Jean-Jacques Annaud: Mountains, Mantras, and a Movie Star
French director Jean-Jacques Annaud worked within the Hollywood system without “going Hollywood”. In this interview from the October 1997 issue of Movieline magazine, Annaud discussed what it was like making Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt.
When European directors become a Hollywood flavor, they inevitably get trapped into doing studio fare. Witness the examples of Paul Verhoeven, who once made films like The Fourth Man but segued via Hollywood into Robocop, Basic Instinct, etc., Wolfgang Petersen (Das Boot to In the Line of Fire), and Luc Besson (La Femme Nikita to The Fifth Element). Not Jean-Jacques Annaud.
Annaud began by immersing himself in Africa to make the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar-winning Black and White in Color, and went on to make the austere, dialogue-less prehistorical human drama Quest for Fire; the arty, heady medieval drama The Name of the Rose; the live bear adventure The Bear; and the exotic, erotic The Lover (for which he became the first non-Asian in 50 years to shoot Vietnam with anything other than live ammunition). He also wrote and directed the first IMAX 3-D fiction film, the 40-minute Wings of Courage. Each time out, Annaud seemed to climb some personal Mount Everest. All of that set him up nicely for Seven Years in Tibet, a $70 million film based on the autobiography of Austrian mountain climber Heinrich Harrer, who crossed the Himalayas into Tibet during World War II and spent seven years in the company of the then-teenaged Dalai Lama.
In making Seven Years in Tibet, Annaud was struck with the same mix of good and bad luck that always accompanies projects as ambitious, complex and just plain odd as the ones he takes on. First there was the good luck of having box-office golden boy Brad Pitt as his star. Then there was the bad luck of having India deny him permission to shoot the picture in the Himalayas. Then there was the good luck of a successful, if difficult, shoot in the Andes. Then there was the bad luck of having Heinrich Harrer’s past as a card-carrying member of Hitler’s SS hit the press just as the film was being completed. Annaud dealt with questions about both kinds of luck with calm and humor, and seemed just the sort of person who could actually have directed both live bears and giant movie stars with equanimity.
MICHAEL FLEMING: You’ve specialized in stories set in exotic, remote locations, like Africa, Vietnam and the Andes. Did Seven Years in Tibet attract you initially because of its setting?
JEAN-JACQUES ANNAUD: The passion I had acquired for Vietnam while filming The Lover made me absolutely certain that I wanted another experience in Asia, and Tibet had been in the back of my mind for a very long time.
Q: So when the script based on Harrer’s memoir Seven Years in Tibet came along, did it just grab you?
A: I got a very, very bad script, just this stupid Hollywood thing. It’s the first time it happened to me, that a terrible screenplay can lead somewhere. It was so appalling. The Chinese were bombing the city and Harrer was rescuing the Dalai Lama on a rope. It was an action movie. I decided to go back and read the original material.
Q: What did you think of Harrer’s memoir?
A: I was interested in what was missing from it. I was amused to see there was no character. I said to myself, This is a man who can explain seven years of his life without ever revealing how he feels about it. He describes the size of his blisters, but what about his heart? What is it that he doesn’t want to talk about? It’s because something’s wrong. Let’s explain what is wrong.
Q: What did the book give you to run with?
A: I realized that I’d found my favorite theme in the book: a European being transformed by a foreign culture. That’s what happened to me when I went to Africa [for Black and White in Color]. I was a typical little Frenchman from the university, very convinced of what I knew. After three days in Africa, I changed my values. It’s a theme that never ceases to haunt me. I return to Africa every year, back to my roots, to feel the forest and the smell of charcoal.
Q: During the time you were first looking at Seven Years in Tibet, weren’t you trying to make Mistress of the Seas, a big-budget, costumed pirate movie?
