The domestication of fire was the key development that separated hominids from the rest of the animal kingdom, enabled them to live in hostile environments and spurred the development of language and agriculture. Through this brilliant exercise in backward extrapolation, we get a glimpse of what it might have been like, 80,00 years ago.
by Ed Naha
Two distinguished looking gentlemen sit behind a desk in an dance studio-office in the heart of the city.
Two men and a woman, dressed casually, stand before them.
One of the men at the desk lapses into a strange, fluid body movement. His shoulders are slumped forward. His hands undulate languidly at his sides.
The trio before him begins mimicking his movements.
After a few moments, the instructor at the desk nods affirmatively. The threesome has done well.
The second man, sitting, begins making an animalistic, gutteral sound. He repeats it over and over again until the trio begins chanting it like some primordial mantra. The three then combine the sound with the action they’ve just learned.
The two men at the desk, anthropologist Desmond Morris, author of The Naked Ape, and scholar Anthony Burgess, author of A Clockwork Orange, smile in a brief show of satisfaction.
Six months following this session, actors dressed in animal skins and looking more simian than human will “ape” the work of Morris and Burgess before a motion picture camera as part of a daring $12 million production, Quest for Fire. A cinematic first, Quest for Fire is a realistic action-adventure that takes place 80,000 years ago. No English is spoken during the course of the film—its characters relying on a primative lexicon of barely recognizable verbal and physical skills to communicate their thoughts and feelings.
Quest for Fire is more than a mere screen oddity. It is a remarkable ambitious project that has, accordingly, been plagued by problems since its inception.
Based on the enormously successful French novel Le Guerre de Feu by J. H. Rosny, the film lurched to life over four years ago, died nearly half a dozen times and was completed only because of the dedication of the cast, crew and such filmmakers as director Jean-Jacques Annaud, executive producer Michael Gruskoff and producers John Kemeny and Denis Heroux. Their faith in the project has bordered on monomania and earned them the reputation of madmen in Hollywood.
“We’re all really fanatical about this film,” admits Gruskoff while in New York for another production. “When you casually glance at what we’re trying to accomplish, you’re immediately struck by the audaciousness of it; the uniqueness of it. There was no way we were going to abandon our project just because of a few problems along the way. ” He pauses for a moment, then smiles. “All right. More than a few problems.”
The project (and the problems) began a few years ago when director Annaud, fresh from winning an Oscar for his 1978 film Black and White In Color, expressed interest in adapting a French novel on prehistoric times to the screen.
Tapping the talents of screenwriter Gerard Brach (who penned Polanski’s Knife In the Water, Cul de Sac and Tess) and enlisting the aid of producer Gruskoff, Annaud got the production underway.
The final script centered around the plight of the Ulam tribe who, when attacked by the Neanderthal Wagabou mob, lose their most prized possession, fire.
Realizing that, without fire, they cannot exist but not being bright enough to possess the knowledge of fire building, they send out three of their finest warriors, Naoh, Amou-kar and Gaw (Everett McGill, Ron Perlman and Nameer El Kadi) to find a burning bush and bring it back in a specially made fire cage.
The trio begins an odyssey that brings them into contact with mammoths, bears, wolves, sabre toothed lions, cannibals and the clever Ivaka tribe; a brainy bunch who possess both the knowledge of fire starting and some additional sparks, via the presence of sultry Ika (Rae Dawn Chong).
No Short Cuts Allowed
Script in hand, the filmmakers began the lofty climb toward prehistoric perfection. “We were never tempted to take any short cuts,” says Gruskoff. “Four years ago, I realized that the only way to do this was to not cop out. We had to try to transport audiences back into another environment convincingly.
“If we couldn’t do that, we wouldn’t have an audience. We had to grab them in the very first sequence and make them believe in this film, in this world, in these characters. By taking short cuts and doing it in the usual, Hollywood back lot way, we never could have accomplished this. I can’t tell you how many people turned me down until Alan Ladd at 20th Century-Fox said ‘OK, do it your way.’ ”
A skeleton crew was assembled and, while some members of the team scouted locations, Annaud interviewed young actors. “I wanted terrific actors with strong faces and strong bodies,” says Annaud. “They would have to be acrobats in a way, be in excellent physical condition and be ready to shoot in horrible climatic conditions.
‘.‘In order to find these actors, these gems, I flew all over to casting sessions: Mexico City, Los Angeles, Paris, London, Montreal, Toronto, Rome, Ireland, Nairobi, Vancouver.”
Once the young thespians were chosen, the filmmakers decided to fly them all into London for mime sessions taught by master-mime Desmond Jones. At that point, an inspiration hit Gruskoff.
“We always wanted to create a new language for the film,” he recalls. “But a friend at Fox suggested that we might as well go all the way and have one concocted that was as historically valid as possible. We went to Anthony Burgess. He’s a linguist. He speaks 13 languages.
