Luc Jacquet, the Academy Award winning documentary film-maker (March of the Penguins), has been in the documentary film making business for a number of years. A writer, director and cinematographer, Jacquet was most recently nominated for the Golden Eye Award at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 for his recent documentary feature “Ice and the Sky”, which had the honor of being the closing film for the festival. Written and directed by Luc Jacquet, and produced by Richard Grandpierre with unbelievable astounding cinematography from Stephane Martin, this extraordinary documentary explores the life of renowned and respected scientist Claude Lorius, and the historical scientific discoveries he made about global warming through archival footage, interviews, personal photos, and on location filming. This year, “Ice and the Sky” was screened at the 24th Annual Environmental Film Festival in Washington D.C. We had the privilege of speaking with this extraordinarily insightful and talented filmmaker about his new documentary.
JF: Would you like to talk about your background, and how you got started in film-making?
LJ: Yes. My education is in biology and animal behavior. When I was twenty-four years old, I had the opportunity to go to the French Antarctica station. I like biology and bioenergy. At that time, a Swiss filmmaker asked me if I would take some pictures of the penguins for a feature film; of course I said yes. It was the starting point, already it was so easy. At the beginning I wanted to be a scientist, but I changed my mind. I decided to go for the documentaries and filmmaking, because it was probably more close to science. That’s what I really like to do in the life other than making films; I still have a foot in the science all the time. I try to make the bridge between natural history, science and storytelling.
JF: What inspires you most about making documentaries?
LJ: Two main things: The first is I have like special sensitivity for the natural things. My genes are like that. I can stay for hours in front of a landscape just for the pleasure and enjoy nature. The second point is I think we have to take care of our landscape to stay alive on this planet and to give to our children. I think like a filmmaker and as a scientist; for me it’s like a moral obligation to do something and try to find a way to explain to people through emotion, and give them the will to do something for nature conservancy.
JF: Why did you want to make “Ice and Sky”?
LJ: First, the film is about Claude Lorius, a great scientist, and it’s a special moment in my life. After the “March of the Penguins”, I tried to find the means to make film more politically engaging and more concerned with the natural conservancy issues, because after Academy Awards a lot of scientists asked me to help them with films to explain what are they doing; what are the big issues of nature conservancy. I decided to set up Wild-Touch, and we did a lot of things around the forest, and made “Once Upon the Forest”. Then, we did also made “Ice and the Sky” in this same way. The idea is to mix science, cinema, and emotion to explain to people what are we talking about when we are talking about to saving the primary forest; what are we talking about when we are talking about global warming.
JF: Did the story come first, or was it meeting Claude that came first?
LJ: It was the meeting with Claude which inspired me.
JF: How did you meet him?
LJ: By chance. He was the leader of the scientific institute in France; he was very well known when I was working in Antarctica. One day in Paris, he was at a book signing; he had written a book about how mankind is making an impact on the Earth that it can be traced in geology and in the actual physical makeup of the Earth. I met him at the book signing. He started to explain to me his own personal history, and I was very amazed to see how his personal destiny was very close to the changing in how we behave with the nature. Claude was the very first to discover that in the ice of Antarctica there are small bubbles of air. It is through this air that he was able to measure the evolution of carbon dioxide/monoxide. He was the very first to say that there is something happening around us, and we cannot continue to behave in this way if we want to survive on this planet. It’s interesting, because he had to fight for that. He went on probably more than 20 expeditions, and at least 22 expeditions in Antarctica. All his life has been a fight to raise the awareness of the people about global warming.
JF: I’ve had a lot of documentary filmmakers say that it’s important to establish trust when they have a person that they’re documenting. What are your thoughts on that?
LJ: It’s a huge responsibility to write the story of someone’s life. You must be very close to him and of course you have to have a special link and a very strong link. During all the process of the film, Claude was with me and I was asking ‘How do you feel?’, ‘Is it the truth?’ I asked a lot of people around him to explain how he was in the past. You must be very confident in the person you are working with otherwise it doesn’t work. Claude was very confident as well, because he was an old man when we went to the location for the shooting of the film. He was so happy to be with a bunch of crazy guys filming everywhere.
JF: How long did it take to shoot?
LJ: I did a lot of small shooting over about three years, because it was very difficult to fund.
JF: How did you write the script for the narration?
