Last January, filmmaker Sara Dosa’s opening night documentary “Fire of Love” exploded out of Sundance. When the filmmakers found out — just weeks before their world premiere — that the festival was going virtual, seller Submarine mounted live screenings for buyers, who were primed to bid when notices came in. The film nabbed raves, Oscar talk, and the festival’s first big sale, to Oscar-friendly distributors NatGeo (“Free Solo”) and Neon (“Parasite”). And at festival’s end, Dosa’s third non-fiction feature film collected the Sundance Jonathan Oppenheim Editing Award for U.S. Documentary.
“Fire of Love” isn’t like anything else. This quirky collage of creative documentary, love story, and science non-fiction avoids many documentary conventions as it tracks two ruddy-cheeked French volcanologists, Katia and Maurice Krafft, who are in love not only with each other, but with their work chasing erupting volcanoes around the globe. “We just made it in the way that we thought it should be made,” writer-producer Shane Boris told IndieWire. “We were in our own vacuum, in a way.”
Dosa came upon the Kraffts’ extraordinary 16mm archive at Image ‘Est when she was looking for volcano footage for her movie “The Seer and the Unseen.” Trained as an anthropologist, Dosa met Werner Herzog’s collaborator, celebrated volcanologist Clive Oppenheimer, at a Sundance Institute workshop. Herzog and Oppenheimer had used some shots from the Krafft archive in “Into the Inferno.” (Oppenheimer served as a scientific advisor for “Fire of Love.”) Gradually, during the pandemic, Image ‘Est sent Dosa 200 hours of digitized footage without sync sound that had not been seen for 30 years.
To deliver their poetic, lyrical, and whimsical narration, the filmmakers chose multi-hyphenate Miranda July, who often read passages from Katia’s books to provide more of her voice, as Maurice tended to act as media spokesman for the couple, who were celebrities in France. “We’ve all been so drawn to Miranda’s way of communicating intimacy and the strange familiarity of relationships,” said Dosa. “Once we recorded with her, she brought such richness and depth and a loving curiosity.”
Figuring out the narration was a group effort with Dosa, Boris, and the editing team, Eric Casper and Jocelyne Chaput. “We thought that one of the roles of a narrator could be to help us to help fill in the gaps not only with answers, but with questions,” said Boris. “We had this guiding idea that getting close to what you love gives you more understanding, even though you can never understand, and that’s what helps give us a meaningful life and a meaningful death. And the narrator was a guide for us and a way the audience could could enter into Maurice and Katia’s story in a personal way, so that they were also a part of the love story.”
Each challenge along the way lead the filmmakers to a new creative opportunity. No sync sound inspired the editors to rely on music by composer Nicolas Godin (Air). “He brought out this fun, playful, retro-futuristic style to the score,” said Dosa, “that complemented his wonderful work with Brian Eno with some other Air tracks, and some other music that played with the same synths and electronic music from the early ‘80s and late ‘70s.”
Volcanoes also provided their own soundtrack. “We had to totally rebuild soundscapes for all the 16mm footage,” said Dosa. “The images were extraordinary. But there were so many questions that abounded throughout the footage. There’d be a shot of a volcano, a shot of steam and smoke, a shot of bubbling lava, and then an iguana or some guides on horseback or Katia sitting in an inner tube. How do we make sense of these things? So that was a tremendous challenge to try to understand the context and try to draw connective tissues.”
As Dosa and her editors ecstatically reacted to the Kraffts’ amazing fiery landscapes, from a shoe squelching on molten lava to erupting craters spitting boulders, they figured out that leaning into the volcanologists’ personalities and their connections to the volcano-chasing life were the thread to follow. “And of course, the heart of their life was volcanoes,” said Dosa. “That exploration of the questions and all that we couldn’t quite know allowed us to embrace this wider theme about the unknown, whether it’s the mystery of volcanoes or the mysteries of the human heart.”
Dosa and writer Boris aren’t willing to call the Kraffts’ affliction an addiction, nor do they explain the psychology of why the duo were compelled to run toward lethal danger. Instead, they structured a romantic triangle narrative. “First and foremost, we wanted to shape this as a love story,” said Dosa, “specifically, a love triangle. It was important to establish how Maurice and Katia were pulled together through their love of volcanoes. The closer they get, the more danger they encounter. We also see tropes of myth and this grand, epic scale that we wove through the truth that could attend the magic and the grandiosity. And we wanted to tell a story about creation, destruction and creation again, in the way volcanoes both create new life and new land, as well as destroy life and land. But then this lifecycle dovetails with Maurice and Katia, whose spirit very much lives on.”
To deliver their poetic, lyrical, and whimsical narration, the filmmakers chose multi-hyphenate July, who often read passages from Katia’s books to provide more of her voice, as Maurice tended to act as media spokesman for the couple, who were celebrities in France. “We thought that one of the roles of a narrator could be to help us to help fill in the gaps not only with answers, but with questions,” said Boris. “We had this guiding idea that getting close to what you love gives you more understanding, even though you can never understand, and that’s what helps give us a meaningful life and a meaningful death. And the narrator was a guide for us and a way the audience could could enter into Maurice and Katia’s story in a personal way, so that they were also a part of the love story.”
Supplementing the Kraffts’ own scientific video and photography travelogues was archive material from documentary and media interviews. “Those buckets of material were so helpful in terms of hearing their voices, seeing their personalities play out on screen,” said Dosa, “getting to see, especially, their banter in one particularly fun interview.” Dosa had to turn to a Japanese archive to tell the story of the couple’s untimely death from a volcano explosion in 1991.
The movie runs a trim 93 minutes, which required discipline, Dosa said. “There was so much information that we were trying to communicate, so many different images, music, sound, trying to establish these different characters and science and philosophy all at once,” the filmmaker said. “So we realized that we had to be as light on our feet as possible while still trying to maintain depth. That was a tricky dance.”
They previewed the movie in New York and Montreal to see how it played, and brought on a third editor under pressure to meet the Sundance deadline. At one viewing right before the final cut, Dosa was in despair. “It didn’t work,” she said. “All of us felt it. We’re just: ‘Ah, it’s not quite there.’ And we just lifted out the stuff that was blocking these narrative channels, that gives you a slight pause, that clogged up the momentum. And then the film could breathe again.”
If the film has a message, it’s don’t fool with Mother Nature. “Our hope is that people can really be met with the power and the sentience of our planet,” said Dosa. “There’s so many narratives about the Earth as dead or a resource to be extracted from, something that’s unconnected from humanity or for humans to conquer and tame. Our film can tell a story about the power of the natural world as well as the connections that you can build on love and awe rather than dominance.”
National Geographic Documentary Films and Neon will release “Fire of Love” in theaters on Wednesday, July 6.