The director of The Name Of The Rose, The Lover and Seven Years In Tibet, among others, talks to Gabrielle Altheim about his epic adventure set in Inner Mongolia in the 1960s.
Based on the Chinese bestseller by Jiang Rong, Wolf Totem centres on Chen Zhen, a young Beijing student sent to teach Chinese to the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution in 1967.
As he learns about Mongolian culture the student becomes fascinated by the surrounding wolves and decides to capture and raise one himself.
Wolf Totem is a China-France co-production produced by the China Film Corporation, Beijing Forbidden City, China Movie Channel, Beijing Phoenix Entertainment Co, Chinavision Media Group Limited in China and Annaud’s Repèrage, Mars Films, Wild Bunch, Groupe Herodiade and Loull Production.
Sony Pictures will release the film in the US on September 11 on IMAX and IMAX 3D. Wild Bunch handles international sales.
How did you first get involved with this film?
I got a delegation of very charming people coming from Beijing, in 2007, asking me if I knew of this remarkable book, which was such a huge publishing success in China… I said yes, and then they said that they would love for [me] to consider adapting this… I just reminded them that I did a movie that was not welcomed in China, which was Seven Years In Tibet and they smiled and said, “Listen, China has changed… we are pragmatic and we don’t know how to do the sort of movie that you do, and we need you.”
I liked the simplicity of this. Knowing the situation of the environment in China, to be offered to have my free opinion on the situation in those days in Mongolia was just something very rare and exceptional.
Was it a long process to make the film?
Of course it was a lot of time – it took me seven years. It took a year-and-a-half to shoot and about a year to prepare and we had to train the animals for three years … I had to deal with three communities: the Mandarin-speaking community, the Mongol community and the wolf community. So it was a fascinating experience as a director. I love identifying with people and I love to understand. And here was a wonderful challenge.
You’ve worked with animals a lot in your films. What attracts you to working with animals specifically?
What I like is the connection that I feel. I love directing beginners, or non-professionals, as well as I love directing film stars. But what I love in animals is the spontaneity of their reactions and I’m learning a lot about myself, about my own species, when I work with bears, tigers or wolves. Of course I don’t want to make too many of those movies because it requires a lot of patience, a lot of time, and ultimately it costs a lot of money. But in a time where everything is done digitally, it’s also a relief to be in the middle of nature and be with real characters and real animals, and [see] through their eyes what is in their hearts.
Did you have any personal interaction and relationship with the wolves? Were you able to direct them in a way as you would direct a human actor?
Yes… it’s quite often directors get involved with an actor or actress and here I had a strange love affair with the alpha male who, to the dismay of the queen, was licking me every morning. It started in a very humble way… he decided the first time he saw me, he crawled all the way to me and started licking my foot, my hand… day after day after day he became more audacious, more familiar, more sweet, and then he would just jump on my shoulders and lick my face and bite my ear, bite my cheek, bite my nose, to the point that his wife was becoming impatient.
It was very strange, [wolf trainer] Andrew Simpson himself was surprised. He said it had nothing to do with the fact that I was the leader of the two-legged crew and cast. He felt that it was just a personal sort of liking. I was myself curious to understand why it happened. At the end of the shoot I couldn’t start the day without having ten minutes, like passionate love session. Because of my accent I had to reinvent the French kiss, which was quite embarrassing. I didn’t know wolves had such long tongues.
Moving on to the human actors of the film, how did the casting process go?
I went through an extensive casting process. I’ve seen a number of Chinese movies over the years, and I knew the big film stars over there, but I didn’t know any other actors. So I saw a lot of movies and I met a lot of people over a period of a year-and-a-half… and I didn’t know much about Mongolian actors. So I combined the scouting and a casting session every evening when I was in Mongolia. I would have dinner with actors from the region, from the community. This is how I ended up meeting everyone who was an actor in Mongolia.
My producers were very nice. They said, “You know, this is going to be your movie, you pick whoever you want.” But they of course introduced me to all the important actors as any studio would do. They would always wish that the director would pick famous actors and here the two main actors were known, but not famous yet, and the other actors from Mongolia were little known… I got my way, and had a very happy shoot because I had great actors. I’m very grateful for their dedication and affection.
There is so much beautiful scenery in the film, how did you go about choosing the locations?
To get good locations you’ve got to do great scouting and I think I drove 40,000 kilometres in a four-wheel-drive. I was with my director of photography [Jean-Marie Dreujou] who had a sort of little machine that would show where the sun would be, let’s say… in the afternoon on the 20th of June … and then we would pick the location according to what we expected the light to be.
