Jean-Jacques Annaud, no stranger to period epics (having directed “Enemy at the Gates” and “Seven Years in Tibet”), is back in theaters this Friday with another ambitious undertaking, the 1930’s set “Day of the Falcon,” starring Antonio Banderas, Mark Strong and Freida Pinto. The sprawling Arabian drama tells the story of two rival kingdoms plagued by war, and the two young lovers who try to bring peace to the ravaged region. Below, Annaud shares one of his favorite scenes from the film. “Day of the Falcon” is currently available on VOD and opens in select theaters March 1st.
This is a very symbolic scene from my last film “Day Of The Falcon.” It is a scene half way through the movie where there is a violent clash between camels and tanks. Flesh versus iron. Tradition against modernity.
I read a very fascinating book called “South of the Heart: A Novel of Modern Arabia” written by Has Reusch. The book is based on true stories that happened in the thirties in Arabia. It sounded to me like the perfect story to understand the troubles agitating the Muslim world today. I went into this movie at a moment in time where there was great uncertainty in many parts of the world about what the future would be.
I started shooting the movie in Tunisia where I built the sets of the two capitals of the conflicting kingdoms. This is also where the period armored vehicles were designed and built.
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I could not find the dunes ending in the sea described in the screenplay in Tunisia, nor in the neighboring countries that I scouted (Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Egypt). The only existing ones were in Qatar, which is where we decided to complete the shooting.
However, the trouble is that during our last weeks in Tunisia, a street vendor in despair set himself on fire on a market place a few miles away from our set. The whole country went on fire. We had to charter planes to send our terrorized foreign crew back home.
When we resumed shooting and flew to Qatar, Tunisia was closed down. Our homemade tanks were locked in some customs hangar. The custom officers had fled to their villages with the key and the stamps and were nowhere to be found. In the meantime, the whole region was spiraling into the Arab Revolutions. The Suez Canal was closed down, as well as, the Tunisian airspace. I started shooting my battle scenes in the dunes of Qatar with no rifles — only fake ones in resin– and no tanks.
My producer managed to get the hangars reopened, and the airspace. He charted a jumbo transport plane from some ex-Soviet country. The pilots, unfortunately, landed with my precious military cargo on the wrong airfield, in a forbidden military zone, in the wrong country. Fortunately, I had my heard of camels and their riders from Somalia, under the supervision of a remarkable trainer from Morocco. As one can see on the clip, I choose shooting with real animals, instead of computer-generated ones. Not that I resent CGI images, but I found more convenient, convincing and spectacular for this very scene to shoot it live. A few camels had been trained month before to fall as they run –a first on film. The wounded and dead ones were made out of foam. It was fun to watch my animatronics guys, each one with two of those large creatures on their backs.
Then, thanks to the gracious help of Allah and the sleepless night of my production team, my tanks finally got to my set. None of them were working. Wrong engines, wrong caterpillars, wrong clutches. I started shooting the static scenes where they are stranded in the sand. We had to fly in a genius specialized in period vehicles. The guy managed with the help of local mechanics from India to deliver one tank every two days. But each machine could only run for a few minutes, in a straight line.
Two days before the end of the shoot, and my last day in the area, I finally got, just before sunset, my eight tanks with new engines and equipment, able to run for miles and make turns. It was the perfect light, one of the few evenings without a blinding sand storm. My three hundred extras in costume were waiting on their camels. The moment was magical. Unfortunately it was a Thursday, the day before the rest day in Muslim countries. My French crew therefore decided to convince the other nationals to get on strike.
I am shooting my next movie in China. But don’t get me wrong. I would go back to Tunisia and Qatar any time. I loved my experience there thoroughly, and adored shooting this movie.