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‘Fire of Love’ director Sara Dosa on crafting the story, and myth, of history’s boldest volcanologists

One of the best new movies of 2022 blurs the line between fact and myth, using some of the most awe-inspiring environmental footage as its backdrop.
Credit: KENS

AUSTIN, Texas — The age of streaming has done a number on nonfiction storytelling. 

For every delicately crafted documentary, there’s a queue of several new true-crime projects hogging the spotlight; for every innovative effort worth taking in on the big screen, a new docuseries keeping viewers at home and ensnared in another weekend binging session. At a time when everything but superhero movies is too small for cinemas, documentaries ostensibly have less and less of a reason to be there. 

Enter “Fire of Love,” a spectacular new documentary from filmmaker Sara Dosa and an explosively convincing argument for their cinematic potential. Narrated by Miranda July and forged from stunning footage collected by Maurice and Katia Krafft, French partners in life and in their passion for studying volcanoes, the movie is informative but also speculative; for two volcanologists whom we see eagerly approaching eruptions in matching red beanies while everyone else runs the other way, there’s only so much we can hope to understand about their enthusiasm. Dosa embraces that mystery with an excitement that measures up to the otherworldliness of what they witnessed. 

“Fire of Love,” which debuted at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival before screening at South By Southwest this week, has drawn comparisons to Wes Anderson, putting its most idiosyncratic touches at risk of being relegated to “quirk.” In reality, it leans closer to profundity, evident in the admiration Dosa shows for the Kraffts as well as the recognition that there was always going to be at least some gap of understanding between her film and its subjects (they died in 1991, at the site of a particularly unpredictable eruption). 

More than simple biography, it’s a love story. More than mere nature documentary, it aligns itself with the ambiguous elements of myth. The Kraffts’ story is worthy of the big screen even before they discover a mutual love for all things volcanic. 

KENS 5 sat down with Dosa at SXSW this week to speak about “Fire of Love,” which is expected to be released in theaters later this year by National Geographic Documentary Films. 

The following interview has been edited for clarity. 

David Lynch: The first time I saw "Fire of Love" was on a living room TV as part of virtual Sundance, and I knew right away I wanted to see it on the big screen as soon as possible. What has your experience been like watching it with in-person festival audiences this week? 

Sara Dosa: Watching it this week has been incredible. It's perhaps cliche to say it's a dream come true, but it really is a dream come true. I've loved South By Southwest for so many years, it's a very meaningful festival for me, so getting to see it in these gorgeous theaters with such engaged audiences in a place that, yeah, holds that meaning, and with my crew. It's such a collaborative film and there's so much love among the team, so having them here has been incredible. It was amazing to have the film at Sundance, but seeing it in theaters is a totally different experience. I'm so grateful for it.

It's my understanding that you came across Maurice and Katia's footage while preparing for a different project. So when did you shift gears to focus on this one?

We actually learned about Maurice and Katia in the last film I finished called "The Seer and the Unseen." That film was shot in Iceland, and it was almost an all-verite film. But the opening of that film is kind of like a myth about the founding of Iceland as a volcanic island, created by volcanoes. And we thought that archival materials or archival imagery of the volcanoes would set a wonderfully magical, out-of-time aesthetic to tell that story. 

We researched volcano archives in Iceland and we came across Maurice and Katia that way. So that's how we first learned about them. Then that film finished and Shane (Boris), one of my producers, and I were working on another film after "The Seer and the Unseen" finished that was supposed to be shot in Siberia. We were planning to actually go on a scout in April 2020, and when the world collapsed our project went with it. 

But we remembered the story of Maurice and Katia Krafft and that they had shot hundreds of hours of footage, and we thought, “Wow, this could be a wonderful archive to explore,” at a time when we couldn't do any of our own shooting. 

Could you walk me through your mindset when you're coming across the extent of their footage, and their boldness to get right up to these volcanoes?

