Michael Gondry Interview, Director Science of Sleep

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

Michel Gondry is a visionary director of feature films, highly regarded commercials, and award-winning music videos. He has an amazing imagination, doesn’t limit himself to a single creative outlet, and often surprising himself with his own extraordinary ideas. He embraces each endeavor with the same creative flourish and is always excited about entertaining his audience with his latest idea or dream.

Gondry got his start while studying graphics at a French art school when he began directing videos for the band Oui Oui, for which he played drums. The clip’s success attracted other local bands, and it wasn’t long before he was working internationally. In 1993 Gondry met pop singer Bjork, commencing one of his longest and most successful professional creative relationships. Since then, he’s collaborated with a wide-ranging group of artists that include The White Stripes, The Rolling Stones, Beck, Daft Punk, Chemical Brothers, Foo Fighters, Lenny Kravitz, Sheryl Crow, Cibo Matto, Kylie Minogue, The Willowz, The Polyphonic Spree, Steriogram, Gary Jules and most recently, Dave Chappelle and Kanye West.

One of his first commercials, Levis’ "Drugstore" (1994), garnered the Lion D’Or at Cannes and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most award-winning commercial of all time. Among his other notable credits are Levi’s "Mermaids," silver medal winner at the Clio Awards and a bronze at Cannes and Smirnoff’s "Smarienburg," which captured gold medals at Cannes and the Clio Awards. Earlier this summer, Gondry completed Diet Coke’s "Bounce" featuring Adrian Brody.

Gondry’s first film, "Human Nature," premiered at the 2001 Cannes International film Festival and to U.S. audiences at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival. The film starred Patricia Arquette and Tim Robbins, and is a philosophic look at the sometimes tragic, but quite human, interplay between an abnormally hirsute author, a feral young man, a kindly electrolysist, a repressed rodent researcher and his nubile French assistant.

The French director’s critically acclaimed "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, dealt with a couple attempting to rescue their failing relationship by having their bad memories erased only to discover through the process of loss what they had to begin with. The film marked the second collaboration between Gondry and Charlie Kaufman with whom he conceptualized the story. The film went on to become one of the best reviewed features of 2004 and Gondry, along with Charlie Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth, received an Academy Award for the original screenplay.

His immensely entertaining "Dave Chappelle’s Block Party," which was developed and produced with Dave Chappelle, was shot in the streets of New York City and featured performances by Dave Chappelle, Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Talib Kweli, Kanye West, The Roots, Common, Dead Prez and a special reunion of The Fugees.

Gondry’s most recent film, "The Science of Sleep," world-premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Gael Garcia Bernal ("The Motorcycle Diaries"). It’s a whimsical and sentimental comedy about a young artist and day dreamer, Stephane (Bernal), who falls in love with his lovely neighbor, Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). When his exciting dream world begins to collide with his dull waking one, he starts to confuse his dreams with reality. The story of Stephane is based on Gondry’s own experiences and the film reflects his boundless, child-like imagination.

Michel Gondry, who is best known for his collaborations, recently sat down with Movies Online to discuss what it was like to do his first feature as both solo writer and director. Here’s what the innovative French director had to tell us about his experience:

Q: I’m guessing that you have very vivid dreams?

MG: Yes.

Q: And do you remember them?

MG: Yes. Last night I dreamt that 60 homeless prostitutes were invited to my apartment.

Q: That’s nice. No?

MG: No, it was an incarnation, I mean, a representation of the spam mail I receive. The junk mail. About penis and Viagra. So it was kind of a nightmare.

Q: When did you start writing this because a lot of it is autobiographical. Is this something you’ve been working on for a long time and it’s just ….

MG: Like 8 years before I start to shoot.

Q: Eight years?

MG: Yeah, I mean I just wanted to see how I could make a movie about my dreams and still be entertaining. There’s a lot of movies about dreams. If you just go in a dream and then you come out, some of the best movies like "Dr. Seuss," (inaudible). Sometimes you’re sleeping in the middle because you need to merge back, to come back to reality before you dive again. So I’m not saying I did better, but it was my goal to do a movie with dreams but how they interact and to work with real life.

Q: How did you get the special effects? Was it post or when you were shooting? Did you have the houses moving back and forth?

