How ‘Fire of Love’ Doc Captured the Larger-Than-Life Spirit of Famed Volcanologists

A version of this interview with “Fire of Love” director Sara Dosa first appeared in the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.

The French couple Katia and Maurice Krafft were famed volcanologists until their deaths following an eruption in Japan in 1991. Sara Dosa’s glittering documentary “Fire of Love” celebrates the Kraffts with a portrait of lives led with risk and adventure on the rim’s edge.

The film, which was released by NatGeo and Neon last summer and is available to stream on Disney+, is a triumph of storytelling, feeling and design. Peabody winner and Emmy nominee Dosa talked to TheWrap about the blend between romance and tragedy, talking “deadpan curious” with narrator Miranda July, and bumping into volcano puns.

Do you remember your first reaction to learning the story of Katia and Maurice Krafft?
Absolutely. I remember that for myself and the crew, we were just enthralled by them. Their story was unlike anything we’d ever come across. They felt legendary and incredibly vivid. Which is such a unique combination, to feel so mythic and so real. And then the more we learned, and the more imagery we saw, we were just blown away — forgive the pun. I accidentally bump into volcano puns all the time.

The film reveals their fate early on. Was that something you deliberated about?
It comes at the one-minute, six-second mark in the film when we say, “This will be Katia and Maurice’s final day,” and that was very deliberate. We wanted to let the audience know that they’re watching the footage and photos and words that the Kraffts left behind. And we didn’t want their deaths to feel sensationalized, so stating it more matter-of-factly felt respectful. It pulled focus on how they lived instead of how they died. And sharing the news of their deaths also set a clock within the film.

Time is a beautiful theme just beneath the surface of the movie.
Yes, the idea of time was very important to us. You have the biological clock and the fragility of human life, as embodied by Katia and Maurice, which is set against this almost immortal geological time of volcanoes. We liked how that theme of time communicated a wistful, mournful tone in the film while also really celebrating the meaning of living life.

We see so much of the Kraffts’ amazing 16mm footage. Were you also paying tribute to the power of celluloid?
Oh, it was incredible to celebrate the filmic quality of their work. First, it’s just gorgeous what they shot — the richness, the little grains of dust, the hairs that were caught in the negative. It puts you in a time and place unlike anything else could. But also, on a deeper level, just the fact that they were working with film stock meant that they had to ration what they committed to posterity. They wanted to capture everything but they knew their supply was finite. That really reflects their philosophy towards life too. They knew that any moment could be their last. So they tried to live as deeply and meaningfully and as close to the volcano as possible.

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Writer and filmmaker Miranda July narrates the film. What was it like collaborating with her?
It was so exciting. We had a term which we called “deadpan curious,” which is such a big part of Miranda’s appeal as an artist. And that also came from French New Wave narrators, specifically in Jean-Luc Godard’s films, where the narrator’s tone is restrained and neutral but still playful. We knew Miranda would embrace that approach and she delivered beautifully. I would say to her, “Read this line as if you have a secret.” And that resonated with the grand mystery in the film about volcanoes and the human heart. 

We hear some music by Brian Eno and by Air in the film. In fact, Air’s Nicolas Godin is the film’s composer. What was your approach to the soundtrack? 
There was an overall goal to be playful and romantic  When you’re making a film about love, music is a magical, powerful force. Music can transform you instantly. We knew we wanted something sweeping and epic, but aesthetically we would use the term retro-futuristic. Like dreaming of the future but from a vintage past. Especially since Katia and Maurice stylized themselves like characters from a sci-fi B-movie, with the silver suits and helmets.

Air was part of our temp music, so it was such an amazing experience when Niko Godin came on as the composer. And Niko understands the power of music so well. It was interesting, we were using Brian Eno’s song “The Big Ship” as temp music while we were editing a scene. It was the culminating moment with Katia and Maurice are falling in love. It’s a crystallizing moment and we wanted it to be imbued with total romantic power. And that song has always pulled out all the heartstrings. It was temp music but Niko said, “No, I love this, it works so well,” and Brian Eno generously let us license it for that scene.

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“Fire of Love” has been shown in a few IMAX theaters. What was it like for you to watch it that way?
I’m a twin so twin metaphors come easily to me. I feel like the two versions are like twin sisters — same DNA but different personalities. In the incredible IMAX version, the volcanos are so much more viscerally felt. In the theatrical version, you absorb more of the character details. All I know is that Katia and Maurice would be so amused that the film was shown on IMAX, because they lived so large.

What would you ask Katia and Maurice if you could have interviewed them for the film?
That’s probably the hardest question of all. There are so many things. There are many people who appear in their footage who clearly have a life or death relationship with them. There’s a guy in Indonesia who’s hanging onto Maurice’s feet as he dangles over a crater. We couldn’t find out who that man was. But I would love to know. What was his life like? What did he think of Katia and Maurice.

And so many other things. I mean, the French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, who wrote “The Little Prince,” is mentioned a lot in their writing, and I’d love to ask them about him. But in a bigger sense, I’d just love to ask them about their relationship. Maurice once wrote in a book, “For me and Katia and volcanos, it is a love story.” That romanticism, that whimsy, that love triangle — it gave us our thesis for the film, but I’d love to know more in their own words.

Read more from the Guild & Critics Awards/Documentaries issue here.

Photographed by Jeff Vespa for TheWrap

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