The Leopard Tamer: Lavinia Currier's "Passion in the Desert"
by Tom Cunha
“Passion in the Desert” is a unique tale of a stranded Napoleonic soldier (Ben Daniels) who, in the middle of the Sahara, stumbles upon and ultimately bonds with a wild leopard. Based on a nineteenth century Honore de Balzac story of the same name, the film was written, directed and produced by Lavinia Currier, who began working on the project about seven years ago. In addition to coming up with funds and scouting exotic locales, Currier had a trainer purchase leopard cubs and raise them specifically for the film. Her diverse background includes theater irection, environmental work as well as directing a 1983 film called “Heart of the Garden.” “Passion” was picked up by Fine Line at last year’s Telluride Film Festival and is currently playing in limited release.
indieWIRE: What intrigued you to make such a different film about man and nature?
Lavinia Currier: That is one thing I thought maybe motivated and challenged me to work with leopards, who everyone said were impossible to do something like this. I felt it hadn’t been done before. Not that one does things just for that reason, but I was motivated when people said, “Oh you’ll never be able to pull this off with leopards.” I thought a love story between a human and an animal is interesting. It hasn’t been done before. It’s a meditation on our relationship with nature which I thought was important in this day and age. And the period, 200 years ago, I thought was a mirror or an echo of our period cause it was the debate between Rousseau and Descartes. The noble savage and the rational man, which I feel is still happening. As we debate the value of indigenous cultures or genetics versus environment or nature versus nurture, it’s still those issues. How do we see nature? How controlling can we be? It’s kind of ironic that with our intensely urbanized lifestyle we still have this yearning to connect. And maybe the film will appeal to people who still have that yearning.
iW: What sort of difficulties did you run into shooting in the Jordanian desert?
Currier: We ended up going out of Jordan in the late fall and they had this unprecedented winter. We were shooting scenes where Ben was supposed to be dying of thirst and we would have him covered with blankets and shooting propane heaters at his back and just before I’d say action we’d take all the blankets off. At one point we were doing a scene and suddenly it started to sleet and that night the producer and I looked at each other and said, “We really can’t do this.” Plus, when it rains there all the roadways become soft and the old trucks that we had would just mire down. So we were waiting half a day for our equipment to arrive and it was just kind of a disaster. So we scurried back to London and came back out early in the Spring, thinking that we would accomplish what we needed to do before the heat. And it was one of those winters where it went from winter to summer without anything in between. That meant that suddenly we were shooting in incredibly hot conditions and the leopards just basically wouldn’t work. They wouldn’t get out of their trucks. So my strategy for the shoot had been that I would shoot everything with the leopards first, the scenes between the soldier and the leopard and then, depending on what we had because there was a certain amount of improvisation involved in that, I would rewrite what I needed to make the story work. But as the production happened, we ended up not having the leopards until the end.
We ended up shooting all those scenes in the beginning with the soldiers and the French first and it got to be two thirds through the shoot and we had shot 80% of the footage of the film stock. I wasn’t sure there would be a film because the key part of the film, which was the relationship between the soldier and the animal, was missing. So that was a sobering moment, realizing that all of this effort and money had been spent, time had passed and the crew was basically saying, “We don’t think you can get this. These leopards aren’t gonna get out of their trucks. They’re pissed off having been flown from America. They’re boiling hot. They’re really dangerous and It’s not gonna happen.”
What we then did was we started to shoot the scenes that we had with the leopards at night when it was cooler or inside caves where it was cooler. The last three weeks in Jordan we started to get some good work with the leopards. The other thing that we had to contend with was that when we scouted Petra it was basically an empty city. It was like it appears in the film, practically. There were a few people that would come through and you would hear them sort of echoing in the canyon. When we actually went out to shoot, Jordan and Israel had made peace so there were hordes of people. We tried to find corners of Petra where the people didn’t come but everybody was so excited, particularly from Israel, to come to Petra after not being able to for decades that they just poured through the place.
iW: Any close calls with the leopards?
Currier: We had some scary moments. For example, once we were inside a cave shooting and the cat bolted. You can’t close the back of the cave when you’re working with cats because then they feel claustrophobic and they’re dangerous. It went flying out over our heads, jumped over the whole camera crew, snarling, claws out, teeth bared. It came right over heads, went flying out the cave before anyone could [catch it], bolted up the side of the canyon. Luckily the trainer’s daughter, she was 15 and very athletic, just sprinted after the cat and, in this case, she just tackled the female cat and held her down.
iW: I was surprised to see physical contact between the actor and the leopard, because they’re dangerous.