MG: Well, we shot most of the animation actually eight months before we started principal photography. So we went into my countryside house that my auntie sold me a few years ago and we set up a few cameras, two cameras, and two little sets and we are building the turret like my cousin from (inaudible Soho?) who is an architect and we used to make our own system when we were kids. He built the turret paper roll city like for three weeks (inaudible) and then we had people coming and then like for one week we set it up in front of the camera and we animated all the (inaudible) and I did animation with them. So we already had a month to go before we started to shoot so I could project them and the actors could actually participate by watching them and they would understand what kind of (inaudible) would be in it.

Q: What were the qualities that Gael Garcia Bernal had that made him right for the role of Stephane?

MG: I think he’s very handsome so he would give me a little hard time to really imagine that he would feel this rejection so I have to push him into the most awkward place that he wasn’t initially. But he has this range that goes from being really comical and sometimes even sarcastic to very dramatic and even aggressive and sometimes he even reminds me of Chaplin. There was this moment before he dives through the window and he does something that’s very like Charlie Chaplin which I always loved. So he has a great range. The fact that he’s a little smaller like Chaplin was gives him this energy to fight back. Sometimes the little smaller people get this kick they need to compete with others. It gives them extra energy.

Q: Is there any real invention in this film? Something that you invented? Like a time machine?

MG: What did I invent that was in the film? Animation is a constant invention but I don’t think… I can’t remember a system that was really working. Whereas the idea was to use the cut as a time machine so I was kind of trying to innovate with that and instead of something that really works. I mean actually you could do the time machine and pretend it works if you just repeat the last sentences. (laughter) I think you can do it, but it’s funny because you… Actually a guy told me that he used that to seduce a girl once. (laughter) But I can’t figure out a really technical invention that I’m sure I did. Well there’s a way we made the volcano explode and all these things was an invention.
 
We had to put a mirror because we were shooting like that and the volcano was horizontal because we have to shoot through a mirror to invent the gravitation … Actually initially I wanted to do the dream sequence in 3D with a (inaudible) effect. It’s actually a real effect. If you put one eye darker than the other and you see something that is moving even if it’s flat, you try to see it in 3D because it delays your perception. So by delaying one eye, you see one eye from a different perspective because the image is moving. So I had done all the… I had practically all the scene of the dream with always a camera moving so if you put those glasses you would see all the dream in 3D in the theater. But I had so many things to do in this movie that I couldn’t. We had to give up on this idea.

Q: Would you do that in another project?

MG: Maybe yes, but I don’t know. There’s so much to do in a movie already. Maybe when it’s perfected, there will be a use for it. I’m not sure I would find a (inaudible).

Q: Are you looking forward to creating more of your own written movies?

MG: Yes, I’m shooting one in two weeks so I’m .. For instance, we are doing some flashbacks from the 1920s on the character. We are creating those movies. They could not afford to rent a car from the 20s so they have this book with pictures and they made photocopies of real size cars in front of these on top of real car so we’re going to have 60 flat cars and we did a test with seven of them and it’s great.

Q: It’s a little cheaper, right? I’ll bet the studio is happy with that. They don’t have to hunt down cars…

MG: The studios leave me alone pretty well which is good.

Q: Have you ever thought about doing just entirely animation?

MG: I don’t know. I think now I’m very addicted to my collaboration with the actor and I’m not sure I could do a movie without this input. It has to be so perfectly written to sustain the attention in an animation film. I’m not sure if I could go through that. Maybe one day I’ll have something I really could do all on my own. Maybe something abstract.

Q: There’s some recurring visuals from your music videos and in your films and one is the hands getting really large. What does that represent to you and where did that come from?

MG: It represents my penis (laughter). No, no, no. I think I really experienced it when I was (inaudible) I had this recurring nightmare and I would wake up with the feeling of having huge hands. Only after I did the film, I saw …I went to an exhibition about the (inaudible), this little guy with exactly the same hand originally call the homunculus and it’s a representation of our body and our mind. It’s how if you want to move your right arm, you’re going to send an order from this part (gesturing) and that corresponds to your right hand and that corresponds to all your nerve endings because on your hands…we have much more nerve endings that on your arm.
 
