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Mr. Beaks Interviews Michel Gondry!! The Best Read You

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

It’s a great goddamn movie, and Beaks has obviously been inspired, because it’s a great interview. Enjoy his talk with one of the minds behind this year’s coolest brain-tease so far...

I’m still processing ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND. Remember Moriarty’s reaction to ADAPTATION? I had a similar experience with this movie. It’s a movie that will probably live and die on one’s personal connection to the material. Fortunately, that shouldn’t be a problem, since this film is about falling in love and maintaining a relationship even after both parties have discovered ample reasons to resent each other. Cheery stuff, right? Maybe not, but in the hands of maestro Michel Gondry, it’s a visually audacious trip through the emotional minefield of modern romance that’s impossible to shake. With one film, Gondry has moved far past his previous misstep, HUMAN NATURE, and made his peace with the peculiar universe of Charlie Kaufman. The result is easily the best film so far of 2004. It also would’ve battled with IRREVERSIBLE for my number one of 2003.

What follows is my freewheeling conversation with Michel Gondry at the Four Seasons a week or so ago. As anyone who’s seen his excellent DVD knows, Gondry’s English is pretty solid, though it’s occasionally garbled by his thick French accent. As a result, I had to guess on a word here or there, while dealing with odd syntax. That said, I’m confident that this is a wholly accurate representation of our discussion. It just took a little longer to transcribe than most.


HUMAN NATURE was a much different film visually. With ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, you’ve almost adapted your visual style to suggest the universe of BEING JOHN MALKOVICH and ADAPTATION. But it’s still distinctly your film in that I see many of the trademarks from your music videos. What was your thought process going into this movie?

I didn’t want to have a storyboard, or predefine every scene. I wanted to give a lot of room for happy accidents. It was important to respect the logic of the story, but not to—

(Michel is interrupted by the vibrating of his cell phone. He pulls it out, and finds a text message from the wonderful Bebe Lerner ordering him “Downstairs, Please”.)

(Laughing) Tell her, “Stop bugging me!”

I wanted to present a space for chaos, and I think it was important to me that the memories have a feel of vividness and of being lived. There was no way you would not have the emotion that you have when you think of your past… the sentiment. And then to be able to gradually deteriorate the realism in a way that would be… more organic. That’s why I did the effects in camera and very much low tech – to reflect the poetry of the script. In the script, it was very poetic the way Charlie wrote the decaying of the memories. I knew the only way to reproduce that was to be as creative on the set as he was in the writing.

What role did Ellen Kuras play in this? I know that Spike Lee has praised her work frequently. Could you describe your working relationship with her on this film?

It was great. I took a big chance, because it’s very hard to do a movie with a DP (with whom) you’ve never worked before. I would’ve liked to do, like, some videos first. But she brought so much to the film. The way I work… I like the way she preserves the life of the scene. A lot of DP’s, they tend to kill the scene because they have an aesthetic that remains all the way through the film that is very important to them, and it’s really to the detriment of the character and the story. With Ellen, we always talked about different scenes, not necessarily about the movie, and I saw that she was a person with a great spirit. She was an artist, and she would bring stuff that I would not expect.

On your DVD, you talk about sleight-of-hand, misdirection, favoring the magician’s philosophy in favor of computer generated trickery. You try to get us looking one place, and fool us that way.

Yes. I always liked magic. In fact, the guy who invented special effect in film was Georges Melies, who was a magician in France. He was one of the first people to see the potential of the cinema, and immediately he envisioned all of the possibilities that this new system could give him to express his tricks. He saw it as a magic machine to help him do better tricks. Between him and Lumiere, who did more… reportage, cinema was kind of invented. I guess it’s a little presumptuous that I’m quoting two French people, but the fact that he was a magician and became a filmmaker… it’s important.

You can’t argue Melies contribution to film. But in going back to that kind of aesthetic, and largely eschewing the computer generated approach, do you think that there’s still so much that we haven’t done yet, just practically, without the assistance of computers?

Yeah, but you can do CGI, you can do in-camera, bluescreen, whatever. If the idea is a little twisted, like from a different perspective, it’s going to be good. I’ve done a lot of CGI, but the thing is: you don’t want to use CGI just because it’s easier. That’s a bad philosophy. A good philosophy is to take a chance when you shoot, and be creative at every stage. You are creative at the shooting, so you create very textured elements if you want to have this kind of look. And, then, if there’s something unique with the CGI, that element already has a lot of personality. So some of the shots in the film are CGI, but… the concept was done at the shooting. Like the moment when they run, and they keep falling into the same spot – exact symmetry – it was a nature of the set we picked. It had this quality of symmetry, and I thought if they just run all at the same time, and we repeat, then they would be back and forward.

I know your dreams are very important to you, and that you draw a lot of inspiration from them. Do you set aside time to sleep so you can generate some ideas, or—

Assign a time?


