Jean-Jacques Annaud
Writer-director Jean-Jacques Annaud/Paramount Pictures

After a three-year absence, French moviemaker Jean-Jacques Annaud is back–returning to theaters this summer with Two Brothers, a sort of spiritual companion to his acclaimed international hit, The Bear. Always ready to go where no moviemaker has gone before, Annaud this time takes us into the lush jungles of colonial French Cambodia for an epic adventure involving two tiger brothers, poised to rule the jungle from their perch atop the ancient temples of Angkor–as their birthright would have it–when fate rips them apart and forces their lot into the sordid world of man.

Amazingly, like The Bear, Annaud’s latest journey into the animal kingdom is told from the point of view of the animals themselves, without the clumsy crutch of a narrator or character voiceover to connect the dots for us. Captured on the latest HD cameras, Two Brothers‘ brilliance rests not so much on clever use of the latest technology–be it animatronics or computer imagery–but on the sort of solid film craft which is by now the director’s trademark. A master at creating richly-designed, authentic realities, three years after gracing MM‘s cover, Annaud spoke with us again about his latest project, the HD technology and why he finds beauty in the most unlikely places.

Phillip Williams (MM): There always seems to be a few years gap between each of the pictures you release. Is this a function of getting the financing?

Jean-Jacques Annaud (JJA): No, no…

MM: It’s about quality?

JJA: Yes, I would say so. It’s about–should I say–pleasure. My pleasure is to make movies from beginning to end. I take so much pleasure in first finding the idea, then researching, then writing, then scouting, casting, doing my shooting board and then my storyboard and preparing myself for the shoot. Then of course, shooting, and editing.

The whole process for me is such a pleasure that I don’t want to give it to other people. It’s too much fun. If I made more films, I would not live as well; it would not be as much fun!

MM: I know you love to do deep research for your pictures. Is there an cumulative benefit to the research you’ve done over the years? In other words, did research from The Name of The Rose or The Lover or Quest for Fire help you with Two Brothers?

JJA: Immensely! With Two Brothers, by instinct, I wrote that story involving two little twin tigers and set it in Cambodia in colonial times. Well, colonial times I had researched for my very first movie, called Black and White in Color. I’m very specialized in colonial [history]. Over the years I had collected so many books about the colonial period; and Cambodia was a French colony. I had a number of books about hunting tigers on my shelf and something like 50 books on the French colonial period in Cambodia. It was all at home, in my country place.

Obviously I had to research feline behavior, but I had all those books from when I did research for The Bear: how do they see, what do they smell, what is their memory pattern, do they dream or don’t they? Then comes Asia: I did two movies in Asia–The Lover and Seven Years in Tibet–and therefore had a huge knowledge of Asia. It’s so wonderful to go back to things you love and things you think that you already know, but you’re going to go deeper into. It’s like going back to a place you like. That is the sort of joy I had on this movie.

MM: When you are dealing with new technologies–as with shooting HD–the workload must be overwhelming. Not only are you writing and directing, but then to be dealing with a new technology such as HD. Knowing you, I assume it was probably fun for you.

JJA: (laughing) Yes…

MM: How do you organize your workflow and yourself in relation to all the known things you have to do, but also the new areas you are delving into?

JJA: I spend one more month, let’s say, dealing with the specific aspects of HD. I started very simply, doing tests. I put an HD camera close to one Panavision camera, with the same lenses and recorded the same scenes with tigers and people, in various lighting conditions and printed everything in 35mm and let my editor edit it in whatever order she wanted. And I had the stupor to [feel] that I couldn’t see the difference, almost. After that I learned, during pre-production, what the limitations or advantages of HD were.

There is a part of myself that is exuberant when I know that I’m involved in pioneering something. Then I have people who are [also] so excited. When you do things that are banal, that people have done forever, there is no excitement. We were so excited to see that the cameras where not breaking down because it was very hot, or it was very humid, or the roads were horrible. No, it resisted, and the technicians were also very eager to see what would happen… When I was a kid, I wanted to be a moviemaker to have excitement, no to be a post office manager doing movie after movie which were all alike.