You have small arm and huge hand and actually the homunculus has a small penis. (laughter) And that’s not a topic in the film. So this comes from experience really. It’s interesting that going through the process of making the film I could find finally because I’ve been to see a psychologist and people like that who ask ‘what does it mean?’ I mean it doesn’t help me for any scene, but it’s just good to feel that it’s not a random feeling. It corresponds to really the configuration, the connection of my brain to my body.

Q: You started to do feature length films but you continue to do shorts and music videos. Do you feel that you’ve lost anything by continuing to do both art forms at the same time?

MG: No, the opposite. I think it’s … I take the best of both and I get enriched by both worlds. I was just yesterday on the plane and I was supposed to write my screenplay and I couldn’t think of anything but writing a video for Charlotte Gainsbourg so I played her song and I had a great idea and I was really pleased with it and I’m going to send it to her. And it’s something I could not think of for a movie but it could help me for a movie eventually so I really like to use both of them and I think this connection I have with pop music and pop culture helps me in my movie to connect with the audience.

Q: Do you think that the narrative techniques between music videos and feature films are beginning to blur? What I mean by that is things that weren’t accepted are now…

MG: Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s a double edged sword, in a way that I think through a music video people are expected?/accepted to see a different world and edit scenes and different type of visuals but as well unfortunately it kind of gives a bad example and give an angle (??) for people to judge in a more negative way when you do visual work in your movies. So it was good for me because it was a very good way of training and still is and it’s still a great way to express myself. It’s a way …
 
It’s perceived as not as aesthetically positive and I think I have sometimes split adjust (??) between the people who are coming from this generation of watching TV who embrace my movie more easily than people coming from classical movies or feel sometime it’s … if it’s a little gratuitous, although I can’t really doubt it, that nothing is gratuitous. It doesn’t have necessarily an intellectual explanation. It’s always coming from your (inaudible), like the one I explained to you, from the big (inaudible- hunt?). There is a difference between directors who open photo books (inaudible) music videos. Although, as a director, I can hope I belong to who take their own experience to express themselves.

Q: Since we won’t be able to speak with Gael (Bernal Garcia) because I don’t believe he’s here for the interviews, can you talk a little about him being able to speak the various languages? I’m sure it’s kind of challenging for him to do the French and the English.

MG: Yeah. In fact, it was this way. He promised me he would learn French and he didn’t really. (laughter) I had to adapt to him. But, on the other hand, the actress who plays his Mom, Miou-Miou, who is one of the most famous French actresses, she refused to speak English. So I had to adapt, but it was for the best of the film because if you look, it would make total sense that with his mother he would only speak French because he grew up with her and she would not talk English to him like my mother would not speak English to me so that’s sometimes a cycle you have to go through that (inaudible???) ends up positive to the story.
 
And that fact that he is more confident to speak French to her because that’s his family (inaudible) he is aware of his accent. So I managed to deal with this handicap to make it better. But I think there was… To me, it was important to have him because both we are foreigners in the country we live and we have to deal with that. And I guess now I’ve been living more in New York. It’s really a city where everybody is a foreigner and actually you feel OK to not be from the same culture but initially it could be a reason of stress for me. It’s a part between what happened in real life, in everyday life, and what happened with him between his dream of real life. He has this kind of split brain that you have when you have half of your life you speak French or Spanish and the second half of your life you speak English. Emotionally split in two different parts because of language gets memorized in different parts and it’s really confusing.

Q: Is it true you filmed this where you used to live? The same building?

MG: Yeah. In a building I used to live in. In fact it was two floors above where (inaudible) still lives and she was a stylist in the film so it was all … It could have been a very unhealthy situation where everything was mixed up but it was very good, very positive, and I didn’t feel weird to watch this location in the film. It’s kind of puts them out of (inaudible) in a positive way.

Q: Is making a film like this part therapy for you?

MG: Well, I don’t want to say that because I think it would sound selfish. (laughter) I mean I don’t think the process was selfish. I’m trying to do the best movie I can and I think the best thing I can talk about right now was me and some people I had around me and what’s going on in my head. So we tried to find an apartment because I wrote this story thinking of this apartment, the fact that it was a true apartment next to each other with a balcony that communicates.
 
