This Valentines Day, in a pair of special screenings in New York and Los Angeles, Puck partners Dylan Byers and Julia Alexander spoke with the filmmakers and creatives behind the Oscar-nominated National Geographic documentary, Fire of Love. This visually captivating and emotional film chronicles the life and times of Katia and Maurice Krafft, perhaps the world’s only married celebrity volcanologists. After the credits rolled, director Sara Dosa, producer Shane Boris, and narrator Miranda July took the stage in L.A. to chat with Dylan, while editors Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput joined Julia in New York. They discussed how the film came together, the challenges of unearthing and weaving a story out of archival footage, and the ways this remarkable film forever changed their perspectives on filmmaking. What follows is an edited compilation of those conversations.
Dylan Byers: Before getting into how you put the film together—the philosophy behind it, the thesis behind it—I want to start with the raw material. Sara, how were you introduced to the story of Maurice and Katia, and to the footage? What compelled you to pursue this project?
Sara Dosa: I was introduced to the story of Katia and Maurice when Shane [Boris] and I, and one of our other editors, Erin Casper, were working on another film, The Seer and the Unseen. It’s a film that I shot in Iceland that tells the story of an Icelandic woman who’s in communication with the spirits of nature. And we wanted to open it with some beguiling imagery of a world that was in the making, and volcanoes do that so exquisitely. So we started doing archival research on erupting volcanoes in Iceland, and that’s how we first learned about Katia and Maurice Krafft. Once we saw the imagery, there’s something just spectacular, otherworldly about it, and we instantly knew that this is different.
Dylan: Shane, maybe you can speak to this, but it’s clear from the film that the Kraffts saw themselves as filmmakers, even if they didn’t want to readily admit it. Certainly they had their own intentions with their footage, and their own story that they probably felt they were telling. Did you feel an obligation to that? How did you decide to tell the story the way you’ve told it?
Shane Boris: Yeah, they were celebrated in their day as scientists, and that’s clear in the film and in the footage, and clear in the books they wrote. But for us, it was also incredible that they were also artists in their own right. They were filmmakers. They were inspired by the French New Wave, and by the existentialist writers and avant-garde filmmakers of their time. And it was really important for us to include that side of their personality: the philosophical, the absurdist, and also very diligent, meticulous scientists.
Erin Casper: Maurice felt very strongly that volcanoes are for everybody. At one point, he was advocating for a museum in France inside a dormant volcano, where there would be an elevator so people could go into the earth. He was like, whatever, it’s probably not going to erupt for like 10,000 years, so we got some time! It was quite controversial, but it was fast-tracked after they passed. It exists above ground, sans elevator. It’s actually kind of an amusement park for volcanoes. We’ve been trying to get a screening there.
Julia Alexander: I imagine that will be quite the event if it happens. One special thing about the film is that because there is so much great archival footage, it feels like it would have been nearly impossible to cut anything else. I’m interested to know what you left on the cutting room floor.
Jocelyne Chaput: So much. There was probably about 200 hours on the floor, and we also had about 350 hours of television appearances and radio interviews. And then there were hundreds of thousands of still photographs.
Erin: And I don’t know how many minutes of groundhog footage.
Jocelyne: Yeah, there were so many delightful discoveries like that—imagery that we didn’t expect to find that we loved. And we tried, sometimes in vain, to find places where we could fit in some of what we encountered.
Dylan: In terms of the storytelling, Miranda, I saw you wrote on Instagram that narrating this film was like walking a tightrope—and there seemed to be a sort of intensity to the act of narration itself. I wonder what you meant by that. What was it like for you to tell this story?
Miranda July: Yeah, I mean I’m in this little booth, and they obviously just killed themselves making this thing. And then suddenly, you know, here’s me, and all you have is your voice, right? I remember I was sitting there, and then Sara would say, Okay, this is gonna be a big note. And then follow with the littlest, most delicate instruction. I’m a director too, and I was like, Oh right, this is good directing, where you give just enough. It’s almost like a vaccine or homeopathy or something—you give just enough that your own immune response kicks in. And that’s just what it was like.