The landscapes you see are the landscapes of Mongolia. It’s still very, very pristine and beautiful. But in order to get the feeling on the screen, you not only have to be at the right place but be at the right time of the year with the right direction of light. So we did the whole scheduling of the movie according to the look of the location at a specific time.
I want to discuss a specific sequence, the fantastic chase between the wolves and horses during a blizzard. How did you go about preparing for it and executing it?
Well, that was one of the most complicated and fascinating scenes I’ve ever done… I remember the year before, I would wake up in the middle of the night, sweating, thinking, “My God, it’s going to be so difficult to shoot it” and it was very difficult. We had to prepare for about six months, we shot it for six weeks and it was six minutes of screen time.
The basic idea was to never use CG but to use real animals, but not taking any chances with their safety. So, [trainer] Andrew Simpson and I came up with the idea of putting a little blue fence between the two groups, between the wolves and the horses. And we removed that fence [in post-production]. The principle of this movie is instead of doing what most people do, which is creating the animals with CGI, we shot it real and removed what was unwanted.
So you have to storyboard what you have in mind and then you talk for hours to the horse people and the wolf trainer to know how to achieve each single shot… I shot the aerial shots day-for-night and not night–for-night, because it was across vast expanses of grasslands so we couldn’t fence it all. I first did the pass with the horses, with horsemen dressed up in blue to give them direction, and then I checked each image and reprogrammed with all the same locations to match the wolves with the horses and they look together on screen, but they were separate.
But it’s all real wolves; that’s what makes the difference. You have the real speed of real animals; all the close-ups are real. There are maybe 15 images out of 3,000 that are computer-generated.
The main character is shown to gain a lot of respect for the Mongolian culture. Is that something that you went through as you got to know their culture and learned about their way of life?
One of the reasons I felt so attracted to this novel is that this story happened to me. It happened to the writer in 1967: he went to Mongolia to teach Mandarin. I was myself, after film school, sent to Africa to teach cinema, in Cameroon. So I know what the feeling is of discovering a culture you don’t know and how you can fall in love and how that encounter will change your life… Now I’ve lived in Mongolia for a year-and-a-half and I was absolutely charmed with the generosity of people, the fact they respect their own culture, the fact that they can live in harmony now in northern China. On a personal level it was more than a movie.
This movie was based on a novel that was very popular in China
Yeah, we had a very wonderful unexpected success. We ended up at the top of the box office in China and that was not obvious because the Chinese market is supposed to be martial arts-orientated or romantic comedy-orientated. And all those people were saying that Chinese audiences are not ready for this kind of movie and they were proven wrong.
Did you have any contact with the author of the novel [Jiang Rong] while you were preparing the film?
I worked on the screenplay alone but I discovered Mongolia with him. When I arrived in China the first thing I did was get in a four-wheel-drive with him and his friend and scouted Mongolia for three weeks. He took me to the very place where the story happened: where he discovered the wolves, where he had his yurt [portable round tent]… And by the way, he gave me the best possible review ever. I don’t think I’ll ever get such a beautiful review for any of my movies. He became a really close friend. I worked on the script alone but I would call him to ask him details about the position of the beds inside the yurt, or what kind of costume they were wearing, because he had a very clear memory of all that and he’s totally in love with Mongolia.
Were you influenced by any other films or filmmakers while working on this film?
I’m a great friend and admirer of [Russian filmmaker Nikita] Mikhalkov but I didn’t want to see Urga [Mikhalkov’s film about a friendship between a Russian truck driver and a Mongolian shepherd]. When I do a film about anything I don’t want to see the movies that have been done before about the subject matter because I’m afraid to be shy to do something that my friends would have done before. I want to be free.
All my life I’ve been influenced by the movies by Kurosawa, by Eisenstein, by David Lean, so those are my influences… but more specifically in Mongolia, or Chinese movies about Mongolia… I’d seen a few, just to check out Mongol actors, one was called Tuya’s Marriage. That was one that I liked.
What is the main message that you hope audiences will take away after seeing this film?
Well, this is an idea I’ve shown also in other movies, which is first of all the respect of others. “Others” can be two-legged people who speak a different language or have different cultures, or it can be a four-legged civilisation, because with wolves, in wolf society, [they have their] own civilisation. And I hope we can understand the animal world and nature with a more generous heart.