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Eruptions: Fire of Love Director Sara Dosa Interviewed by Director and Author Sandi Tan

Katia Krafft in Fire of LoveKatia Krafft in Fire of Love

“I couldn’t love someone who doesn’t share that love at the top of a volcano,” says French volcanologist Katia Krafft early in Sara Dosa’s Fire of Love, a film that’s both a spectacular, eye-searing documentary about the history and science of volcanoes and achingly existential romance. Katia, a geochemist, and partner Maurice Krafft, a geologist, met, fell in love and—“disappointed in humanity” —turned away from the tumult of the 1960s to find a life on the outskirts of the primordial, amidst drifting ash and near-psychedelic lava pools. “We contemplate lying at the edge of the abyss,” Katia says. Like today’s storm chasers, the Kraffts traveled the globe, cameras in hand, striving to get as close to erupting volcanoes as possible. The couple were clear-eyed about the risks of their chosen lifestyle: “It will kill me one day, but that doesn’t bother me at all,” says Maurice. “I prefer a short life to a monotonous, long one.”

Through their expeditions, with their measurements and experiments, the Kraffts contributed tremendously to our current knowledge about volcanoes and the dangers they pose to proximate humanity. But the couple were filmmakers, too, and part of their storytelling art was the creation of their own on-screen characters: the intrepid, obsessive duo. Clad in blue parkas and red hats, or futuristic silvery protective gear, the Kraffts were nothing if not self-aware of their own iconographic potential, a media-savviness that’s captured well by Dosa’s film, which dances between affirming the Kraffts’ onscreen image as romantic oddballs—proto-Wes Anderson characters—and deconstructing it. Animated sequences trace the couple’s early romance, actors voice diary entries and, most significant, filmmaker and artist Miranda July reads an exquisitely melancholy voiceover, which both narrates and philsophizes. And just when the viewer is tempted to question the film’s loving buy-in to the Kraffts own self-mythologizing, July’s voiceover offers a reality check. For the couple to get back “home” to the volcanoes, she tells us, they needed to pay the bills, which meant monetizing their work and personas through increasingly tedious TV appearances and lecture tours. The duo’s final expedition, tipped early in the film, becomes romantic resolution, ultimate escape and destiny fulfilled for these two fatalistic explorers.

A winner of the editing award at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Fire of Love is San Francisco–based Dosa’s third theatrical feature. The first, 2014’s The Last Season, captured the relationship between two soldiers connecting and healing while on an Oregon mushroom hunt for the rare matsutake mushroom. The Seer and the Unseen (2019), an environmental-themed documentary about an Icelandic elf whisperer, inspired her new film, as Dosa explains below. To speak with Dosa about the inventive, poignant and artfully realized Fire of Love, a film whose visual splendor rewards a viewer’s return to the movie theater, we asked filmmaker and author Sandi Tan, whose own Shirkers explored the mysteries of character and latent creative potential lying within a trove of archival footage. Fire of Love is currently in release from National Geographic and NEON. — Scott Macaulay

Tan: I saw your previous film, The Seer and the Unseen, about an elf whisperer in Iceland poking around volcanic landscapes. Was this how you came across the work of the Kraffts, which became the foundation for Fire of Love? In other words, how did you get sucked into volcanoes?

Dosa: “How did you get sucked into volcanoes?” is a great sentence. But yeah, I first discovered Katia and Maurice Krafft when we were making The Seer and the Unseen. That film opens with imagery of volcanoes because we wanted to set the stage with this story of how Iceland was created through powerful natural forces, and we thought archival material of volcanoes could do that quite well. So, we started researching volcano archives, and that’s when Katia and Maurice’s names popped up. The more we learned about them as characters, the more we started to fall in love. Their playful way, their philosophy, made us realize, “We want to make a film about these people and live in their world.”

Tan: All that footage shot by the Kraffts sat there like treasure in an archive, waiting to be reanimated since 1991. How did you get access to all their stuff?

