“All the components of a fiction script were there. In the title role: an international star, Notre-Dame de Paris. Her opponent: a formidable and charismatic demon, fire,” says writer Jean-Jacques Annaud of Notre-Dame on Fire. “This moment in my life has been an enchantment! It only reaffirms an attitude I’ve applied since the start of my career: to always listen to that little bell I hear inside. If it doesn’t ring when I’m considering a potential subject, I drop it. I’m driven solely by enthusiasm.”
Based on the Notre-Dame de Paris fire that occurred on 15 April 2019, the film is directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud from a script written by Annaud and Thomas Bidegain.
I just have to stand on the balcony of my Paris apartment to see her across the way on the other bank of the Seine. I keep talking to her and calling her “my darling”! I ask her, “How are you today?” Of all the actresses I’ve been fortunate enough to direct, Notre-Dame is without a doubt the most dignified, but also the most fragile. She is as beautiful as ever. The most famous cathedral in the world will be undergoing repairs for a long time to come. I am happy to have believed, for a short while, that I was her lover.
Interview with Jean-Jacques Annaud
The incredible adventure of this film actually began on April 15, 2019 for you, the day of the fire in Notre-Dame de Paris…
I was out in Vendée for a few days, in a house where the TV wasn’t working. When I turned on the radio to listen to the address President Macron was about to give, I found out about the tragedy unfolding at Notre Dame. I didn’t see it that evening: I imagined it. I know the cathedral well. As a child, I broke in my first camera, a Kodak Brownie, by photographing the pensive demon along the Chimera Gallery..
Later, an invitation to lunch oriented you toward the idea of making a film about this tragedy…
Jérôme Seydoux, CEO of Pathé, called me in late December 2019. Our relationship goes way back. He put an offer on the table that surprised me. He had in mind a spectacular archive montage film for wide screens and immersive sound on the Notre-Dame fire. At first, I feared there wasn’t enough diverse footage to put together a 90-minute film, but I listened. I left with an envelope full of documentation, including articles in French and English. Before going to bed, I took a look at it. I pored over everything until the wee hours. It was too late or too early to call, but I’d made my decision.
What in these preliminary documents convinced you?
What I discovered in them was unimaginable. A fascinating cascade of setbacks, obstacles, and failures. Totally implausible, yet true. All the components of a fiction script were there. In the title role: an international star, Notre-Dame de Paris. Her opponent: a formidable and charismatic demon, fire. Between the two, ordinary young people prepared to give their lives to save stones. Silver-screen action any scriptwriter might dream of, a visual opera with suspense, drama, generosity, and comedy. Everything struck me as wild, grandiose, burlesque, deeply human… I then needed to verify the accuracy of these extraordinary facts and focus on exactitude. I knew from the start that I would have to collect information, testimonies, and possible hypotheses from those who lived through these mind-blowing hours…
How did you proceed from there?
At first, I decided to stick with the facts and so I undertook to establish a chronology of events. I had a terrible time just pinning down the precise timeline of developments: by comparing the various testimonies I had at that stage, I realized that everyone had his own version of when the smoke and then the flames first appeared, and when the fire department arrived. I quickly understood that in view of the intensity of the moment, no one had time to look at his watch.
I gave Thomas Bidegain, Jacques Audiard’s screenwriter, an embryonic version of the scenario to read. “What could I possibly have to contribute to that?” he asked me after reading it. I explained that I needed the critical eye of a harsh critic and the valuable insight of a talented author.
As you reviewed the events of April 15, 2019, what surprises did you unearth?
The fire was detected at the beginning of Easter Monday Mass, at 6:17 p.m., but it was not brought to the attention of the fire department until a half-hour later, by a friend of General Gallet’s who was on vacation in Florence.
Starting that morning, a relentless sequence of dramatic events was set in motion, in which everything seemed to converge toward inevitable disaster: it was the first day of work at Notre-Dame for the new fire safety guard in charge of monitoring a fire alarm control panel where alarms go off if a fire is detected. He had never visited the cathedral and was unfamiliar with the technical terminology of Gothic architecture. When the alarm went off and an indecipherable code was displayed, he called his boss.
