Pépin, 56, is also the one who, with codirector Christophe Berthonneau, 36, rose to the occasion. The two showed the 3 million celebrators on the ground—and more than a billion TV viewers around the world—that you don't need a clock to know when it's time to party. Never mind that the not-quite-seven-minute display was relatively brief or that, at about $472,000, it cost a fraction of what most other big cities paid for their New Year's celebrations. In the end, Paris's barrage of light and color was the jewel in the new Millennium's birthday crown.
"Of all the capitals, I thought it came away way on top," says American author and fireworks expert George Plimpton. "Paris was literally a spectacle I will remember for the rest of my life. You saw this very familiar landmark sprouting these great plumes of white fire."
For Pépin and Berthonneau, the fire was far less important than the vision behind it. "I don't care about massive quantities of explosives," says Pépin. "The idea was to find the right image to mark the tension of the new Millennium's arriving."
Tapped by the Eiffel Tower's management office nine months ago, Pépin and Berthonneau soon hit on a dramatic, TV-friendly concept, then focused on bringing their ideas to life. With more than 100 staffers, including 17 surefooted mountain climbers, the team used 100 different kinds of fireworks to make 20,000 explosions on and around the tower's 80 specially installed platforms. Still, Berthonneau says he wasn't entirely sure his charges would cooperate. "Fire is a living animal," he says. "You're never certain you're in control."
Very little was under control a week before the show, when violent, 129-mph winds racked Paris; throughout France, almost 90 people were killed by the freak storms. But the newly installed wiring on the tower held, as did Berthonneau's composure when the clock went dark 5¼ hours before the great moment. "I looked at this all with a vague smile," he says, "because I knew I had 10 tons of powder behind me and a super installation."
A onetime street actor, Berthonneau became fascinated with fire while working in a steel mill as a teenager. Now living in the South of France with his wife and two young children, he runs Groupe F, an avant-garde production group that created fireworks shows for the 2,600th birthday of Marseilles in 1999 and for the Rugby World Cup held that year in Wales.
Pépin, a former journalist whose company, ECA2, is best known for perfecting a way to project moving images onto a water screen (a technology currently used by Disney and SeaWorld), felt a kinship with the fiery Berthonneau when they met in 1992. Their companies collaborated on shows for the Lisbon World Expo in 1998 and for the closing ceremonies of the World Cup soccer championship in Paris that same year. The fire next time will dazzle in March at an amusement park in Poitiers, France, to be followed by a spectacular at Japan's Expo 2001 in Yamaguchi. "We don't want to get caught in the 'always something bigger' syndrome," says the divorced Pépin, who lives in the Paris suburbs. "We want what we do to be a genuine creation."
As midnight approached, both Berthonneau and Pépin found themselves in the crowd beneath Paris's most famous symbol. Some gendarmes offered to clear a way for Pépin, but he declined, preferring to witness his towering inferno with the throngs. "It was incredible to have those thousands of people reacting to the mounting tension—and then the freedom!" he exults. "You could feel the vibrations."
And how did the duo feel when it was all over? Says Berthonneau: "What was really important was that at the end all the people involved were screaming, crying, dancing. Even those who had only seen it on a screen, they were enchanted. That was a great moment of pleasure."
Many newspapers around the world pronounced the Paris extravaganza among the most spectacular of the epochal night. But Pépin says his favorite accolade came from a friend who phoned him the next day: "He said, 'You made the tower happy.' "
Peter Ames Carlin
Cathy Nolan in Paris