Dosa: The archive was in an archival facility in Nancy, France, called Image’Est. Maurice’s brother, Bertrand, actually had been the caretaker of it for many years. He entrusted it to different people at different facilities, but it wound up there at the Image’Est. One of our producers, Ina Fichman, struck up a good relationship with Image’Est and was able to negotiate a contract for the licensing of the 16mm footage the Kraffts shot. That was the main bucket of footage that we were working with, about 180 to 200 hours of 16mm footage.

Tan: Whoa.

Dosa: Yeah, they shot a ton. Also, there were thousands of still photographs that Katia largely took. All of that footage was in Image’Est, and they beautifully scanned and digitized it for us. About 20 hours had been digitized a few years ago, but the rest of it was in these classic metallic reels.

Tan: Wow. You guys managed to get a budget for them to digitize all this stuff, so you had no idea what you actually had until everything was digitized.

Dosa: Exactly. We had a sense of it, just from people who had seen it in the past. Other documentaries in the 1980s and ’90s used their footage. For example, there’s a great French documentary about them called The Rhythm of the Earth that came out in 1995. But since 1995, there hasn’t been a feature documentary using Katia and Maurice’s footage. Image’Est had an inventory list for us organized by country and year, things like “Zaire, 1971” or “Iceland, 1984.” So, we didn’t know what it would look like, but we had a sense of where it would go.

Tan: And what percentage of it was silent?

Dosa: All of the 16mm footage was silent. We then worked with another bucket of footage, about 45 to 50 hours’ worth of footage that our fabulous archival researcher, a woman named Nancy Marcotte, found for us. Those largely existed in the Institute for Audiovisual Records in France, as well as other television archival libraries. All of that, luckily, had sound because that was Katia and Maurice on television, being interviewed, where you really got to see them interacting with each other and hear their own words. There wasn’t a ton of that, but at least there was some. But yeah, all the 16mm footage that they themselves shot came to us silent.

Tan: What was your reaction when you saw everything for the first time, and where were you? Were you in France? 

Dosa: No. I’m glad you asked that because I forgot to mention we really made this project during summer of 2020 through the fall of 2021. We were in lockdown at the height of the pandemic making this film. 

Tan: A great pandemic project.

Dosa: We were actually working on a totally different project when the pandemic hit and had to pivot to find an archival project. I longed to go to France—I wanted to be there so badly, to pore through the reels myself and be in-person with people who knew and loved the Kraffts. But I wasn’t able to actually go until October 2021.

Tan: So, this is all negotiated over the internet, on the phone, with people that were digitizing all this footage for you? That’s amazing.

Dosa: Yeah, we were so grateful for them. 

Tan: How long did you work with the footage?

Dosa: We started receiving it at the end of 2020, and it took about four months to all get digitized. It was truly mesmerizing because we would get them in tranches of about 20 hours every few weeks. We were in our own little pods—I was in San Francisco at that time—and totally isolated in this fearful, uncertain world of the early days of COVID-19. Getting to watch imagery of bubbling lava flows in Hawaii or blizzards in Iceland, these incredible, surreal landscapes, felt like a way to be transported. It was a refuge during such a hard time. And this was such a tremendous team effort—I just adore my collaborators. My core team—[producer/writer] Shane Boris, [writer/editors] Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput and [producer] Ina Fichman, as well as our fabulous executive producers at Sandbox Films, Greg Boustead and Jessica Harrop—and I rolled up our sleeves. In October of 2020, Shane and I went on a writing retreat where we wrote a treatment and outline for the film that served as the grand map. Then, when we were starting the edit in earnest, we were trying to figure out how to take that outline and divide it into discrete chunks that could create the right kind of workflow. The first week with Erin in New York in May of 2021, we were working the Iceland, 1968, scene and were trying to figure out the artistic grammar, the big questions—how we were going to use sound, how we were going to use Katia and Maurice’s writings, if they were going to be voiced by actors or, if the narrator was going to say these words, who the narrator was going to be.

Tan: How long did you take to edit this, and how did you, Erin and Jocelyne work together? How did you project manage something like this?

