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March of the Penguins - Luc Jacquet interview

March of the Penguins

Interview by Rob Carnevale

Q. Having spent so much time with the penguins, do you still appreciate your subjects in the film?
A. I think the most fascinating thing about these animals is that I’ve been going to Antarctica for 12 years and they still fascinate me. I’ve been doing this job for 12 years now and this is the only one of all the penguins that has such charisma. I can’t really explain why, but he has such strength.

Q. The penguins have to battle for survival – but the documentary had to battle for survival itself?
A. In a few words, I wrote the script in 2000 and it took me two and half years to find a producer. The day I met Bonne Pioche, the French producer of the film, there was a reciprocal understanding and desire to make this film very quickly together.
I had the sensation that this story was really obvious, and I couldn’t understand why it hadn’t been made before, so I really pushed the producers so we could do it fast. The reason we had to go very fast was that I’d negotiated two places at the base camp of the French Polar Institute in Antarctica, for the winter of 2003. So in January we left with the first funding that we had been able to get.

It was up to the producer to find the rest of the money. But when you explain that this is going to be a film about penguins walking for an hour and a half in the same environment most sensible people would not give you money for it. So when we got back in February 2004 we realised that we were not going to get the rest of the money that easily, and that the producer had used everything initially.

We then played our final hand. Just before the Cannes Film Festival we edited in 24 hours a six minute promo, and we said to the sellers that the first to take the film would have international rights. That’s how Wild Bunch in 24 hours bought the film, made a poster and sold it to 50 countries at the Cannes Film Festival. But the survival of the film was touch and go for a few days.

Q. Did you learn anything new about the penguins?
A. No, it’s a species that’s been very well known for the last 50 years, and we didn’t discover anything new. A few documentaries have been made on this species, but I had no desire to approach this film from a scientific point of view. There’s a very simple reason for this, everything we know about Antarctica is scientific. My feeling when I went there was that I saw very beautiful things, very moving things, very strong things. I had the feeling that something was lacking ‘artistically’ and that’s what pushed me to want to make this sort of film.

Q. Did you ever feel like intervening when the penguins were in peril? Why were they not scared of you and the crew?
A. Antarctica has functioned extremely well for millions of years without any human intervention. If you see a couple about to lose their egg they won’t understand that you’re trying to help by putting the egg back. In fact, you would then provoke panic for this couple, which would spread to the whole colony, and you might end up losing 500 eggs.
To give an example, if you wanted to heat up a chick who was dying, again he won’t understand so he might waste the last reserves of strength he has trying to escape, when he might otherwise have survived. Sentimentalism is something fundamentally human, and I think you have to be able to manage your own emotions, and that’s absolutely important.
As for the orange outfits, I imagined that for Emperor Penguins human beings are orange, because for 50 years all the French scientists and people at the base have been wearing orange so they weren’t at all frightened by that colour.

Q. How did you go about getting Morgan Freeman involved as the film’s narrator?
A. First of all I’m very proud to have been able to work with Morgan Freeman. It was Warner Independent in Los Angeles who suggested working with him because they had a friendship with him already. But quite frankly, the day I was told that Morgan Freeman could do the narration I said ‘yes’ immediately, and you can understand why.

Q. What was the French reaction to the film’s overwhelming success in the States?
A. The French press obviously relayed the success in the States, but I think there’s also a sort of national pride about it. From my point of view it’s also the apprenticeship of a collaboration between two very different cinemas and it’s also true that the collaboration with Warner Independent was extremely positive and fruitful.

Q. The French version is different, isn’t it?
A. Indeed it is, the story is told by three voices. It’s not the penguins speaking but it’s three voices telling their story whereas in the English language version there’s only the one narrator. The film has been released in more than 50 countries, and when it goes to that level you have to trust the distributors. There are other distributors who haven’t worked with Warners, and it’s very frustrating to watch your film damaged through the translation.

Q. You must have amassed loads of footage?
A. There is actually 150 hours of land-based footage and 30 hours of underwater footage, so you will understand that to reduce all this to 84 minutes is a nightmare. I had an edited script ready before we started filming. There’s two things I like to do, writing and then bringing expression out of the rushes.
And because we don’t control the actors we have to try to give the impression that everything is intentional. So the whole editing process is very much trial and error, you try something out, you look for an image even if it doesn’t exist. It’s trial and error. It took us six months, and some of the days were very long.

Q. Were you surprised by some of the US controversy surrounding the creative design?
A. Yes I was. The success of the film in America is extremely important to me but it has also had success in other countries, Hong Kong, China, Japan and France. Right now, it’s working very well in Germany. I’m not saying that because I want to show off, but I think there is something in the film that is totally universal.
That’s something I couldn’t have imagined the extent to which such empathy was going to be present in audiences around the world. Really from your own intuition and desire and passion to the reaction of an audience you are sharing it with is impossible to imagine.

