Michel Gondry Talks MORE VIDEOS BEFORE AND AFTER With Mr. Beaks! Björk, Steven Seagal And THE GREEN HORNET Discussed!
Published at: April 14, 2009, 12:15 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Michel Gondry's music videos feel as if they've been downloaded directly from his subconscious. Sometimes, they play like perfectly reconstructed dreams; at other times, they are pure, childlike invention; unfailingly, they are a reminder that Gondry is one of the most rambunctiously talented filmmakers working today.
When the Directors Label released their first three DVDs in 2003, I wore out my copy of THE WORK OF MICHEL GONDRY to the point where it is unplayable now: I brought it to parties, lent it out to friends, and basically analyzed it like a sacred text (it didn't help that it hit right around the time ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND was coming out). One of these days, I'll replace it. But I'm not in any rush: the follow-up, MICHEL GONDRY 2: MORE VIDEOS BEFORE AND AFTER DVD 1, is now available. And while it doesn't feature my beloved "Bachelorette", it does contain Gondry's ingenious videos for Björk's anthemic "Declare Independence", The White Stripes' thumping "The Denial Twist" (co-starring Conan O'Brien) and Radiohead's haunting "Knives Out" (a classic which was withheld from the first collection due to a now-settled dispute with Thom Yorke and the boys).
As with the previous collection, MORE VIDEOS BEFORE AND AFTER hops back and forth in Gondry's oeuvre: the earliest work is "How the West Was Won", a 1992 combination of old-school rear projection and more newfangled optical f/x for the short-lived Irish band Energy Orchard; the newest is 2007's "Dance Tonight", a jaunty, in-camera marvel for Paul McCartney. There are twenty videos in all, and they're complemented by a smattering of behind-the-scenes shorts and random curiosities like Gondry's Rubik's Cube stunts. Some of these will be familiar; others, like the bizarre "How to Blow Up a Helicopter (Ayako's Story)" will confound and delight. I mean, what's not to love about an innocuous, walk-and-talk interview that suddenly turns into a father-daughter reunion featuring Steven Seagal (replete with Gondry's pencil-drawn animation of a pivotal action set piece from UNDER SIEGE)?
From the DVD's Commodore 64-inspired menus (which recall the layout of the Activision GHOSTBUSTERS game) to its inclusion of Terence Trent D'Arby's Sananda Maitreya's classic "She Kissed Me" (the forgotten first single from the equally underrated SYMPHONY OR DAMN), MORE VIDEOS BEFORE AND AFTER is pretty much the only thing I want to watch right now. I've got a pile of screeners stacked up in front of the TV, but none of them promise to do for me in two hours what a shot of "Knives Out" - with the volume way up - is going to accomplish in four minutes.
I was, however, able to break away from the recently-arrived DVD for a far-too-brief ten-minute phoner with Gondry on the eve of the disc's release. It wasn't enough time to get in-depth on one particular subject or video, but he did give up some interesting stuff on his longtime collaboration with Björk, his disappointment at not making MTV's Top 100 Videos of All Time, and the dangers of bias in documentary filmmaking. We also touched on THE GREEN HORNET, but, quite honestly, I didn't feel like pestering one of my favorite directors with questions about an in-development studio film. To my mind, it'd be like spending ten minutes with Scorsese fishing for SHUTTER ISLAND scoops.
Mr. Beaks: I love these collections, Michel. I watched the videos in the non-chronological order as they're presented on the back cover, and that only reinforced their timelessness.
Michel Gondry: Oh, thanks.
Mr. Beaks: Do you feel that, as you've gone forward, you're still incorporating new technology, or do you approach the videos the same as when you were shooting them in the early 1990s?
Gondry: I think I started to work into the new technology [early on], and then I had to withdraw from it. I decided I was going to use more in-camera effects. The problem with technology is that it's getting easier for everybody to use. It's like all the appliances you have around the house or the GPS in your car: they get me mad because they just make everything more complicated.
But I think my videos... they did not get the flavor of the time. They remain fresh for people, the videos I did in the 1980s and 1990s. I have preserved myself from being eroded by the [passage of] time.
Beaks: I'm always surprised to find out which videos you directed during that early period. I was still in college when the "She Kissed Me" video came out. That was back in the day when MTV didn't run director credits.
Gondry: Yes, yes.
Beaks: Did you guys have something to do with forcing MTV to carry those credits?
Gondry: I'm not sure. I generally didn't get involved because I felt I had no pull. You know, to tell you the truth, in 2000 they did the "100 Best Videos" on MTV and VH-1 - at the same time. And none of them had one of my videos. None of mine were selected. Maybe it's a blessing in disguise, in the sense that these videos can be discovered years after. But I got frustrated because I felt I had achieved some sort of success with them. Except at the very beginning of MTV, the videos were regarded as their own entity. They got very quickly mixed up with the song; they would very rarely be about the directing.
Beaks: It's amazing that you didn't make that list. By that point, you'd already directed the Foo Fighters' "Everlong".
