Jean-Jacque Annaud Talks Tiger

When it comes to communication, Academy Award® winning director Jean-Jacques Annaud believes some times no words are the best words.
The 1942 animated masterpiece, “Bambi,” made in indelible imprint on the collective consciousness of the American public. By endowing animals with human characteristics, traits, and emotions Walt Disney created a visceral connection between his animated actors and their flesh and blood counterparts. It is a technique not lost on Academy Award® winning director, Jean-Jacques Annaud.
The director of such ground-breaking films as “The Name of the Rose” and “Quest for Fire” found universal acclaim for his near silent movie classic, “The Bear.” In its depiction of the relationship between a feisty bear cub and a wizened but still ferocious, old Kodiak struggling to survive, the film was more a three-act work of dramatic fiction than a nature documentary.
Now, fifteen years after “The Bear” debuted in the US, Annaud is preparing to release his latest film, “Two Brothers,” to American audiences. This time his protagonists are Tigers.
OneMinuteMovieReview recently visited with Jean-Jacques Annaud by telephone at his home in France to talk about the film’s universal appeal.
OneMinuteMovieReview – You have called “Two Brothers” a fable or fairy tale. In my experience, if we scratch just beneath the surface, that particular literary device tells us more about the human condition than almost any other genre. What is it that “Two Brothers” is telling us about the human condition?
Jean-Jacques Annaud – Thank you for asking this question. It is a rare question, and I am happy to answer. Basically, in my heart, what I see when I am close to animals is how similar I, as a human being, am to other species. I am amazed to see that a lot of our main emotions are feelings that we share with the advanced species, like the mammals. What I wanted to do – you know it is very much like when you want to express something about contemporary situations, yet you prefer to find similarities in the past, because by talking about the past you talk about the general trends rather than being bogged down by contemporary reality. By using animals and the similar feelings that they can have, I feel that we go quicker and deeper in these essential emotions, like the need for family and brotherhood, the need for affection and protection, the strong need of reuniting the family. All those things can be filmed in a very simple way when you follow animals because you don’t have language. You just have action, and therefore you just have the essentials.
OMMR – It seems to me that telling a story which is primarily action, which does not rely on the spoken language is an extremely difficult challenge. How do you manage to tell the story visually in such a way that anyone can understand it?
Jean-Jacques Annaud – I feel this is the essence of cinema. The cinema was born without sound. My predecessors were able to tell fascinating stories without the use of language. Some would use cards between the images, but the good ones would not. They showed that you can tell the story without listening to the dialogue, but by looking at and understanding what the protagonists are feeling through the situation they are in and through the expression that they display on their faces.
If you are a witness of a situation that is clearly shown visually, why do you need to listen to the details of the language? Let me explain. If you are behind a window and you see two people arguing on the street. One is with a bicycle and the other one is in a car. Most probably one hit the other and they are upset. Do you really need to understand all the lines, if the purpose is just to show how those two people meet for the first time?
When I did the movie, “Quest for Fire,” I had to really think of the methods, of the style of my predecessors. I took so much pleasure in doing so that I missed it. That is why I wanted so badly to go back to animal protagonists.
OMMR – You used the marvelous actor Ron Perlman in a non-verbal role in both “Quest for Fire” and in “The Name of the Rose.”
Jean-Jacques Annaud – He is absolutely unique. He is what I call in French my Mascot. Translated that would be something like, my talisman or my good luck charm. I love so much working with him. He is a man with so much generosity, and that generosity is painted on his face. In “The Name of the Rose,” he is using a language that no one can understand. That non-verbal communication itself is something that I find fascinating. I don’t have the figures here, but the way we read body language covers something like 90% of our communication and is understood by all the countries of the world. Therefore the essential transmission of information between peoples is more what you get from what you see, through instinct, and not through what is said. Language can carry a lot of lies, while it is much more difficult to lie with your body.
OMMR – In 1942 after the classic animated film, “Bambi” came out, the popular sport of deer hunting in the United States plummeted dramatically. All the little children were worried that daddy was going to go out and shoot Bambi’s mother.
In your film “Two Brothers,” the tiger cubs could easily represent human brothers separated at a young age, who are later reunited and reconciled. But I think on a more visceral level, particularly among younger children, viewers will relate to this tale of two animals whose territory has been invaded, who overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and who are eventually returned to the wild. Do you anticipate that this film will impact the movement toward recognition of different species of animals of having a right to exist or co-exist with man, and how we treat them?
OMMR – That would be the ultimate goal. This is something I have in my heart. I am so worried to see the way that we treat other species. The way I have to shout my despair is to direct a tale of love and brotherhood.
OMMR – Without trying to sound adversarial, you made a movie about wild animals by using trained animals.
Jean-Jacques Annaud – Of course.
OMMR – Isn’t that just a little hypocritical?
Jean-Jacques Annaud – There was no other way. What would you say if I had been disrupting the lives of the few remaining tigers living in the wild, and invaded them with the presence of a film crew? That would be an ecological disaster. Therefore we are using tigers who are actors. It is like the rich guy in Hollywood portraying a poor guy in Ireland. You have to treat the tigers as actors. They have their own personalities. They are different in real life from the ones they portray. If you treat them as actors, you would think that they have to know their jobs – and they do know their jobs. This is not a documentary that I shot in the forest. This is a fiction film that I shot with animal actors.
OMMR – You shot in Cambodia, in areas where there has been so much tragedy. One of the very real dangers was the presence of land mines that have been left over from past wars. Would it not have been easier to go to a location where that danger didn’t exist?
Jean-Jacques Annaud – No, because Cambodia is very unique. Those magnificent temples are absolutely unique. I did scout Burma, Laos, Thailand, Viet Nam. With Cambodia we were all very aware of the tremendous difficulties as there is very little infrastructure. There are almost no hospitals. There is a lot of disease, lots of insects of all natures, many very poisonous snakes, and of course the land mines. We started pre-production a year in advance and we all fell in love with the country. There was much affection between my crew and the Cambodian crew. And even the government agencies all united to help this movie because they liked the theme of this movie.
“Two Brothers” releases nationwide on June 25. It is rated PG for mild violence.
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