Interview with Two Brothers director/producer, Jean-Jacques Annaud, conducted on June 17, 2004, by Greg Shull, editor of Preview
Greg: Now, you directed and produced this film, right?
Jean-Jacques: That’s correct, yes. I did the writing as well with a friend.
Greg: With Enemy at the Gates in 2001 and Seven Years in Tibet in 1997 and others before that, you seem to take off about three years or so between movie-directing projects. Why is that?
Jean-Jacques: The very reason is that usually I write or cowrite my projects. To do the writing, I have to have time to do research. The other reason is that my projects are unconventional and often require shooting in difficult places. It takes me more time to find the right films and get together the right movie casts. So, it’s about every three and a half years.
Greg: What would you say makes Two Brothers unique?
Jean-Jacques: The perspective is definitely different. In most movies, you identify with humans. The uniqueness here is that you identify with animals. It’s in the point of view of the animals. If this were a western, it would be in the perspective of the horse, not the cowboy.
Greg: What do you think are the strongest aspects of the movie?
Jean-Jacques: It’s a very universal fable where every culture at every age can identify and be moved. It digs into the 99.9 percentile of what we have in common. Our genes are 99.9 percent the same as all of the other animals. The storytelling relates on those common grounds. It’s very easy for all of us to be a part of the story.
Greg: How would you compare directing animals to directing humans?
Jean-Jacques: There is almost no difference. I love directing actors, but basically the key to me is method acting. First I like to choose my actors for the right part. Then I put them in a set that gives them the tone. And then into a lighting environment that is right for the scene. When you have all of those elements and give the actors the direction they need, most actors are assured of success. Once you understand that for human actors, you must simply apply that with animals. When you fight against them, it’s the same. But with tigers, you get eaten.
Greg: Even though most would agree that human life has more value than that of animals, it seems like plots involving animals — I’m thinking of classics like Old Yeller and Where the Red Fern Grows — often tug at our hearts and emotions more than those involving people? Why do you think that is?
Jean-Jacques: For two reasons. First, there was a tradition long ago to mistreat animals on sets, so people thought that was real. They knew the actors weren’t killed, but they thought the animals really were. Now the animals are almost treated better than humans. Second, your child heart functions with animals. Animals always act in a very sincere way. They don’t have the protection of language to lie. The don’t say; they do. You just watch them and trust the power of cinema. You are just watching their acting - all your emotions are one hundred percent there. You don’t have to be vigilant when you listen to dialog; you know when someone’s lying. But when you watch behavior, you know that it is true. When you see an animal having the pleasure to recognize his brother, you just feel that it is right, that it is sincere. So you can achieve a level of association with animals that is greater than you can have with humans. It seems like a paradox. We trust animals better than humans, very rightly.
Greg: Was this film supported by animal welfare organizations?
Jean-Jacques: Yes, yes, yes. We are in partnership with Wildlife World Fund, WWF. We also worked in Cambodia with Wildlife Conservation Society, WCS, based out of New York. We shot in Cambodia around the famous temples of Anchor and in other remote areas where we had to build roads and bridges for access. We even had a camp with 120 tents to accommodate our technicians.
Greg: Our reviewer gave Two Brothers high marks but said it’s too intense for young kids. What would you say is the intended audience for Two Brothers?
Jean-Jacques: Frankly, the intended audience was the kid in myself, in a very selfish manner. Now that I have seen the movie with lots of families around, I see that it is the kind of movie that very young kids can see. Because unlike their parents, they believe that nothing bad can happen to their heroes. In one case, I saw the mom crying, and I saw the little girl saying, “Don’t worry Mommy. Everything is going to be okay.” Universal is presenting it as a family movie. This is the kind of movie where you can take your 5-, 7-, 12-, 18-year-old or your grandma. In the same way that tigers are different from each other — some aggressive, some grumpy, some friendly — it’s the same with children. Some are more sensitive than others. And Two Brothers did win The Film Advisory Board’s Award of Excellence, The Parents Television Council Seal of Approval, along with The Heartland Film Festival’s Truly Moving Picture Award of Excellence.
Greg: Preview not only addresses the plot and acting of a film but also comments on the morality. What part do you think religion or morality should play in films?
Jean-Jacques: Well you know, I feel that films are today the most powerful medium, along with television, that mankind has. I feel that we filmmakers have a responsibility toward society. I feel the messages that are carried by movies are very important. Our first priority is to entertain so that a family can spend two hours enjoying the movie. Request number two is that movies move viewers to think when they leave the movie. I’ve never been fully pleased with a movie only when I watch it. It’s better when I leave thinking I’ve learned something. The ultimate is when I go home and pull out the encyclopedia to learn more about what I’ve seen. I would feel very unsatisfied if my movies were only simple entertainment.