gets a new look !
14 June 2000 à 13:02
If it weren’t for the sounds of the city wafting in through the window, you’d never know you were in Paris. Entering the room, the first thing you see is a giant map of the world marked with all kinds of technical signs and symbols filling one wall, then countless photographs of birds of every shape and color, with a label under each one bearing a name, most of which seem to have been plucked straight from an encyclopedia of ornithology. Beneath each photo is a pencil drawing of the country or part of the world where that particular migrating bird has its home ground. Strange as it may seem, we’re not in the Natural History Museum; this office belongs to a film producer, Jacques Perrin. With his unruly mop of white hair and three days of stubble on his cheeks, age seems to have no hold on his youthful face, nor is there any trace of weariness in his smile as he speaks of the new and arduous cinematic adventure he has undertaken. Without a doubt, Jacques Perrin is a producer in a class of his own: globe-trotting entrepreneur, movie-loving adventurer, disciplined dreamer... and now, for the first time, film director. Unifrance: After Microcosmos and The Himalaya… A chief’s childhood, you’ve taken to the road again, this time in pursuit of Le Peuple miCrateur, a film whose leading characters are birds. Why do you keep producing — and now, directing — films that are always a whole new adventure to shoot? Jacques Perrin: If the whole point of the movies is to carry us off to distant lands, then let’s say I enjoy living on the road that leads to these escapes and adventures. Deep down, we all have dreams of being somewhere else. These dreams are what keeps us moving forward through life, and since making movies is an integral part of my life, I prefer to go out there, rather than stay back here. But having said that, “elsewhere” doesn’t have to be far. It all comes down to the angle you choose from which to view your subject, be it animals, plants or other human beings. It’s an approach to moviemaking that has proved itself in the past, although it seems to have been overlooked for quite a while. What are your points of reference? Far and away, the films of Robert Flaherty. I make movies that don’t just play with the notion of “elsewhere”, they also play with time. Eight or nine-week shoots are not my line. With me, it’s more like two or three years! [laughs] It’s a timespan that lets us get up close to our subject. To film other living things, first you have to take the time to observe them and learn how to move at their speed. Only then do you stand a chance of being able to infiltrate their habitat and communities, to speak in their language and bear witness to what they are, without being too wide of the mark. I am fascinated by the knowledge of other places, but I don’t just want to bring back exotic pictures. I want to pin down the truth of these worlds which are foreign to me, and to do that, in all of these rather strange and unique films that we make, time is undoubtedly our greatest ally. First Microcosmos, now Le Peuple migrateur... how do such projects land on your desk? You’re forgetting Le Peuple Singe by Gérard Vienne, which was seen all over the world. Formally speaking, it was by way of a successor to an earlier movie by Gérard Vienne and François Bell, Le Territoire des autres, which was a veritable portrayal of nature in symphonic form. It was one of the very first movies of its kind, a film that let nature express itself, not only through its colors and shapes, but also through its sounds. The music was a reprise of the sounds of nature. In films like these, there is no commentary. We’re not there to teach, we simply take the audience by the hand, like Alice in Wonderland, and let them discover the fascination of other worlds whose signs and relationships are in the realm of mystery. It’s a cinematic approach par excellence, and the exact opposite of television. TV documentary explains the reasons of things to the audience. By contrast, a movie documentary has nothing to explain. It is there to open doors and let people come to the picture, at the same time as they explore their own imagination. Microcosmos was entirely the Nuridsanys’ project. They had everything cut and dried, their story, their script, their storyboard, and they were looking for somebody to come along with them. That somebody was me. My role was to have the joy of meeting them and helping them bring their project into being. It seems as if each of these films is the idea of a lifetime. What is there left for a producer to do? Each time, the adventure is different. Gérard Vienne and I shared everything. In terms of form, the film falls into sections, following the great apes from maternity to adolescence, the organization of society, the idea of intelligence... Gérard and I did not have these themes in mind at the start. We discovered them together as we went along. In the field, Gérard was alone with his crew. Not being in the front line, my role was to observe and guide them. When you start exploring nature, you can lose your way very quickly. Now and then, somebody has to say “Look out, we’re getting off track.” In the case of Microcosmos and their two directors, you’re right, it’s the film of their lifetime and I think my role with them was less decisive than it was with Gérard