A: On Mistress of the Seas, I felt there was a great story of two really young women, 16 and 17, who had great lives. They were kids, but they frightened the empire. They were rebellious, like in Rebel Without a Cause. But as soon as you’re talking sea and ships, the budget goes mad. You cannot make an $80 or $90 million movie with 16- or 17-year-old heroines–that I didn’t know. To make the movie possible, it became the story of the guy, it was Master of the Seas, not Mistress of the Seas, and I didn’t like it anymore.
Q: So Cutthroat Island happened instead, and flopped miserably?
A: Sure, and they pushed ahead because they were afraid of us. I’m not in the sport business, I’m not worried about being first. I just want to make a proper movie. While I was seeing this movie going the wrong way, Becky Johnston’s first draft of Seven Years in Tibet came back and was very close to what I wanted. Usually, when I read a first draft, I must admit I go downstairs in my country place, open a bottle of wine and get drunk, because usually I’m so appalled. We all know it’s a first draft, but it’s such a terrible moment to see that what you’ve been working on for six months or a year just doesn’t work at all. This time, I read it on the plane coming from France, and I started crying. I was afraid the stewards would come with aspirin or something.
Q: Or cut off your drinks.
A: Exactly. I was absolutely thrilled. I went to [former Sony executive] Marc Platt on a Friday and I said, This is it, this is going to be my next movie. I’m dropping everything else. Unfortunately, this is not a movie you’re going to like–it’s about redemption and it’s going to cost $80 million. On Monday, they called and said, Are you crazy? We love it, it’s wonderful. That Wednesday, I got this very unexpected call from CAA, asking me to meet with Brad, who’d read the script. I hadn’t thought of Brad at all.
Q: Who were you thinking of?
A: When I write, I never think about who’s going to play it. I go for the character. [But by this point] I was thinking of Ralph Fiennes. Daniel Day-Lewis was also on my unconscious list. But I thought, with Brad, after all, why not? I must say he charmed me so much for the right reasons. The movie’s all about the ego, and about success versus respect, and how a character who does everything for what he believes to be success realizes that he was wrong, and goes through a gigantic transformation and becomes another man. When Brad explained to me why he loved the script, I said to myself, “A man with such dedication to what the movie’s about will go with this.” He’s a very sincere guy. He’s almost what we, as foreigners, think of as the ideal American–he has this sort of simplicity, honesty. When he believes in something, this is it, he believes in it entirely We had planned a lunch–we were both very busy–and at five o’clock we were still discussing it, canceling meetings.
Q: Did he want changes in the script?
A: Just before starting principal photography, he came to me and said, “I’d like to talk with you about the script. I’ll tell you what I think, you tell me what you think. The boy [Dalai Lama] was saying a prayer in one of the earlier drafts that I loved. Can you put it back?” He didn’t ask for anything to be put back for his part, but for the movie he wanted a very lovely, famous prayer about the abandonment of the ego.
Q: When you met Brad Pitt, neither Seven nor 12 Monkeys had come out.
A: I thought he was very good in what I had seen. To me, what I have seen of an actor is important, but what’s more important is what I see of the person I meet. It’s very often not the person I’d seen. I felt enthusiastic, and was not disappointed after that. I was thrilled and surprised to see the level of involvement he could give me and the level of emotions that he went through. He’s incredibly dedicated. Because he’s such a good-looking young man and easygoing in a way, you don’t expect this kind of intensity. That was a gamble that I was willing to take. I like working with unknowns, or beginners. When I used Christian Slater for The Name of the Rose, I was very anxious because he had a big part opposite Sean Connery. It’s a great reward for a director when it works. Taking an actor you have seen before in the same part is reassuring, but not very exciting. What’s exciting is saying, “My God, is he going to be able to make it work?”
Q: So you had a star who trusted you.
