Interview: "March of the Penguins" Director Luc Jacquet

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
June 24, 2005
March of the Penguins, the latest movie from National Geographic
Feature Films, tells the remarkable story of emperor penguins and
their annual migration across the treacherous ice of Antarctica.

Each winter, the penguins journey for hundreds of miles to reach their traditional breeding ground where, after a ritual courtship, they pair off into monogamous couples and mate.

After laying a single egg, the females make their perilous return to the fish-filled seas. The males are left behind to guard and hatch the eggs, which they cradle at all times on top of their feet, even during blinding blizzards.

After two months, during which the males eat nothing, the eggs begin to hatch. But if the mothers are late returning from the ocean with food, the newly hatched chicks will die.

French director Luc Jacquet followed the extraordinary journey of the penguins. He spoke with National Geographic News about the challenges of making March of the Penguins, which opens in select cities today.

You have a background as a biologist. How did your interest in the penguins come about?

In 1992 I spent 14 months at the French [scientific center] in Antarctica [doing research]. I had also been a cameraman on another movie, The Congress of the Penguins. I am particularly inspired by the sheer beauty of Antarctica, and I felt this was a great story for the movies—the penguins living on [the] razor's edge. The story has all the elements of great drama—love, life, death.

In the film, the narration comes from the penguins' perspective—we're hearing their thoughts. Why did you choose this storytelling technique?

I wanted to get out of the documentary genre. I wanted to write a story that made the viewer feel like [he or she] was really right there with the penguins.

Some would say you have to be crazy to spend more than a year in such an inhospitable environment.

Some people like to climb mountains, others like to cross the desert or the sea. I feel particularly comfortable in the polar environment. One gets a real sense of adventure there. Yes, you encounter a lot of difficulties. But once you stay there, your body somehow adapts. Over time you learn to deal with the terrific wind, which in some ways is worse than the cold temperatures, and you learn to minimize body movement.

What makes Antarctica so beautiful to you?

It's indescribable. It's almost not like Earth. It's such a challenge to transmit via film the sensations you feel over there. The scale is just mindboggling. You have icebergs that are 30 kilometers (18.6 miles) wide. It's a strange and eerie environment, hence my use of an impressionistic voice to try to transmit the beauty. There's no human reference point for it. There are only two color schemes. You don't smell anything. It's very complicated to try to convey this. All I have to work with is my passion.

How did you approach the penguins?

It's easy to get near them. They haven't been accustomed to any form of colonization, so they're not scared of humans. They are also easy to work with because they have extremely predictable behavior in terms of where they will be, what they will do, the routes they will take. It's possible to anticipate pretty much everything. You have 3,000 couples [of penguins] repeating the same kind of gesture, all at the same moment.

How would you describe the overall theme of the movie?

I wanted to tell things more as I felt them, rather than try to describe them as a scientist. It's about the struggle between life and death. It explores the outer limits of what is possible for a creature to experience. The penguins live where no other creature can. This is what struck me the most. How do they do it? How do they manage?

Watching the movie, I was particularly struck by the fragility of the mating ritual and the lives of the penguins.

Obviously life is threatened by the slightest things, like a hole in the ice. The penguins make this incredible journey, and then everything can fall to pieces in an instant. Many don't make it. In one second, everything can be lost, and then you have to start over the following year. I wanted that [sense] to be central throughout the story—that there's never really a safe moment for the penguins.

Why do they return to the same place every year for their mating ritual?

There are four sites around Antarctica where the penguins go to mate, and they share the same characteristics. They have stable ice for the whole breeding sequence, and they are also sheltered by icebergs that can break the wind and make for somewhat easier conditions. These are like small oases.

Despite going on this incredible trek every year, the penguins are terrible walkers. Shouldn't Darwinian evolution have fixed their walking problems by now?

That's a good point, and I don't have an answer for that. If [you gave] the penguins [the] choice to spend all their lives underwater, I think they would take you up on it.

Climate change is a major concern facing Antarctica. Why did you choose not to include any reference to the impact global warming has on the continent?

In my opinion, the best way to protect the planet is to get people to like it. One protects what one loves. It's obvious that global warming has an impact on the reproduction of the penguins. But much of public opinion appears insensitive to the dangers of global warming. We have to find other ways to communicate to people about it, not just lecture them.

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