The wild story behind Quest For Fire — the oddly Canadian film that narrowly avoided disaster

Elephants trained like mammoths. Erupting volcanoes. Fake languages. Prehistoric sex. How did they make it out alive and to the Oscars?!

Erupting volcanoes. Fake languages. Prehistoric sex. How did they make it out alive and to the Oscars?!

On the set of Quest For Fire. (Fox)

The year 1977 was an auspicious one for Jean-Jacques Annaud. The French filmmaker, then 29, had made his first feature film, La victoire en chantant, and it won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Annaud, who previously had mostly directed TV commercials, soon felt the Oscar effect. 

"The day after, an agent showed up in Paris and signed me," he tells CBC Arts. "I began receiving screenplays for very expensive films."

But Annaud — now in Montreal in post-production for the TV miniseries The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair — says he had good reason to pause, despite the lucrative offers.

"I had seen so many directors from abroad go to Hollywood, being impressed by the mirage, and then subsequently crushed by the system. So I said to myself that I should wait."

He was discussing film ideas with screenwriter Gerard Brach, and Annaud said he liked the idea of doing a film about prehistorical fears. They talked about the book Quest for Fire, a Belgian novel written in 1911, and liked the idea of adapting it to the big screen. But Brach wondered what language the characters would speak, seeing as the action took place tens of thousands of years ago.

Jean-Jacques Annaud on set. (Jean-Jacques Annaud)

"We'll make our own language," Annaud said. "Why not? If you see two people having a passionate fight in a language you don't understand, do you need to understand the words to know what they're fighting about?"

So Annaud began forging ahead with the idea for Quest for Fire, a film set in prehistoric times in which a tribe has their fire doused, and thus must travel miles to find a new spark. Studio executives balked, as the film would require trained elephants, elaborate battle scenes, scantily-clad actors and multiple location shoots. This was, after all, long before the development of computer-generated imagery, so there was no way to create things after the shoot with digital effects.

"People thought I was entirely crazy," confirms Annaud. "They would say, 'What else can we offer you?' I was a hot property in those days. People wanted to hire me. People in Hollywood want to have a five-star chef cooking a hamburger. Directors are flattered, but they do shit. I wanted to do something else."

We had been training elephants to behave like mammoths for six months. Due to strict laws around transporting four-legged animals in and out of Iceland, we couldn't get them into the country on time. Then, a volcano erupted near where the ranch we had built for them was located. And the delays saved the elephants.- Jean-Jacques Annaud, filmmaker

Distinct cinematic imaginations led to distinct funding models, as Annaud ended up meeting up with Montreal producers who liked the idea. He had already hired a French writer, composer and cinematographer, so Quest for Fire became a Canada-France co-production (these days co-pros are common, but in 1981 they were far more unusual).

"I guaranteed I would shoot half the film in Canada, which was fine, because after spending some time here, I realized you could find almost any location you needed," he says.

The logistics for creating such a film were as epic as the film itself. It was clear Quest for Fire was going to be expensive, had dialogue uttered in no known language and featured a cast of then-unknowns (including future Hellboy Ron Perlman and Edmonton-born Rae Dawn Chong).

"The cast all got Screen Actors Guild [union] cards as we signed them," Annaud recalls. "And then SAG went on strike within a few days." And then, there was the elephant issue: "We had been training elephants to behave like mammoths for six months. Those elephants were on contract to be back at their circuses in September. We had to shoot soon, but couldn't. Due to strict laws around transporting four-legged animals in and out of Iceland, we couldn't get them into the country on time. Then, a volcano erupted near where the ranch we had built for them was located. And the delays saved the elephants, because if they had been there, they would have perished."

The shoot was gruelling, as Chong confirms from her Los Angeles home: "The horror was real," she says. "It was hellacious — the most trying, almost soul-killing experience making that film. There was zero clothing, a language we couldn't understand, treacherous conditions, and for what? JJ is the type of director that I hear James Cameron is like: brilliant, but keeps his vision protected so you literally have no idea what is happening or if it is working."

Annaud did eventually make amends, Chong recalls: "It was so bad that 33 years later JJ took us out to dinner to apologize — especially to me."

But when the film came out, it drew mostly strong reviews and became a bit of a sensation. The New York Times critic Janet Maslin noted Quest for Fire's nutty premise, but stated that it "earned" the audience's suspension of disbelief. Roger Ebert also praised the film, though did admit it clearly risked sliding into unintentional comedy.

There was zero clothing, a language we couldn't understand, treacherous conditions, and for what? JJ is the type of director that I hear James Cameron is like: brilliant, but keeps his vision protected so you literally have no idea what is happening or if it is working.- Rae Dawn Chong, actress

Annaud confirms tone was something he was worried about.

"When I was shooting north of Toronto, on the weekends people would visit us. When I would see their faces, I would see how they'd look at the actors, who were wearing furs and in bare feet with lots of makeup on. They thought we were crazy. They would see the actors dressed as prehistoric creatures drinking Coke and would take pictures. It all looked ridiculous."

But he didn't mind if it turned into a slapstick comedy. "I said to myself, 'OK, I'm 35. I have an Academy Award. If I don't take risks now, I will never achieve anything different. Why make films? If I fail, at least I'll remember that I tried to do something different.'"

Quest for Fire would win five Genie Awards (the then-equivalent of an Oscar in Canada) including Best Actress for Chong and the Cesar (France's Oscars) for Best Picture, not to mention an actual Oscar for Best Makeup. Annaud says he was approached about possible sequels, including Quest for Water and Quest for Iron, but turned them down.

Rae Dawn Chong in Quest For Fire. (Fox)

Despite its success, there were some who didn't appreciate the film. "I got hundreds of letters from the Bible belt. People wrote to me to explain that man was created 6,000 years ago. Being French and given the locations in the film, many assumed that I came from an African country and was simply uneducated about such things. So they sent me books, including children's books, in which God was a man with a beard who was creating man. The film didn't work in that part of America."

But controversy or not, Quest for Fire made money. "The entire cheque went to pay for my divorce," Annaud recalls. "But I got my freedom, both artistic and private."

Jean-Jacques Annaud will present a special screening of Quest for Fire this Friday, May 11, at the Outremont Theatre in Montreal at 8pm. A Q&A with the director will follow the screening. Tickets: $12.50, $10 for students and seniors.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.