A: It came very naturally. When I met him the first time I said, I must warn you, it’s going to be a very tough shoot. You’re going to be at a very high altitude, you’re going to be hanging on top of precipices and you’re going to have headaches. This is all part of it. He’s saying, Oh, this is great. We were sitting at the Bel Air Hotel, and I said, This is easy to think all of this now, but when you’re there, and there’s no toilet and it’s cold and the food is terrible, that’s the real challenge. He said, Yeah, yeah. And he never complained. We never, never had a row, the two of us, not even one word. I knew it was tough on him. Very, very tough.
Q: Were there moments in his performance where he showed something special?
A: There was one scene, a very difficult scene, where he went for everything he could give. No limits. He was trembling. Everyone around the camera had tears in their eyes.
Q: He seems to like taking roles where he can escape being perceived as a pretty boy.
A: Precisely, because he is an honest man. This image doesn’t suit him well. Of course, a lot of men would love to be sex symbols. Brad just hates it. He’s very shy. I have one scene where you see his torso. He doesn’t like it, though he’ll do it for the scene.
Q: Did he buff up? Harrer was a genuine athlete.
A: Brad doesn’t eat well and doesn’t exercise. But he has a very good body. It’s genetic. During the shoot, he did mountain climbing, because he had to and he did it for real. But nothing like bicycling, not even once. It’s stunning. He lost a lot of weight and still looked quite good.
Q: When did it hit you that you were directing a star?
A: In Argentina. He came in under another name at the airport, then we had security to transfer him to a private plane of the president. The security service of Argentina had sold their own badges to something like 800 people. Fans. We were shooting at a remote road crossing, not even a village, with just a gas station and a restaurant. The next city was two hours away. Out of nowhere, there’s 200 people in the restaurant. Brad gets there, and 600 people are banging on the windows. The next day, we were put in an army camp. This movie was about getting a serene mind, about a man who wants to abandon his ego. When I saw these screaming girls, I said to Brad, We only have one way out of here–address the problem. We did a press conference surrounded by 2,000 girls. We had all the cameras and the media. We had to raise our voices, because they were screaming. What we said at the press conference ended up working. I addressed the cameras and said, Please, I’m asking all of you Argentinians. We are here to work. It’s a very difficult movie. If you love Brad, let us work.
Q: There was no sign on the set that Brad and Gwyneth Paltrow would be splitting up, was there?
A: They appeared to be a very simple, unified couple. He was very interested in me and my wife–we’ve been together a long time–and he had a lot of questions about marriage. He was very serious about having children, making a commitment. I don’t know what happened. It comes as a shock to me. What I witnessed was that they were very much in love. She was on my shoot the whole time. Brad is very, very serious. I’ve never even seen him flirting with another woman. He goes into his trailer, listens to music, reads, looks at movies. I think he’s under too much pressure from women and needs time to himself.
Q: Did Brad change during the shoot?
A: He became so staggeringly, how do I say, mature. He’d asked me to put certain scenes almost at the end of the shoot, to be in true possession of his character. Which I think worked.
Q: If you hadn’t had Brad, could you have made your $70 million movie about redemption?
Q: Didn’t Brad end up delaying your film by doing The Devil’s Own?
A: I was supposed to do Seven Years in Tibet before The Devil’s Own, but Mark Canton wanted so badly to be perceived by the Japanese as a man could make such a deal between two stars. Brad always said to me that he would only do The Devil’s Own if it didn’t harm Seven Years in Tibet. Then Mark Canton called me in his office to tell me that I was his friend, which I didn’t know [laughs], and that I should be happy to see there would be a big success between Brad Pitt and Harrison Ford before my movie. I remember saying, “And what if it’s not a big success?” He said, “How can it not be?”
Q: Ultimately, you had no choice but to push your movie back?
A: I waited. Then [the opportunity to film in] India fell apart.
A: I think one reason we couldn’t shoot in India was that the Indians were faced with two movies about Tibet. As I understand it, Martin Scorsese’s movie Kundun is much more centered on political issues, while my story is the transformation of a man in the frame of the transformation of a country. There was more pressure from the Chinese on the Indians for Kundun. But if the Indian government gave permission to one movie, they would have to give permission to two. I have a strong feeling this was the reality–that India was put in such a difficult position with China that they said no to two movies. But it was a blessing in disguise.