Dosa: It was a seven-month edit total.

Tan: That’s really quick.

Dosa: It was quick. Erin and Jocelyne were both working full-time, and we were working long days for sure. We had a few different processes that evolved over time, but first and foremost, it was highly collaborative. First, Erin and I were working for a week in New York, and Jocelyne was remote on Zoom in Berkeley. There was a ton of time pressure, but we felt so much joy in the process. Erin lives in New York, Jocelyne actually lives close to me in the Bay Area, Shane lives in LA. Those three descended on my little house—at that time, I had moved to Berkeley—and moved in. We were working all hours of the night, like a college art project or something, trying things out, editing in a very associative manner. There was a lot of laughter and joy. We were led first and foremost by Katia and Maurice’s playful spirit and their collaborative nature of doing work. We tried to divide and conquer between acts. Jocelyn took one section, Erin took another, but by the end of the film everybody had touched everything. We had guiding principles that all of us were trying to work with to keep a cohesive voice and style for the film.

Tan: Can you talk about the importance of sound design when working with silent footage, especially footage that’s been used before?

Dosa: Erin and Jocelyne very quickly knew the narrative power that sound had and that we needed to build it into early cuts, that we couldn’t just watch silent cuts. That would really undermine the stories that we were trying to build. So, both of them, from our first assembly, would build these incredibly detailed soundscapes, working with libraries that contained eruption sounds, volcano sounds, geothermal sounds. They really wanted to make sure it was historically accurate. I remember one day when Jocelyne went down a total rabbit hole to find the exact engine of the car that Katia and Maurice and their friend drove in 1968 on the first expedition to Iceland. But at the same time, the fact that the footage didn’t come with sound opened up a space for some play, especially to be subjective. It was really important to us that we created the character of the volcano, so to speak, in line with how Katia and Maurice perceived them. They perceived them as kind of sentient beings that were so alive and beyond human understanding. So, we wanted them to feel accurate in their sound design, of course, but to add more dimensionality and character. In our scene in Indonesia in 1979, Erin actually experimented with dinosaur sounds. It was super fun and really playful. It added that layer of monstrosity or beastliness that felt true to the Kraffts’ perception of volcanoes.

Tan: Who was it amongst you who determined that that was a great idea, to portray volcanoes as sentient beings?

Dosa: We were inspired early on by Katia and Maurice’s own writing. They wrote nearly 20 books. A lot of them were very scientific, but some were first person and incorporated poetry. They would often describe volcanoes as monsters waking up but were so in love with them at the same time. So, we crafted the soundscape specifically when it came to developing the love triangle relationship between Katia, Maurice and volcanoes. Also, the audio record, too, was quite limited. There wasn’t all that much of them talking about their psychology or relationship. So, however we could get playful or creative to bring in emotions and sound, we really wanted to go after that so that we could hint at interiority.

Tan: The volcanoes do come alive in your hands, but so do the Kraffts. As you say, there’s not that much on them, and we’ve seen them before, but they’ve never been as alive as they are in your film. They seem fully formed, two eccentrics that, when you watch them, you want to hold dear and protect. Was it your intention to amplify the characters the Kraffts created for themselves in their own films, or do you think you had a different conception than they had of themselves? 

Dosa: It was really important to us from the beginning that this film felt like a co-creation with Katia and Maurice Krafft—not just that we were using their footage and interpreting it from our own perspectives, but that they were guiding us the whole way. [Because] cameras were their tools, and they do show up in their own footage—even though not a ton together—we always felt like they were inscribing themselves into their own myth. They knew that their lives could be lost in an instant and setting their image to posterity through celluloid felt haunting, like they knew that they were going to die and how they wanted to represent themselves. The way that they played themselves on camera felt very true to them, though. It wasn’t inauthentic—they understood their role as storytellers and science communicators.

Tan: And they knew they were being funny, right? They knew that they were odd, and they were unselfconscious about being slight oddballs. They were happy and exuberant in their oddness.

