411 Mania Interview: Director Jean-Jacques Annaud
Jean-Jacques Annaud is an esteemed director who has worked on such projects as Two Brothers, Enemy at the Gates, Seven Years in Tibet, The Bear, and The Name of the Rose. His newest film is called Day of the Falcon and it stars Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong, and Freida Pinto. It was a big project, without question, but as Jean-Jacques Annaud tells me in the interview, he has had the rare privilege to only make movies that he badly wanted to direct. In my interview with Jean-Jacques Annaud, we discussed Day of the Falcon, working with the cast in the film, working with Brad Pitt on Seven Years in Tibet, and a whole lot more. Day of the Falcon is now available on VOD and hits theaters on March 1, 2013. There is also a You Tube clip which includes the audio of the interview.
TONY: Is there something a film has to have, a certain quality, in order for you to attach yourself to it?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: First quality is I have to feel deeply for it. I have to feel that I have a cause and a personal enthusiasm. I had the rare privilege to make only movies that I badly wanted to do. Yes, this one, I wanted to make a positive movie about the Arab world. Living in France, very close to Africa, I have respect for this large Muslim population that has such a bad reputation. I felt depressed to see that there was only one sort of voice coming from our countries depicting those people as terrorists. Unfortunately for that population, they make the news with horrible attacks, horrible wars. It’s a big shame because the population I know is quite different. They truly want democracy. It’s almost bizarre to say those things. I wanted to have a different voice and it was a personal crusade to do something different and not to follow the preconceptions about the Muslim people and Arab world.
TONY: You have a very talented cast here with so many incredible actors. What’s your approach as a director in dealing with them to get the best out of them in this atmosphere?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: That’s quite easy. I have a sort of long tradition of mixing different nations. I love my multinational sets. Usually, we are like fifty different nations. There are people from Poland, Ethiopia, France, it’s great because it’s like being on a ship. When I direct those kind of units, I have the feeling that we are more united because we all belong to the movie. That is what we have in common and we’re in the middle of the desert with all those people from those different nations. Actors are usually very, very happy to be with another group. Let me explain, when you take only actors from New York or let’s say Chicago, they all know each other. There’s no surprise. When you take an actor from Chicago and have him in India with an actor from Sri Lanka, there is excitement, there’s discovery, and this is what I experience on my sets. It’s usually a very, very pleasant experience.
On that movie, I definitely wanted to show what people don’t know, which is that Arabia is not populated by a uniform style of people. There are people coming from Palestine, in the old days, from the Crusaders, blue eyes, there is people coming from India, a lot of people coming from Ethiopia, from next door in Africa and of course a lot of nomads from the Sahara from countries like Algeria, Indonesia, Spain, of course, which has been Muslim for seven centuries. I wanted that very badly. I was very happy to recreate that melting pot on my set.
TONY: When I was researching this interview, I noticed there seems to be a two to three year gap between projects. Do you find it hard to find films that bring out that excitement in you?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: No, it’s very much like falling in love. I don’t have the capacity to fall in love every year. The rhythm of every three years seems possible. I’m so committed that I have to spend a lot of time researching my movies, getting familiar with a civilization, with a period. After that, as I’m shooting in distant countries with units from different film culture, I have to train them very often those crews. It’s a wonderful life experience and then I have also very long post production because most of the time I have to post synchronize my movies with my actors of course.
As I’m using a lot of visual special effects on screen, very noisy special effects, I have a long post production. I’m also a very hands-on director. I work on the screenplay for usually one year. I do all my research myself. I do all my scouting myself. I do all my casting, even for small parts, myself. For this movie, I went to Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Algeria, France, England and the states. So you see, that took time to travel, time to meet people, understanding them takes a long, long time. I’m pleased because each movie is a part of my life and it’s part of me instead of just being a job.
TONY: You strike me as the kind of director that likes a challenge and likes to take on a challenge. Are there any challenges that you see in the future that you want to take on as a director?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: I’m shooting now. I’m leaving in a few days for China where I’m shooting one of the largest Chinese movies ever. It’s based on a very, very fascinating book with political implications set during the cultural revolution in Mongolia.
TONY: I want to ask you about one of your previous projects: Seven Years in Tibet. Working with Brad Pitt, at that stage in his career, what was it like working with him and what has it been like seeing the success that he’s had lately?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: He was already a very exciting actor. He was already extremely popular especially with young girls. When we met way before the shooting, I think we liked each other in terms of human relationship. It was one of the most pleasant relationships I’ve ever had with an actor. I still have wonderful memories and I adored Brad. He was such a wonderful friend and a man with such a beautiful heart. It was such a good experience for me. I hope it was the same for him (laughs).
TONY: In terms of what you get out of it personally and creatively, do you get something different out of it now than when you first started directing?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: No, it’s still the same excitement. I’m almost amazed that each time I’m so excited. I’m like a kid, because there’s a feeling of discovery of a new world of new civilization that I don’t see the time going because it’s so exciting. I think it’s an immense privilege. I spend three years in the Arab world with people explaining to me the Quran and now I’m spending so much time in China. It’s so fabulously exciting. A country that most people have a preconception about or they don’t know what it is. I am fortunate to share the life of my Chinese friend and to almost be Chinese myself. I think it’s wonderful. What kind of job could I have to get so much pleasure?
TONY: How do you quantify success? What makes a movie that you direct a success in your eyes?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: I know only twenty years later. That may sound extravagant, but the lasting quality of a movie seems essential in my eyes. Making a movie that is a success for a week is not a great satisfaction. Frankly, what makes my life so happy is that in countries that I’ve never been in, people come to me and talk about movies that I’ve done years and years ago that are still on television. The way they speak about it, that’s my reward. I don’t need anything else to feel grateful about life. When I was a young director, I didn’t know that some movies have a reputation and when they do get that reputation, it’s the biggest compliment that you can get. It’s much better than money. It gives you something deep in your heart.
TONY: Thank you so much for your time. It was really good talking to you. I appreciate it.
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Thank you very much, Tony. Hope we meet one day.