Vienne or Eric Valli. Eric Valli started out with a documentary project in mind. I didn’t just tell him “Why don’t we make a fiction film?” It happened more subtly than that, but once a project becomes a joint venture and you fondle the same intentions, you sustain each other. Himalaya, l’enfance d’un chef was born from the constant swapping of ideas between us. And Eric possesses the enormous talent of being able to acknowledge the talent of others: of his camera crew, Eric Guichard and Jean-Paul Meurisse, and his technical adviser, Michel Debats, who is co-directing Le Peuple migrateur with me now. I like people who are talented and yet humble, and who know that a film isn’t made by itself, it needs the input of every member of the crew. With Himalaya, my job as producer was mainly to muster and coordinate the talent around Eric Valli’s project. Himalaya, l'enfance d’un chef was nominated for the Best Foreign Picture Oscar. That must have been a wonderful experience. We had a one-in-five chance. Four of us must be all be thinking we came second! We’re still in touch with the people from the Dolpo region, where the film was shot. The film’s leading actor now lives in Paris. He’s studying French and wants to become a professional actor. The young lama came to see me in Normandy, where our pre-production HQ for Le Peuple migrateur is located. He saw the sea for the first time in his life. And in June, we’re organizing a screening of Himalaya in the Dolpo region itself. We’ll be setting up a portable screen, 5000 meters above sea level. Is it possible to produce more than one “idea of a lifetime” by the same director? I don’t make a point of staying with directors I’ve worked with before, but I like the idea of coming back together by chance. That way, your choice of subject and your working relationship aren’t hobbled by your previous work together. If the new project is worth it, you get working on it as if it were the first time and build up your crew from scratch. It’s wonderful, discovering talents through a brand-new project that becomes an object to be shared. How do you stand the strain of these long, hard shoots? You’d never believe how fast the years fly by. You buckle down to tasks that are planned in advance, but turn out in ways that you’d never expect. The waiting period is incredibly rich. An outsider watching Le Peuple migrateur might visualize the camera crew sitting on a rock, camera in hand, waiting and waiting. Of course it’s more complicated than that. For every shot, you have to ask yourself if this is the right way to go about it. When it comes down to it, it’s like when you go traveling. Planning the trip, imagining and dreaming about it, is just as important as actually doing it. When you have just seven weeks ahead of you to shoot in, you feel so impatient and you need such energy to get it done. Our films are made to a different rhythm. Before every shot, there’s a wait, a breathing space that gives you the time you need to capture what is beautiful and true. The crews currently working on Le Peuple migrateur [50-80 full-time staff —Ed.] aren’t just working, they’re putting part of their lives into the adventure. The movie will contain traces of their lives, and their lives will contain traces of the movie. Yesterday, I was talking with a young guy who’d just spent four months at the other end of the world. Four months, for two-and-a-half minutes of Le Peuple migrateur! He was filming albatrosses, mostly. Everybody knows about albatrosses’ courtship displays. They’re spectacular, but there’s nothing very new about them. The guy waited. Then one day, he got a very dark sky and a raging sea and a streak of sunlight coming in from the side... The pictures blew me away. It was like seeing an albatross display for the first time. It was the waiting time that captured that miraculous moment on film. I urge my crews to have that kind of patience. I tell them we’re not making a naturalistic movie; what interests me is getting close to the mystery. The closer you get, the more you get lost, but the more you’re bewildered. Sometimes, I tell them “Don’t shoot if it’s not worth it. We’ll come back next year.” What stage are you at with the shoot of Le Peuple migrateur? We’re filming in about 40 countries. We started two years ago and still have a year and a half to go. The idea of the film was mine: to discover the earth through the eyes of migrating birds. We normally see the planet, and nature conservation, like a man-made garden. It’s a very anthropocentric point of view. By following the migrating birds, to whom all these spaces belong as much as they do to us, you realize that some populations experience the day-to-day attacks on nature much more painfully. Our view of the planet from five and a half feet off the ground, never leaving the city, is completely detached from reality. Your vision of cinema is almost poetic... The cinema we know best belongs to a certain tradition, but there’s no reason why it can’t move on. If you start from the fact that a movie is traces of matter imprinted on film, there’s no limit to what you can do. There’s more to filmmaking than just fiction films and conventional documentaries. Other forms of expression exist, and others have yet to be invented. On the technical level alone, what we’re doing here at Galatée has never been done before. The