Dosa: Exactly, yeah. They had such a playful way with each other and knew that other people found that engaging. And if people found them engaging, then they could be the conduit to teaching people about volcanoes and, by extension, the natural world. That was really their goal, to forward this understanding for the planet, and they were very successful at that. I think that they were really savvy in understanding who they were and the characters that they played, but never in a way that undermined their own truth. It was fun to take their humor and playfulness and try to work with that.

Tan: How did you find for the film a sweet spot between beauty, message and entertainment?

Dosa: We really see the film as a collage. We’re working with 16mm, video, written materials, narration, and whenever there was too much of one element, the film started to feel really congested and the overarching narrative structure, guided by this love triangle story, would get blocked. So, a lot of it was experimentation. We wanted to marry the ideas of scientific inquiry with falling in love, but if we had too much science, that blocked the dreaminess of falling in love because there was a lot of information saturating your mind. But if we had too much dreaminess, it wasn’t grounded by Katia and Maurice’s reality and lived experience. So, it was a lot of trial and error and experiential, intuitive editing—checking in with ourselves, what moved us as storytellers and filmmakers, if we had emotional reactions, where did we laugh. We were lucky to work with some science advisors who helped position the field of volcanology within our film in a way that felt true. We also sought the guidance of some trusted viewers throughout the process to make sure that what we were doing was working, wasn’t confusing, and they helped us to cover some of our own potential blind spots as a filmmaking team.

Tan: I love the idea that the film portrays a love triangle between Katia, Maurice and the volcanoes. The fact that you identified that as being the narrative force of this film is brilliant. It’s so affecting, and it’s also the thing that kills them.

Dosa: There was a sentence in a book that Maurice wrote, where he says, “For me, Katia and volcanoes, it is a love story.” That line appears at the very end of our film now. That was the genesis point because we felt like he gave us the thesis of the film, which was that there are three characters, and it’s a love story. The fact, too, that they came of age during the French New Wave—those aesthetics really showed up in their own work. For example, in Maurice’s cinematography, there’s a lot of fun snap zooms, and their writing reminded us of Truffaut’s narration. So, we wanted to work with that stylistic influence that showed up in their work and embrace it.

Tan: How much writing was there? Did they have lots of books that you had to read?

Dosa: They did, yeah. They wrote nearly 20 books. Academic articles, too.

Tan: That took a long time to synthesize as well?

Dosa: Totally. It was such a gift, though, because you really got a sense of their voices, how they saw the world. The other thing it did was that in the 16 millimeter footage, because it didn’t have any sound, we were often thinking, “What are we looking at?” But their writings would detail where they were, travelogue-style. So, for example, in the footage we would see gorgeous images of this sulfuric landscape, then these two tiny figures in a raft out in the middle of the lake. What is this craziness? But Katia, in her book about Indonesian volcanoes, details exactly what she experienced watching Maurice and his other geologist friend going out on this flimsy raft in the middle of the sulfuric acid lake. So, we got not just the play-by-play of what happened, but also Katia’s perspective on it, and we could bring in her emotions by working with her writing. Those books infused our own approach to the narration, but also, we have actors at different moments to try to make them feel more real.

Tan: Then, you use other techniques. This is the point at which we should acknowledge the wonderful young animator Lucy Munger. How did you find her? How did you decide on using this old-timey animation to fill in the blanks? And how did animation fulfill what you needed that was lacking in the film? 

Dosa: We really wanted there to be a feel of the dreaminess of falling in love for the film’s telling of a love story. We also wanted to draw a parallel with falling in love and research. The more you learn about a topic, that intimacy that comes with knowing, that curiosity that drives scientific inquiry, can also be compared to the process of when you’re falling in love. You’re learning the secrets of your lover, you’re trying to understand them, trying to know how they tick. So, we thought that animation grounded in a paper archive, in this kind of research process, could be a playful way to set that theme that also reflected their own period of falling in love as university students. But Katia and Maurice also collected thousands of illustrations of volcanoes dating back centuries. They were scientific and almost psychedelic in their whimsy, all at once—they reminded us a bit of stills from Terry Gilliam’s work—and made us think these could be the right kind of base plates for animation. I started asking filmmaker friends, “Does anyone know someone who works at paper animation in this playful way?” And my dear friend Cecilia Aldarondo had worked with Lucy before on a forthcoming project. Once I saw Lucy’s work, I was just like, “We need to work with her. She’s the only one.”