“Right about that time, we thought of coupling Burgess’ work with that of Desmond Morris. We wanted our movie to be as as authentic as possible. Since the film is fiction, however, we asked these two great minds to improvise for us. Morris was as skilled at body language as Burgess was at linguistics. Eventually, we put them both together in the same room with Desmond Jones. We also had three actors present. First, Morris would show them his body movement. Then, Burgess would give the corresponding word. Jones would then supervise the movements. The actors at the sessions would later tutor our cast in the fine art of prehistoric communication.
“Just how accurate is our system?” the producer muses. “Well, since no one was around 80,000 years ago, nobody can point a finger at us and say that we’re dead wrong. Let’s just say that we’ve taken a pretty educated guess about all this.”
Creating an unknown Language
For Morris and Burgess, the film provided an exciting chance to dabble in fantasy while relying on a firm scientific background. “We’re dealing here with the ice-age period,” says Morris. “We’re back 50,000 to 100,000 years ago; back at a time when all we have to go on is evidence from cave paintings, from bones, from remains in caves and from simple weapons and tools that have survived. As far as the social life of these people is concerned, we have to use our imaginations.
“There’s a great deal of poetic license involved in this, of course, but it isn’t just poetry. One knows the kind of environment these people lived in. One knows the kind of implements they used and from this, one can guess, reasonably accurately, some of the types of movements and gestures and actions and body postures they would have employed.
“These people would have had a fairly rich gestural life in which, by hand movements and gestures, they would have been able to indicate their changing moods and emotions. We’ve tried to steer clear of the chest-thumping movie idea of civilizations past and rely on logical assumptions.”
Burgess approached his task of coming up with a corresponding verbal language with equal enthusiasm. “We’ve been taught to think by films that primitive man just used grunts. ‘Uh! Oh! Ah!,’ ” he says.
“It wasn’t really like that in real life because men probably developed language in order to cope with a situation when visual gestures were no use. At night, for example, there was always fear. Fear of wild animals, fear of the dark itself, and so on.
“One can imagine a primitive community with a man, a guard, a sentinel, talking all the time just to assure them that he was there. So, primitive language was what we call agglutinative: it was gluey. Words were glued together in a long stream.”
Accordingly Burgess devised a short language wherein a single “root” word could be adorned with various suffixes which would form different meanings. “The word we used for fruit,” he explains by way of example, “was bouaa. But a fruit from a tree would be a bouailt. ‘lit’ indicating height.”
After the language and gestures were conceived and assimilated by the cast, the actors prepared themselves for the months of shooting. Then, disaster struck. The 1980 Screen Actors strike brought production to a grinding halt. Each day of the strike cost the film money. Before a single foot of film could be shot, the project was already near financial collapse.
Gruskoff was undaunted. “There was no way that I was not going to see this film made,” he states. “It had to have the finest production values imaginable. If that meant that I had to raise millions more just to keep it afloat, then that’s what I had to do.”
Gruskoff was bailed out by Canadian producers Kemeny and Heroux, the pair responsible for last year’s hit, Atlantic City. The twosome supplied both cash and enthusiasm.
A unique Production
“I was immediately attracted to the film because of its uniqueness,” explained Kemeny. “It was different than any other film I’d ever encountered. It occurred to me that it was a very risky film to get involved with but, then again, there is a risk in making any film.
“Personally, I think this movie will be a big success because it’s so unique. People today are looking for something different from their entertainment. They’ve been taken forward in time into the distant future in a lot of films but they’ve never been given a realistic depiction of the distant past.”
With the new flow of cash, production was buoyed once again. By this time, however, many of the original locations were unusable because of changing weather conditions. While new locations were found, the actors continued their preparations for their roles.
“I had to do a lot of exercises,” says Rae Dawn Chong (daughter of Tommy Chong of Cheech and same), “and what they called ‘dumping out’ with mimes Desmond Jones and Peter Elliot. We all went out and studied chimps at zoos throughout England and Los Angeles. We rode elephants and did a lot of squatting. The film called for a lot of physical work as well as the mental work of being able to display an emotion without words but through sheer feeling.”
New locations were decided upon and the cast was shipped off to freezing Canada and Scotland and torrid Kenya. Since most of them wore loincloths and belts (if that) for the entire movie, the extreme conditions of the location sites did not exactly overjoy them.
“I don’t know how we managed to get through it,” muses actor Ron Perlman. “I don’t know how we didn’t die of hypothermia in some scenes. In Scotland, I was freezing. Every time I was told to strip off my clothes and do a scene, I’d find myself walking barefoot, sometimes on icicles, always on something sharp, and very cold. In Kenya, it was unbearably hot. After a time, I realized that I shouldn’t resist the madness we were being put through to make this picture. Once I decided not to resist it, I found that I could adapt to it, roll with it easier.”
