In order to make his 13th movie “Wolf Totem
” without CG wolves, Jean-Jacques Annaud
(“Quest for Fire,” “Wings of Courage”), who has made a career out of shooting with animals in exotic locations, had to grow wolf cubs–as he did with “The Bear”– over two to three years and train them to trust humans.
The production had to wrangle 480 technicians, 200 horses, nearly 1,000 sheep, and 50 trainers and handlers, including armed guards and local farmers. Annaud dreaded filming one sequence involving an aerial drone filming 200 horses and 25 wolves running together in a blizzard at night, which was more difficult and dangerous than you can imagine.
“Digital can’t capture the soul or the instinct of an actor – human or animal,” says Annaud, who prefers to use CG for post-production fixes. He’s never happier than when he’s working with his crew on remote terrain away from the comforts of home. It’s when he feels most alive.
Based on a 2004 bestseller by Jiang Rong, in the film two young Beijing students are sent to live among the nomadic herdsmen of Inner Mongolia. Annaud shows the fragile balance between encroaching civilization from the south and marauding wolves to the north, as wise environmentally friendly traditions give way to destructive corruption, ignorance and greed.
Annaud assembled his key European/American crew, including cinematographer Jean-Marie Dreujou and late composer James Horner (who delivered a soaring score, one of his last), and worked with a Chinese cast and crew as well. While there were difficulties surmounting the language barriers, finally, says Annaud, “we all speak the same language, the language of cinema.”
In 1976, Annaud won the foreign Oscar for France for Africa-set “Black and White in Color,” which brought him as a young man to Cameroon, so he understood this story of city dwellers discovering a strange landscape. China submitted this film shot in Mandarin and Mongolian, even though, ironically, China still bans Annaud’s films “Seven Years in Tibet” and “The Lover.”
UPDATE: But the Academy finally deemed there to be too few contributors from China, which had to submit another film instead.