Tan: How did your score fit into everything?

Dosa: We wanted a retro futuristic score that felt in line aesthetically with the sci-fi vibes that Katia and Maurice were very much leaning into with their own storytelling and imagery, as well as their volcano helmets. We were brainstorming what bands could do that and Air came to mind, especially because they’re also French. We were listening to Nicolas Godin’s work—he’s one half of Air—and really loved it. It was very playful and fun and charming and multifaceted and romantic and whimsical—all the elements we were really looking for. So, we enlisted him as our composer for the film. We also wanted to use music as archive, so we used a lot of French pop music from the late ’60s and ’70s to bring out the historicity as well as the cultural influence.

Tan: When did you get Miranda July involved as a narrator, and did her inclusion influence the way you wrote the voiceover narration?

Dosa: Miranda came into the process late. We had thought of having a French narrator at first, but during our brainstorm, one of our EPs, Greg Boustead, mentioned her because he had worked with her. She had done some consulting for Sandbox Films, which he runs. And I have loved Miranda’s work forever—she’s one of my favorite filmmakers and artists and writers—so it was such an easy yes. Part of that was because we really wanted a curious narrator, someone who could prompt questions rather than say declarative facts, and Miranda’s work as an artist herself possesses this profound curiosity and inquisitive voice. We had written the majority of the narration before she came on, but definitely once we knew it was going to be her, that did help further craft the cadence, the tone, as well as some of the language that we used. 

Tan: And did she change the writing or ad lib it?

Dosa: In the process of recording, she made a few suggestions here and there. That was really helpful. But she didn’t do any reedits. I think once or twice there was an ad lib that wasn’t even conscious, but we were like, “Whoa, that was amazing.” And she’s like, “Oh, I didn’t realize I did that.”

Tan: Was it your choice or hers to do it as an old woman volcano?

Dosa: We never talked about it like that, but the guiding direction that we worked with was to have a feeling of deadpan curiosity—not to be distancing or sarcastic, but to make sure that her voice could leave space for Katia and Maurice’s voices to form, as well as for the imagery to flourish. We thought that if her voice had too much personality, it would cause the audience to wonder, “Who is this narrator? What’s their relationship?” So, a little bit more of a distanced tone could create that space. I should also say, at the very beginning of this process I didn’t imagine a narrator. I thought it was just going to be Katia and Maurice’s voices. But since there were such limitations to the archive, that’s where the narration came in. The other main direction was, even though we had the deadpan curiosity, we wanted the narrator to express warmth—that this is a narrator who admired and loved them, almost longed for them. We actually wrote a very detailed backstory for the narrator that we never wanted the audience to know. But it helped us ground our writing because Erin, Jocelyne, Shane and I wrote together and needed to have a cohesive perspective for the narrative voice. We didn’t want Miranda to know it, either, because we wanted her to bring her own full self to the work. But having that backstory was really cool.

Tan: Can you tell us what that secret backstory is?

Dosa: Sure. An American woman in her early 40s was approaching the age of Katia and Maurice when they died. She had just gone through a dramatic breakup and was contemplating meaning, love and loss. She moves to France. She loved French films and French pop music as a teenager and always saw herself as a Francophile, and decides out of this radical breakup to move to France and find any job. So, she gets a job in a science library cataloguing dental records from the ’70s. She has this really OCD boss, who makes her organize things painstakingly—but no one’s ever going to see them again, so it feels like this absurdist task, and the fact that she’s looking at teeth all day raises all these other questions about mortality and meaning. But she stumbles upon this old box that happens to contain volcano archives and becomes fixated by them. That’s how she meets Katia and Maurice.

Tan: That’s a great note to end on.

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