LJ: I worked with my editor. I wrote it based on a lot of documents and interviews. I wrote the script while editing the film, because I’m following the story-line. We were working with archives. The story was quite obvious, because the key point of the life of Claude and key point of the history of the global warming were very well known.
JF: There were so many wonderful scenes. Could I ask you about a few of them?
LJ: Of course.
JF: In the beginning, the narrator was talking about the isotropic phenomenon and the isotropic thermometer and the discovery of it. I think you mentioned it earlier about the bubbles from the ice and the narrarator mentions how hydrogen levels are lighter in the winter. Had you known about that before or was it a new?
LJ: No it was very new for me. It was also a great challenge to talk about the isotropic thermometer in the film, because nobody knows about it. [laughing] There is absolutely no picture of it, because it’s so small. I had to interpret and explain it; because of course I didn’t have anything. Of course when you are talking about science sometimes you have to get creative to explain it to other people that aren’t scientists.
JF: There were many touching things in the film; one of which was when Claude was talking about his mission in 1981 during the Cold War, when he went back with a team with Russians on an international team to finish the drilling. They put their differences aside to find something really incredible. What are your thoughts on that sequence?
LJ: Antarctica gives you a special way to see how to be with other people. You feel so weak when you’re in Antarctica. You need the others, and you need to help each others just to survive. The political aspect of everything is not so important when you’re in those extreme conditions. All of those guys were from the same generation. They did have the same background and the same experience, and able to put the political issues aside and work for science and for the wellbeing of humanity. The first drilling was in the 70’s and they drilled back more than 40,000 years. Then in 1981 they drilled down to 150,000 years, 400,000 years and 800,000 years. It’s a very nice story for me. It’s a way of adding hope about humanity.
JF: What were your favorite scenes in your film?
LJ: I’m very moved by the image of Claude when he’s 23 when he gets onboard to the boat. I can relate to it, because he was so young and naïve.
JF: Could you relate because you were the same age when you started out in the Antarctica?
LJ: Yes. At the beginning was just a young guy leaving for adventure and it’s very emotional.
JF: What were some of the biggest challenges you had filming?
LJ: It’s an experience to film at -57 degrees Celsius. It was a challenge for me, and I like to experience these kinds of extreme adventures.
JF: What was the most difficult part of filming?
LJ: The most difficult was to find to find the archives themselves, and then the path through them. It was not just a phone call someone to find them. We had to search everywhere; archives in many countries and science foundations as well. We had to call all the colleagues of Claude to find special images of him at each stage of the life. It was also like a nightmare to finance this kind of film.
JF: What do you hope that people will take away from your film?
LJ: The main thing is with shear will you can do a lot, and Antarctica is a very good school for that. You learn the power of the will, and you learn the power of people getting together for a common goal. The mix of different skills, different tempers, and different characters in a small group against the absolutely horrible conditions in Antarctica can make a lot happen. I also like the idea of science being a source of hope for humanity; we have to be confident in science. We have to make a choice, and if we believe in science we have to believe in all science. It’s not a matter of French or American or whatever; the science in the film is produced by a bunch of people coming from everywhere, and validated by people from all the countries. As a father, I cannot imagine leaving my children nasty air to breathe. I cannot leave them with this very dire situation and what could be the Earth in 20 years if we don’t change things; it would be absolutely irresponsible. It’s not a matter of to be rich, or a matter of race; it’s a matter of just common sense.
JF: What did you learn that you wish that you knew when you just started out making films, and what advice would you give others just starting out?
LJ: Wow, [laughter] when I look back I think I was so lucky. You have to be lucky to make films really. It’s more and more difficult to finance independent films. I say to be strong, and believe in your destiny. Believe in what you are dreaming on. Believe in your own vision and go, go, go, go. My oldest daughter wants to be filmmaker like her father. I am wondering what advice I can give to her. Of course, go to school, and have a very open mind, work a lot. You have to work a lot; this is basic. Be lucky; [Laughing] which is very difficult. We will find a new way to finance and produce independent films, which at this point is very difficult.
JF: Is there anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t asked you?
LJ: The relationship I have with the Environmental Film Festival in D.C.; they believe in me, and support my work. This is my third time in the festival and they are friends of mine now. For a filmmaker, it’s very important to find this kind of very comfortable opportunity to show what you really like to do, movies. I support them a lot.
JF: Thank you very much for your time.