To get to the religious aspect of things, I think it is something one must talk about but you shouldn’t exaggerate. Millions of people have seen the film, but I would say there aren’t that many intelligent designers around. What I mean by that is that I condemn the use of the film as a means for proselytising, because in my view all the arguments used are completely wrong.
People have been looking for examples of monogamy with the Emperor Penguin when in fact the divorce rate is 90%. You’re closer to an exchangist model there.
But on the other hand I had deliberately not wanted to impose a reading grid on this film. So then everyone is free to take what they want out of the film and to think for themselves. I certainly do not want it to be used for political arguments which, in my opinion, are extremely perilous.

Q. What were the dangers of working in the cold? Your worst moments? And how difficult was it keeping the camera equipment intact?
A. I’ll answer the last question first, the limiting factor was the men rather than the equipment because they got cold much quicker than the camera equipment.
To go to Antarctica is a challenge, you only go there if you really deeply want to do it and want to experience it. So from that point I can’t really say that it’s a pleasure to want to find out what it’s like to film in 200km per hour winds.

Beyond that that’s where we feel we are legitimate, we went there to be able to tell what’s happening in Antarctica because a lot of other people cannot possibly get there. And to be able to tell what the penguins’ life is like you needed to go in the storms.
The question wasn’t whether we’d be cold, because we knew we would be, it was good motivation. I believe that our motivation never weakened because it really was a challenge that we set out to go far.

Q. So no crew member ever found it too much and had to quit?
A. No.

Q. What about Laurent Chalet’s accident?
A. Laurent and Jerome were the two cameramen and they got lost in a storm in the middle of September. The conditions were terrible, with 180 km per hour winds at the end of a lovely sunny day. They were completely lost, and were very close to dying because they were not able to get back to the scientific station.
By chance a rescue team was sent from the station with a GPS. They were really at their limit. It took seven hours to travel the 3km back to the station. Sometimes you are on the edge in Antarctica.

Q. How difficult was getting the underwater footage?
A. For the underwater pictures it’s Jerome Maison and Patrick Marchand who took the pictures. And it was indeed very dangerous, with the conditions and the fact that you’re diving under the ice. I just wanted to underline that the pictures you saw are in no way accelerated. Under the water in Antarctica it’s very particular in its sound and it’s light.
It’s a strange world and I really wanted to show it because that’s where the Emperor Penguins are at their best, they are oceanic creatures and they are at their best in the ocean. For me it was absolutely fundamental that I could enter their world and be with them.

Q. The end credits show some interesting reactions by the penguins to the crew’s presence…
A. The penguins you saw in the end credits were actually female penguins who were trying to seduce us. At a certain point, and it only lasts for 15 days or so, because there are many more females left after the couples have been formed, they came towards us and started singing and dancing. To offer us the idea that we should spend the season with them.
But beyond the rather funny side of that I find it very interesting. There was a confusion in their heads, which I found interesting. We were interesting creatures to them but we weren’t scary or putting them off. I think that’s quite representative of their reaction towards us.
For most of the time the colony was pretty much indifferent to our existence as long as we kept our distance. It was interesting because the penguins let us know what distance we had to keep between them and us. They directed us in that sense.

It was quite interesting to see, when you spend a year with an animal, that there is a sort of passive communication that’s capable of transmitting itself. Tiny, tiny little movements gain a meaning, if a head lifts or something small happened we would come to understand that today for some reason we could not get any closer.
It was interesting, the colony itself had a mood. Some days it was a friendly colony and other days it was rather stressed. We didn’t really know why but that was how sometimes we could feel the difference. It’s funny, because we were able to sense that within seconds of arriving at the colony at the beginning of the day.

Q. Did you notice any global warming effects in your time there?
A. In terms of the scale of my trips, I’ve been able to see the effects of the ozone hole. As soon as you’re there you burn, literally. In terms of global warming, it’s not something you can comprehend in one year, but the scientists have documented it and can tell. It is the polar zones that are most affected by global warming. Some scientists’ predictions for 25 years from now are pretty frightening for these species.

Q. So is one of the effects of the film help to focus attention on their plight?
A. I think the problem is so urgent and so global that this film is only a tiny step to increase the empathy and make people aware. My position in relation to this as a scientist and an ecologist is to make people understand this is really hard, because nobody is in a position to preach.
So we have to find much more positive messages. I hope that if we can get people to appreciate things maybe they will take more care of the things they love.