Oh, no. In fact, I sleep very little. But I think the dreams are not a proportion of your sleeping time; it’s more a proportion of your experience in life. So, in proportion to my sleeping, I guess I dream more than usual. And, plus, I don’t remember them all. Most people don’t remember their dream, but it doesn’t stop them from dreaming. I think that might explain why sometimes we wake up in this blue mood, or with a lot of unexplained emotion. We’ve been experiencing some amazing adventure, and we can’t even remember it.

I keep a journal by my bed and scribble down ideas when I wake up. I don’t want that dream to get away because there’s so much there.

I know. I do write them down sometimes, but it’s a big effort. (Laughs) But sometimes I do, and I try to figure out what element of reality is in the dream.

Sticking with dreaming for a minute here, I read that your next film is, THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP, is about conquering your dreams.

Yeah, it’s like this theory that I developed in the documentary (“I’ve Been Twelve Forever”, which can be found on THE WORK OF DIRECTOR MICHEL GONDRY.) It’s about this guy who takes over his dream, and begins dreaming so vividly that he can’t wake up anymore.

Should we try to conquer our dreams?

I don’t know. It seems like such a big statement. You do what you want. If you know you’re dreaming, you might as well try things other than having sex, because most of the time when you realize that you’re dreaming you just try to have sex. But very often, I know that I am dreaming, and I… notice the color and I notice the song. This guy (in the movie) is this scientific mind. He’s trying to make sense of the dream, and he’s writing a book in his dream, but *in* his dream.

With ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND, one of the many exciting things about the film was that you brought in Jon Brion to do the score.

It was the same thing with Ellen. I really needed people who had true originality… to be a part of the film. I listened to a lot of composers when I was doing post-production, and he was basically the only one who I could feel an inspiration from his music. It was very inspiring, but very warm as well. It’s warm without being sentimental. It’s kind of romantic; it’s exactly the right level. And the fact that he’s more in the popular culture might help the film to be more accessible.

Have you seen him perform at Largo?

Yeah, a couple of times. He’s amazing. In fact, when I was working with him, I said, “There was this song I always remember from the 80’s, and nobody can ever tell me what it is.” I sang the song, and he said, “Wait a second.” He changed the file on the desktop, and he did the song from The Korgis (“Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometimes”); he had done a cover version two months ago. Very dark, very deep and very slow. And that’s the song we asked Beck to sing at the end of the movie. It was amazing that he just done a cover of this song, and no one could figure out what it was. That’s one of those things that fits perfectly well in the film. In fact, yesterday, I was playing this song in the car, and I was crying because of… lost love or something. It’s weird that with Charlie’s story, when you read them first you feel that there is something generic about them because they are a little symbolic, but when you live them you realize they are incredibly… (painful). Like the scene where he packs all of her stuff into a garbage bag – it happened to me after I shoot the film. My girlfriend left me, and I packed all of her stuff into a big box, and I sent it to her. Then, I watched the movie again, and it was devastating.

I know. I mean… I was really deeply affected by this movie. A lot of the hurt I’ve felt came back, but there’s a wistful kind of resignation there. Almost optimism.

Well, it’s a positive thing to do when you make that step to send back that stuff. You are acting like a man, in a way. But, still, it’s so sad because you see all of the stuff that was here, and… oh, I don’t want to go through it. It’s so sad.

Because you can get rid of all of that shit, and the pain will linger for a little bit, but then it eventually dies away. That’s what I got from the end of the film, when they’re running off into the snow, and it keeps looping and looping, and then finally obscured and gone. That also plays into, and maybe contradicts, the interest I know you’ve had in the concept of infinity.

That loop was supposed to play all across the credit, but we had a disagreement, so I let it go.

You let it fade out.

Yeah, because they said it would affect the credits. People would not read them. But the loop was supposed to play again and again. It’s funny, because I think Charlie didn’t like this idea; although, I agreed not to do it because I saw his version and I thought it was good, too. But the funny thing is by doing that, we gave a more optimistic ending. I’m not sure – I’ll have to talk about it with Charlie, if he realizes this – but since we changed the end like that, people seem to consider the film as having a happy ending. Whereas before it was more ambiguous. It really is sad how it works, because before, by watching a loop for three minutes, you have a real sense that they would do the same mistake again and again. And now it’s just like a nice, nostalgic feeling that fades away. It’s not so pointed. Maybe it’s better.

That’s interesting, because the longer you look at that loop, the more despairing it gets.

Now, it’s just a nice little conclusion, while the other one, it was like, “They’re going to go forever and ever.” But I remember, I think I had the idea of this shot because the studio was saying the (scene in the) corridor was not strong enough to finish the film; it’s too claustrophobic. I’m not sure I really agree with that. But we tried that, and I think the idea was that you see the image, that they’re sharing time together, but you don’t know if it’s a flashback or if it’s the future. I think this ambiguity corresponds exactly to the uncertainty of what’s going to happen to them. Obviously, it’s not real. We don’t know what will become of them, if they will agree, or disagree and do the right thing again.