Yeah, I think they took 53 different expeditions in 20 years? Somewhere around there, but many, many trips. I think by the end of their life, each of them saw almost 160 volcanoes. So they went many, many times. But when I first watched the footage, I was struck by the compositions. I felt such a sense of aliveness in the lava, like the lava felt like animals to me, if that makes sense. Monstrous is not the right word when there's like an awe and a fear, but such a love and a real respect. And I sensed that in the close-ups of the bulbous red lava and also the gray of the lava flows, please excuse my sound effect (laughs)

So that sense of sentience, like the Earth is sentient, I really felt that in every single frame, and the more I watched the more that felt confirmed to me. Yeah, my log notes (read), like, “Oh my God, these are amazing views.” And then the next shot (I'd write), “Oh my God, this is amazing!” It was a similar experience for Erin (Casper) and Jocelyne (Chaput), my fantastic editors; they were just awestruck. It was a really challenging process of trying to whittle it down because we were just in awe and amazed by everything they saw. 

Credit: Katia and Maurice Krafft

You've mentioned that you envisioned this as a three-pronged love story between Maurice, Katia and the volcanoes they came across. And it is a love story, a very moving and very playful one. How did you find and commit to that tone?

The whole love story idea was inspired by a quote that Maurice wrote in a book called "Questions for Volcanologists." He has a line that says, “For me, Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story.” And that's now at the end of our film. But hearing that in his own words, it's like, OK, yes, that's what we want to do—this love triangle, that's what we're going to center in the making of this film. 

But the playful tone, I think that there's a few different reasons for it. First and foremost, it's guided by Maurice and Katia themselves; they were so wonderfully playful. They had a hilarious, fantastic banter that we really saw in the interviews that were filmed of them, aside from their own work. So we really wanted to be guided by that playful spirit and make the film as like Maurice and Katia as possible, especially since, you know, they're not with us to provide that kind of direct input into the film. 

We were very inspired by French New Wave cinema. I don't see our film as a French New Wave film by any means, but we were very inspired by what forms the cultural backdrop when they were coming of age. And you see the influence in their own work. For example, in Maurice's camerawork, there's a lot of really fun, playful snap-zooms and pans.

I was wondering if that was him or your team...

No, no, that was all Maurice and Katia. And Katia's writing is wonderfully bombastic and hyperbolic, it kind of reminds me of Truffaut's narration in some of his films. And then these themes of existentialism and time that really course through a lot of work of other French New Wave directors, like Agnes Varda and Godard. So we're really trying to embrace that to, again, bring in their spirit. 

But it also really helps with the edit, because one of the hallmark aesthetics of French New Wave is an associative style of editing. And with the vastness of this archive where there are many things that didn't quite make sense to us, we were just like, “OK, there's a shot of a volcano, a shot of a gas vent and then, like, an iguana. And then Katya in an innertube. What do we do here?” Kind of allowing ourselves to be associative and draw juxtaposition creatively, often using narration, that really was useful for us. And, we thought, in line with one of our biggest influences. 

But then the other thing that I think maybe contributed to the playful sensibility is just we had a lot of fun making the film. I was just having breakfast with Erin, one of our editors, and we were talking about the joy we really had in watching all this footage and working with each other; it's such a deeply collaborative effort, and we had a lot of love for each other on the team. It's always kind of been our hope that the spirit that we made the film (with) would resonate in the actual film itself.

One of my favorite things about "Fire of Love" is there's a deeply rooted sense of curiosity. It feels like the audience isn't being told Maurice and Katia's story so much as we're unearthing it for ourselves. Could you tell me what the writing process was like? Would you watch their footage while writing?

Erin, Jocelyne and I joke that we have like this hand motion, which, I don't if it can come through on the recording, but we would often talk about it as the process of (motions an ascending seesaw), going like that. I should first say that Shane, one of the producers, and I had a writing retreat in October of 2020 where we kind of wrote a whole outline for the film. That was like our map for the edit, and so we built a bunch of scenes based on that.