A: First of all, I would have had to shoot the entire movie at an altitude of 11,000 feet, which would have been hell on my crew and actors. And the telecommunications and roads in India are poor. In Argentina, I built Lhasa, the enormous streets, the houses and interiors. As I couldn’t go to Tibet, Tibet came to me.
Q: Did the existence of a rival movie about Tibet have any impact on you?
A: Absolutely not. This competition has happened many times to me. When I did The Lover, it was Indochine. When I shot Quest for Fire, Peter Guber was shooting Caveman. I’m used to it. I start my movie when the actors are ready and when I’m ready, without any consideration of the others.
Q: Will there be enough interest in Tibet for two films?
A: If the movies are good, yes. If they are bad, no. I hope they are good, for obvious reasons. Tibet is such an incredible, unique culture. It works, against all odds. It’s a feudal society [pre-1951], there is a king who’s a god–but there is harmony. I think it’s terrific to keep alive a nation of people who work with totally different concepts. We suffer from materialistic competition. It’s all about success and money. Over there, the less you have, the better you feel. It’s about happiness and respect. I don’t want to sound like a monk, but it’s impressive. Why is it that you can be extremely rich, extremely glamorous, extremely famous and be very, very unhappy? What you learn with Tibetans is that you can have absolutely nothing, look like crap, and be in absolute harmony with yourself and lead a happy life.
Q: Are you among the Hollywood Buddhists?
A: No. No. In a way, I resent those people who are parading in front of His Holiness, bent in obedience. I respect the man immensely, but I’m not a Buddhist, I’m a filmmaker. I don’t want to convert people. I want to entertain them and give them a glimpse at another civilization. I have seen a lot of Hollywood Buddhists who produce violent movies and give three percent of the gross to nonviolent organizations. That doesn’t work for me. I think, if you want to promote nonviolence, don’t make violent movies.
Q: In the script, Harrer endures having to be associated with Nazis, but displays a disdain towards them. The recent revelation that he was, in fact, not a casual Nazi, but a member of the SS, creates quite a different picture. Is this revelation of great concern to you?
A: No, because I always suspected that Harrer had connections. One, he never mentions anything in his book. This hole is revealing. I know Germans and Germany very well; I lived there. As a Frenchman, I have parents and grandparents who were very anti-German. I know the guilt of Germany, that most people of that generation were willing or unwilling participants. Harrer was part of an expedition that was an official expedition, therefore financed by the Nazis.
Q: What was your initial reaction to that news?
A: It didn’t disturb me. I was happy, because I had guessed it. Sure, I could see it would cause problems. But you know the pleasure when you’re right?
Q: Did you suspect he was a passionate Nazi?
A: What I assumed was that Harrer’s demon was selfishness, ego, a fight for personal success. I talked to him recently, and he seemed to corroborate this. Yes, he was enrolled as an instructor for the elite troops which were the SS. He did not perform as an instructor, because he went on this expedition. He did not commit any crime. I’m sure he was flattered, being picked as an instructor of the elite group. No one knew then that the SS was going to do what they did later on [e.g., run the concentration camps, among other things]. What I did appreciate is that he’s admitted he was an anti-Semite in those days. It had been the shame of his life. Another reason I assumed he had [guilt] in his heart was his intensity to show commitment for human rights, for nonviolence, for equality of the races. When you have nothing to reproach yourself for, you don’t go screaming into the streets that all races are equal. It wouldn’t occur to me, for instance.
Q: He had something to make up for?
A: He spent most of his active life after coming back from Tibet working for those causes. Deep inside, I think it all comes from this incredible ego he had. This was a man racing for success. In my view, he didn’t give a shit about any political commitment. If Germany had been Marxist, he would have been Marxist to the limit. He had only one commitment, himself.
