‘Fire of Love’ – Interview with Director Sara Dosa

Fire of Love tells the story of Maurice and Katia Krafft, two ill-fated volcanologists, who broke barriers in the field of volcanology with their stunning and up-close footage. Last week, the film earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Documentary Feature. Oscars Central had the privilege of chatting with Fire of Love‘s director, Sara Dosa, to discuss the film, what drew her to the Kraffts, and what she wishes she could ask Katia and Maurice, if given the chance.

Lex Williams: First, I just wanted to say congratulations on your Oscar nomination. That’s incredible.
Sara Dosa: Thank you so much. 

LW: And thank you for taking the time to speak with me. I’m really excited to get to talk to you about Fire of Love. My first question is, what initially drew you to the Krafft’s story?

Dosa: I first met Katia and Maurice, actually, when my team and I were finishing up the last film I directed, which is a film called The Seer and the Unseen. That film is a vérité documentary that takes place in Iceland, which is a volcanic island, and we were looking for archival imagery of erupting volcanoes in Iceland to open that film. Once we started on that research, we learned about Katia and Maurice, because there are not that many people that filmed erupting volcanoes in Iceland. We immediately knew that there’s something different about their footage that was absolutely spectacular and close up. There was that palpable feeling of love that radiated behind the frame. That was really when we started to learn about them as people. That they were a married couple, so playful and charismatic and also deeply philosophical. That’s when we thought, “Oh, wow, there’s an interesting story here.”

We began reading their books, and in one of the books that Maurice authored, there’s a sentence in it that says, “For me, Katia, and volcanoes, it is a love story.”  And we really felt like Maurice was like giving us a thesis statement for how to understand and interpret their vast legacy. It wasn’t just a love story, he was really talking about a love triangle between these two humans in love with each other, and an elemental force of volcanoes. And that got us really excited. We knew there was a creative opportunity here to be really playful with the genre of nature documentaries, to use their footage to tell their story. But it’s a love story that almost feels like a myth because, you know, it’s not every day that you hear about humans being in love with volcanoes, that seems like the kind of the materials met. So we got really excited and one thing led to the next, but that’s really how it kind of got kicked off. 

LW: That’s what I loved about the documentary, that it goes beyond the nature documentary. It’s like what you said, there’s like a love triangle going on between the two of them and the volcanoes. Did you go into this process of going through their archives with the intent more to focus on the volcanoes, and then the love story kind of developed? Or was it the other way around, where you knew you wanted to tell the love story from the beginning? 

Dosa: We wanted to do what felt most true to Katia and Maurice, first and foremost. We were excited about this love story idea at the very beginning, but we were just at the beginning of our process. So we needed to watch all the footage, listen to all of the interviews, read all of their books. We also conducted about 15 interviews with their collaborators and loved ones, that we didn’t want to record those because we knew that we didn’t want them on camera, but we really wanted that information, and ultimately put that into the narration of the film. I’ll say it’s like we had an idea, but we needed to remain open to listen to what their actual story was. And through that research process, the thing that kept surfacing as the heart of their work and their collaboration really was love. So it kind of confirmed our initial idea. And again, our initial idea was given to us from Maurice, it’s not like we just plucked it out of thin air. So that made sense that it would be reinforced, but it was always a dance, as it quite often is in a documentary, to start with an idea, to gather all the research, to find the right way to tell the story that feels authentic and true and respectful, while at once acknowledging your own interpretations that you’re putting onto this. I feel like if you pretend that you don’t have your own view of things, then it can be quite problematic. 

We were also so moved by this idea of centering sentience and the power of nature, the alluring creative and destructive force that is volcanoes. That was really essential to us, as well. This is my circuitous way of getting back to your question; we always we wanted it to be a balance between, you know, Katia and Maurice’s characters in a nuanced and developed way, but also really showcasing volcanoes for their kind of category-smashing, renegade, creative, destructive, elemental force that they are, and how that brought these two humans together in this kind of in this love story. It was really tricky to balance all three – very, very tricky. But I had the great fortune of working with an amazing team – two great producers Shane Boris and Ina Fichman, and my editors, Erin Casper and Jocelyne Chaput – who all very much tried to figure out the right kind of balance for our collage film. 

