a wolf to feel sad.  But what I can do is ask my trainer, “How could I get an expression of sadness?” And the trainer would find a solution, like leaving the wolf alone for a while and taking his wife away for ten minutes. Then the wolf would look for her and have an expression of sadness.

The key is to believe that animals are not so different from humans.  When I did The Bear, my writer would ask, “So what is the bear doing?”  And I would think, “OK, I’m a bear, what do I do here?” It’s just a mental thing. A lot of people believe that men and women are so different from the rest of the animal kingdom. I see things differently. I’m proud to be part of the animal kingdom because then I see the effort of being a man. That’s very difficult. We achieved great things by being different, but inside, the basic feelings are the same.  Jealousy. Need for dominance.  Food. Anger. Fear. It’s exactly the same.

If I want an expression of surprise from a wolf, I have to find something that will make him surprised. If I have my wolves quietly lying on a slope at sunset and suddenly they see an elephant, I swear they will have surprise and puzzlement in their eyes: Oh fuck, what should we do? What does the alpha think? And the alpha male looks at the others and doesn’t know either. You have to have all your cameras ready, because you would only have that expression for five or ten seconds. Don’t expect to have a second take.  You have one take, but if you get it, you’ll get surprisingly understandable answers.  You see it in their eyes.  But it’s no trick.

The only trick I did was modifying the expression of the wolf before he’s dying at the very end, in the scene that you were talking about. I would not push my actor to exhaustion, so I had him run for half a mile. He was panting, but he still had very open eyes, so I changed the position of the eyelid and the ears in postproduction. That’s the only thing I did.  It’s as if you’re looking at me [Jean-Jacques uses his fingers to make his eyes and ears droop] and then I look different. That was the only trick in CG. The rest is real; for instance, when they see the deer and they dribble, what they were dribbling about was a nice piece of steak not far from them that I told them they couldn’t touch.  I cannot say to a wolf, Please dribble, please salivate. But I can have a wolf salivate for the right reason—because there’s a nice piece of meat there. Of course it’s irresistible.

 

DT:  Let’s talk about your work as a whole.  You thrive on the intersection between reality—Wolf Totem, Seven Years in Tibet, and Enemy at the Gates are based on real events and people—and a sort of spiritual, almost surreal kind of imagery. How do you walk that intersection to give your films this special feeling?

 

JJA: I’m an atheist.  A total atheist. I don’t believe in God, but I believe in nature.  I believe in hope. I believe in beauty. I believe in positive elements. I know that I want to look up, and I want to trust in the beautiful sights of animal nature, including human nature. [Jean-Jacques points through the window to a patch of blue sky barely visible above the New York City skyscrapers.] I have a tendency to look at the blue part, and that’s why I felt myself very much at ease in the Mongol culture. They call their god Tengri, which means something like “The Eternal Blue Sky that Brings Comfort,” eternity, and blue, and the concept of Buddhism which is the sort of reincarnation. When someone died in traditional Mongolia, they would offer the body to the grassland. In Tibet this is something they do with birds; they cut the pieces of the dead person and throw it to the vultures because they feel that it’s part of a bigger thing, and therefore a more humble way.  I feel that people want eternity, which is a very pretentious thing.

Understanding others is something that gives me great pleasure. For this last film, I spent four years in a country where I didn’t speak a word of the language but I loved my experience. People have been very generous with me. I like that sort of understanding. I’m a Frenchman, but I spent most of my years abroad because I like understanding other people. I even like things that I think I would resent. I like liking things that I don’t like.

 

DT:  When you set out to make a film, do you have a clear vision of how it’s going to end up?

 

JJA:  Yes. I don’t have a clear vision at all of how an audience can respond to it, but the movie is imprinted in my head.  One day on the set of The Lover, my still photographer said to me, “I’m sorry, there’s a question I always ask people halfway through the shooting: what percentage of footage do you want on screen?” I thought, That’s a strange question.  I said, “Ninety-five percent.”  He said, “Ninety-five??!!!  Most people say thirty percent.”

I started very, very young. I was nineteen and a half when I got my first check; I was still at film school, and I am now used to seeing editing in my head.  When I set the camera, I’m already in the editing room, and when I’m in the editing room, I’m already in the music recording session. I can describe the film shot by shot. I do my storyboards because I’m even building the sets. It’s very bizarre: I see the sets. That’s why I like to build them, because  I see the perspective this way, I see the statue over there.  Why on the left?  I have no idea, but this is where I want it.

 

DT:  I have a question about your editing.  It feels very instinctive.  There are times that it’s almost circular.  The storytelling doesn’t progress in a way that you expect it to.  Do you have principles of editing, or do you just—

 

JJA:  I cut with the emotion instead of cutting on the action. Sometimes you have to cut it sooner or carry it on because you haven’t gone through the whole emotional process, so this is where you have to cut.  If you cut only with the story points, you get something very dry.

 

DT:  Wolf Totem was a massive enterprise.  Seven years in the making, and you relocated to China for four of them.  Such massive effort indicates a profound feeling for the art of cinema.  Your movies speak for themselves, but can you articulate why you think movies are so important?

 

JJA:  Today moving images are the vehicle for knowledge, general behavior. This is where people learn. They don’t learn from their parents anymore, they learn from their phone. We, the people who make those images, have taken on an importance that didn’t exist when I started. When I wanted to be a filmmaker, my mother called her friends and said, “My seven-year-old son wants to be a filmmaker!”  And they said, “Oh my God, what a disaster!”  My mother was extremely worried.  The Marxists, by the way, understood that.  They understood it was the education of the masses, and today, this is it.  We convey a major responsibility.

Most people do it for the sake of getting a bigger car and getting fame for the wrong reason, but that’s another debate. What makes me happy is not the amount of the check I’m going to get, because something a check cannot get you is respect. Respect from yourself, by the way.  I was discussing this the other day with a very good Chinese colleague of mine, and he said to me, “Why is it that we’re so happy?”  I said, “Maybe because we’re do something that makes us happy.”  He said, “Yeah, but you know what?  It’s true that getting the respect of others is magnificent, but don’t you think that getting respect from yourself is even more important?”  He was putting his finger on something that I never realized, but he’s right.

I know that I get much bigger satisfaction devoting seven years of my life to something I believe in. Of course marketing this is more difficult, but I can say, yes, I devoted all this time because I trusted in this project, I trusted in the meaning of this project, and I’m happy if I can put one little more drop in something that I believe in, which is the need to protect nature, upon which we depend.

I know that I don’t have to make one movie after another.  Every day I get possibly two screenplays a day from different places in the world.  But I don’t have the need…what would I do with an airplane or a yacht in Cannes?  I have no time.  And it’s not going to get me anything…I can get on a plane if I want.  I have a very special relationship with films.  I went to the two film schools in France, and I had the same seat at Cinematheque for seven years.  It was D2, the middle of the fourth row, for seven years. All the films I’ve seen! I’m from a country where art in general is respected, and where we see cinema not only as a very important industry but something where we can share feelings and thoughts and opinions, not only entertainment to make oneself rich, like some of those people who promote violence, then give money to the Dalai lama.

 

Copyright © Director Talk 2015