An unsmiling Luc Jacquet leans across the table for dramatic effect. He is about to make a shocking statement. And what he has to say appears to be serious. But how could he possibly be serious?
How could the filmmaker have the nerve to claim that he was not surprised by the success of his movie "March of the Penguins"? How could he say that he wasn’t surprised by its worldwide gross of $106 million, making it the second biggest documentary of all time behind Michael Moore’s "Fahrenheit 9/11"?
How could he say he wasn’t surprised that his little film about the breeding rituals of emperor penguins in Antarctica would turn Hollywood on its collective ear?
AN UNEXPECTED SMASH
"The word ‘surprise’ is not powerful enough to describe my reaction to what happened to this film," he says.
In case you missed it when it hit theaters earlier this year, "March of the Penguins" follows the agonizingly slow annual migration of one colony of emperor penguins across the ice to a favorite breeding area.
Buffeted by 100-mile-anhour winds and chilled by a temperature that dips to 37 degrees below zero, the female bird lays a single egg, which is transferred to the care of the male penguin. The male sits on the egg for the next two months, while the female makes the long trek back to the feeding areas. Once hatched, the baby penguins can survive only a short time on the nutritional reserves of the males, who don’t eat for the entire two-month period.
It becomes a life-anddeath race against the clock — will the females make it back in time to relieve the males and feed the chicks? With Morgan Freeman’s narration, it seems even more dramatic than it already is.
The 37-year-old Jacquet, a former biologist from a small town outside Lyon, France, didn’t even know how to operate a camera until he joined a documentary film crew in 1992. For "Penguins," He spent 13 months on the ice with his crew of five.
Once it was finished, he showed it to friends. He said he trusted these friends to be honest with him, and they told him they loved the movie. He still wasn’t
But audiences responded. "March of the Penguins" became one of France’s five biggest films of the year — of all films released, not just documentaries.
RETOOLED FOR AMERICAN AUDIENCES
After seeing the film at the Sundance Film Festival, Warner Bros. bought the rights to distribute the film in the United States, and immediately pumped an additional $600,000 into the post-production budget (the original budget was $2.4 million) to add some music but, more important, to change the narration.
In the original French version, the story is told from the perspective of one of the penguins. Freeman was brought in to give a more traditional narration. American audiences liked what they saw — to the tune of $77 million.
"I don’t really know why it was so successful," he says. "There was an element of magic to this film. It was sprinkled with fairy dust."
Jacquet said he has not been back to Antarctica since he completed filming in December.
"But I want to go back," he says. "I want to go back if for no better reason than to find some peace."
Clearly, the last year has been as grueling as it has been triumphant for the filmmaker. But he knows he can’t really go back to Antarctica just yet. He probably has someplace he needs to be on March 5.
"March of the Penguins" is a likely contender in this year’s documentary Oscar race.
"The whole notion of an Oscar is so imposing," he said. "It is such a beautiful award, almost a coronation, that I can’t take that intellectual road right now.
"My film has already been embraced by the world. That is enough. I’m not sure it needs an Oscar. But if we do end up going to the Oscars, it would be like going to the ball, and our little film would be Cinderella."