In Jean-Jacques Annaud’s film adaptation of Jiang Rong’s best-selling novel, a young Beijing student is sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Caught between the advance of civilization from the south and the nomads’ traditional enemies – the marauding wolves – to the north; humans and animals, residents and invaders alike, struggle to find their true place in the world.
WOLF TOTEM stars Feng Shaofeng, Shawn Dou, with Ankhnyam Ragchaa, Yin Zhusheng, and Basen Zhabu.
Bijan Tehtani: In most of your film you deal with life in a different time or you explore the world in a way that is unknown to most of us, has this fascination helped you to make WOLF TOTEM?
Jean-Jacques Annaud: Going to movie has always been for me a way to escape everyday life, to travel to a place that no bike, no car, no plane can take me. I shoot movies for people who share that same dream of discovery. The grassland where Gengis Khan was born and from where he conquered the largest empire of history fascinated me since childhood.
BT: Location and nature in WOLF TOTEM are character, how did you find the location for your film and how did you decide to portray it? Also nature in your film goes through changes like a real character, did this came from the book, or was mostly your decision?
JJA: WOLF TOTEM, the novel, is a wonderful read that inspired me the core of the story and the images that can now be enjoyed on IMAX screens. In order to find the locations that were fitting my imagination saw on the pages, I spent several months in a 4×4, driving some 30 000 miles on dirt roads, from spring to winter. My director of photography was often with me. He was using a sort of electronic sextant that gave us the precise position of the sun in various seasons. We organized our shooting schedule accordingly.
WOLF TOTEM is a four season movie. The “face” of Mongolia changes from sparkling white in winter under immaculate dark blue sky. Then the grassland wakes up light brown in spring, turning intense lush green in summer under fast moving white clouds. Then the immensity turns gold, then the snow covers it all again.
BT: How helpful was meeting Jiang Rong, the author of WOLF TOTEM, and did he participate in writing of the screenplay?
JJA: The first thing I did after reading his book was to scout Mongolia with Jiang Rong. He showed me the very places where the story happened, the little cave where he found his beloved puppy wolf, the place he used to erect his yurt, the hills where he tended to his flock of sheep. I insisted that I should chew the different type of grass, good for lambs and French directors. He introduced me to many of his old Mongol friends. He told me many stories that were not in his autobiography. Some are in the film. Jiang Rong was constantly solicited from my art department, my costume designer, my prop master to check an infinity of details. He was always happy to answer my questions, from the first day I worked on the screenplay until the final days of post-production. Yet it was clear that WOLF TOTEM-the- book was his, and WOLF TOTEM-the-film will be mine. It was an excellent way to remain great fiends during the whole process. After attending the first screenings, he published the most beautiful review I could dream of.
BT: Translating WOLF TOTEM into a screenplay should have been a great challenge, what was your approach in working on the script?
JJA: I don’t ask myself too many questions. When I fall in love with a book and decide to devote a number of years adapting it into a movie form, I feel the best way is to build the story around the scenes and themes that excited me most. My way to be honest with a book is to be true to my own read, to put on screen what made my heart instinctively selected.
BT: Casting of WOLF TOTEM is splendid, while performances are very realistic, they have also a touch of performances in a Greece Tragedy, how did you pick your actors and how did you work with them?
JJA: It took me about two years to meet all the members of my cast. I was not very familiar with Chinese actors, and even less so with Mongolian actors. I started looking at hundreds of DVDs. I took advantage to my travels through China and my detailed scouting of Mongolia to devote most of my evenings to share a meal with the people I saw on screen or were recommended by my casting directors. I spent great time in Beijing or Shanghai with major film stars. Also with part-time shepherd part-time actors in remote villages in the middle of the grassland. I handpicked every single person on screen, including extras. This personal contact it allowed me to understand better Chinese and Mongolian cultures and led to a very harmonious shoot.
BT: Wolves and men in WOLF TOTEM have almost the same value as characters, and I should say all the wolves are portrayed as one character, is this a right understanding of your approach?
JJA: I filmed my four legged actors with the same respect I filmed my two legged ones, using the same camera style, relying mostly on take one, alternating long-lens close-ups with extra wide frames shot simultaneously.
As a part of the story is “men versus wolves”, it is correct to say that all men are one characters, all wolves are another one. But there are individuals among wolves as well as among men. For instance, the Mongols have a respected leader (The old wise man Bilig) , so have the wolves (the pack king with green eyes and white marking on the forehead).
BT: I am sure you have answered this questions many times! How was working in China? Did you face any kind of limitations forced upon you by the authorities when making WOLF TOTEM?
JJA: Working in China was an unexpected harmonious and warm experience, with enthusiastic and devoted cast and crew. I was left free to do the movie the way I felt appropriate. The movie that has been released in China and around the world is the director’s cut.
BT: How WOLF TOTEM has been received in China?
JJA: In China alone, we grossed 120 million US dollars (February exchange rate) during the New Lunar Year holidays, putting Wolf Totem among the top grossing films of all times in the country. With 95% very positive or excellent reviews we attracted people that usually do not go to cinema.