Dylan: How did that come together, having a narrator for the film?
Sara: I should actually back up and say we didn’t think we wanted narration for Fire of Love, we wanted the archives to speak for themselves. However, it was important for us to tell the story that was given to us by Katia and Maurice. By that I mean, there’s a sentence in a book that Maurice wrote, where he says, “For me, Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story.” And while that’s at the end of our film, for us it was the genesis for interpreting their vast legacy.
The more research we did, the more it seemed clear that their love story was perhaps the truest way to interpret across the archive. But while the archival footage was extraordinary, and often spectacular, it also presented tremendous challenges. We realized that if we were going to tell this love story, we would need another narrative vehicle, and we thought narration would be an appropriate way to do that, especially since a kind of playful, subjective narrator is one of the hallmark styles of the French New Wave. At first we thought we wanted a French narrator, and then in a brainstorming session one of our executive producers said, Okay, this is not a fresh idea, but what about Miranda July? And instantly, we were all just like, Oh my god, that would be perfect.
Miranda: I mean, I was just emailed this link to this footage. And it’s not like this is what I do—narrate volcano footage, you know? So I was like, I don’t want to get into this if I’m going to be bad. No one’s gonna be like, Why haven’t you narrated a volcano movie? And then when I saw it—it was just a rough teaser reel or something—I had this weird, emo response. I was like, kind of crying. I was like, Okay, that’s odd, because it is just lava, you know?
In documentaries, just like in any other art form or movie, there is someone’s soul coming through, and it’s vulnerable, and it’s had pain, and it’s loved—and when I saw the footage I thought, there’s a real person here. I’m not just going to be, like, hanging out with archival footage. As a living person you want to know someone will be there.
Erin: In terms of finding a tone for the narration, it was really just a process of feeling our way through, and a lot of figuring out what the narrator shouldn’t say. For instance, it didn’t feel appropriate for the narrator to have some sort of voice-of-God perspective. We wanted the narrator to be what we call “deadpan curious,” like someone who is looking through the archive and asking the same kinds of questions that we were. In a way, you know, the narrator’s probing is a mirror of our own process.
Jocelyne: We actually wrote a backstory for the narrator, many pages long, to help us arrive at the voice and get an understanding of who this person might be. Of course, that’s not divulged in the film at all. We didn’t want to call attention to the narrator—it was all about the Kraffts, and we were always kind of looking to them as our guides. But yeah, we did think of the narrator as someone who might also be looking at the archive, who hadn’t known them when they were alive, but who was looking through what they left behind and also happened to be very curious about themes of love and mortality and the earth.
Julia: I’m so happy you brought up the backstory for the narrator, because what really struck me about the film is that the writing has this strong voice. I’m really curious to know about the process of working together on it.
Erin: It was a very collaborative process. Not just with Jocelyne and me, but also Sara and Shane. I think that when you collaborate with anyone, especially as an editor, you’re sort of merging your sensibilities and your worldviews. And the narration, in this case, had to be so concise because of the limitations of the material. I think that really forced us to focus on what we were trying to say. But sometimes we’d be hamstrung by a line, or take like half a day to think through a transition. During this whole process we eventually moved in with Sarah and took over her house [laughter]. We’d be taking a break in her kitchen and eating copious amounts of chips and salsa, trying to figure out how to distill one line to the next, one scene to the next, one transition to the next.
Dylan: There is something so incredible about the relationship in the film between humans and nature. And as you said Sara, that is something you guys pursued a lot while making this. Where does that interest come from? What have you learned along the way?