Gondry: Oh, yes! I had done already five or six videos with Björk. But that didn't matter.
Beaks: You say on the DVD that working with Björk is a great challenge because you not only have to top yourself, but also impress her. When you come to her with an idea, how collaborative is she?
Gondry: Most of the time, it's fifty-fifty with her. She puts in half of the idea, and then we try to tie the thing together in a sort of narrative. The last video I did with her ["Declare Independence"] was mostly my idea because the concept didn't allow for the combination of different ideas; you could not add too many different layers. I'm sure she contributed. To start with the idea of the rope coming out of her mouth, that was on one of her covers. So this was sort of influenced by her. But I think I told her I wanted to do a video that had one single idea, because then I can really explore the idea and develop it. Most of the time I accumulate ideas and work from the best, but sometimes I like to work with one single concept. I think that was the case with "Bachelorette", where the concept was the play in the play in the play; it was not reductive, but you couldn't add all sorts of different ideas on top of it. But other than that, most of the times she comes with lots of ideas.
Beaks: That "Declare Independence" video looks like it could've been a nightmare. You can't really reset with that idea. You sort of have to keep going.
Gondry: Oh, yeah. We had a problem because the machine didn't work exactly as we had wanted. At some point, we had to repaint the rope white and do it again. It was complicated, but I'm very happy with it - especially in the context of the project that we have now. It was a ten-year break at that time since I had worked with Björk.
Beaks: Were you just taking a break from each other?
Gondry: No, no. I think it's just that many times we missed each other. I had the same situation with Beck, where we meet each other many times and at some point he slammed his fist on the table and said, "If you want to work with me, say it! Or if you don't want to work with me, say it!" And I said, "No, I want to do it!" And then we figured it out. I was being carried away by other stuff; he'd asked me a couple of times, and we'd just missed each other. So he said, "If we are friends, we should find a situation to make it work." And then I was like, "Oh, fuck, I don't want to lose that friendship." I really wanted to keep working with him, so I made the necessary effort for us to work together.
Beaks: One of my favorite things on the disc is your interview with Ayako Fujitani ["How to Blow Up a Helicopter"], which then turns into an interview with Steven Seagal. I didn't see that coming. What prompted that, and was Seagal very receptive to doing the interview?
Gondry: He was nice! It's very interesting, the relationship with his daughter. It's out there. It's not for me to comment on, though. I think the documentary comments on it already. It's very interesting, though, the idea that he is a real cop in Louisiana. He can go and arrest people with a gun. [The interview] didn't start out to include him, but when we started to interview her, I said we had to go and see him in Canada and talk to him.
Beaks: Well, it's just like one your videos. You don't see it coming.
Gondry: You don't see it coming because I didn't see it coming myself. I think it's very important when you do documentaries or interviews. If you have an outcome already in your mind, or if you are biased in your intention, it will be bad. To make a decent documentary, you have to be open to the opposite [outcome]. I think many documentary filmmakers, they say you have to go with what you want to say. I disagree with that because I think the action of filming is investigation. And if you go out investigating with your conclusion in mind, then you're not doing anything for the truth. There is a lot of filmmakers out there, whom I don't want to mention, but they go out with a plan as to how they're going to make their point, and it doesn't help the truth to come across.
Beaks: You've got to be open to things you didn't expect or initially believe.
Gondry: Yes! You have to be open to coming the other way around. It's hard, because you can be manipulated. You have to be smart enough to [understand] what is presented to you. It's a very difficult thing. You are supposed to tell the truth with a documentary, and there are so many ways it can be manipulated. That's something you have to be very careful about.
Beaks: The "Another One Bites the Dust" video is interesting because, knowing that you were going to do THE GREEN HORNET back in the 1990s, it feels kind of like what THE GREEN HORNET would've looked like had you directed it back then. How much has that changed over the last decade?
Gondry: Well, I'm not sure it would've looked like that. I worked with the screenwriter Ed Neumeier, who had done ROBOCOP and STARSHIP TROOPERS, and I really liked working with him. We were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, I guess, and the studio didn't want to continue. I don't think it would've looked very much like the Wyclef video. Maybe a little bit. But the version I'm working on now won't look like that at all. It would be safe to say there are going to be funny moments, but it's certainly not going to be a spoof of the genre. If we did that, we'd get killed by the GREEN HORNET fans. They already hate us.
Beaks: They're just going to hate everything anyway. But do you feel like this is a challenge to make a more commercial movie than you've made before?
Gondry: To be honest, I don't know why my movies are not more commercial. Maybe it's a question of pacing. But... I think this one will be extremely commercial.
MICHEL GONDRY 2: MORE VIDEOS BEFORE AND AFTER DVD 1 is now available at Michel Gondry's official website.
In case you're interested, my previous interviews with Gondry are here (for ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND) and here (for YOU'LL LIKE THIS FILM BECAUSE YOU'RE IN IT: THE BE KIND REWIND PROTOCOL).