same goes for the story. The standard rules for scriptwriting just don’t apply. So we’re inventing our own kind of cinema. Speaking of the story... The 19th-century explorers would have known how to script a film of this kind. You set yourself a target and then let yourself get sidetracked down paths that turn out to be more amazing than the route you’d originally planned. Let’s get one thing straight: this ability to follow a whim isn’t a carte blanche to do anything you want, but we don’t lock ourselves into an obligation of having to narrate a story from A to Z. When you spend an evening with friends, you can talk about thousands of things in no particular order and still have a fabulous time. You can describe a country or a journey without structuring your narrative; it’s your way of talking that makes the story hang together. It’s the same with filmmaking. There must be dozens of ways of making a film. So far, we’ve only explored three or four. And more technically speaking, what have you invented? The “inertial platform” is a device which provides an automatic leveling system, i.e. it maintains a constant artificial horizon, whatever the circumstances. A camera mounted on this platform is unaffected by atmospheric turbulence or the vibrations of the engine; it glides through the turmoil. Even in the midst of a thunderstorm, everything has to look smooth and easy and the technical wizardry must not show on the screen. Of all the birds in Le Peuple migrateur, which is your favorite “actor”? Some of the storks are unbelievably graceful. For elegance and performance, there are sterns that fly from the North Pole to the South Pole, which is quite miraculous. I sometimes feel as if the world’s first music was composed by birds responding to each other’s tunes. Dance, too, seems to have been invented by birds with their courtship displays. Birds give you the feeling you’re watching the dawning of the world. What’s beautiful about them is that they live in harmony with their natural environment. In paintings, artists put birds in the sky to enhance the grace of a landscape.... The wonderful thing about birds is that watching them live, you understand the price of survival. They’re fighting every minute of their lives, against typhoons, tidal waves and tempests, plus all the threats that come from man. Seeing a little half-ounce bird in your backyard, you don’t realize its wings have already carried it 6,000 miles! Our film isn’t a “message movie”, but we will be pointing out the natural and man-made obstacles that birds have to cope with. It can’t have been an easy film to finance. Financing a film is always complicated but strangely, it’s almost easier to finance a difficult project like Le Peuple migrateur, as Christophe Barratier, my partner, and I can tell from the vocal and collective enthusiasm of our business partners. When I meet for a progress report with the film’s investors, such as Pierre Héraut from France 2, Jean-Claude Lamy from France 3, Jean Labadie from Bac Films, Jean-Marc Henchoz, my usual co-producer, and Denis Offroy and Nicole Hyde from Cofiloisirs, we spend more time dreaming than picking over Section Four of the budget. We all know it’s a colossal adventure, and like mountaineers, we’re all on the same rope. We stand by one another. Le Peuple migrateur will open in France in November, 2001. Presumably, it has already been sold worldwide. Only in four countries: Japan, South Korea, Italy and Spain. For the rest, I’m in no rush. I want to be sure it gets the best possible release. It’s a fragile film with enormous box office potential, but its differences have to be worked on. Think what would happen if we just said “It’s a documentary about birds.” With Le Peuple migrateur, Michel Debats, Jean de Trégomain, the executive producer and myself want to explore new modes of promotion. We have a sponsorship deal with the Museum of Natural History in Paris, and with them we’ll be reaching out to academic circles and the media to encourage them to discuss, not just the film itself, but also the issues and values it communicates. Moviemaking is not just about putting a project together, directing and editing it, it’s also about carrying it as far afield as you can; bringing it to the public, you might say. For Le Peuple migrateur, I have visions of developing a new kind of approach to film exhibition. I’m very excited about it. With a film like this, you meet outstanding people on both the filmmaking and the marketing side, and they all have their own private keys to open doors onto the world around us and help us rediscover the soul of the child that lies within us. You still keep two careers going at once: actor and producer. Why? Acting, for me, is a physical and mental escape. However big or small my part, it brings me a kind of peace of mind. This summer, I’m shooting in a made-for-TV film with Jane Birkin, produced by Dominique Antoine. I’m really looking forward to being with Jane again after Oh pardon, tu dormais?, a TV drama which she directed admirably in 1992. As a producer, do you have a more conventional movie on your slate? Yes, at the end of this year we’re going to shoot a film based on a crime novel set in the United States, La Piste de l’aigle, directed by Patrick Jamain and starring Gérard Jugnot. Interview by Véronique Bouffard
Latest update : 23 April 2009 à 13:02 CEST