Q: In your script, you have Harrer guilty about leaving behind his unborn son.
A: That was the missing part of his book that we invented. But it proved to be true. We created the pregnant woman without knowing there actually was one. I didn’t want to meet with Harrer, because [when I was working on the story] I was not sure if I would like him, and I wanted to be free to invent my own character. He needed to have done something really terrible in order to be carrying guilt, and we came up with the idea of his leaving his pregnant wife. Then the Indian government, not knowing how to refuse us [demanded that] all living beings portrayed in the movie agree [to the portrayal]. We got permission from the Dalai Lama right away, but I was worried about having to show the screenplay to Harrer. I told him he was going to be horrified when he read the script because he was a villain. I said, We had to invent that you were married. He said, Oh, but I was married. I said, It’s worse, your wife was pregnant. He said, Yes, she was pregnant. The hair on my arms was standing up.
Q: If it had come out before you started the movie that Harrer was guilty not just of abandoning his wife and kid, but of being a Nazi, would it have made a difference?
A: Yes, it’s true that if I’d known, I would have used it as a part of the story.
Q: Is there concern this will tarnish the movie?
A: It’s difficult to know. It would be a disaster if this were the story of a great man who was supposedly a famous anti-Nazi. Then we would be in trouble. [But] this is not what the movie is about.
Q: You make the kind of movies studios are terrified of, and you go to places where they have no control. Does the distance allow you to keep a good rapport?
A: The fact is that I’m definitely a Frenchman, living in France. I’m very happy meeting in Los Angeles, and I have an office there. The clear rule is, If they don’t like me anymore and I don’t like them anymore, I can fold my bags and get on a plane. We keep a very good balance this way. I don’t feel dependent on the Hollywood system. At the same time, I must admit I have very good friends and supporters in Hollywood. Precisely as you said, I do things that are so bizarre for them, that either they just let me do it, or they just don’t.
Q: They probably don’t know how to fix your movies, so they let you alone.
A: I have some difficulty explaining to my French colleagues, who are so against the Hollywood system, that it is possible to be oneself within the system. Be out of the system within the system as long as you have a decent relationship with the people. I also try not to hide anything. When I’m not happy with something, or think I’ve screwed it up, I say it very openly.
Q: Some foreign directors come here and seem to lose their bearings making Americanized fare.
A: What I’m doing is totally different. I carry on being the same person wherever I am. I know one thing for sure. I’m not an American filmmaker and cannot be, even if I want to. I’m good at what I know. I’ve been living quite long in this country and like it very much. But as a foreigner. Every week I’m offered strictly American movies, but there are so many directors better at it than me. Even Jean Renoir didn’t do well when he was here, because he tried to make American subjects. It’s unwise.
Q: Are you getting better with each movie you make?
A: I’m getting older. I’m pleased I still have great enthusiasm, passion, necessity, but now I also have this whole serenity, which is better. I see things in perspective. I suffer like everyone. I have doubts. But, as the Buddhists, I’m trying to dive inside the ocean, remembering the waves are there, but it’s quiet down below. The trouble with that is, of course, I get less depressed when I’m in a bad mood, but less pleased when I’m in a good mood.
Q: What’s easier? Working in a Hollywood system where you have to deal with Mark Cantons or trying to direct a live bear as you did in The Bear?
A: Making a movie is a very, very difficult enterprise. If you go into the business thinking everybody’s going to bow in front of your hem, you’re wrong. I’m always prepared for an uphill battle. So I’m not depressed when Canton says I’m his friend. I know I’m in trouble, but it’s fine. When a bear doesn’t do what I wish him to do, I understand. He’s a bear, he doesn’t give a shit what I want. When I was a kid in film school, I imagined that when you have success, it gets easier. It doesn’t. Your ambitions are growing, your budgets are growing. Each time you have to fight like you’re a beginner.
Michael Fleming wrote “Casting Glances” for the June ’97 issue of Movieline.