Monday, September 7, 2015

Annaud’s wild ‘Wolf Totem’ took seven years to make




IN IT FOR THE LONG RUN: Director Jean-Jacques Annaud insisted on using real wolves in ‘Wolf Totem.’

By Stephen Schaefer
NEW YORK — Banned from China after making the pro-Tibetan “Seven Years in Tibet” with Brad Pitt, Jean-Jacques Annaud never expected to be invited to film there.

But that’s exactly what happened with “Wolf Totem,” a 3-D epic inspired by actual events on Inner Mongolia’s plains where packs of wild wolves, stampeding horses, doomed gazelles and nomadic herdsmen live in harmony.

“When I was approached by these very important Chinese producers to film this remarkable book, which is the biggest best-seller since Chairman Mao’s Red Book,” Annaud, 71, said in lightly French-accented English at Sony’s headquarters, “I said, ‘I don’t think I’m welcome in your country.’ They said, ‘China’s changed. Plus we love what you do, but we don’t know how to do it. So we need you.’ '

Annaud, whose ethnographic global hits include “Quest for Fire” and “The Bear,” beamed. “I loved the simplicity of that and decided to take the challenge."

 'Wolf Totem' is already a huge hit in China. It took Annaud seven years to make.

He began, not surprisingly, with the wolves:

“The Chinese wanted me to use dogs. I said, ‘Dogs are not wolves, and it’s called 'Wolf Totem.'  They understood. So we went through the ordeal of hiring Andrew Simpson from Canada, a trainer who specializes in dogs, foxes and wolves. He moved to China with his wife and a team of wranglers for three years before we could start the movie. We had to raise the wolves from birth. They were born in a Calgary zoo where there are too many of them. We built five different luxury camps for the wolves. They had a private bathroom for each wolf, private dining room and sleeping room. Then a large space for training — but you never ‘train’ a wolf. A wolf is a very wild animal who would only respond to the orders of his king. The goal is to tame them so they wouldn’t run away when they see a huge camera in front of them.”

One startling sequence where hungry wolves scale a 15 foot fence and attack a herd of sheep took a year of training. It only looks deadly. “We managed to do the whole movie with respect for all the actors, two-legged and four-legged. So you have the same disclaimer: No animals were injured during this production.”

(“Wolf Totem” opens Friday.)