Wolf Totem and French kisses with wolves: an interview
There is a lot that’s remarkable about the movie Wolf Totem, starting with the fact that French director Jean-Jacques Annaud was asked to make it. He was persona non grata in China on the strength of one of his previous films, Seven Years in Tibet, the 1997 biographical war drama. Wanda Hennig spoke to Annaud at the 2015 Durban International Film Festival ahead of the film’s release in South Africa and the United States.
If you Google Wolf Totem, the book, you will learn it is a 2004 semi-autobiographical novel about the experiences of a Chinese college student from Beijing who volunteers to work, during the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, in a remote area of Inner Mongolia as part of the movement to “modernize the countryside.” He becomes fascinated with the nomadic herdsmen and the Mongolian wolf.
The author, Lü Jiamin, wrote the book under the pseudonym Jiang Rong. Published in China in 2004, Wolf Totem sold millions of copies — in numbers beaten only Mao’s Little Red Book.
The same year that Jiamin went to Inner Mongolia — 1967 — French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud was sent to Africa. On conscription to Cameroon, to be precise.
“Young Frenchmen had to give one year of their life to the state; to go to army,” he says. “I had my film diplomas and they needed a filmmaker to do some educational movies in Cameroon,” Annaud continues, sharing just one of many coincidences and parallels that link him to his most recent film. “So they picked me and instead of going to the army, I was detached to Foreign Affairs and asked to spend a year over there to teach cinema and to do a short film.”
He hated the idea of going to Africa, he says.
“But the minute the door of the plane opened, I fell in love. I swear to you. That minute. I loved what I discovered. The smiles I saw on the faces. The unexpected life I discovered there. The civilization.”
You will know if you’ve read the book or seen Wolf Totem — released in China on February 14, Valentine’s Day, this year — that Jiamin, back then, was a young scholar and intellectual. At first out of place in rural Mongolia, he is quickly captivated and fascinated by the nomadic people and the wolves central to their lives.
Annaud, at the same time, was having a parallel experience in Africa (give or take the cultural gulf). “I know what it is to be a scholar,” he says. “You know — Latin and Greek and medieval history and all that.” Top of his class, no less. “A French intellectual. That’s how I saw myself.”
So, in the book, Annaud reads about this guy in China, in the middle of nowhere, falling in love with the place. And it dawns on him that at the same time, same year, in Africa, he was experiencing something similar. “It happened to this guy and it happened to me. So you know, I didn’t see it as a Chinese story. I saw it as something very personal. I saw the universality of the story.”
Also, the solitude of Africa mirrored the solitude of the Mongolia he read about. “And the need to have a little friend.”
In Wolf Totem, the book and the movie, the protagonist befriends a wolf cub. “That’s also something I know well because I was an only child, so I had a little dog.”
With movies, he says, “It’s best to take a project where you relate to your own experiences, which is why I felt so close to this project.”
I speak to Annaud at the Umhlanga offices of Videovision Entertainment, South African producer and film industry entrepeneur Anant Singh’s headquarters. Annaud is in Durban for the South African preview of his film at the 35th Durban International film Festival. We have a view across grassy fields to the Indian Ocean and ships lined up to enter the port of Durban. “This is a great place for interviews,” Annaud comments. “Usually one is stuck in some crummy hotel room.”
It’s not his first time in Durban or South Africa. “I was in the city many years ago to promote my film Quest for Fire.” He’s also been offered many films here: “Including, quite recently, a book called An Instant in the Wind by Andre Brink. That we were planning to do with Angeline Jolie. But she fell pregnant and we couldn’t do the film.”
Listen to the attached MP3 for the full interview.
Q: Tell me about your 3-D approach.
A: “These days, with the new technology available, 3-D for many movies is done in post-production. They are shot in 2-D and redimensionalized (made 3-D) later. This is a labor-intense, detailed, expensive process. But the results are excellent. That it is done in post-production gives you a better continuity in terms of 3-D-ness. It does away with the reasons some people don’t like 3-D — the need for the eyes to accommodate (keep refocusing) for convergence. Why it can be tiring and give people a headache. I shot one-third in native 3-D. The rest has been redimentionalized.
“There are times when it is better to shoot in 3-D. I used 3-D for all the small sets. And definitely my decision was to go in 3-D because of this little wolf. So then this little wolf is really close to you. You can really almost feel it. You share the same space.
“It’s contradictory to what most people believe about 3-D. Most people believe 3-D is about big battles. No. In my view, 3-D is efficient for emotions. For sharing proximity. So everything that deals with the little wolf has been shot in 3-D.
“Half of what has been shot with the adult wolves is also in 3-D too. It gives a real proximity. It gives a more vivid impression of the, shall I say the soul of the wolves. Scenes with wolves I couldn’t shoot in 3-D were the scenes where the wolves are concentrating on something because those cameras are so big and there is a mirror and the wolves see themselves in the mirror and that distracts them.
“So those shots I had to shoot with a very long telelens and redimensionalize later.
“So these are the little secrets of how I did it.”
Q: What inspired and informed you on what to me was one of the most evocative moments in the film: the scene in the frozen lake where the struggling horses turn into what look like frozen ice sculptures. How did you get those images?
