After facing some impossible odds, French film director Gilles de Maistre is about to release “Le Loup et le Lion”, the riveting story of the unlikely family of two wild animals and their human friend.
Since Gilles de Maistre burst onto the silver screen in 2018 with his epic and record-breaking movie “Mia and the White Lion”, he hasn’t stopped making news – or films. After an escapade into the world of young social movers and shakers, he now returns to his love for directing meaningful films with animal protagonists. “Le Loup et le Lion” (The Wolf and the Lion) hits French movie theatres on October 13, and promises to be another slam dunk for the award-winning Parisian filmmaker.
Gilles and his screenwriter-wife Prune de Maistre enjoy sharing their passion for animal conservation in the form of a thrilling adventure. At first glance this new film seems to be in a similar vein as Mia’s coming-of-age story: set in Africa, a human and a wild animal bond. But “The Wolf and the Lion” is a different tale altogether. Yes, it is about friendship, love, and family but it’s also a deeply philosophical and spiritual tale of overcoming differences, and of courage, hope, and loyalty:
Following her grandfather’s death, 20-year-old pianist, Alma (Molly Kunz), returns to her childhood home on an island in Canada. Once on the island, her life is turned upside down when she rescues a wolf pup she names Mozart, and a lion cub, baptized Dreamer. As the animals grow, all three form an inseparable bond, but their world soon collapses when their secret idyll is discovered. Dreamer is captured and sent to a travelling circus and Mozart is taken by scientists for research. But the wolf is determined to find his lion brother and to bring their family back together. Once reunited, they undertake an extraordinary adventure across Canada against all odds to find Alma.
From the Plains of Africa to the Canadian Wilderness
The concept for The Wolf and the Lion goes back to 2018, during the production of Mia and the White Lion. De Maistre was working alongside ‘The Lion Whisperer’ Kevin Richardson who was responsible looking after the animals on set and keeping the cast and crew safe. Whilst working on Mia, Gilles got a call from world-renowned Scottish animal trainer Andrew Simpson, asking if he could come and visit the set.
While chatting, the three realized that to their knowledge there had never been a film that featured a wolf and lion together at the same time – two mortal enemies in nature. Ideas emerged, which Gilles relayed to Prune, and she ran with them and turned them into a screenplay. Richardson was intrigued by the idea of the film but he was unable to join the production due to commitments at his newly opened lion sanctuary in South Africa. It didn’t take much convincing for Andrew Simpson to take over Richardson’s lion whisperer duties.
Once on board, Simpson – who owns an animal reserve in Calgary, Canada – started observing if these natural enemies could actually form a bond. Four wolf pups and two lion cubs were introduced to each other, and to working in front of a camera and a production team. But the animals’ ease and well-being was paramount.
“Andrew began by observing which pairs were getting along best, and had the most confidence with crews and cameras,” says de Maistre. “When you have an animal that is comfortable around cameras then it is actually quite easy to film.”
The production required a quiet place, a large area that would be safe for the animals and avoid the general public straying on to the set. It was found on Sacacomie Island, an idyllic reserve two hours north-east of Quebec. The shoot took place on specially designed sets in which the crew went into cages to get the footage, while the wolf and the lion roamed free.
Patience… and then some!
As with Mia and the White Lion, which was shot over 36 months and followed the growth of the lion in real time, de Maistre wanted to take a similar approach with The Wolf and The Lion. It would take six blocks of filming over the course of 15 months in which he and his team would see Paddington, the white wolf, and Walter, the lion, grow up together, from their earliest moments right through to adolescence. “This film had its own complications” says de Maistre. “Working with two animals with two very different natures took time to understand.”
Building the bond between the two animals took time. The production had to be flexible to accommodate the animals’ needs at all times, which often meant rapid rewrites from Prune de Maistre. “We had to constantly evolve the story,” says de Maistre. “We never forced them at any point with anything they were uncomfortable with. Every day, Andrew was preparing a lot for the animals, and if something didn’t work, we would postpone and rethink.” Whilst this might be stressful for many film productions, de Maistre believes that this was where the beauty of the story lay. “You can feel the emotional intensity of the relationship between these animals, just by observing them play,” says de Maistre.
“The art of the movie is in seeing these two mythic predators on screen together, showing how, although natural enemies, they could become brothers,” explains de Maistre. “The most important thing for us was that this was real, that we would not use visual effects software. Their relationship had to be genuine.”
We were lucky that the personalities of Walter the lion and Paddington the wolf matched their characters’ personalities perfectly. Paddington has a really crazy side, always a bit forward. Walter, the lion, is dreamy, a bit clumsy, very regal. On the other hand, when they had a coordinated action, it was very difficult to get them to move at the same pace. A lion moves quietly, sure of himself. The wolf always runs, he’s a bomb.
The funny thing is that they learned from each other. For example, the lion started to dig burrows with the wolves! The wolf, on the other hand, started to catch leaves in the trees, like a cat. A sort of personality transfer took place between the canine and the feline, to the point where they could no longer make scenes without each other. When the four wolves were howling to death, the lion absolutely had to go and check out what was going on. They were very dependent on each other, they were like a set of inseparable species. It was very strong.
