It is the first landmark that comes to mind when one utters the word Paris, making it in most people’s eyes the invincible and the eternal cathedral. It comes as no surprise that like most of our planet, thanks to our toxic and irreversible lifestyles, monuments such as Notre Dame, our environment, and other treasures are fighting on the front line against the human race. In the spring of 2019, one of the world’s most visited sacred monuments caught fire.
Acclaimed director of The Name of the Rose, Seven Years in Tibet and Enemy at the Gates, Jean-Jacques Annaud was convinced that dozens of filmmakers would fight over recreating the disastrous events at Notre Dame in the form of a thrilling motion picture. Notre Dame on Fire is an ambitious thriller that, as in most of the director’s work, questions faith, politics, power, and Gothic art.
FRONTRUNNER sat down with legendary director Annaud to explore the complexities of faith, the decaying world we as a race seem to strive in, how the Notre Dame looked like Notre Dame without actually being Notre Dame, and how in a national disaster the most powerful people become the real source of hindrance.
Notre Dame on Fire is in UK and Irish cinemas from 22nd July.
Congratulations on your new feature, Notre Dame on Fire. Still, today, what a heartbreaking story. What is your personal experience with the fire and the motivation to bring it to the screen?
Notre Dame is a personal memory since I was a child. We lived in the suburbs, and every week we went to Paris. I remember my route vividly, because the train station was close to the cathedral. As I exited, the first thing I saw was Notre Dame, exactly how it looks in the first shot of the film. My mother was not a believer at all, but often she had the desire to light a candle in front of a statue to send good wishes to those in need. I was only five years old, but I was already so impressed with the beauty, size, harmony, and organ music. So much so that the first picture I took was from the top of the Notre Dame with the gargoyles and the monsters on the balcony.
I studied ancient Gothic art at the Sorbonne, so I focused on learning about medieval architecture. I don’t believe in God, and I am the perfect example of an atheist, but I have great respect for the faith I don’t have. I like visiting places where people pray, so I always have a particular emotion when I go to a monastery, cathedral, church, or mosque. Religion doesn’t matter to me, but what does, is respecting the emotion when I enter such spaces where, let’s put it this way, people meditate.
At the time of the fire, I was without a TV, and was convinced that it was such a dramatic event that there was a terrific thriller in it. Therefore, I decided not to offer making a film about it because I assumed there would be thousands of filmmakers who would want to do that. I was devastated and convinced that the cathedral would collapse. It did not, through a miracle. Months later, a friend of mine had the ambition to make a montage film or a short documentary, and he asked me if I would supervise it with archives and pictures. I was not overly excited, but he gave me documentation, including great articles in the Guardian and The New York Times. When I read those, I understood that I knew nothing about what truly happened. I slowly realized after I met the people who experienced the fire that the journalists didn’t have time to get to the bottom of the events. It became evident that there was exceptional material underneath for a great thriller with high production value, a lot of emotion and humor. The reality was unpredictable, and everything in the film is based on facts. Those actualities I would not dare invent, because they are so bizarre. When I write fiction, I must think if the audience would buy it despite its extremity. At Notre Dame, it was extreme and real all the time. I did films like Seven Years in Tibet with Brad Pitt, or Enemy at the Gates with Jude Law, which were based on real stories, but it’s different when a story only took place 2-3 years ago. It allows you to have testimonies from people who were there, and the events are still fresh in their memory. They could offer the picturesque details of the fire.
I can’t help but think that human ignorance causes the biggest catastrophes in the world. Modernising such a historical treasure is not a priority, but it makes us think about all the other problems in the world that could be prevented with care and cooperation, such as the climate crises, inequality, and even polluting oceans. Why don’t we learn? Or does this all come down to greed and power?
Monuments that are so famous are believed eternal by the public. It’s like Westminster in London. You can’t imagine London without it. The monument screams London, England, and Europe. That’s the same with Notre Dame. Notre Dame is not only the symbol of Paris and France, it’s far more. It’s the most visited sacred monument in the world. Everyone who has been to Paris saw the cathedral either from the outside or the inside. It’s a loved monument by everyone and a symbol of eternity in European culture. When it turned into something that almost disappeared, it became a metaphor when we think about the dangers our lifestyles create. The world is collapsing. Those who saw the film said it made them think about what’s happening on the border of Europe. It attracted attention around the world. Almost like 9/11. It’s an event that everybody saw on TV, and they all remember where they were at that moment. It’s symbolic. 9/11 symbolises the destruction of commerce and finance. Notre Dame is a sacred monument, so it was perceived differently. It did not symbolise a singular faith, it wasn’t a Catholic disaster; it was above that. People in other countries who are not necessarily Christian suffered, as a symbol of faith and peace was about to be destroyed. It had a dimension that I liked, which was above the spectacle of fire.
Surely everyone is asking you this question, but I remember Hillary Clinton expressing her thoughts and concerns on the issue as three black churches burned down simultaneously in Louisiana, scattering communities. They received no funds to rebuild them. Where do you stand on this clash and controversy? Or Notre Dame is something that has simply contributed largely to your memories?