A: “Statues,” he says. “Statues, but informed by reality. This is something that has long fascinated me. When Napoleon retreated from Russia a lot of horses fell in the ice and because of wind they struggled and were frozen in those struggling moments. There are even several books written about this effect. When you get frozen very quickly it gives you a feeling of burning. Humans tend to take their clothes off because they feel their skin is burning.
“There are many paintings in the Polish school of painting of this. In the Museum of Krakow there are many beautiful scenes with horses and there is a book by a French (Canadian) guy (astrophysicist) Hubert Reeves who was a philosopher but a scientist as well and he wrote a book about those frozen horses. Because you know the Russians experienced that several times.
“And there is even a scene in Alexander Nevsky that is sort of where horses go through the ice. That’s a scene that inspired me a lot.
“What you see (in Wolf Totem) are sections of horses that have been sculpted. They were inspired by the French painter (Jean-Louis André Théodore) Géricault who spent all his life studying horses and painting horses during the Napoleonic period.”
Q: So you’re saying that scene in the film could have happened?
A: “Oh yes, that did happen. Of course, of course. And that is one of the scenes when I read the novel that was striking to me. And where I shot the film there were people, Mongols, who had witnessed this. And the writer (Lü Jiamin) — he spent about three weeks taking the corpses from the ice, the ice was so thick.
“Because, you know, Mongols respect horses so they couldn’t let them rot like that… There were about 100 horses. So its a true story — and not a rare story.
“And by the way, that is an old technique for wolves everywhere in the world, to trap their pray in a place where they are either stuck in a marsh or stuck on a slope with too many rocks so they can’t run. It’s a technique back from the old ages.”
Q: How come, when your film Seven Years in Tibet is still banned in China, were you asked — by the Chinese — to make this film. Was it on the strength of The Bear: that they knew you had the ability to get the wolves trained?
A: “They came to me and said ‘are you aware of this book’ and I said ‘yes, it’s wonderful.’ I had read excepts and I knew the theme and had thought: this would really be something for me. But when these people from Beijing approached me, I said while I’d be delighted, ‘unfortunately I’m not welcome in your country.’
“And they smiled and said, ‘well you know, China has changed.’
“And then they smiled again and said, ‘and you know, to be frank we are practical people. We don’t know how to do the things we do. So we need you.’ And I loved the simplicity of that.
“And I must say that all my life I’ve had the great privilege that I’ve done all my movies very freely — you know, I’m the final cut director. And that applied here, on this movie.”
Q: So they were not controlling?
A: “No. You know they showed up once. Once in 60 days of shooting they came to take pictures of the wolves. They never showed up in my editing room. They left me entirely free. It was impressive.”
Q: Where about was it filmed?
A: “In entirely in the right place. North of the autonomous region of Mongolia. Not the republic of Mongolia. In China you know you have the northern provinces of Mongolia as a border with Mongolia. But all those people, they are Mongols. They’re nomads. They live a different life than the Chinese. They don’t speak Chinese at all.”
Q: Are Mongols still living there?
A: “Of course. And I shot in an area 50km from where the real thing happened. Same landscape. Same tribe. Same Mongol accent.
“And I’m very touched because now even the Mongols from the republic of Mongolia, they gave me medals. Touched because I very genuinely love their ways. Love their culture. You know, I spent a year-and-a-half of my life there.”
Q: I read it took a long time to train the wolves.
A: “Well it is a very simple thing. Mongol wolves are an endangered species. They are very specific because they are brown — the color of a lion — with hazelnut, or green, eyes. Very different from Canadian wolves which have long legs and which are black and white or grey and white and have blue eyes. They are two different species.
“But of course there are no trained Mongolian wolves. So Mongol wolves still exist but they are hard to find. They hide during the day. They are frightened by man. Even if they can attack man at night…
“We decided right away we had to breed little wolves from babyhood. So we got some babies from Harbin Zoo, which is in the far north in China. The wolves there do what a lot of animals in captivity do. When they have little ones, they kill them.
“So we got wolf cubs from there. We fed them by the bottle for three years. Then, they still remained wolves. They don’t come close to you.
“One was my friend, but that’s different. Usually the closest you can be is (Annaud points to a TV set on the far side of the room). They don’t come closer. They still maintain all their wilderness quality. And their behavior is very specific. They look like this. (He frowns.) Always worried. A wolf is always worried.
“We had to wait three years for them to be adults. We had another bunch of 15 to mix them with — teenagers. And we acquired five more babies in April 2012 — because all the wolves in the world are born the last week of April or early May, even in the Southern Hemisphere.
“Out of that group, there was one that appeared to understand the screenplay — he started out dark brown and ended up almost white. And we couldn’t replace him so he became the star. He was special. He was the best.”
Q: Was he the one you called your friend?
A: “No, my friend was the king of the group, the alpha male, who decided on day one that I should be his friend. So he picked me and he came crawling like a vassal. I couldn’t understand it. And my trainer was very surprised because he was very ferocious this animal. The first day he licked my foot. And then the next day he licked my finger.