This type of apartment which are very small and I’ve never seen in movies and I understand why because it’s impossible to shoot there. (laughter) Once you put the camera and the lights, there is no space for the actors. We had to deal with that. But I think we tried with other places but we ended up shooting there because no places was matching my idea. So I think it’s therapeutic but I think it’s for the best of the film as well.

Q: Could you talk about the casting of Charlotte Gainsbourg and Miou-Miou? They are so huge in your country. You have big acclaim from the international, especially Hollywood. That kind of fame helped to ….

MG: Yeah, sure. I would not deny that. I think like even if like in the most trendy French magazine or paper (inaudible) Hollywood movies, the first thing they would ask me when I meet them is ‘How is it to be successful?’ ‘How is it to meet…Did you meet this guy?’ They are craving for that. It’s like everybody’s the same. So they don’t admit it but in terms of the actor obviously coming from this film, "Eternal Sunshine" which was successful with this big actor in it.
 
I had a very good choice, but the thing is with Alain Chabat who is playing Guy, the (inaudible) at the workplace, I knew him before, from just at the beginning of my videos because he was doing a commercial. We were doing post production in the same building, so when I started to write a script I asked him if he wanted to be part of it. And he said, ‘Yeah, yeah.’ He was already a huge star because he was one of the most famous directors and comedians in France.

Q: So the Gainsbourgs and Miou-Miou, you knew them when you were kids. You admire their family?

MG. Charlotte Gainsbourg. First, she is a product of two huge icons of France, Serge Gainsbourg and Jane Birkin, who are all over the media from when I was a kid. But once she grew up, Charlotte, she immediately became her own person. She’s such a strong personality. She became very iconic for an entire generation of actors because she’s so specific. And she overcame the fact that she was coming from this background with a very overwhelming father who was a genius and to become into her own right a very important person. So for me, it was amazing to work with her because she’s a humble person. She doesn’t put her celebrity in your face. She’s rather shy so she was exactly matching the type of character that I wanted to portray. And it was a dream for me to work with her.

Q: You use lucid dream imagery a lot in your films. Do you use lucid dreams in your writing then as a tool to come up with ideas?

MG: Yeah, well, not so clearly, but a lot of times I am aware that I am dreaming and I do experimentation. When I’m not trying to have sex with some ladies. (laughter) As most men do in their lucid dreams. But when I’m done with that, I keep experimenting. I remember a dream when I went into a recording studio and I was changing the quality of the song and really thinking it’s fascinating how my brain is recreating all this information and yet I can tweak it and put more treble and bass and make it go faster so I guess it’s interacting with the fact that I’m a director and I’m kind of directing my dreams.

Q: Besides what you do so wonderfully, is this (inaudible) kind of dreamlike contrast to reality and the playfulness of it. I love about how you talk about being 12 all your life. I love that in your movies, but what else do you hope your movies convey?

MG: Well, I think there is some depth in the character and there is this, in this specific movie, these two characters are like soul mates for each other. They bond with each other on the creative level in a way that nobody else can (inaudible) bond because they are really soul mates. From the guy’s point of view, it should translate into a physical relationship. And since it doesn’t work out this way, it’s awful for him. And from the girl’s perspective, the fact that it should be translated in a physical way, it’s an affront and it’s hurtful for her because she doesn’t see …
 
It’s like the fact that he should be physical would ruin it so both have…She finds it so precious. And for him, the fact that they don’t have sex is disturbing, distressing, and for her, the fact that he would like to go and sleep with her is very stressful. So there are all positive things that add up to something quite negative and in the very end, I think it’s open to anybody to believe that they’ll end up together or not. Initially, I wrote it that they cannot be together but I didn’t want to be this way because I wanted to have her all for myself so… (laughter) But it’s kind of autobiographical but I tell I just wanted to have a kind of happy ending as much as there could be in this story.

Q: So do you live in New York now?

MG: Yeah.

Q: So what’s the film business like in France at the moment? Is it healthy or ?

MG: My movie just opened in France and it’s doing very well which is really…

Q: This one?