The person in charge was not reachable and didn’t return the call until 15 minutes later. The guard in charge of verifying that a fire has indeed broken out understood through the crackling of his walkie-talkie that he was to check the sacristy attic, whereas the fire had broken out in the attic of the nave. That was just the beginning of a staggering string of mishaps.
A thorny question remains: what was the precise cause of the blaze?
Today, nearly three years later, we still don’t have an official answer. The legal inquiry is ongoing. The film was never envisaged as investigative or aiming to supplant the work of public prosecutors. It evokes various probable causes, but the evidence is lacking. Notre-Dame on Fire deals with the details we know: the saga of saving the cathedral. We recount how the cathedral was rescued, not how or why it was almost destroyed.
The film is a spectacular fresco in which Notre Dame de Paris plays the main role. You were able to shoot a few scenes inside the cathedral, but you had to create a partial replica of the cathedral in the studio…
The building remained inaccessible due to the presence of lead everywhere and the risk of collapse. And in any case, we needed to fill the building with smoke, cover the floor in ash and dust, send down tons of flaming timbers, and flood the paving stones. We rebuilt a replica. Flames were piped through hundreds of adjustable nozzles to light the set on fire.
We rebuilt to scale a large section of the nave, the spiral staircases, the exterior galleries, and the rafters of the north transept, as well as the inside of the enormous bell tower in the final scene. In short, all those emblematic places in Notre-Dame Cathedral that were most affected by the disaster and absolutely had to be shown before and during the fire.
Do you have to be a believer yourself to tackle such a subject?
You have to believe in cinema.
I come from a completely atheist, totally secular, and republican family. The hereafter was an abstract notion in our house, but I remember that around the age of 10-12, I felt something was missing… I made up for it by developing a great interest in medieval architecture. I spent my pocket money on records of sacred music, Gregorian canticles, Tibetan chants, Sahelian songs, Bach oratorios, and Frescobaldi toccatas. In summer, at my request, rather than go to the beach, we toured Breton church closes or the Romanesque basilicas in Auvergne. I can’t recite a single prayer, but I have deep respect for other people’s forms of worship and faith. This explains my fortunate harmony with the Buddhist monks in Seven Years in Tibet, with the desert Bedouins in Black Gold and the strict Benedictine monks in The Name of the Rose. Inside a temple, a mosque, or a church, I like to feel the mystery of a faith I don’t share, the serenity of worship and prayer. The clerics I met when working on Notre-Dame on Fire weren’t surprised that I was the one making the film. And among things, we also hold sacred are firefighters… It’s interesting to see how the two come together on this project…
You do indeed make the firefighters rescuing Notre-Dame the heroes of the story, particularly the six young people who were the first to tackle the flames.
Two young women and two young men just out of adolescence… Out of the four of them, two had never been to a fire. These “probies,” as novice firefighters are called, were under the orders of two young officers hardly older than they are! They arrived in a small truck, a 22-ft. First Response vehicle to fight a fire that was almost 400 feet high. They had a gurney, a ladder, and small-diameter hoses. When I met them during film preparation, I was impressed by their modesty and humility. Never were any of the people in this profession I was learning about proud or boastful. All of them dedicate their lives to those of others, take incredible risks, and have daily brushes with danger and death, but derive no glory from it. When I pointed out to them that their daily tasks were heroic, they dismissed the adjective, embarrassed.
They reminded me of the Paris Fire Brigade doctrine, “risking our lives to save other lives.”
I objected that Notre-Dame is a monument made of stone. They replied that their own lives amounted to little compared to the thousand-year-old stones in one of the most emblematic sanctuaries in the world. They went on to tell the story of how, after wading with water nearly up to the knees through the galleries that had been turned into pools, they regretted being forbidden to get near the flames. Their turnouts are designed to withstand temperatures of 1,300°F. But drenched and exposed to nearly double that temperature, the risk was that the suit would turn into an autoclave and that they would “steam-cook” inside. On that April 15, the temperature at the seat of the fire was over 2,200° F. Listening to them, I fully realized what an ordeal this extraordinary operation actually was. Unbearable heat, suffocating fumes, 40 kilos of equipment on their backs, 15 kilos of hose, helmets, and respirator masks that were necessarily uncomfortable, and all this on a more than hostile site, with, in the upper reaches of the cathedral, incredibly narrow passageways. Less than 50 centimeters wide!
