"Wolf Totem," China's foreign-language Oscar entry, is based on the autobiographical novel by Jiang Rong and revolves around a young Beijing student (Feng Shaofeng) sent with a fellow student to Inner Mongolia during the Cultural Revolution in 1967 to help the nomads as well as the Han Chinese migrating to the area. He becomes fascinated with natural enemy of the nomads — marauding wolves — and ends up secretly raising a wolf cub. The film was shot in Wulagi, Inner Mongolia, and was released earlier this year in China, where it made more than $110 million.
In an email interview, Simpson explained that wolves do bond with humans, "but normally only when you raise them yourself. For some reason, the lead wolf Cloudy had a strange fascination to Jean-Jacques Annaud." Annaud even had to wear certain clothes for his daily encounters with Cloudy. "I would have to have no pockets because he would tear them off. I would have to zip [my coat] up to my neck because he would kiss me so intensely. He would get my nose and my cheek, and that would last about 10 minutes."
Until Cloudy's mate, whom Annaud referred to as the "Empress," would get "nervous and pull my jeans like she was saying you two guys you have had enough, now go to work." "Annaud insisted on using real wolves and not CGI creatures because "you don't get into the soul of the wolf, you get into the soul of the computer artist," he said. "And therefore, it is all inspired by the computer artist's culture, probably sort of traditional video games or old-fashioned animation with animals that behave like humans. Here you have the real thing."
There are only about 20 CGI shots in the entire film, said Annaud. CGI was used "when it was too dangerous for the animals. I also removed things that were unwanted such as trainers in the field."
Simpson, who is based in Canada, has been training animals for the film industry for two decades, "and wolves for most of that time, but seriously in the last 10 years." He said the biggest misconception about wolves is that they are highly dangerous and eager to attack people. "In reality," said Simpson, "they are very cautious of humans and avoid interaction with them as much as possible."
Wolves can be hard to train for film work, Simpson said. "A wolf is very cautious and wary by nature. If it does not trust something, it will walk away. So it takes a lot of time and dedication to build a bond with a wolf to make him feel secure enough to work in front of the camera."
The film's schedule, said Annaud, was built around the wolves. "It is very much like shooting with babies — babies with strong teeth — in terms of being patient. You have to wait. The thing I can ask the trainer to do is put the wolves in the right situation, wait for the right light and also to organize a scene in such a way that the wolf will give me a proper expression, something genuine that comes from the heart. You only have one take, so you have to be prepared, and sometimes you have to wait a full day."
"Wolf Totem" was a seven-year commitment for Annaud and a three-year commitment for Simpson and his 12 trainers.
"In my research in China, I found zoos with the most social adults, and then we bred them to produce the pups for the film," Simpson wrote. "We returned four of the original wolves at the beginning of my time in China just because they were not suited for film work. They were returned at an age where they could be integrated back into the zoo pack."
Annaud said the wolves' comfort and happiness were their main concern, building "like four- or five-star hotels for them." The animals also couldn't be transported for more than an hour in trucks or they would become stressed.
The most difficult scene, said Simpson, was the sequence in which nine wolves were chasing horses..
"We spent a lot of time introducing the wolves to horses," he said. "They would never be friends, and I would not put them together without trainer supervision. But horses and wolves reached a mutual understanding of what they needed to do."
Simpson reported that the wolves loved working. "They saw it as their job and would gladly load into the truck for the adventure of the day," he said. "You have to remember, we took them to huge open plains and mountains and rivers."
And now the 16 wolves in the movie are living with Simpson in Canada. "He built a ranch [for them]," said Annaud. "One day my wife, who is my continuity supervisor, said to him they seem to be like your children."