INTERVIEW / A smouldering talent: The director Vincent Ward brings a fiery past to his new film Map of the Human Heart. Kevin Jackson met him

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice. Vincent Ward is of the former party. The element of fire obsesses him, he says, both for its innate properties and for the curious ways in which it has blazed up throughout the history of his family. 'When my great-grandfather came to New Zealand from Ireland, he found this beautiful province that was all bush; it reminded him of home. Soon after he settled there, the whole area burnt to the ground, but he inherited a wife from that, because the husband of one of the local women had died fighting the fires. Then, years later, my grandfather came home from burying two children who had died of sleeping sickness to find that his house had been accidentally burnt down by a neighbour.'

The next two generations of Wards would also have been well advised to lay in a good supply of asbestos pills. 'My father got three-quarters of his body burnt during the war, in the Middle East. He was in a convoy, and he tried to put out burning petrol on the back of his truck. Then, after he came back to New Zealand, he managed to burn down a house, while removing paint, and my mother nearly did the same thing - they didn't have proper plumbing, and had to burn their toilet paper, and she set fire to some gorse. And then I've also had one house burn down around me, and I had a van I was driving go up in flames on the highway.' Presumably this has left him with something of a phobia? 'Oh no, I love fires.'

Ward's fiery temperament helps explain both why the climactic sequence of his latest film, Map of the Human Heart, is a scorching recreation of the bombing of Dresden, and why he wasn't surprised at the news that reached him just as he finished shooting it: 'We had been filming the raid in Montreal, using sets and models, and then I heard that my father, who was on the other side of the world in New Zealand, had just died. I was sad, because I loved him a lot, but it really seemed like spectacular timing.'

The director is at pains to add, however, that he has 'more creditable reasons' than private obsession for wanting to portray the Dresden fire-storm, which he regards as 'an act of total barbarity, for so little reason'. Ward's protagonist is an Inuit called Avik (played by Jason Scott Lee) who has joined up with the Canadian RAF as an aerial photographer - an unusual but, Ward insists, far from impossible career move at the time. Among other things, the flames of Dresden confront Avik with the difference between the serene mapper's-eye-view of the aviator and the horror of events on the ground - the emotional difference, you might say, between an overhead wide shot and a close-up.

Aerial photography is one of several metaphorical forms of cartography deployed in Map of the Human Heart - the others include chest X-rays and Inuit carvings - but the film also has quite a lot to do with the real business of map-making. After a brief prologue about a geological survey of the Arctic, it flashes back to an earlier expedition in the Thirties, in which Russell, an RAF officer (Patrick Bergin), encounters the young Avik. Russell takes a shine to the lad, and noticing symptoms of tuberculosis, sends him down to Montreal for a dose of white man's medicine. In hospital, he suffers at the quick hands of a bigoted nun (Jeanne Moreau) and falls in partially-requited love with a half-Indian girl, Albertine (played by Annie Galipeau and then, as an adult, by Anne Parillaud). Avik, Russell and Albertine are forced apart by their circumstances, but the war brings them into new configurations of loyalty and betrayal in England.

It is the kind of far-flung journey, in short, that generally attracts the adjective 'epic' - a word which Ward cautiously endorses. 'I don't really like grand myths, but I do like stories like the Odyssey which are rooted in human detail, which have a large degree of human observation and of intimacy.' Indeed, Ward's second feature The Navigator (1988), bore the subtitle 'A Medieval Odyssey', though in most respects its fantastical story-line was closer to Dante than Homer - it was a weird kind of science-fiction tale about a group of 14th-century Cumbrian miners who descend into the bowels of the earth and emerge in modern-day New Zealand.

Outlandish as this premiss may sound, The Navigator was a hit on the festival circuit, and drew such ardent reviews around the world that even Hollywood began to take an interest in this previously obscure director. What happened next is a complicated story, made all the more intricate by the fact that Ward is contractually obliged not to say too much about it; however, the upshot was that he soon became famous as the might-have-been director of Alien3 .

'At the time I was working on Map with my co-writer. I was broke, I'd spent a lot of money on going to the Arctic and interviewing anthropologists and dam-buster bomber pilots, and we were driving each other crazy. I was living in this basement in Australia, and the phone call came and I turned it down. But then they rang me back and said, 'We'll send you the script anyway.' I read it, I said no again. And then they rang me back a third time, and said, 'You can change the script if you like.' Well, by this time that basement was driving me crazy, so I said yes just to get out.'

He dreamt up a new story-line on the plane and, somewhat to his surprise, the producers liked it. Ward's scenario took place on a quasi-medieval, man-made world: 'It was like a Bosch world - it had a lot of technology at the centre of it, controlling basics like gravity and air, but it was all rotting, and the surface world was like second century AD Turkey, controlled by an ascetic sect of monks whose buildings and machines were all made of wood.

'It struck me that it would be possible to take the elements of the Alien story and overlay a whole Christian mythos on it, and it would fit perfectly. So these monks see a star in the East, which is Ripley's escape craft, and it crashes down in a lake, and you carry on from there.' The longer Ward spent developing the idea, however, the colder the responses became: 'These films are so expensive that the accountants start making the decisions.' So he went back to the Arctic and work on Map bearing a severance fee and a co-writer's credit.

In the light of his brief sojourn in outer space, Map of the Human Heart might also be seen as something of a disquisition on the subject of aliens and part-aliens. When Avik and his Inuit playmates first see Russell's biplane cutting through the skies, they scatter in terror as if it were a UFO. Later, Avik becomes an airman at the expense of becoming estranged from his own culture, while his true love Albertine ferociously rejects both him and the non-European side of her own background. Yet Ward had already addressed similar themes of strangers in a strange land in The Navigator, while his documentary, In Spring One Plants Alone (1980), grew from the years he spent living as the only white man in a remote Maori village.

With Map behind him, he is still undecided about his next project, though it is not too disconcerting to learn that his latest enthusiasm is for another mysterious shard of the Middle Ages - the Travels of Sir John Mandeville, from which he reads aloud with relish: 'It's full of extravagant descriptions and wonderful phrases: 'Of paradise I cannot speak properly, for I have not been there, and that I regret . . .' In some ways I wish I'd read this book before I started work on The Navigator.' To be sure, this does not necessarily mean that Sir John's heirs (if any) would be well advised to get a hot agent; but in the film world, as the saying goes, there's no smoke without fire.

'Map of the Human Heart' opens on 4 June at the Lumiere, London WC2

(Photograph omitted)

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