“At that time, he was two years old. My crew believed it was because I was the boss — the alpha male of my group. My trainer said no, no, no. It has nothing to do with you being the boss. It’s something personal that I cannot explain. And it ended up — we have so many pictures — I couldn’t start the day without the kissing ceremony. He would come and I would stand like this — his his front legs on my shoulders and he would do the licking ceremony for ten minutes.”
Q: He’d lick you where?
A: “He’d lick my face and bite my ear and bite my nose and bite my cheek. Then I would have scratches and he’d lick the blood. And toward the end of the shoot it was embarrassing because he reinvented French kiss and they have very long tongues so my assistant always had a bottle of disinfectant, a bottle of water, a towel glove … and after that kissing ceremony I’d have to wash myself.
“Ten minutes of that. It’s very bizarre. It happened every day… For two years.”
Q: Where are the wolves now?
A: “In Canada with the trainer. They’re retired there, really — on a reserve, near Calgary in the Rocky Mountains. We have to make sure that they have a happy life. My trainer is a very sentimental man. He took all the wolves (to Canada) with the permission of the Chinese government, who apparently were very happy to have, like a reserve, like an authentic animal gene pool in Canada so they know they are protected.”
Q: Tell me more about the trainer. Did you work with him on The Bear?
A: “He is a remarkable man called Andrew Simpson — world famous. And no, he was too young, I guess, when I did The Bear. I think one one of The Bear trainers used him and this is how we got involved. I’m not too sure.
“But I know he hoped that one day we could work together and what is amusing is that when my French producer called — when he heard the French voice — he said, ‘Don’t tell me any more. I know why you’re calling me. You’re calling me because there’s a remarkable Chinese book and because you have a French accent I know Jean Jacque Annaud is going to do it and he is the only one who can do it and I knew one day you were going to call me.’
“That’s what the trainer said to my producer who then called me and said ‘I think this guy is entirely cuckoo because he said he was waiting for this phone call and I knew it was going to happen.’
“It’s funny, huh? And we had a great relationship. The guy spent four years of his life in China. With his wife.”
Q: So this all took that long?
A: “I read the book in 2007. Saw those Chinese people in 2008. We started to train the wolves 2009. They were adults in 2012. So I started shooting in 2012, including a big very complicated scene to shoot in the blizzard with the horses. Then we stopped for a few months.
“Then we started the full shoot in May 2013 and ended up in the summer of 2013. And I had one year post-production. I finished the film at almost midnight on the 31st of December. Of 2014. And we opened in China for Valentine’s Day this year (2015) — the beginning of their lunar New Year.
“And we’ve enjoyed phenomenal results.”
Q: Back to Seven Years in Tibet. Are you perhaps a Buddhist?
A: “No, no, no, no… Not at all. I am a perfect atheist. By the way, a lot of my friends on the set used to say ‘You are the most Buddhist of all of us’ but I insist that I am an atheist.
“But I immensely respect the religion of others. I respect people’s traditions and beliefs and I love temples, I love churches, I love places of meditation, so precisely because I’m neutral, I’m open to every kind of sacred book. And I feel very comfortable in temples. So its bizarre.
“But I like this sort of neutrality. Because if I go to a Romanesque church in Spain or in Italy I feel the same emotion as in a mosque or in a Buddhist temple and I am respectful and I love to hear people singing together in whatever language because it comes from something — from a desire to be in a society. You know, we are gregarious, and it feels good to be with others.
“And it feels good also to try to have positive feelings and I think this is the key to all religion. They try to make people understand each other and like each other — of course there are the other extremities who do not think this way, but basically this is why I respond so well. And I must say there are many things I like about Buddhism — including the fact that it is not a religion. It’s a sagesse as we say in French. It’s a wisdom. A traditional wisdom.”
Q: And let me ask you one thing more. Is there any kernel from the Mongol wisdom that stayed with you? That stands out for you?
A: “On each movie, I learn something. And the Mongols. They give you lessons of courage. They don’t fear anything. They think that a good life is a life of risk. But that if you’re frightened, you’ll fail.
“And you know what’s spectacular about Mongol culture? They conquered the world. They were, like a million people, and they created the largest empire and the reason they created the largest empire, they copied wolves’ technique. Observing. Being patient. Always being together. As long as you have a boss, follow his order; but if he is a bad boss, change the boss. But be together. Be united.
“And strike when the enemy is almost asleep and not paying attention any more.
“And its very interesting. And they still have this in their blood. It’s a very proud culture.
And of course a nomadic culture. And the conflict they have in the film is both universal and very specific. And that, I love. When I can deal with a microcosm that has universal implications.
Q: Anything else?
A: “An important element I also realized was it was an important movie for China today and therefore an important movie for all of us today. Because global warming is something that has to be sorted out first by America and China. And China, more than America, is understanding that there is a serious problem because they can’t breathe anymore. The water, the rivers, are polluted. They have to do something and they know it.
“And this is why I felt very honored to do a movie that was more than a movie. Seen from China it’s more than a movie. It shows that one has to protect nature. And if China protects its nature, the rest of the world will follow and so, this is why I decided to devote some time of my life on this project.”
© Wanda Hennig, 2015