Jean-Jacques Annaud on ‘Notre-Dame On Fire’: Molten Lead and Mashed Potatoes

Notre-Dame has survived a lengthy period of dilapidation, rioting Huguenots, the cult of reason, attacks by the Communards, the July revolution’s blaze just next door, trampling tourists, waterlogging, the bullet-ridden liberation of Paris during the second world war, and cameos in several unbecoming films (and a few great ones).

So too did it survive the 2019 fire seen the world over, but only just, thanks to scores of dedicated firefighters, police officers, safety supervisors, curators, and on and on, who’s efforts are documented and dramatized in Notre-Dame On Fire, directed by the eminent Jean-Jacques Annaud. We joined Annaud ahead of the Johannesburg premiere of the film for a conversation about its making, including the ins-and-outs of bringing this spectacle to the big screen.

Apparently, you had initially considered making a documentary about the fire?

Well, you know, I should start at the beginning… I was not in Paris when the drama happened, I live nearby the cathedral, I heard the whole drama on the radio and I felt that, should I say, the storyline was already a screenplay. And I remember saying to my wife: “Imagine the number of cretins who are going to rush to make this movie?” And of course, like any person across the globe I was very sad, but relieved that cathedral didn’t collapse, relieved that no one was hurt. But, 9 months later, one of my best friends in the film business wanted me to supervise a documentary, for the large screen but a documentary, with the elements that had been shot.

Very quickly I told him that it’s not my style, and I would not be passionate enough to do it properly, but he gave me some documentation and when I read those articles, in particular an article in The New York Times, I frankly felt that it was a lie. I said: “This guy is a very good journalist, what he’s writing is very captivating, but it can’t be true.” But it raised my curiosity, and I called my friend back and I told him “No way for a documentary, but I have an idea to make a rather fascinating screenplay about it.” He said: “Go ahead”. So, I wrote it very quickly, in a week I wrote about 15 pages. I sent the pages, he called me about an hour later, and he said “Let’s go ahead… We’ll multiply the budget by 30”. [laughs] But we never talked about it, he said “Go ahead” and I went ahead. So, that is what happened, but what I saw was that the reality was immensely rich in terms of ideas and the incredible accumulation of mini-disasters – I could not believe it! And then I checked, and it was worse than that.

notre dame on fire

Checking with your interviewees?

Yes. I remember, the guy from The Guardian said to me: “How many people did you interview?”, so I looked in my notes. I added up: 168 people. [laughing] Like a journalist, you know?

Or like a documentarian, in the end?

Right? But, for all my movies I spend a long time researching. I feel happier when I’m on the set, believing I am confident in what I’m telling. And this is why I spend a lot of time researching. Some movies I spend more than a year just researching, movies like Enemy at the Gates or The Name of the Rose involved more than a year of research.

With all of the research material on hand, would you say that the writing process on the film took longer or shorter than usual? What surprised you?

What surprised me is how quickly I managed to do it [laughs]. The reason was, partly, because it was during confinement and the pandemic. Wherever I am, I love to see other people, I go to premieres, I go to the theatre, I go to concerts, I have dinners – I was in my country place, with my daughter, her husband, my wife, and I had nothing to do but write the screenplay. So, I started just before Christmas on the first attempt, for which I got a greenlight, and I finished the third screenplay in March. Once France was open again I could meet a lot of people who I had not interviewed yet and I finished the screenplay in July. Basically, I wrote the screenplay in less than six months. And usually it takes… [laughs] It’s a big difference.

notre dame on fire 2

Well, the factual element aside, Notre-Dame is, obviously, important to the film, and (even knowing how things turned out; the cathedral largely stood) it was paramount that the audience care for the building’s survival. As I understand it, you have a history with the cathedral yourself, what does Notre-Dame mean to you and to your film?

Well, I realized I never really thought of it before doing this movie, you know. I choose to do my movies by instinct, and then, sometimes years later, I understand why I did them. And here, I realized – for example, I got my first photo camera when I was 7, and as my mother offered it to me, I took my first picture of my mother. The second picture was of the Gargoyles in Notre-Dame.