One of the wonderful things about the movie is the way you have two different instances in which they meet for the first time. Since we’re so tied up in dream in reality, it really obscures things. We’re not quite sure if they happened, or when they happened.

I think that was Charlie’s main idea when he took the story – to start with the first encounter not knowing it was not the first encounter. You are with them, and there are little glimpses, if you watch it a second time, there are just little glimpses of bizarre coincidences that give you an idea that maybe something has happened, or maybe something is not normal.

I know that Jean-Luc Godard once said that his films are meant to be seen three times before one can really understand them.

He said that?

Yeah. Do you feel your films need to be seen, at the very least, more than once?

That’s not for me to say. Godard can make those statements because he has a brilliant brain, and has been working a long time. I don’t think I would dare to say something like that. I mean, certainly I appreciate when people say, “Okay, we want to see it again to understand it better.” I remember early in my life, at the beginning of VHS, I used to watch the movie from the middle, finish them, and then watch the beginning after. Even before, when movies were played in a loop in the theater, you would just go in the theater, sit, wait until the beginning shows again, and then stop when you remember the scene when you walked in.

That reminds me of when I was a kid, and I was taken to see SUPERMAN. We arrived right in the middle of the film, when Lois Lane is falling from the building and Superman saves her. So, we watched the movie all the way to the end, waited for it to start again, and then stayed until Lois was dangling from the helicopter. It was a very odd experience. I hadn’t quite had the experience that was intended.

It’s interesting, because you make the movie work however you want. Actually, that’s Godard. He said a movie has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. So, there you go.

I’m curious as to your thoughts on how ETERNAL SUNSHINE is getting promoted. I just saw a commercial today that’s selling it as a raucous comedy.

I think it’s hard. They don’t want to see it as something dark, but I think we were careful that people not be misled by the trailer. Obviously, they put a bit of a different (spin) on it; it’s quite flashy. But I don’t think we’re lying about what the movie says. There are a lot of funny parts in the movie. I mean, overall I guess it’s an emotional experience, but there are a lot of funny moments.

What about the idea to use the ELO song, “Mr. Blue Sky” in the trailer?

That was the idea of the people in promotions, but it’s good. I like the song.

I was surprised to see it on the soundtrack.

Yeah. And we also put a song on there by The Willowz that isn’t in the movie. We use their music in one scene, and I did a video for them. They aren’t even on a proper label, but I really like them.

Are there any bands out there for whom you’d like to do a video?

Yeah, I’d like to do a video for Missy Elliott. Some of the cutting edge R&B is really great – Outkast is really brilliant – but it’s very hard to get into that world. But I’m talking with Dave Chappelle, he wants me to shoot a concert, so that’s good. It might be a welcome into that world.

One of the things you say on the DVD is that, when you were younger, your main fear was to die before you found a girlfriend. Well, you’ve had a succession of girlfriends; what’s your main fear now?

To die, basically. (Laughs.) Or maybe to die before the girl I love accepts me. (Laughs.) It’s the same! It doesn’t change.

Your relationship with your son is great. He seems to be really creative.

Yeah, he’s doing really good. At school, he doesn’t have the best grades, but he’s really bright, and he has a very strong philosophy. He’s a tough one. He’s very tough to manage. You write for a website. My son, he does these comic books. I’d like to get him published somewhere.

Does he have anything online?

No, nothing yet, but you should see it.

I’d love to. How old is he?

Twelve. Forever, I guess.

Heh. That’s the age to be, right?

That’s the age to remember, I guess.

Why twelve?

It’s funny. My girlfriend that you see in the film, who left me *during* the documentary…

Oh, man…

(Laughs) She used to say to me that when you talk about your childhood, it’s always when you were twelve. It’s funny because that’s true. I remember many times saying, “Oh, when I was twelve.” It’s because it’s when you move from (elementary) school to (junior) high school, and you go from having one teacher to many teachers. It’s a landmark. Easy to remember.

Do you think you’re moving toward making more experimental films?

I don’t think this way. I mean, I had in mind to do big films, but it didn’t turn out this way. I worked on THE GREEN HORNET, which was supposed to be a big franchise film. I worked on it for two years; I designed the car, and we worked with a writer on the script, but the studio didn’t see the possibility of it. They didn’t believe in it. And I always wanted to do something like BACK TO THE FUTURE. But it’s just the spirit that’s important to me. If it’s quirky and not taking itself too seriously, I like it.

ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND will begin erasing the 2004 cinematic doldrums this Friday.

Faithfully submitted,

Mr. Beaks

Awesome work, buddy. Thanks. Can’t wait to see what you do with the HELLBOY junket this weekend!

"Moriarty" out.

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