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.
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