But we very quickly realized it's a very different thing to translate from paper to the screen. So then we all scrambled things and created a new structure from there. But the writing at first started more expositional to help guide the plot, and we quickly realized that's not what we wanted. That didn't fit Maurice and Katia's curious tone. They were so inquisitive that our narrator had to prompt and ask questions, rather than share definitive facts or truth. Because that is something from Maurice and Katia, they were so constantly humbled by what they did, by the vastness of the unknown of the planet. And for us, we were baffled and inspired by that, as well as the mysteries of the human heart. Leaning into that curiosity and exploring the unknown was really important to us, and so we really wanted that to come through in the writing. 

But it was challenging. We would try writing some things, see how they fit with the visuals, pare back, change some of the visuals, then change some of the writing. So it was a constant adjustment, and it was very collaborative between me, Erin, Jocelyne and Shane.

That brings us to Miranda July. I feel like you don't have someone with as distinct a cadence, as distinct a delivery as her without going for something very specific. How did you arrive at her?

At first we thought we were maybe going to have a French narrator, since everyone else (in the film) is French. But our executive producer, Greg (Boustead), tossed her name into our brainstorming process and we were instantly like, “Oh my God, yes.” We'd been secretly writing for her without realizing it this whole time. 

Then once she came into the team, which was like truly a dream come true--just as an aside, I saw her here showing her film “The Future” in 2010, I believe it was, maybe it was 2011. And it was like one of those awe-inspiring SXSW experiences. So to be here now with her part of our film is especially meaningful. But yeah, once she came aboard, that also helped us to further shape the writing process, to know that she was going to be delivering it, what cadences felt natural to her voice.

All of us were students of her work, so we all kind of had it in our heads. But then once she did the recording with us, she brought such richness and depth and continued curiosity; she was able to kind of hone in on some of the themes and their love in a way that was completely unexpected for us. 

I wasn't aware until a few minutes ago that there was no sound at all in the footage when you discovered it. Did that also go for their audio? There's moments where some of it's TV archival footage, but how do you recreate the audio of them on camera when they're at the sites? 

It was really challenging. The 16mm footage that they shot didn't have synced sound. The footage of them did have sound, but most of the film is their 16-mm footage. We did a ton of research to know what these volcanoes sound like, and luckily there's wonderful sound libraries that can teach us those things. So Erin and Jocelyne went to painstaking lengths to build out not just realistic sounds, but also did the work that goes into storytelling with them. 

And they added some wonderfully fun flourishes. I remember in the scene with the volcano named Anak Krakatoa in Indonesia, Erin played with putting, like, dinosaur sounds into the explosions. They're (inserted) very undetectably, but it brought out that sense of the beastly majesty of the volcano and added to the character in a way that was really playful. 

If we had just had the synced sound, we might have not necessarily opened it up for that kind of exploration. Volcanoes don't necessarily sound like dinosaurs, but in that magically real sense it's more true to sound like a dinosaur in Maurice and Katia's psychology. So they really did an incredible job with that. And then we had a fantastic sound team that we worked with in Montreal, a sound designer named Patrice LeBlanc and a re-recording mixer named Gavin Fernandes. They were such a dream team. They really took what Erin and Jocelyne had done initially in the sound design with the 16mm footage and fleshed it out even more, and found the nuances and the directionality of it all. It's been a really wonderfully creative process.

You make it sound like your team was collaborating with Maurice and Katia through the years. Did it seem like that?

That was my greatest hope, quite honestly, is to feel like it was a collaboration between them. They left behind so much when they passed away. Their footage, of course, but also they authored nearly 20 books.

They left behind people who loved them too. We actually interviewed a number of people that they were close with; I spent a day in France with Maurice's brother and sister-in-law. We really tried to listen to who they were as much as we could, because they had passed. And I do feel like they were authoring their own myth in a way, and that's something we mentioned in the film, but I feel like there's a sense that they knew that they could die at any moment. And so they wanted to ascribe their own story into posterity however they could knowing that their lives are ephemeral. (With volcanoes, the eruptions are over in an instant, but a camera can stand the test of time. So that was something that we really tried to listen to and incorporate into our storytelling, as if they were telling us, “OK, this is how to tell our story.” 

