A Strange Career: Jean-Jacques Annaud on Day of the Falcon

Shooting battle scenes with hundreds of horses, and why the director. doesn't care about synchronized sound.

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

Jean-Jacques Annaud has directed films that sound impossible. The Bear is a feature length film starring a wild animal. Quest for Fire is a caveman story told with no modern language. By comparison, his new film may seem more straightforward. Day of the Falcon is about two Arab kingdoms battling for the oil in the desert, complete with epic charges between hundreds of extras. Annaud explained to us how he pulled it off.

Day of the Falcon is now available on VOD and opens in theaters March 1.

CraveOnline: How difficult was filming big desert battles versus filming animals in The Bear and Two Brothers or filming everything in Quest for Fire?

Jean-Jacques Annaud: Well, frankly, it’s fun. The trouble in the desert is that the cameras don’t like it and the film crews don’t like it too much because you have sandstorms. We had to dress like Bedouins. You had to have goggles and the cameras were very, very unhappy and would break down quite often. It’s beautiful to be in the desert. It’s quite wonderful. It’s a terrific experience in life. The scope, the space, the solitude is quite wonderful but I had sometimes 1000 extras. Yet there is a feeling of vastness that I think is very healthy and is a nice change for us, who live in cities, to be in those wonderful places.

You say sand would get in the cameras. Was that film cameras or digital cameras?

No, it was digital but digital is very sensitive to dust. Most of those desert scenes we picked 35mm cameras because digital was so unreliable, so those battle scenes, yes, they were shot 35.

Were you using all real horses in those battle scenes?

Yeah, yeah, yeah. We had real camels, real horses and of course the dead horses you see are fake. They are dummies.

Right, I know the animals were safe, but I meant you used real animals and not CGI.

Oh yeah, of course. We have some CGI addition in the distance. I like mixing both but if I show 800 horses on screen, I like 400 or 500 to be real. The big charges, we had 500 real horses. In a way, it’s not more expensive. It goes quicker and you can control what you do, be independent of some guy you never meet that are working in Bangalore or China who are doing horses the way they think they should be instead of real Arab horses running in the real sands of Qatar.

Was this the first time you used handheld cameras?

No, no, no, are you kidding? I’ve been using a handheld camera since I was a kid. No, no, no. In all my movies, I do use [it]. I like handheld. Only in my very, very early days I had to use blimped cameras, therefore they were too heavy to be handheld. Since the invention of the handheld Arriflex, I’ve been using handheld. Even my first movie so many years ago, was handheld.

I guess I notice it now because there’s so much more of it in movies. I thought of your older movies as more dollies and steady movements.

It depends what you do. I do a lot post-synchronization later on, therefore I have a very, very free camera. I don’t need to have such heavy cameras so I can use a lot of handheld and a lot of special effects on the set, because I don’t care so much about the sound that I love recreating later on. I love the dubbing process. A lot of directors hate it but I do like it a lot. Therefore it allows me to have a handheld camera, to have noisy cameras if I need and to have a lot of wind machines, smoke machines and then later on I record the dialogue.

So bigger cameras are better for sync sound?

Yes and no. When you need to keep the original track, you have to be careful about the sound quality. Therefore you have to make sure that all your special effects are silent. You cannot use big wind machines. You cannot shoot in a sandstorm. You have to be able to recreate that in an artificial way in order to save the original voice of your actors. What I do is I do record a guide track with my actors but after that, I put them in the same kind of emotion in the soundstage where we have all the proper time to play the words correctly.

A VOD premiere is a new format even since your last movie. What do you think of this opportunity to premiere films on VOD?

I’ve always welcomed new solutions and technology. I’m very happy about this because especially this kind of movie has to reach audiences that may not be available that Friday to rush to the cinema. Therefore most people now have a good system at home, a good home theater or a good high definition television. I am happy to go to them if they don’t have the time to take their car and go to the cinema. So It was different, let’s say 20 years ago, people had bad televisions, bad sound systems. Today, let’s face it. It’s the way the world goes. Of course, my film has been shot for a very large screen with a very good sound system, but very often the ratio at home is as good as in a lot of cinemas.

Did the title change for this film, and why?

Yes, we did change it. It was called Black Gold because that was the original title of the novel. It was not such a good title so I’m quite happy with the change.

We only get to see one of your movies every few years. What does it take to get you to direct a movie?

It takes the proper level of enthusiasm. I have to be fully committed. I’ve been very, very fortunate since the beginning of my film life to pick only the project that I wanted to direct, that my heart felt right for me, where I had a personal desire. I cannot fully love every year. I need to have some time to get into the next movie. Then I get immersed in that movie. Then I need some time to get to the next and get enthusiasm again and desire.

When you made The Bear and Quest for Fire, did people think you were crazy?

They always feel that I’m crazy. Even doing a movie about the Arabs in a positive movie about the Arabs, while all the movies show the Arabs as terrorists and horrible people, is also the same kind of challenge. But I’m very pleased that I’m doing that. I don’t like to follow the mainstream so I sort of enjoy being undecided and picking projects I like and not necessarily the project that the marketing department would propose.

Could you do movies like Quest for Fire and The Bear today?

I don’t think so. Probably not. I don’t know. You know, it was so difficult in those days to convince people. People would say, “Oh, The Bear, who’s playing it?” I would say, “a bear.” They’d say, “No, but who is going to be in the skin? What’s the actor?” They’d think I was kidding in saying no, it’s going to be the real animal. “Which language is he going to speak?” I said, “Well, he’s going to go grrrr or arrrrr.” They said, “How are we going to understand the story? There is no dialogue.” etc., etc.

We all realize that the movie industry is changing. Adventurous movies are more difficult to produce today than 20 years ago. Yet 20 years ago, it was already so difficult to convince studio executives to go for movies like Quest for Fire or even Name of the Rose which enjoyed immense success in Europe and made a lot, a lot of money. People could not understand how anyone would be interested in a murder mystery in an abbey in the 14th century.

So I am really happy that I followed my own way instead of following the trend, but it’s tough. It’s tough to go that way. Would it be possible today? I don’t know but the next movie I’m doing is in China which is very, very difficult, with political content in a country where there’s usually censorship. At the moment I’m given total freedom, so I probably have a strange career but very happy.

What movie is that in China?

It’s called Wolf Totem. It’s based on the bestselling bestseller ever in China, a very, very fascinating book taking place in the Cultural Revolution. I must say I’m very happy and proud to be directing this movie.

Do you have experience with that kind of material because you did Seven Years in Tibet?

Yes, yes, and you see it’s very interesting to see that I was banned from China at one time for that movie because it was not well received in China, yet today I’m extremely well received. Things are changing, the country is changing. It’s quite fascinating to me shooting and feeling so welcome in this quite fascinating country.

How did you negotiate that, and when did that change?

Well, it’s not me. People in China, for some reason that I don’t know exactly, most of my movies have been released in China which is quite a privilege. Only 10 movies from America and 10 movies from other countries are allowed in China [each year]. All my movies have been released there. To my surprise, I don’t know why, but people over there decided all right, I did that movie Seven Years in Tibet, fine, but they like my other movies. [Laughs] I must say I have an extraordinary welcome in China and I feel great reciprocity there.

Your first two movies were comedies. Do you have another comedy in you?

I think I have comedy in my life every day but for some reason, I like lyricism, I like epic scale. Possibly, yes. Possibly the next one. Wolf Totem is not a comedy but in the future, why not?

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Shelf Space Weekly. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.