Sara: I think for me, I’m endlessly curious about how humans make meaning out of the myth of nature and from the profound sentience of our natural world. I could go on and on and on about the violence and damage that have come forth from stories that teach us that humans are separate from nature. So I think that storytelling that shows that aliveness, the sentience and interconnectivity of all life, is profoundly powerful. That’s something that just really drives me. It may sound cheesy, but I really just like that intuitive, heart-expanding feeling you get when you come across stories and imagery that does that. But I also do think, of course, there’s a political importance too. So Fire of Love was kind of a dream project—to have this couple that was literally in love with the fiery earth, and to get to use their images and words to tell that story as a way to conjure empathy for our planet.
Shane: Yeah, I would just say one of the most incredible things about Sara—and also about Maurice and Katia—is that there’s a different orientation toward the fear of the unknown, of existential uncertainty. I think a lot of people will move away from uncertainty. But in this film and in Sara’s other films, and certainly in the lives of Maurice and Katia, there’s an intimacy with, an attempt to move closer to, a greater understanding, while recognizing that you’ll never fully understand it. And I think that’s a truly beautiful way to inhabit life.
Julia: One of the film’s most astonishing feats is that, even though there isn’t a lot of footage of them being overtly affectionate, the use of volcanic imagery creates this sense of an explosive love, pardon the pun. I wonder how you guys approached using that very visceral imagery to get that point across?
Erin: Oh, that was really fun. Going back to the limitations of the material, we had all of these scanned reels of 16 millimeter shots, thousands and thousands of shots, you know, scattered and put together out of order and out of time. It had no synchronized sound. So we had this big question of like, Okay, how do we tell this love story if one of them is always behind the camera? How do we address the gaps in the archive? And how do we tell this love story if they’re barely in it?
We arrived at simply acknowledging those limitations in the film. I think the narrator sort of lays the cards out on the table. It’s almost a note to the audience to just say, Okay, we’re going to tell this figuratively. And I think that Maurice and Katia’s love language was volcanoes, so we really looked to them, and to what they pointed their camera at, to sort translate their love for one another.
Erin: There’s one moment that Jocelyne put in that I love so much—when Maurice and Katia miss Mount St. Helens, which is like the big eruption of their lifetime, and Maurice is watching TV, and it’s just this simple thing, but he clicks off the TV in disgust. You could never say that as well as Jocelyne did just through like, you know, a TV turning off. It’s so visceral, and like an additional layer of screenwriting, really.
Dylan: Miranda, Sara told me that you have your own volcano story from Mount St. Helens. Is this right?
Miranda: Okay, well, I’m not a volcanologist per se. When I was six, Mount St. Helens blew up and we happened to be on a road trip in Idaho. And so there was ash everywhere, which was quite something for a six year old. And I gathered it up and I had it in my room—like my prized possession was this jar of ash from Mount St. Helens. Someone would come over and I’d be like, here’s my ash! I’m actually just remembering this, but in a game of Truth or Dare, a friend dared me to eat some ash, and I did. So that’s pretty deep… [laughter]
Dylan: Thank you guys so much for this film. It’s absolutely incredible, and Miranda your voice is such an elemental part of it—it seems to emanate from the volcanos themselves, it’s just absolutely gorgeous. I guess the last question I’ll ask is: How will you remember this movie in the context of your own work? Is it a love story, or is a story about a search for meaning? Is it a story about the vulnerability of human life?
Sara: Wow, that’s a beautiful question, I think it will take me a while to fully come up with the right words for that. But I think, briefly, it’s all of those things. It’s a love story, a search for meaning, a scientific inquiry—but it really makes me think about a line in the film that Miranda so beautifully voices which is: “When you could die at any moment, what do you leave behind?” I feel like, for me, I have my absolute dream job making documentary films, and this film has represented the culmination of everything I’ve dreamed of—working with such an incredible team, and working with subject matter that challenged me deeply. This is the first archival film I’ve ever worked on, and it broke apart my sense of what it means to tell a story. I’m so grateful for that.
Dylan: No, that was beautiful, and you’ve left behind a beautiful film—all of you have and your colleagues have. I thank you for it. Happy Valentine’s Day, everybody.