It’s quite personal to me. I am so involved in sacred monuments, and I realized that I possibly made movies such as The Name of the Rose or Seven Years in Tibet because I am an atheist. I respect or maybe miss having faith. The mystery of faith touches me, and the fact that a symbol of faith was disappearing touched my heart.
Equally, in The Name of the Rose and in Notre Dame on Fire, there are some overlapping themes. One is, of course the fire, then there is faith and power. Could you talk about the importance of these themes that reoccur in your films?
Discovering the world of firefighters touched me deeply. I didn’t know who firefighters were. I mean, I respected them, but I realized that for Notre Dame they revealed another dimension. Young firefighters decided to risk their lives as they were respecting the symbol of this building. I knew the motto of their brigade was to say that your risk your lives to save other lives, but I had to ask, why risk your lives to save stones? They all answered, what is my life compared to the stones of Notre Dame? I visited a lot of fire brigades in Europe, and they all used the word vocation. They have a vocation to be firefighters. Vocation is something used with religious people, and I realized that often, without knowing it or being religious those people believe they can do good things. The world of cinema is often the world of faking things. A lot of people in the industry pretend. Being an actor is pretending to be someone else. Actors can sometimes risk their lives making movies, but usually, that’s not their job. However, firefighters risk their lives every day. They have an inner vocation. They earn peanuts, yet they have so much serenity.
When I was researching for The Name of the Rose, I spent time in monasteries, and I realized that the search for honesty and judgment on who you are is important, therefore people become monks or priests. It’s about the search to do something that makes you feel good. I love this in firefighters, they don’t have to ask the question if they are doing a good job or not. Real firefighters have since told me that the film reminded them about doing the best job in the world. Deep inside, this is the reason why I did the film. People were certain that the fire will be a disaster, yet we ended up with no injuries. The treasures were rescued, and the cathedral will be restored better because money is flowing in from around the world. I tend to see the glass half full instead of the glass half empty. I would have not done this film without those positive elements and the great suspense and emotion that we can experience watching it.
The Name of the Rose was not well-received in the U.S. when it was released in 1986. Sean Connery remarked that American audiences were not prepared for its raw, sensual imagery. It’s hard to imagine a more powerful story for this moment in history, where knowledge is violently suppressed, and information is warped by those with power. What are your thoughts on how this film has regained such timely significance?
It’s the difficulty of cinema. Either nobody wants to see a movie, or people don’t react favourably, but over time the world changes and suddenly a story can have a new meaning. It’s difficult to predict. What I believe is that each filmmaker should make a movie that follows their beliefs. We all have terrible parts in us but also good and positive feelings, so I think being yourself is the best way to talk to the heart of others. I feel that we are all extremely similar in a way. We have parts of us that are violent and tender. Honest films usually find their audience. When a film is fake, and it’s trying to lie to have immediate success is dangerous. You never know what the public wants on the day the film opens. Events contradict what the audience is expecting. It’s a process. Making a movie takes some just a year and some several years. When you start a film, and it’s three years before its release then how can you, for example predict a war in Eastern Europe?
A rewarding message that Notre Dame on Fire sends is how far we can go with teamwork and solidarity. The firefighters are the perfect example and metaphor for it, and the story turns it into the irony that the people who hold the power are actually powerless and those who work for a cause such as the fire brigade can change lives. What else would you like your audience to take away from this film?
The world we are living in has decayed. It’s quite depressing with the constant lies of politicians. I try to immerse myself with people who live a happy life because they try to be sincere, say the truth, and help. Living in Paris can be depressing because people insult each other all day long. It was refreshing to be with people who help each other to help others. I may sound lyrical here but no, I think all of us must hope and believe in good people. Good for real, not pretenders.
Could you share some behind-the-scenes details about the technical execution of the film? How did all the pieces come together, how did you film it so realistically, what were the difficulties, and what were the tricks you used to make the audience feel like they are watching it unfold in the now?
It was hard work but extraordinarily pleasant. As you might have noticed, my star, this beautiful lady, Notre Dame was in great trouble. My protagonist was unavailable. We had to rebuild everything that we had to put on fire or under water, and we could not do those things in an existing cathedral. As I am familiar with the French cathedrals, I knew that Notre Dame inspired several other religious landmarks turning them into similar places. I was aware that Notre Dame was built from the first gothic cathedral in the world which is in a small town in France called Sens. It was the first gothic church. I quickly realized that I could do all the high-angle shots at that cathedral because the columns were similar, and the ground was the same. I had to cheat and do all the high angles in Sens and all the low angles in a cathedral in Bourges that was the same size as Notre Dame. I shot some of the carpentry in Amiens and additional exterior shots in Saint-Denis. All those cathedrals from certain angles match Notre Dame to the point that often, even the clergy of Notre Dame could not identify where we filmed a scene. Some of the shots, I mixed with archive footage that was captured a few hours before the event. It was a challenge, but I am pleased to see that when I watch the film, I sometimes have to stop the film to locate a shot. I was also lucky to be surrounded by a highly professional crew. It is exciting to have a scene where the beginning was shot in a studio, the close-up in another studio, a high angle in Sens and reverse in Bourges with the same crowd, and the continuity in tension and sound. I am a great believer in the magic of cinema.