MG: Yeah. It’s really exciting for me and I had reviews that were really extremely positive all over the different type of magazines like the intellectual on the (inaudible) which really… I was told if you do something visual, like genre movies are not acceptable in France. If you do a genre movie like science fiction pictures, you will not have enough money. If you do a gangster movie, any genre movie is going to be slashed by the review and it’s very hard to do them so when we do something visual, it’s very hard to be accepted by the critics so I mean I was scared of the reaction but the reaction has been really great.
 
So in terms of the movie industry, they have this system where they take money from any movies and they put them in their own cinema which is pretty smart. Like Hollywood invites us with their movie but we take money and they take money from the success of that movie to produce a French movie which I think is extremely smart. So there is a quite healthy French production. It’s like (inaudible)

Q: But you’ve moved to America? To work?

MG: Yeah. Because initially I had no imagination, no idea that I could possibly do a film in France especially because I thought you had to write your movie and I was not ready for that. So now I can write my own movie, it seems. I think I can do a movie in France but I will do more in America too.

Q: Talking about autobiography and language, for Gael Garcia Bernal, is there a difference or an insulting moment when he speaks French? It’s not perfect so Stephanie makes fun of his accent. Is this kind of your experience because I have a thick accent in this country and some kind of people laugh?

MG: I mean it’s the lowest level of handicap that people make fun of and it’s like the least offensive. For some people, probably it’s offensive. A million people have been teasing me all my life. But, on the other hand, they always say it’s charming. It’s like a handicap that you can really be made fun of. I know when we did the promotion of "Eternal Sunshine," it was like really…
 
The main topic was my accent because nobody could understand me on the stage and only Caitland (??) understood me and she had to translate into proper English so I could go on. I was not offended but sometimes it can be frustrating when you get tired and your brain doesn’t wire in the right English space. You get back in your native language and sometimes I would get used to the idea that people would just guess what I’m saying and what I’m thinking. (laughter)

Q: You must do a movie with Gong Li and then you can each have your translators and you all talk to each other. (laughter)

MG: With who?

Q: Gong Li.

MG: Who’s Gong Li?

Q: She’s a Chinese actress. Very famous. She’s in "Miami Vice."

Q: I guess she’s not on the list for the next movie. (laughter)

MG: (inaudible) against my movie.

Q: Are you working with Daniel Clowes on the next movie?

MG: Yes, the next one I wrote myself. The one after he started to …

Q: "Master of Space and Time?"

MG: Yeah.

Q: You know you have a very innocent, sort of child-like way of telling a story using handcrafted items and it’s very opposite of the big Hollywood special effects things that a lot of the other films do. How difficult is it for you to pitch your vision of a story?

MG: It’s easier now because I get people to trust me even they trust me more than I trust myself so it’s going in a good direction. Initially, it was difficult because sometimes I have a convoluted way to show something that could be shown in a very simple way. But sometimes it’s good that people tell me, ‘No, you can’t do that.’ And sometimes… Like the first commercial I did, I wanted to do back projection and all my crafts and stuff and a person told me, ‘No, no, you’re just going to tell it in a very straight way.’ It’s maybe the most striking commercial I’ve done and it’s a discussion we had with my producer lately.
 
He said, ‘You know,’ he said, ‘when you did this commercial, you couldn’t do all your tricks and it’s the best commercial that you did so far. So maybe you could do that for a movie. Really shoot it in the most straight forward way and then you’re going to figure out, you’re going to realize that what matters to you is the story and the character.’ So we’ll see. So maybe I’ll will not be (inaudible) forever. (laughter) Something extra.

Q: We like that.

MG: OK.

Q: I have a question about the production design. I really like Stephane’s imaginary studio and I thought that was a really beautiful set. How hands on were you with that?

MG: It’s really as if I had done it myself only I had somebody to help me but the guy that I picked, he’s like a major clumsy guy and I’ve never seen him do something really polished and that’s why I asked him to do it. Even if I ask him if he can make it like science fiction, I’m pretty sure it would have been this way so… (laughter)

Q: It’s a very memorable set.

MG: Thank you.

Michel Gondry is in pre-production on his next film "Be Kind Rewind" with Jack Black set to star. The film, produced, written and to be directed by Gondry, will begin production this Fall. After that comes "Master of Space and Time" which was recently announced for 2008. "The Science of Sleeping" opens in theaters on September 22nd. I invite you to read my review of the film.

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