— Gilles de Maistre
Along came a Virus
Whilst de Maistre and the production thrived on the spontaneity of the animals, there was a hitch in production that they weren’t planning for – the Covid 19 pandemic. “We were starting the winter block in mid-March in Quebec,” de Maistre remembers. “Quebec was announcing lockdown rules, as was France, and we realised we would have to pause production.” Scrambling to get exterior shots that captured the majesty of the Canadian winter, the production ground to a halt, well aware that if they weren’t able to get back into production soon enough, the animals would grow to full maturity without completing the film.
De Maistre flew back to France, whilst Simpson had to remain behind, caring for the animals on the island. Once travel back to the set was possible, all members of the cast and crew quarantined for three weeks before starting again back in June. “We were fortunate that we were in a remote location and able to put in appropriate measures on set to protect the animals and crew.”
The Human Co-Stars
Whilst Simpson would be able to help with the furry members of the cast, de Maistre knew it was vital that he found the right actress to play the central character of Alma, who had to be able to work alongside the animals.
“There were greater challenges with Mia and the White Lion, as Mia, played by Daniah De Villiers, had to have a lot of physical interaction with the lion. This project was slightly different,” says de Maistre. “We needed someone who was comfortable with the lion and the wolf and would have no fear.”
The challenges didn’t stop at working with the animals. The shoot would take place in the wilds of Alberta, Canada. The actress that would be cast had to look convincing in the remote environment. The role would eventually go to newcomer Molly Kunz, who was a little trepidatious about the project at first. “I had no idea what I was getting myself into,” says Kunz. “It seemed so intimidating. But working with such professionals I quickly lost my fear.”
Once cast, de Maistre had to make absolutely sure that Kunz would be suitable to work with the animals. Along with de Maistre, Kunz travelled to Andrew Simpson’s Instinct for Animals in Alberta to meet some wolves close up and personal. From there they travelled to Calgary where she walked with a 40-strong wolf pack to make sure that she was comfortable with the animals. “It was an incredible opportunity to work with such beautiful animals and build a relationship with them,” says Kunz.
Academy-Award® nominated actor, Graham Greene, best-known for his role in Dances With Wolves (1990), and more recently Wind River (2017), also joined the production. Greene plays Joe, a godfather of sorts to Alma and friend of her late grandfather. “It was funny. When my agent asked me if I wanted to be in a film with a wolf and a lion I said ‘no’,” Greene jokes. “Then I read Prune’s script and I couldn’t pass it up.”
Greene is no stranger to working with animals, having worked near lions and wolves on past projects, but never together. “It’s always hard to tell what they are going to do, and you have to be patient. Sometimes it takes two minutes, sometimes two days to get a scene right when working with animals.”
Greene, who was born in Ohsweken on the Six Nations Reserve in Ontario, is familiar with the changing nature of the landscape that de Maistre wanted to film on. “When I first sat down with Gilles, I told him how the weather was up here, and this far north can be tough,” says Greene. “It’s thunderstorms in the morning, sun in the afternoon, then snow in the evenings. It’s an unpredictable place, made all the harder with unpredictable animals.”
Fortunately, de Maistre was able to convince Greene of his capabilities and that he was prepared for the 15 month-long shoot. Whilst nervous about being around the animals, Greene was surprised and happy with the results. “I think people are going to be shocked by how these two animals behave around one another,” says Greene. “There is something magical about their relationship, and I don’t think anyone has ever seen it before.”
An Unbreakable Bond
For de Maistre, capturing the bond between the wolf and the lion without VFX was important, not only for its authenticity but for what it could demonstrate. “Their brotherly bond was remarkable,” he says. “It shows that canine and feline can be friends, even closer than friends. And if these two natural enemies can be brothers it means everyone can, which in these troubled times is an important message to reflect upon.”
So what became of the wolves and lions that played Dreamer and Mozart following the shoot? Simpson, the animal handlers and the production all felt a duty of care to the animals and agreed that releasing them into the wild without any aftercare would be irresponsible. After a considered discussion on the best route forward, they decided they would continue to live together in Canada with Andrew, protected until the end of their lives. “I spent 18 months caring for these animals and I have built up a very special bond with them,” says Simpson. “I want to give them the best possible lives they can have.”
Simpson was keen to stress that, as well as the bond he developed with the animals, the bond we see on screen between them is authentic and that the animals very much care for one another. “They were never forced or trained to get along with one another. Their relationship was nurtured since they were small, and they share an unbreakable bond.” De Maistre adds, “they had bonded so much that we felt it would be cruel to separate the wolf and the lion, and we have taken steps to ensure they have a good life”.
De Maistre hopes that audiences are able to take away the notion that bonds can be formed between the most unlikely of people and animals. “A family can even be three orphans, even across different species, three souls can meet, and it isn’t a question of race, creed or religion, it is about the connection,” says de Maistre. “We always want to pass this message on to children, which is why the film is a modern-day fairy tale, that shows that even two predators like a wolf and a lion can become family.”
French and International Release
The Wolf and the Lion, a joint production of Studiocanal, Mai Juin productions, Galatée films, Transfilm International & M6 films, and shot in English, premiers in France on October 13, dubbed in French (Le Loup et le Lion). It has been sold worldwide but currently there is no release date for the VO. Stay tuned for all relevant information.
All images and photos courtesy Mai Juin Productions | Galatée Films | Wematin Productions | Studiocanal | M6 Films and photos by Emmanuel Guionet