Notre-Dame, I think, was a monument I saw a lot, because I was living in the suburbs, and whenever I would go to Paris, we stopped in a railway station, which is just below the cathedral, so I would see this cathedral every… Thursday, usually, that was the day off for the kids. And, once in a while my mother and I would go to burn a candle because a cousin had the flu or whatever. [laughs] She was not religious at all, but I loved that place because it was a mixture of mystery and something that I didn’t experience at home, which was faith. That – I didn’t need to have myself, but it was magic, you know.

I’m telling you about when I was 9 years old or so, and after that, my film school was walking distance, and I was very much in love with a charming student who looked like Brigette Bardot, a just adorable creature. The two of us, we loved classical music, but in particular, organ, and we would go, holding hands, to the cathedral, listening to the organ, in that very beautiful atmosphere with the coloured glass. It was usually after six o’clock, when you had low light – it’s a magical place, it’s beautiful, therefore in a way, this cathedral pushed me to study religion. While I was at the film school, I studied for two years, three religions and the art of religions. This is probably why, instinctively, I did The Name of the Rose, you know?

notre dame on fire 3

Yes, yes, or even Seven Years-

Seven Years in Tibet. It’s the same emotion for me. I remember when I was either in Tibet or Lédat, having the privilege to sit with the monks when they were – Om Mani Padme Hum – with their trunks going [imitates bellowing] my God, it was a privilege. And I’m still very moved by temples of any religion. Such a powerful emotion, I remember visiting a mosque in Djenné, in Northern Mali, and having the same emotion because this is where people pray – and I don’t pray, but I respect people who pray, whatever their religion is. That is why I jumped into it, without really knowing why I wanted to do it, but now I can explain. [laughs]

I wanted to ask, this was such a visually striking event, but thinking back on the film, it’s the sound that really put –

Aha, thank you for that.

Well, I remember thinking when molten lead would slosh, or when characters are walking on this timber that’s cracking, you think something’s going to give way. Could you talk about the process of creating these sorts of sounds, was this a focus of yours?

Well, thank you very much, I’m very, very happy that you’re asking this question – it’s very rare. You know, I spent more time on the sound design then on the screenplay or the shoot. I started working on the sound in June, when I was not yet finished with the shooting, but I had my sound engineer – the main sound editor, on the set and I started explaining to him what I wanted to hear, and they started to work on the different sounds. What you’re mentioning; what is the sound of melted metal… in a gargoyle? Not only is it difficult to understand, but it was extremely difficult to do. We tried with all kinds of equipment, and either it was too light, it would sound like oil, but it’s not oil – it’s very heavy, so we tried it with mercury and mercury is heavy, but it also flows a little bit too much like a liquid. We ended up with something very thick, and we mixed real lead with… I remember we had something made of silicone and yogurt and, I think, some mashed potato [laughs]. Plus the – [imitates bubbling] the bubbles, which we have to record separately, that sound kept my sound people – there were six or seven of them working on it – busy for more than a week on only the sound of that.

Another sound that seems easy to do; I have the whole ceiling of the cathedral falling, which is done on a soundstage. The problem is, as we suspended 75 cubic meters of timber, the ceiling could not support oak, so we did it with balsa. But, balsa falling on a soundstage, does not sound like oak falling to the ground of Notre-Dame. Then my crew went to a place, and they had timbers falling on the ground. When I heard it, I said: “This is not oak, this is pine tree.” And they said: “Yes.” So, we ended up going to a place that had a lot of timber, very old oak, and we rented a very heavy crane to drop the timber onto concrete. But you don’t only have to do that, you have to record it properly.

So, I remember that the sound was taken, of course, with microphones on the ground, but we had one of the recorders attached to the timber in order to have the resonance. You know, the OOMPH. You have the CLACK, the impact, but – the original movie is in Atmos, so we have 75 loudspeakers, and therefore you get into something very complicated where you need the closeup sound, but also, the resonance. In order to have all of that, that sound took my unit two months to make it work. The premixes also took us two months. To simplify, I started working fulltime on the soundtrack in July, and I finished the final mix in March.

notre dame on fire jean jacques annaud

That’s quite the process…

On that note, I have to talk about the music. The composer on the film, after working with me he went to New Zealand with James Cameron to do the score for Avatar. He was second-in-command on the crew that James Horner put together, and James was my composer for the last movies. I was very close to him, unfortunately he crashed in an airplane… but, my composer came to my country place for three weeks, and we’d done all the spotting work together; looking at all the images, talking about the feeling we wanted, because, you know, the score has to help the feeling – not to duplicate what you hear, but to show what you should feel.