It's my deepest hope that if they were with us, they would say this was a genuine collaboration. 

When you contacted their family members, what was their response? Do you know if you were the first person to come to them about doing a project centering Maurice and Katia?

There had been a number of projects about them in the past, but there hasn't been a feature-length film for about 30 years. There's about a minute and a half of footage of them in Werner Herzog's 2016 film "Into the Inferno." And then there had been some TV specials, mostly in Europe and I think one in Japan. But Bertrand, Maurice's brother, he works closely with the archive house and took good care of the footage. He was happy from early on to know that another film was being made about Maurice and Katia.

Then, when he saw the film, he said really wonderful things about it; that's the best review I could possibly ask for. That felt really amazing. The first time I spoke to him on the phone, within probably 20 seconds of, you know, “Hi,I'm Sara, blah, blah, blah,” he was just like, “Maurice and Katia cannot be forgotten.” That just stuck with me. That's the thing that I hope he feels most, is that his brother and sister-in-law, their legacy and their footage is traveling the world again. It traveled the world 30 years ago as they toured the world trying to teach people about volcanoes and now we feel so lucky that their footage is touring the world again. I know it's meaningful for Bertrand, and because of that it's very meaningful for us as a team.

I have to wonder...is there a five-hour cut somewhere? Because I feel like it was an impossible task paring down this footage.

(laughs) Yeah, I really think you could make like 20, 30 films out of the footage, and they would all be totally distinct. The first cut wasn't actually crazy long, it was only about two and a half hours, which surprised all of us. But I think a lot of that was because it was very constructed rather than whittled down. It's a very different editorial process than a verite film in that way. 

But there's so many scenes that we cut that didn't make it into the film...it would be messy and unwieldy. There are such delightful moments that we had to leave on the cutting-room floor. Hopefully others will pick up and continue to tell the story of Katia and Maurice. 

I think most people who have had a chance to see "Fire of Love" by this point would agree that it feels very distinct and singular in the age of streaming. It strikes me as a movie that's trying to break certain conceptions about what documentary is and can be; was that a conscious effort on your part?

Yeah, that was a conscious effort to make something that felt, again, true to the spirit of Maurice and Katia. But we wanted to (pauses)... we were all reckoning with the pandemic as we were making this. And of course, uncertainty, fear and death are things that were valid far before COVID-19 became a common word, but getting to delve deep and explore these themes of time and love and mystery, and have guides like Maurice and Katia, felt like such a gift for us. It was always really important to make a film that can be as explosive and surprising as volcanoes were, and feel true to their spirit. 

For me as a director, I'm really interested in myth and the idea of nonfiction storytelling (that's) not necessarily like conventional investigative documentaries, but which find a higher truth in the magically real. Maurice and Katia felt like such mythic characters to me and their love so expansive that playing with these tropes that aren't a common thing in a lot of documentaries, that felt very true. Even if those things feel at odds, to me they're absolutely not. They’re one in the same. So yeah, that's not something you see, I think, every day on the big streamers that Maurice and Katia provided the initial inspiration for. We just tried to lean into that.

There are people who would call Maurice and Katia courageous, and there are others who would see them strolling along the lip of an exploding volcano and call them boneheaded. What is it we can learn from them today?

For me, personally, they taught me what it means to live a meaningful life and what it means to die a meaningful death. And the way that they did that was by pursuing love and going towards this quest for understanding, even though they knew that they could never quite fully understand. I guess, to me, that's a lot about the pursuit of love—I feel like you'll never quite understand the bafflement and the mystery and the enchantment of the human heart or volcanoes, but going towards that brings tremendous meaning. 

So I hope that's what people can learn—the transcendent  joy and meaning that can come from pursuing your love boldly, no matter what other people think, (whether) they think you're crazy or they think you're a pioneer. I feel really lucky because I feel like I get to do that working in cinema. Maurice and Katia just brought me close to what that means even more.

But yeah, all kinds of other things people could learn from them, like how fun it is to wear red hats everywhere or to dance in spacesuits in a volcano. Things like that, too.

   

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