Luc Jacquet • Director
by Camillo de Marco
13/12/2005 - 10m euros grossed in France, $80m at the North American box office (the best result ever for a French film abroad). These numbers make March of the Penguins [trailer], by biologist and documentary filmmaker Luc Jacquet, the event of the year. Especially because the film is not a special effects-laden colossal, or a love story between high-priced stars, but a documentary on penguin procreation in the Antarctic. It is the most seen documentary of all time on the big screen, after the exploits of Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 from 2003.
How do you explain the film’s huge success?
Luc Jacquet: I still ask myself how a film with few resources, without special effects and with a very simple story, could be so successful. A film without violence, sex or car chases. There are no a priori recipes. I told a simple story and I’m happy that audiences reacted as they did.
This is not, however, your usual nature documentary. March of the Penguins is a love story on ice, full of surprises.
It’s true that this is a powerful and beautiful story, and the penguin is an animal endowed with a natural likeability that has always attracted human beings. It is a fairy tale. The ancient story of penguins and their fight to propagate life was lying dormant among the ice. It’s strange that no one had told it yet.
Americans like it so much that it beat out Cruise and Spielberg’s War of the Worlds at the box office…
I never would have guessed it! I think audiences are sick of special effects, tired of angst. In my film, there is life, love and death. Yet the message is optimistic. The Emperor Penguin is, furthermore, as expressive as man: it looks at you, it strikes an attitude. What I tried to make was a hybrid between a documentary and a fictional film: the story is true but I tried to convey my own emotions to the public. More than a documentary filmmaker, I am a narrator. I nevertheless took a gamble on the…actors. And this is how it differs from classical films. Take Free Willy, the Hollywood film about an orca. Or The Bear or the recent Two Brothers by my fellow countryman Jean-Jacques Annaud. Animals submitting to the image that man has of them. I believe in the proverb that says, “If you want to dominate nature, obey her." I recognize myself more in Kipling than in Disney or Cousteau.
Why penguins? How did the idea for the film come about?
March of the Penguins came about accidentally, when I was still a biology student and I answered an ad that was seeking a biologist willing to spend 14 months at the confines of the world in order to observe that species’ behaviour. That experience changed my life. When I came back, I decided to leave university and become a documentary filmmaker. I felt a I really needed to relate what I’d seen. After 12 years and a number of documentaries for French television, I finally made March of the Penguins.
13 months of shooting among the ice at 40 degrees below zero. What were the problems of shooting in the Antarctic?
Actually, the most difficult thing was finding a producer, because sending a group of people to the Antarctic is a somewhat crazy adventure and presents various risks seeing as how the place is rather dangerous. Fortunately, we had polar cameramen down there who backed us. But the biggest unknown is nature itself, and you never know if you’ll be able to shoot the following day, because if weather conditions are awful, they prevent you from working. It was a huge challenge but also a huge pleasure.
But someone did believe in your project.
It wasn’t easy to find the financing. Picture the faces of the producers to whom I went asking for money just to show half an hour of marching penguins. I got the money from a small production company, Bonne Pioche, but the story seemed so interesting that from a TV film it transformed into an actual feature, with Buena Vista and Canal+ coming aboard, as well as co-production company APC. I made it with very limited resources and thanks to the help of the French-Italian Polar Institute, which gave us as much support as it could: a place to sleep and eat, technical assistance, and even a doctor in case we needed one.
Is the growing interest in documentaries a good sign?
It allows me to hope for the future of cinema, it means that there is still room for something different.