So, if you have the impact of the wood – of the timber – don’t ask the musician to go BANGABABOOMGAGADOOM. This is not his job. His job is to go – [imitates hushed choir] – maybe a low voice, a choir. Something that underlines the sorrow of the disaster. That has to be discussed, and you know, when I do postproduction, I am busy from 8 o’clock in the morning until 11 o’clock at night. It’s a beautiful time that I absolutely adore, and most people don’t understand – even my wife, she’s my continuity supervisor, she often asks me: “What do you do all day?”, I say: “Darling, today I had to check that the sound of a drop of melted lead falling onto a medieval piece of wood was correct.” And you cannot find this sound on the internet, you know. It’s not like the CLÜNK-CLÜNK of a clock or a steam train going by.

Those sounds are very complicated, and you are one of the first to ask me precisely about them, but audiences are very good at understanding sound. They don’t realize it’s entirely fabricated, but the sound is vitally important. The sound brings more emotion, and its precisely so with the fire, people have seen the fire on television; they didn’t hear it. The rumble, the roaring of the fire.

There’s a wonderful term for that sort of scoring I heard and pilfered recently, when the music rises and falls in time with something happening on screen, I’m sure you’ve heard it, ‘Mickey-Mousing’, like the old cartoons –

Well, this is what today’s composers complain about, because they’re asked to do ‘Mickey-Mousing’. The typical thing is, you have horses charging, and most directors ask for – BUMBADUMBUMBADUMBUMBADUMBUM – but this is not their role, this is the footstep department, the effects department. Their role is to say the man who is on the horse thinks he is going to die, and he thinks about his beloved girlfriend in Northern Siberia… then we have a solo violin. The soundtrack can go BUMBADUMBUMBADUMBUMBADUMBUM, and the music goes – [hums a romantic tune] – which was the song they would sing together in the forest, etc., etc.

notre dame on fire 4

There is a lot of confusion, and unfortunately, I had endless conversations with James Horner for years about that. He was complaining, saying: “I’m not required to do music, I’m doing sound, sound effects”. It’s because a lot of directors are worried that the film doesn’t have enough power, so they ask the music department to boost it, and it’s a terrible mistake. This is one of the reasons why superhero movies are requiring composers to help the action, not to describe the feeling. ‘Will the guy with the tattoos and his girlfriend with silicone breasts save the world?’ That could make for interesting music maybe, but what they want is to double-up the sound of the tyres on the tarmac – a total mistake in my view. But this is why I’m a great believer in everything people do not understand, in a way that makes movie magic.

We’re running out of time, so my last question; it’s a little gratuitous, but there’s a small montage of reportage on the fire as news stations the world over begin to cover the story, and South Africa’s own ENCA is featured. I have to ask, are these clips tailored for specific markets –

No, no, no…

So we’ve made the cut in every region?

Oh yes, of course. It was very important to me that several continents be featured, so I have one guy from Korea, people from the BBC, some people from CNN, Spanish television, and of course Africa was needed. You’re a big country here, and I liked the guy who was speaking, so it’s been there from the early cuts all the way till all over the world, there’s that guy.

It’s a sort of smaller shade of your experience; you know Notre-Dame, you’ve been there, and you see it burning down, some viewers will have been present at the fire recognizing it on screen, but I remember I watched the broadcast you included –

Oh really! Yes, he was good. I had the whole sequence, and I was very captivated by him. I felt he was one of the very best, and I screened different programs from Japan, Korea, China, which I kept, but shorter than the one from South Africa.

Well, thank you, I’m sure they appreciate it. I think we’ll have to cut things off there –

I see we have the same hairdresser.

Ah, well, I just do nothing, and it ends up like that –

Me as well, I don’t let them near me.

Well, thank you again for your time and conversation.

Thank you.