The firefighters’ testimonies were vital for the film. How did you go about approaching them?
During film preparation and the essential work of documentation, we were in the middle of the pandemic, during the first lockdown. Our efforts to contact the major witnesses and actors in the disaster were nevertheless greatly facilitated. To arrange appointments with members of BSPP (the Paris Fire Brigade), JeanYves Asselin, my line producer, went through Lieutenant-Colonel Claire Boët, head of communications. The same goes for the Paris City Hall: Anne Hidalgo let us know very early on that access to the Notre-Dame plaza would be possible during the shooting… Florence Parly, (the Minister of Armed Forces, which oversees the Paris Fire Brigade), as well as the Prefect of Police Didier Lallement
also worked to open doors and close off streets for us.
What is striking when watching your film is the incredible beauty of the images of the fire devouring Notre-Dame. Both terrifying and fascinating!
I agree: Gothic architecture and flames form a very photogenic couple! Among the testimonies were narratives of the arrival of the first-response teams in the vicinity of Notre-Dame as the blaze was already devouring the roof timbers and melting the roof. All of them described an apocalyptic scene, with the fire raging furiously. The fire was so powerful that whole sections of beams were picked up by the updraft and came crashing down on the plaza below and sometimes even much farther away. Ash carried off by the wind fell beyond the Musée d’Orsay!
The gargoyles spat out sulfur-colored fumes and vomited lead from the molten roof… Everyone told me: the first thing that struck them (I use this word deliberately), was the flaming embers that rained down on their helmets and crackled beneath their feet.
In “Notre-Dame on Fire,” the scenes of the fire ravaging the cathedral’s roof structure are particularly intense. How did you approach and shoot them?
The roof structure of Notre-Dame, what was known as the forest, was made of oak beams (some of them more than 900 years old) and went up in smoke in the April 2019 conflagration. We had to replicate this structure, which was unique worldwide and has now vanished, in a scene that took place in the cathedral’s north transept, where the firefighters first intervened. The scenes are highly dramatic and spectacular. We first had the roof structure modeled in 3D and then went on to build it for real. This set was erected in Bry-sur-Marne and we set it on fire. The bells were made of reinforced plaster and could withstand temperatures of 750° F during the shoot.
This long and enthralling adventure is nearly finished. Notre-Dame on Fire is about to be released in theaters. How do you look back on this cinematic odyssey that began, unbeknownst to you, one evening in April 2019?
From the moment I started reading the documents Jérôme Seydoux handed me, I have been excited, captivated, fascinated and surprised by this story. Every morning, from the location scouting to the shooting, including the preparation, the casting, and the post-production, I woke up wanting to hop out of bed and delve into the new day beginning. What’s both amusing and touching, is that I go by Notre-Dame nearly every day. Week after week I see the progress made on this enormous, unique, and historic job site. She has come a long way but she’s still standing. Her story will live on long after mine and ours.
Your film has all the makings of a thriller: the threat is known, you can hear it, imagine it, and you know the damage it will cause, but you can’t see it at first.
That’s how suspended time works: you keep the audience on tenterhooks and sustain their pleasure as long as possible by maintaining the suspense surrounding the fire. I wanted to delay things as long as I could, by sowing a string of clues, by displaying on the screen the hours and minutes before the fire inevitably broke out.
That is in fact what thoroughly fascinated me from the start as I read through the initial documentation: the accumulation of failures in this incident is mind-boggling. I hadn’t realized even a tenth of the truth. You wonder how Notre-Dame managed to be saved at all. To be frank, on the night of the fire, I was sure the cathedral was going to collapse. General Gonthier admitted to me a few months ago that he feared the same. He had planned to sacrifice, so to speak, Notre-Dame and secure the buildings in the vicinity to prevent the fire from spreading to the entire Île de la Cité when the cathedral fell.
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