Jean-Jacques Annaud: 'People who make films are in danger every day'

The director on the joy of China, his affinity with Inner Mongolian wolves, and why embracing their bestiality might help keep people from therapy

As soon as he finishes his coffee in Cannes, Jean-Jacques Annaud will take a plane to Paris, then another to Beijing, then a third to Inner Mongolia. There he will drive for six hours to Ölgii and the set of his new film, a 1960s-set steppes epic. It's a monthly commute, one the 69-year-old has been making for three years since he started pre-production on the film, likely to be finished next year ("No fatigue! It's like love! You climb mountains, you cross oceans"). When he arrives, there will be no need to freshen up: a 75lb wolf will lacquer him in saliva the second he steps from the car.

This is Cloudy, one-time alpha male of the 30-strong pack. "We have a very extraordinary relationship," says Annaud, face full of affection. "With the new king, Parker, there is not the same love." Last week they were shooting a scene which required a wolf in a hole. The task, naturally, fell to Parker. "But he was very frightened. And all the other wolves were thinking: 'Is our new king weak or brave?' The prime minister [Parker's deputy] offered to go first, but after much hesitation he got into the hole, peed in it and got out, very proud. All the courtiers were licking his face. Cloudy was witnessing the circus and I could see him thinking: 'Yeah. I've been there. Don't trust them! Next day they will kill you.'"

He grins at the brutality. "This is their strength! This is why a pack of five will decimate 1,000 sheep. When a new guy comes to the king to challenge him he ends up either dead or the new king. And the former has one leg left. It is the same in Cannes." He gestures round the dining room of the Majestic hotel: "A cruel and fragile world of ambition. Where your fate can be decided in a few seconds. You get thousands of lickings and then you lose a leg."

Secret malice aside, Annaud is a classic wolf in sheep's clothing. He bleats sweetly and softly; the friendliest of men, topped with a shaggy fleece of silver curls. He conducts himself with such charm and delicacy, you can't imagine him baring fangs. But he would hate to be mistaken for livestock.

"There are some jobs – like a civil servant – where your life is not in danger every minute. You'll never get the lickings or the fights. Wolves have to fight for their lives every day. It's the life of a warrior. People who choose film are in danger every day. Otherwise your life is eating, sleeping, getting fat and being eaten."

He doesn't weary of the lupine lifestyle? "No. I know that people who smile also have a knife at their back. When you experience success you become a public enemy; when it's failure you give people so much pleasure. It's sort of sad at first and then you see it's the rule of life. I love it, it's my world. But yes, if my movie gets a bad review my friends are very happy and they're still my friends. This is human."

That's the thing about Annaud: he's a beast with battle scars, a wolf who knows how it feels to be a sacrificial lamb. He won an Oscar for his first film, Black and White in Colour, shot in west Africa in 1976, then flip-flopped round the globe and between epochs with Quest for Fire (1981), The Name of the Rose (1986), The Bear (1988), The Lover (1991), Enemy at the Gates (2001) and Black Gold (2011). But it was his 1997 film, Seven Years in Tibet, starring Brad Pitt as a real-life Austrian mountaineer who befriended the young Dalai Lama, which became both his most successful (taking $131m worldwide) and most contentious. The Chinese authorities issued Arnaud with a permanent ban on entering the country. He was shocked, upset. He repented and, somehow, succeeded so much he's gone from persona non grata to adopted son, entrusted with China's most heartfelt homegrown movie yet.

Actor Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, the film that cause Annaud to be barred
Brad Pitt as Heinrich Harrer in Seven Years in Tibet, the film that caused Annaud to be barred from entering China. Photograph: David Appleby/AP Photograph: David Appleby/AP

Wolf Totem (budget $32m) is based on a 2004 novel by Lu Jiamin, which sold over 20m copies and is now the second most-read book in the country (after Mao's Little Red Book). It's a semi-autobiographical saga about a student from Peking dispatched to Mongolia to teach nomadic shepherds, who share a deep bond with wolves the government wants to cull. But the student succumbs to the way of the wolf, too; the book is half Confucian critique, half ecological call-to-arms.

Today, Annaud is especially fired by these themes ("I feel very honoured to help try stop the degradation of the world"), but it is the "soul-brotherhood" he feels with Lu that was the real clincher, he thinks. Lu went to Mongolia in 1969, the same year Annaud was sent to teach film in Cameroon as part of his military service. Arrnaud says the key tension in his films is between his Western intellectual origins and the emotional life of nature. "I do the same movie over and over. I hide it – I change period, location, hero."

Still, though, I'm slightly baffled. There was a long search for a director, after all – initially they'd been hoping to release in time for the Beijing Olympics. Why him? "They said a Chinese director can't say these things; that it's too sensitive. They didn't want an American. I'm sort of neutral. And I have made a lot of films with animals."

There's something more, too; I think it's contrition. "I offended China with Seven Years and it's quite something that after this we have decided not to speak about it. I'm very grateful; it says a lot about China today."

Yet it must be strange to be working in a country in which he is unable to discuss a piece of work in which he invested so much?

Annaud ducks. We place too much emphasis on verbal communication, he says, both on and off screen. If your heart is true, that shines through. "Movies that are built on dialogue are TV shows. Or radio shows on which you have a camera that shows the person who speaks. Film was created silent and the good ones didn't even inter-titles.

"When there is empathy you don't need language. So many successful couples don't speak the same language. In Africa I spent four hours driving in the forest with the tribe chief. We didn't share a language. And I loved him. I understood him better than I did my friends at film school."

But surely without words there's a lot of projection?

That's OK, thinks Annaud. It's all about the core feeling. "The rest is detail, furnishings." Shooting with people who don't speak French or English forces him to focus on essentials. He prefers the mood, too, anyway, in the east. "When I go to Paris my heart sinks. I feel people aren't happy. They understand that their country is not what it was; that the lives of their children are not going to be as good as theirs. China is just the opposite. We still have a vision of China as very rigid, with officials who are like puppets. It's just the opposite! Under the uniform they are living creatures, full of joy! The new China is like Spain after Franco. Or America in the 1970s. People know they are going to run the world."

He's nearly at the bottom of his coffee cup. We talk about animals some more. I'm surprised when he insists they feel glee. "Of course! When they see that the big male who's been giving them shit for a few years now is limping at the back and begging for food." How can he tell? "The glittering eyes and the behaviour of the neck. It tells the truth." People would rely less on therapy, he thinks, if they could accept their own innate bestiality.

Annaud – the most civilised barbarist – is a good ad for what he advocates. He felt so happy, he says, reading about pigeons one day and clocking himself in the description. "Oh! I'm trying to be big in front of a pigeon female who pretends not to see me. You feel more humble when you accept this. OK! I'm just a pigeon!" He flaps off happily, back to his wolves, tail wagging.


Catherine Shoard

The GuardianTramp

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