LW: I definitely think you achieved that balance. Could you tell me about what the research process was for this film? What I love is that it looks like Maurice and Katia are actually creating the story for you. It looks as if they personally had a hand in the documentary.

Dosa: Honestly, that’s the highest compliment. That means the most to me. Thank you for saying that. 

LW: Oh, of course! But how did you kind of decide what made it in the final cut versus what didn’t? Was there anything that you found in your research that took you by surprise?

Dosa: That’s a great question. Our research was extensive and again, we watched everything that they had shot. When we came to the project, their archive was housed in a place called Image’Est, an archival facility based in Nancy, France. There’s about 200 hours of 16 millimeter footage, and just thousands of still photographs that they digitized and gave to us, which was amazing. So we watched and listened to all of that.

Then, we worked with an amazing archival producer named Nancy Marcotte, who tracked down other archival elements of Katia and Maurice, like their appearances on television in France and Belgium and Switzerland. They also had their own children’s show, I believe, as a six part series, in the mid 1970s, where they would have kids come, and it was like an educational variety show, which was really fun. There’s archives of them in front of other people’s cameras aside from their own. And Nancy was really great at tracking all of those down, and we listened to and watched all of those, too. We found the nearly 20 books that they wrote, as well as biographies about them, and hungrily read all of those. And again, we interviewed friends and collaborators and took diligent notes and recorded those to have those as part of our resources in research, too. But filtering all of that into a story was very challenging, and that’s where this idea of a love triangle was very useful for us. Especially once we confirmed, yes, this does feel like the truest interpretation of their legacy.

There is kind of a chronology of their life that, of course, we embraced, but we were also inspired by love triangle films, largely French New Wave films of the late 60s and early 70s, which very much kind of formed the cultural backdrop of Katia and Maurice’s own coming of age, too. You can actually even see some of the hallmark styles of the French New Wave in their own work, from Maurice’s really fun and playful snap zooms, and his cinematography and the way Katia writes often reminded us of, like François Truffaut, or Agnès Varda. So we kind of embraced the love triangle structure from other French films at the time to help us kind of create the narrative arc.

That meant using volcano imagery as a love language, so to speak, in the absence of footage of the two of them, like kissing or holding hands, or going on dates. That also helped to kind of focus down like this is they’re early on, and they’re falling in love, they just got out into the field, we’re not going to go for like swelling like lava like rivers just yet, but we’re gonna look for sparks and embers fly to indicate like, there’s something really happening here. 

But so much to say, we tried to kind of sculpt a map of love based on volcano imagery, in accordance with that love triangle structure, if that makes sense. That helped make some difficult choices given the beauty and the vastness of their archive. 

LW: I can see what you mean by that thematic feel of the new like late 60s/early 70s French New Wave love film, and it’s just it’s so well done. One thing that struck me the first time I watched this film was, it made me want to sit down and speak with Katia and Maurice. There were so many questions that I would have loved to have been able to ask them. If you had the chance to speak to them, what would you like to know from them? Is there anything in particular you would like to say to them?

Dosa: I think the first thing I would say to them is just thank you. Thank you. Thank you. I think I would do my best to not cry with profound gratitude for them. They’ve inspired so much. They’ve given me so much. I see the world radically different now, thanks to them. The adventure of getting to work with their footage has truly been the greatest creative gift, and also a philosophically nourishing gift, as well. So I think I’d have to pull myself away from just professing gratitude towards them.

In terms of questions, that’s something I think about constantly, and the questions always change. Sometimes I feel like the questions I would ask them are kind of bigger questions about life and regret, since they lived in such proximity, and then such relationship to death and danger. They had such a finely tuned idea of how to live every second. There’s part of me that wants to really push on that even more and say, like, “Did you ever have any regrets? You seem to have not, because of this unique relationship, but did you?” So that’s one of them. Then, there’s some from their footage, you know, there’s like shots where there’ll be like a person in the frame. For example, there’s like one shot of Maurice literally dangling, dangling over the side of a crater in Indonesia, and there’s a man holding his ankles. And I’ve always wanted to know, “Who is that person who has his life?” or, “Your life, Maurice, is literally in someone else’s hands? Like, what was your relationship to him?” There’s so many people like that in their footage. 

