Exclusive: French director Annaud expects audience to be 'charmed' and 'entertained' by 'unique' movie
'Notre-Dame on Fire' takes China by storm
Published: Apr 06, 2023 10:52 PM Updated: Apr 07, 2023 11:51 PM

French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud Photo: VCG

French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud Photo: VCG

The 2022 disaster epic Notre-Dame on Fire, directed by French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, is set to hit Chinese mainland theaters on Friday. In an exclusive interview with the Global Times on Thursday, Annaud expressed his thanks to French President Emmanuel Macron for giving him permission to make the film and said he expects that Chinese audiences will be "charmed" and "entertained" while watching this "unique" film.

"I have a great passion for China, great respect for the Chinese public and audience. And it's an honor… I hope people will be charmed, entertained, and they will learn a few things. And they will spend a happy moment with that film," Annaud, the 80-year-old director who accompanied Macron on his China state visit on Wednesday, told the Global Times, adding that he guarantees that Chinese moviegoers will experience suspense, tension and beauty from the epic.

Notre-Dame on Fire reconstructs the events surrounding the real-life conflagration that engulfed Paris' world-famous medieval cathedral in 2019. As the first French film to open theatrically in China since the country optimized its COVID-19 measures, many Chinese netizens have expressed their high anticipation for the film. 

"Notre-Dame is a precious world heritage for all humanity. We need to remember the real-life catastrophe. I hope to see its glorious face again," one netizen commented on Chinese media review platform Douban. 

"I know in China, a lot of people were sad [about the fire.] If something happened to one of your temples, we would be crying [as well]," said Annaud.

Promotional material for Jean-Jacques Annaud's film <em>Notre-Dame on Fire</em> Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

Promotional material for Jean-Jacques Annaud's film Notre-Dame on Fire Photo: Courtesy of Maoyan

He mentioned that since the fire, a lot of institutions in charge of monuments around the world have been paying attention to what happened in the hopes of learning some lessons from the painful accident. Annaud noted that he plans to meet with the fire department at the Palace ­Museum in Beijing. 

As a veteran filmmaker, Annaud said he wanted to make the film as the incident "touched his heart." 

"I immediately saw that there was the potential of a spectacular and very tense thriller," he told the Global Times, expressing his gratitude to the French president for allowing him "to use the real staff."

He pointed out that compared with other disaster epics, the uniqueness of Notre-Dame on Fire lies in its realistic depiction. 

"It's written as if it was by a mad screenwriter from Hollywood, but this is an incomprehensible, true story, and people love true stories," the director said.

"What makes it special is that instead of using visual effects, I ­really burnt my set… I had to ­recreate a large part of the huge cathedral… we rebuilt it, and I could put a fire in it," the filmmaker said, noting that the big-budget film was an extremely "­difficult and dangerous movie" to make.

The director recalled he had 6,000 people in the construction department and about 300 people on set during the dangerous part of the shoot, so carrying out a full rehearsal and preparation was very important to guarantee that the shoot went well. 

"When you have a whole set that is 100 meters long, and you put fire on it, you have one minute to shoot it. After one minute, the studio, the whole sound stage is on fire. And there is no more oxygen. You have to run. Everyone has to run away."

"When I whistled to start the scene, my heart was pumping. ­Because I was afraid that someone who fell would be trampled on. Therefore, we took precautions and this [the film] is what happened. It's why I'm very proud of my actors and my unit, because nothing bad happened," he said. 

The released Chinese thriller has surprised a lot of Chinese audiences, many of whom described the scenes of the fire in the thriller as "so real."

French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud Photo: Lin Luwen/Global Times

French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud Photo: Lin Luwen/Global Times

The director explained that instead of using the same images that had been seen for months on television, he released a speech on the internet saying that he would be happy if people who have decent videos of what really happened could send them to him. Almost immediately, he received 6,000 videos of the fire, and after a few months, he had about 35,000 videos from which to get footage. 

"I had a crew looking at it, selecting for me the very best. But what was amusing is that I shot the movie without those images, but putting them in later they still fit perfectly with what I had shot."

The  filmmaker has deep ties with China. He directed the Chinese-French coproduction Wolf Totem (2015), based on the acclaimed novel by Chinese author Jiang Rong. The film was a big success, earning $125 million in China.

"I love the population of China. My biggest pleasure is to please those people that I love. And that's my goal," he said, noting that it is important for him that people are happy and think they are getting their money's worth from watching the film. 

"That is my job and my hope, especially for people in China that I love so much."