made you interested in making a film about Napoleon?
I set out to make this film, Napoleon to me was
a caricature; he was the little guy with the funny
hat and the hand in his jacket the guy who
gave his name to a psychological syndrome, the Napoleon
complex. I didnt really know who he was. Making
the film was my chance to find out. I knew that
he had an amazing story. I wanted to learn more
about it, and then tell it on film. Oddly, Napoleons
life had never been told before in a series of documentary
films, which is interesting because there are more
feature films about him then anybody who ever lived
films dating back to before the 20th
century and right on up through the silent film
era with Abel Gances great Napoleon
to our own times and Woody Allens version
of Napoleon. It amazed me that there hadnt
been a documentary series about his life.
you watch any of those films again before filming
seen of course Abel Gances film, which is
virtuoso filmmaking. But its a great romantization
of Napoleon. I was really interested in rooting
Napoleon in history.
was Napoleon different than your previous films?
always trying to go a step beyond what Ive
done in the past in my documentaries. Id made
other historical films, but for the most part I
was able to build those stories out of archival
film and archival photographs. With Napoleon,
I was interested in the challenge of trying to tell
a story before the invention of photography, and
I think thats one of the reasons that I was
interested in telling this story at this point in
my filmmaking career.
do you think Napoleon continues to fascinate people
around the world?
story of Napoleon is the story of a man who comes
out of nowhere to dominate first France and then
all of Europe. He ruled over 70 million people -
and then he loses everything. Thats an archetypal
story. Thats a story that will always be fascinating.
And then the story itself is so outlandish, its
so filled with dramatic moments that are hard to
believe that it seems as if it had been invented
by a writer prone to exaggeration. But its
all true. Napoleon stands at a turning point in
history, a figure who embodies all the conflicting
currents of his time. And what a time it was. The
French Revolution changed Europe, and the world
forever. The French beheaded a King who ruled by
divine right and then set about trying to establish
a democratic Republic at a time when democracy in
America had just been born. But the French couldnt
make democracy work. Chaos and terror tore France
apart. Napoleon restored order, but in the end,
did he preserve the values of the French Revolution,
or did he crush them? People still argue about that
today. Thats why he continues to be a controversial,
and fascinating figure.
were the high and low points of making this film?
would say that shooting the battle recreations were
probably the high and the low points at the same
time. They were tremendously challenging, and I
was gratified to see that we were actually able
to make them work. Remember were not Hollywood,
we cant hire the entire Czechoslovakian army
to come out and pretend that theyre Napoleonic
soldiers. We had around 200 re-creators. How do
you make 200 people look like 200,000? Very challenging
and very complicated. We had re-creators coming
from all over Europe with their muskets and their
cannons and their period costumes speaking English,
French, Italian, Czech, German. It was a confusing
babble of languages - a little bit like Napoleons
army that went into Russia. Except he had 600,000
soldiers. Well, for us 200 people were hard enough
to manage. You didnt know who you were talking
to - whether you should be speaking English or French
or getting translators or what. These re-creators
had the passion for reenacting Napoleonic battles,
but they were re-creators, they werent extras
in a Hollywood movie. They liked imagining that
they were part of a military organization, so if
I wanted to have a private move five paces to get
a better camera angle, I had to ask him by going
through his sergeant. I couldnt ask him directly
as you might an extra.
did the re-enactors help make Napoleons story
wanted it to be accurate. The difficult thing was
that they got so into their roles that they sometimes
wouldnt do the things that I needed them to
do. For example the most feared part of Napoleons
army was the Imperial Guard. These were big, tough
men, veteran fighters who terrified their enemies.
In the battle of Waterloo, the climactic moment
is when the Imperial Guard turns and runs in the
face of a hail of British fire. So were filming
this scene, and I wanted our re-creators to charge
the British line and then fall and pretend to die,
but these guys arent falling. And Im
saying, "You know, youve got to fall
down," and theyre saying, "Were
the Imperial Guard. No one stops us. We just keep
coming." It wasnt until I told them,
"The Imperial Guard would rather die than surrender"
- which was a famous thing said about the Guard
- that they began to fall.
you feel like Napoleon commanding his army?
say that making a film is like fighting a battle
and in that sense managing this enormous shoot was
like being a commanding general. But no one died
in our recreations. You have to remember that these
were life and death struggles and in the end 3 million
people died in the Napoleonic wars. I was very aware
that I was play acting. Napoleon was in it for real.
you able to film on any of the actual battlefields?
filmed on the battlefield at Austerlitz and we filmed
on the Waterloo battlefield, so those landscapes
in the film are from the actual battlefields. But
the recreations were done on a separate field and
intercut with the battlefields because we couldnt
re-stage the battles on the sites themselves.
you afraid that the French wouldnt want an
American to be making a film about one of their
most important and controversial figures?
this series were made by an Englishman I think the
French would have been worried. Theres a real
rivalry there. But we Americans didnt beat
the French at Waterloo. I think the French felt
I could be neutral, and resolve the controversies
swirling around Napoleons life through good
did you discover about Napoleon that you didnt
think what intrigued me most was his vitality. He
had the energy of ten men. He could get up at midnight
and work till 5 in the morning, sleep for a couple
of more hours and then get up and continue to work.
Hed just wear out his secretaries. He would
dictate to four of them at the same time, moving
from one to the other as if he were playing 4 games
of chess. He had the kind of brilliance that could
hold all these letters in his mind at one time,
like a great chess master. Tremendous energy, never
stopped. I was also surprised to find that even
though he was French, he would wolf down his meals
in 10 minutes. French men and women during the Napoleonic
time took a couple of hours to eat a meal. They
still do today. Not Napoleon. So he surprised me
in lots of ways.
kind of a ruler do you think Napoleon was?
have to remember that Napoleon was a dictator. He
didnt stand for criticism. There was censorship
of the press, there were no real elections. He didnt
care at all about freedom. Whats interesting
is that he did believe in equality. He believed
that everyone should have a chance to rise on their
own, according to their own talent, to the level
of their own abilities. Thats hard for Americans
to understand. How can you believe in equality without
liberty? Just one of the puzzles about this man,
who also spread the Napoleonic code of laws across
Europe laws that put an end to feudalism
and aristocratic privilege. In some ways he carries
forward the legacy of the French Revolution, in
other ways he kidnaps it.
What kind of man do you think Napoleon really was?
of all he was born in Corsica, and if the child
is father of the man, youve got to look to
the powerful influence of this small nation of fighters
to understand him. He was born just after the French
conquered Corsica and grew up chafing under French
rule, so I think he always had a sense of himself
as an outsider. And of course, he loved power, and
couldnt seem to get enough of it. In a time
when thrones were inherited, and young men from
Corsica didnt become Emperors, he took to
being Emperor quite naturally. He loved power, he
said, like a violinist loves his violin.
do you think people will take away from watching
think it makes you aware of how fragile democracy
is. You see how difficult it was for the French
to establish a Republic after their revolution.
Napoleon inherits the legacy of the French Revolution
and the question is, whats he going to do
with it? Will he abolish aristocratic privilege?
Will there be liberty and equality? America in Napoleons
time was just an experiment. Now we know it worked.
It didnt have to. We take our own history
for granted. Napoleon reminds you that democracy
is something thats very precious and very
difficult to achieve.