But, Shane Boris, my producer, one of our writers on the film, said something really wise the other day, when we were talking about exactly this. He said that he would just love to look into their eyes. Not even necessarily ask them a question, but just, they’ve seen the forces of creation and destruction. They don’t use religious language, but the way that they actually talk about it feels as if they’ve seen something like the Divine. There’s something so transcendent about their experience, what they witnessed. To look into the eyes of people who have seen that, that seems like an extraordinary thing. So there’s kind of just like that, physically, just being in their presence and meeting their way wordlessly in the world that I think would be phenomenally meaningful for me.

LW: You mentioned there were moments in the footage that you would reference. Was there anything in the archival footage that didn’t make it into the final cut of the film that you thought was interesting?  

Dosa: Yeah, absolutely. There’s so much beauty in their footage, and so much that we left on the cutting room floor. I really feel like you can make 100 films with the craft archive, and it’s just such great stories of adventure.

There’s one amazing story actually, it’s not necessarily in their footage, but it was a great story about Katia when she was a teenager. This carnival came to her village in Alsace, France, that had a ride, which is called the Wall of Death. It’s like the iconic cylinder that’s like spinning really fast, and there’s a motorcycle that’s riding horizontally on it. Katia decided to get up on that motorcycle, and using her understanding of centripetal force as the budding scientist that she was, she was able to successfully ride it. And everyone is shocked that this, like, small young girl could do that. She defied you know, sexism and gravity all at once. I love that story so much. It just says so much about her daredevil spirit from such a young age, and also how she could use science to counter fear, and that drove so much of her adventure. So that’s one thing that I would love to put into a Director’s Cut. 

There’s just so much imagery, too. Like so much of it, of course, was about volcanoes and geothermal imagery, but there is a lot of life. People harvesting rice in Indonesia, a monitor lizard eating a dead animal, shots of their friend Michelle’s watch, and a centipede crawling over it. Just beautiful imagery of people and life that had a meaning for them that we’ll never necessarily know, because it wasn’t logged in their notes or in their books, or preserved in the memories of their friends that we interviewed. All of those pieces that kind of speak to an unknown meaning for them. I would love to just have a film that’s just like, “what does this mean?” 

LW: For my final question, obviously, this film has taken off and it’s received a lot of well deserved accolades, but amidst it all, if there’s one thing that you would like for audiences to take away from the film, what would it be?

Dosa: I hope that Katia and Maurice’s story can really inspire an example of what it means to live a meaningful life, and ultimately die a meaningful death. So much of that was how they understood the relationship of love and their life. Like for them, they went towards the unknown that is volcanoes. All the while knowing that they could never fully understand. That’s something that they would both often say, it’s like volcanoes are beyond human comprehension. 

But they still went towards that unknown, in search of understanding because that journey brought them profound love and meaning. That kind of clarity of purpose is so powerful and so inspiring to me. I think especially at a heightened time in history, when so many people, of course, have been experiencing uncertainty, fear, disaster, catastrophe for so long, but on this global scale with a pandemic, I feel like Katia and Maurice can serve as a North Star in terms of reconciling how to navigate uncertainty towards meaning, through the idea of love and understanding. And that’s, for me, an incredibly powerful lesson. 

Getting to kind of work on a story that involves those themes with a team, puts an emphasis on me smuggling another thing in [laughs]. It was such a collaborative process and I owe everything to my extraordinary team. So getting to tell a story that involves those themes with a team like I had is like a gift in itself through a rough time, and I’m forever grateful for that. 

LW: That’s awesome. For what it’s worth, that is absolutely what I took away from the film. I felt so inspired by their love for each other. Obviously, their deaths are very tragic. But, when you think about it, you gotta leave this world at some point and that’s not the worst way to go: doing the thing you love with the person you love most. I just absolutely adored this film. Again, congratulations on the nomination and all the success that has come with this film. It’s been lovely chatting with you and I really appreciate your time. 

Dosa: Thank you so much, Lex. I’m so touched by your kind words and how you see the project. It really means a lot, thanks so much for this.

Fire of Love is currently streaming on Disney+ and has been rereleased into select theaters.
You can read our review of Fire of Love here.

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