Even when the production was rolling smoothly, there were still minor hitches to contend with. “We had a lot of problems with our elephants,” recalls Gruskoff. “Heck. We had a lot of problems period. We brought the elephants to Scotland for the mammoth scenes. Originally, we were going to shoot in Iceland but the strike changed all that. Because of this shift, we weren’t as prepared to handle these animals as we should have been. About 20 of them stampeded. All we could do was stand there and watch and think good thoughts. I mean, to me, one elephant is a stampede. What can you do to curtail the activities of 20!”
“The production was an enormous challenge,” echoes Kemeny. “It’s a physical film. We could not do this in any studio. We don’t have one interior set in this film… unless you call a natural cave a set. Every frame was shot on location. There’s no gadgetry. No gimmicks.
“Because of this approach, we had quite a few strange challenges: costuming a herd of elephants in wooly ‘suits,’ doing dental work on lions, painting our wolves so they’d look alike. We had 40 people working in our makeup and wardrobe departments alone. That’s as many people as you have on the entire crew of a modest movie.”
“It took three to six hours a day just to apply makeup. We were shooting on three continents so we had a huge crew. Our set-ups were complex. We were leaping from subfreezing temperatures to scalding heat.
“It was like an army in battle, actually. After a while, a strong sense of comradery developed. Can you imagine a crew of 80 people, bundled up and drinking hot coffee, watching three actors, bare-butted, and a practically naked girl, wade through an icy river in Scotland? The river was so cold in one scene that one of the actors almost passed out. His circulation nearly stopped. We had to yank him out of there and warm him up before we could continue. Everyone was helping everyone to get through this shooting.”
Making matters ever so much more cheerful was the fact that various weather conditions were also wreaking havoc on the various makeups employed. No less than four tribes had to be designed, with most of the creative work being done by Chris Tucker who, two years ago, gouged out the grunt-mug made famous by John Hurt in The Elephant Man.
Makeup prosthetics, however, can and do melt in hot weather and can get fairly brittle in extreme cold. By the time shooting was being done, the worry of supervising makeup application was the responsibility of Canada’s Michele Burke. No only did she have to battle the climate to get her Neanderthals on the set on cue, but time itself.
“The time element was intimidating,” she says. ‘ ‘The Wagabous were the most difficult. Annaud wanted them to appear to have real, growing hair. He didn’t want them to look like suits and he wanted them to withstand submersion in water. Bob Pritchett, John Hay and I came up with the idea of body suits and hand-hooking hair.
“It took three of us three days for the first suit,” adds Pritchett. “We used large quantities of human hair and ten pounds of yak hair. After we created the first one and knew that it would work, we shipped the work out to ladies all over Montreal. There were people sewing hair throughout the city.”
“It was a huge challenge,” Burke adds. “I called Dick Smith (who created the ape-man in Altered States) and he told me he spent six hours a day, every day, putting hair on his ape. We couldn’t do that each day with 18 Wagabous. Dick just said I was crazy. But,” she smiles, “ we did it!”
Finally, after years of planning, months of production and nearly one half a year of editing, Quest for Fire is ready for release. Are producers of this first realistic excursion into the prehistoric realm worried about its fate?
“I’m nervous,” admits Gruskoff. “But, then again, aren’t all expectant fathers?”
“I’m not as nervous now as I was a year ago,” says Kemeny. “I was anxiety-ridden for a long time because of our lack of understandable dialogue. But, the first time I sat down and saw 100 minutes of the film together, I didn’t miss the English at all. I felt very relieved. I don’t think audiences will miss it, either. Remember the film, The Black Stallion? One of the most memorable segments of that film was a 20 minute segment with the boy and the horse where not one word was spoken.”
“People won’t have problems with our dialogue,” adds Gruskoff. “This movie should brainwash everyone. By the time you leave the theater, you’ll find yourself remembering some of the key prehistoric words. It’s a great deal, really. You pick up a few Neanderthal language skills and have an exciting time as well.”
“There are many people who will find this movie intellectually stimulating,” says Kemeny. “They’ll be thrilled at viewing man’s first encounters with anger, love, desire, jealousy. They will appreciate the correctness of the background—the seriousness of the research that went into it.
“On another level, people who don’t care about that stuff will enjoy the action-adventure elements of it. There are animals attacking our heroes, mammoths chasing after naked girls, there are wolves and bears and cannibals. Those are very attractive ingredients!”
Gruskoff stifles an ill-concealed laugh. “You know what really worries me? After all this great research we’ve done and all the publicity we’ll probably get because of it, some people may think that this is a boring movie; a scientific documentary. Please. If anyone is listening out there, Quest for Fire is not a filmed issue of National Geographic. Sure, it’s been well conceived and filmed. But, first and foremost, this is a real adventure story. It’s exciting. It’s ground breaking. It will shake up movies like 2001 did. It will inspire audiences.”
Gruskoff pauses for a moment before adding in summation, “In other words, it’s not dull.” *
Starlog, February 1982, pp. 26-29, 64