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Jean-Jacques Annaud on Experimentation, Moving into Television Series

Jean-Jacques Annaud – recipient of this year’s EnergaCamerimage Director Duo Award along with his collaborator, DP Jean-Marie Dreujou – always knew he wanted to be a filmmaker. Born during World War II, the future director got his first Brownie camera at age 7, and his first 35mm still camera at 10. By the time he turned 11, he was shooting 8mm films. “I didn’t want to play with my friends when I got home from school,” he recalls. “I immediately went to edit my films.”

After receiving diplomas from France’s two top film schools – now known as the Louis Lumiere school and La Femis – his teachers offered him up as an assistant to commercial producers, launching him into a career as director of more than 400 TV spots – after which he segued into feature films.

His collaborations with Dreujou include “Two Brothers” (2002), a poignant tale of two tigers struggling against captivity and human cruelty in 1920s Indochina; prehistoric fantasy comedy “His Majesty Minor” (2007); Arabian war-for-oil spectacle “Black Gold” (2011); and “Wolf Totem” (2015), a story of Chinese students in the 1960s sent to Inner Mongolia, which they shot in that forbidding land.

Most recently the duo embarked on their first TV project, 10-part miniseries “The Truth About Harry Quebert Affair,” based on the best-selling novel, which premiered this year.

Is this your first time at Camerimage?

Surprisingly yes, even though my films have screened here. I’m always scouting, prepping and shooting. I’m glad to be in a place where people at the center of the creation of movies are honored the way they should be.

You’ve witnessed many changes in technology over the years. Talk about some of them.

The transition from 35mm to digital was extremely easy for me. I was the first director in Europe to use digital. And I was the first director to shoot a dramatic Imax film in 3D. That was “Wings of Courage” in 1995. I shot 70mm horizontal on an Imax Solido camera. I am intrigued by technology. I don’t want to see the world moving forward and me standing behind a Mitchell camera.

What was the move to digital like for you?

I did tests with two cameras side by side around 1996. One was 35mm, the other a digital camera. I transferred all the material onto 35mm for projection and showed it to my producer, scriptwriter, and people from Pathe at the Éclair lab near Paris. After a second screening one of my writers turned to me and said, “if what I’ve seen is half 35 and half digital, this is the end of 35.” And he was right. Of course it’s still in use, but in decline.

Is film dead for you?

No. I still have great emotion when I open a can of 35. It has a certain smell. I still have 35mm equipment at my country house – three editing tables, a Steenbeck, also a camera collection. But it doesn’t matter. It’s a tool. Art is in your heart, in your head. And why not mix old and new technology?

Why do people resist new technology?

People always do. When cinema was invented, theater writers and actors hated what they called its vulgarity. When sound came, they declared the end of cinema. When color came, they thought that it was giving viewers too much information. Again, it was again the end of cinema. Well, not quite.

How did you meet Jean-Marie?

He was the assistant of Robert Fraisse, with whom I also shot four films. Fraisse did not want to follow me into digital. He wanted to stick with film, even though I explained to him this was not video, this was digital. Then I saw a Chinese film Jean-Marie shot in Yunan, “Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress.” The next movie I wanted to do had big nature shots as well as intimate interiors, and I liked the way the Jean-Marie captured space and lit intimate scenes.

Now you’ve done a TV series with him.

Yes. I had not done TV before, but for 10 years I’ve been thinking of getting into it. People today love long TV series – a longer form of storytelling. And there’s a migration of talent to TV. I wanted to experiment. In order to stay alive, you have to take risks.

And why this particular series?

I read the book and said, “This is not film, this is TV.” It has 800 pages and 30 interesting characters. I thought it was impossible to do justice to the book in a two-hour movie.

What was the production like?

We used up to seven cameras. The story takes place in Maine and we shot just over the border in Quebec. Usually I have 100 days for 1 hour and 50 minutes of film. For this project I had 80 days for nine hours! I enjoyed the pace. Sometimes we shot the rehearsal and that was it. The most I ever did was seven takes and I felt embarrassed. Yet on a film I can do 20 takes and feel alright. I was excited. I don’t want to feel comfortable when I shoot. Creativity is better if you have a certain level of discomfort.

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