Currier: They are dangerous. They’re very unpredictable. I really wanted to have those scenes where they’re in the same shot. It’s so clear when you see a film about a boy and a bear; it’s cut to the boy, cut to the bear, cut to the boy, cut to the bear. And it’s very clear that they’re never in the same place at the same time and that the whole thing is constructed in the editing. I felt that having them face to face and having them share these moments allowed people to really go with the story more. A lot of what the shoot involved was a kind of tension between myself, the actor and the trainer about trusting each other. When the trainer came to me and said “Sorry, today the cats don’t work,” at first I would argue with him and say, “But Rick, they have to work. We’ve got nothing else to do.” Then he would say “OK Lavinia, we’ll work. We’ll kill Ben. It’s a good day to kill Ben.” Then I would say, “OK, OK, OK. They don’t have to work.” Then he also learned to trust me. When I said to him, “Rick, I really need this shot. I really can’t not have this shot,” he got to know that I, in fact, did need it and I wasn’t just gratuitously getting something extra and risking Ben’s life in the process.
iW: I was particularly amazed that you could pull off that somewhat sensual shot between Ben and the leopard.
Currier: There’s one or two shots in the film that are somewhat tricky. First of all, in terms of the content of that shot, so many people are bothered it. When New Line bought the film one of the first things that they said was, “Do we have to have that scene?” And I said, “Yes we do.” They said “OK. We thought so, but we just wanted to check.” And sure enough, some people are so disturbed by that because it signifies this boundary, emotionally, that he crosses. It reveals that he crosses the boundary of his species and crosses the line. I felt it was really important. It was a key moment in the story.
iW: How much preparation time did Ben have with the animals before shooting?
Currier: My ideal plan was that we would get the cubs, and we would find an actor who was not only brilliant and talented but got along with cats, and had a year to spare hanging out with them. He would essentially live with the cats and by the time we shot they would be intimate friends. Obviously that wasn’t realistic because any good actor is busy and you can’t request that they move to another city and spend that time with these cats. So in the end, Ben made a couple of trips to see the cats when they were in California. When we started preparation he spent a couple of weeks with them. Finally, in the end, the trainer said, “Look, there’s not going to be a really intimate relationship between Ben and these cats because they’re old enough that they’ve formed their friendship, in this case with the trainer and one with his daughter. Too much time is more risky because he’ll end up getting hurt and he’ll end up not wanting to risk things cause he knows what its like to get bitten or mauled or scratched. And that was true because…and the one time when Ben did get bitten on set with cameras rolling was sort of towards the end of the shoot in Utah and after that he was definitely not as willing as he had been before to understandably to take risks. He didn’t get hurt. He got a puncture wound, but it was terrifying. Ben tells me about a month ago that after going through the whole shoot not being overly nervous that now, however long after completing the works with the cats, he’s still having nightmares about being mauled.
iW: I guess that’s better than if he was having the nightmares during shooting.
Currier: Much better. In fact, we interviewed one actor who’s gone on to be well-known, Rufus Sewell. He’s a really fine actor. I was very interested in him. At the time, we brought him to meet the leopards in Los Angeles. I had rented a costume, just a regular old Napoleon costume, and he was walking to meet the leopards [in this costume] and he was going down an alley way that had cages on both sides, kind of a narrow passage with a cage of lions on one side and a cage of lions on the other. All of the sudden, these two enormous lions just ran at Rufus, hit the fences on both side of him, obviously unable to get to him, and he just sort of collapsed to the ground. He asked the trainer, he was really shaken, he said, “Why did they do that?” And the trainer said “Oh, anyone with a costume they go for because it’s something to play with.” And Rufus said, “But isn’t this a period piece and won’t I be wearing a costume the whole time?” And the trainer said, “Well, ya, but hopefully they’ll get used to it .” Needless to say, Rufus wasn’t very keen on it after that. And he had nightmares for several weeks. So, at some basic level there’s a primal fear between humans and cats and I think that’s another thing we were trying to do with the film is to show a man overcoming what is a very basic fear of the predator.