MM: Was there anything unique to the research on Two Brothers?

JJA: I had to deal with very dangerous animals; they are great predators. When I write, I don’t want to know about the difficulties; that’s the job of the director. Then, when I end up having that script I think, ‘Oh, fuck! How am I going to make it work?’ (laughing) Then the research is to check with different specialists how to make it feasible.

MM: It’s amazing what you achieved with The Bear: to make an animal not just the subject of a film, but the star. Did you find that other technologies–not HD, but computers and animatronics–had advanced since you made The Bear in a way which assisted you on this film?

JJA: No, absolutely not. That’s not the point. Number one, you have to believe in and identify with your star, as you would with any star. As a man, I have to direct young women, old women, young men, old men, babies–I have to identify with them. That’s my job. So, when I’m shooting a movie with animals, I have to identify with the animals. Therefore, I have to find within myself what I would do if I were four-legged with a furry striped pelt on my body. (laughs) And if I was alone in the jungle in Cambodia, what would I do?

By reading a few books and observing the animals, it becomes an exploration within myself. This is why I wanted to do it again, because I had so much fun doing The Bear. And this time I was more confident, so it was that much more fun. Every single day–and I shot for eight months–not only myself, but my whole unit, was entranced when the tigers were out of their cage and out on the set, doing their scenes. Some have said, ‘It must have been murder for you.’ It was murder, but it was such a pleasure as well.

MM: You shot the film at the ancient temples of Angkor, in Cambodia.

JJA: Sure. We had extraordinary permissions. Cambodia was previously a French colony, but it was a sort of happy story between the Cambodians and the French. And their king, Sihanouk, is a filmmaker himself and a great lover of French films; and he happened to know my movies very well. He helped us to get all the proper permissions from his various ministers; the Prime Minister himself is an animal lover. And we got extraordinary permission not only to film in the temples of Angkor, but to put them back in vegetation as they were when they were discovered in the early part of the 20th century.

MM: Are there moviemakers–from the past or present–who inspire you?

JJA: I always loved the Japanese moviemakers like Kurosawa and that school. Very impressive. Precisely because it was different; it transported me to a different world. I loved the Italian comedies as well, because they have such a flavor. Mario Monicelli, Ettore Scola, Vittorio De Sica–people like that. What I liked was the specific flavor, like going to a restaurant and having something on your plate which tastes different. This is what I loved so much in those movies. And unfortunately, because of globalization, things tend to have the same taste now.

MM: Well there seems to be a general perception that people don’t want to see reality on screen; they want to escape.

JJA: It is true in a way; they go to movies to escape what life may be. Yet, you can show a life that is [real] and from that tell a story that transports you to another mental place. Therefore, you can find great happiness from being in a [fictional] world and still seeing the beauty of the world as it is.

MM: It’s interesting, because in your own movies, there is a commitment to intense realism, but there is never a sense of hopelessness; there’s always a certain energy and hope in your films. Is that just a reflection of who you are as a person or is that deliberate?

JJA: No, I guess it’s what I am as a person. I love to see, in the most desperate situations, the positive side of it. I was very impressed by Jean Renoir, the French moviemaker who was always saying that what he was impressed with in his friends or the characters in his movies, were their defects. He used to say, “What I like in a black horse is to look at the white spot.” And every black horse has a white spot, and if you concentrate on that, you see the beauty of it. It has always appealed to me to go past the [typical] criteria for beauty; there are other forms of beauty that you can respect and love, even if they don’t fit the criteria of the day. You can fall for a face that is not perfectly symmetrical, or teeth that are not like in every magazine. If you look carefully, there is great beauty, appeal, charm and intelligence. And if it is your mood, then you will capture that and then, in a way, it’s much more reassuring for people to see that in their “defects” there is something magnificent.