Understanding the viewpoint of different cultures, and considering the emotions of a group of people once thought to be an enemy, is a motivating theme in director Jean-Jacques Annaud’s new historical adventure drama, ‘Day of the Falcon.’ Based on Hans Ruesch’s 1957 novel, ‘Arab,’ the film chronicles the struggles of two rivaling, powerful families in Saudi Arabia in the mid-twentieth century. Much like contemporary time, the clans are fighting over their bordering land and oil, and it takes a surprising marriage between two of their children to put their fighting into perspective.
‘Day of the Falcon’ follows two rival rulers in Saudi Arabia, Sultan Amar (Mark Strong) and Emir Nesib (Antonio Banderas), who agree, after a costly war, that the so-called Yellow Belt between them will become neutral territory. To guarantee the peace, Emir takes Sultan’s two young sons hostage. Sultan and Emir uphold the truce until an American prospector discovers oil in the Yellow Belt.
The prospect of the oil’s untold wealth immediately threatens the balance of power, as Emir becomes eager to grasp the opportunities offered by modernity, while Amar remains dedicated to faith and tradition. When conflict breaks out, however, it’s the unlikely figure of Sultan’s bookish younger son, Auda (Tahar Rahim), who surprisingly proves the most cunning warrior. Emir’s daughter, Princess Leyla (Freida Pinto), who develops a romantic interest in Auda, marries him in an effort to bridge their families together.
Annaud generously took the time recently to talk about shooting ‘Day of the Falcon’ over the phone. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed why showcasing the epic nature of the Muslim world convinced him to adapt ‘Arab’ for the screen and direct the historical adventure drama; how he hired a multicultural cast, in order to showcase the diversity of Saudi Arabia; and how the movie has become an unexpected success in the Muslim world.
Question (Q): You both directed, and helped in adapting ‘Day of the Falcon’s story from Hans Ruesch’s novel, ‘Arab.’ Why were you interested in both adapting the novel, and directing the film?
Jean-Jacques Annaud (JJA): I was looking for an Arab story. I’ve spent most of my time in France, and there’s negative behavior towards the Muslim world and the Arab world. I wanted to have a different voice, and shoot something different about this world.
I wanted to tell it from an Arab point-of-view, but I’m not Muslim. I have nothing to do with this part of the world. But I was grateful to this country for what they’ve been bringing over the centuries to the world. It was a personal decision to find a subject that would find the epic and lyrical aspect of the Muslim world.
Q: How familiar were you with Hans’ novel before you began working on the ‘Day of the Falcon,’ and how closely did you reference the book while you were shooting the movie?
JJA: The book was inspired by the true life of the king who founded Saudi Arabia. It’s a book that I had read, and documentation not for a movie that I was preparing. A friend of mine gave me the book, and it was one of the best books about his life. I became very captivated by the story, knowing that it was a story that was reflecting the truth about a period of a transition of this part of the world and the new world. It showed the intrusion of the west into Saudi Arabia.
Q: ‘Day of the Falcon’ is led by a diverse cast, including Antonio Banderas, who stars as Emir Nesib, and Freida Pinto, who portrays Princess Leyla. What was the casting process like for the main actors, including Antonio and Freida?
JJA: Well, most people don’t know that Saudi Arabia is not populated by a consistent people. A lot of the people from the North were descendants of the Crusaders and were from Spain and the Sahara and Indonesia. So I wanted the movie to show that diversity.
People are surprised that the area isn’t all Arab. They may be Muslim, but there are a lot of black people, coming from Ethiopia. There’s a black woman in the movie, and a black general. This is to show how diverse the area is.
Q: You shot the film in Tunisia, the smallest country in North Africa, where the majority of the population is Muslim. Since ‘Day of the Falcon’ is centered on the controversial war over oil, was there any pressure to portray the story in a way that would appeal to audiences internationally?
JJA: No. Fortunately, I’ve had a very free career. I didn’t feel any pressure in Tunisia, because it’s a place with very good crews and landscapes. I didn’t receive any pressure from the Tunisian government. We never discussed one word of the screenplay. It was a film that was financed by Universal and Warner Brothers, so it was a western approach from western countries, like England and Germany and Italy, looking with a warm heart at Arabia.
Q: Since the movie focuses on such the debated topic of oil, did you receive any criticism or obstacles while filming? What kinds of reactions have you been receiving from audiences so far?
JJA: What’s happening with this movie is that some countries don’t want to see a movie about Arabs. In the Arab world, the movie is a success, which was unexpected. I never know how a movie’s going to be received.
When I shot ‘The Lover’ in Vietnam, I didn’t know the movie was going to be well-received in this part of the world. As a matter of fact, it became a great success. It seems like it plays on TV every month in Indonesia. Here, in the western countries, the movie was extremely well received, to my surprise.
Q: The movie follows the children of the two rivaling leaders as they marry, in hopes of bringing their families together and end the violence in their land. Why was it important to you to include the romantic aspect in the film?
JJA: Well, it’s a truth of that world, as it’s a tradition. If you look at the news, you hear families in charge of those countries strive to have a truce, since they’re always fighting, and the answer is to marry. In history, there are many stories of families experiencing hatred and love.
Q: Do you think the love story accurately depicts a growing trend in Tunisia and the Muslim world of the younger generations’ desire and hope for peace?
JJA: While researching and shooting the film, I lived in that part of the world, so I can’t have the same point-of-view as Americans. But this generation is starting a revolution because they want a change. They don’t like what they go through. The older generation is extremely closed off to the thoughts of other countries. It broke my heart to see how tough it was for them, but I shot the movie in the middle of the revolution.
I picked the project, because I felt there was a need for change in the country. I went through those changes, and it was very difficult, of course. The revolution doesn’t take a year to change things; it takes years of drama to make change.
Q: ‘Day of the Falcon’ is already available on VOD, and Image Entertainment will release the movie in theaters on March 1. Why did you decide to have a VOD and theatrical release for the film? Do you think it will reach more audiences by playing on both platforms?
JJA: Well, I think this is the kind of movie that has to reach people who are intrigued or interested in the subject. So the film should reach people who may not necessarily be able to go see it in the theater. Of course, I shot it for the large screen. But, as it seems with my previous movies, they seem to have long shelf lives on DVD and TV. So I shoot my movies in that perspective.
Q: You have previous experience working in the action and adventure genres with such films as ‘Seven Days in Tibet’ and ‘Enemy at the Gated.’ What is it about the genre that you enjoy so much?
JJA: When I was a kid, I was living in a suburb, and I rather liked large scopes and adventure and epic films. It takes you away from daily life. So it’s something I enjoy physically, and I adore shooting in front of a large landscape.
Q: Do you have any upcoming projects lined up, whether writing or directing, that you can discuss?
JJA: Yes, I’m starting in April on another epic movie, and it’s set in China and Mongolia. It’s based on the best-selling novel of all time in China. It’s a great honor and excitement to be doing it. I’ll be spending the next year of my life in this magnificent country.