Exclusive Interview – Michel Gondry

     February 7, 2007

Written by Andre Dellamorte
For his follow up to Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry went a little bit smaller, but no less personal or emotional. The film is Science of Sleep, which Warner Independent has put out a very handsome special edition, that features an insightful commentary and fairly in depth making of. I say that truly, these are actually worthwhile supplements to dig into, as Gondry and company reveal interesting things about the film’s genesis. The release of the film on DVD gave me an excuse to talk to one of the most amazing artists working today. .

Are you ready?

Michel Gondry: Yes!

Awesome. I got to watch Science of Sleep for the second time this weekend, and… do I mind if I flatter you for a second?

Gondry: (laughs) No

Okay, good. One of the things I love about the movie is your fascination with prestidigitation, the in-camera trick, the sleight of hand, it reminds me of Orson Welles and Jean Cocteau, because they love playing with the camera

Gondry: Yeah, you could go back further Georges Melies


Gondry: He was one of the first guys to see the first screenings of film, and he was the first guy on the earth to think of the camera as an extension of his tricks. But by then he discovered science fiction or fiction altogether.

So, do you feel more of an influence of Melies than, say, Cocteau?

Gondry: I don’t think… I watched a lot of his movies, but I try and be inventive on my own, right? I always try and avoid influences, I don’t know how you can call it. I think inspiration, motivation is a better word. But I always try it because I would not want to pay tribute to Melies or anyone I like, because I don’t think tributes are nice in some ways, I think they are more a generic copy than tribute. And sometimes I see these tributes that people have done, and I don’t like the thing because I feel that it’s not a tribute, I feel it’s a lazy way of getting inspiration. So I always try and avoid that, so when I try and think of my movies, it’s more about my motivation.

Another thing I really loved about Science of Sleep is how you used a lot of (what would now be referred to as) antiquated techniques like back projection and stop motion animation. There’s something about those techniques that are underutilized these days. Again, it goes back to the trickery, there’s something about it that’s more immediate.

Gondry: The important thing to note is that when you make this type of trick in the camera, you have to commit while shooting it. You don’t shoot the elements you have to fabricate it later in post production, or with special effects. Here, you’re all together in the same boat, trying to make it work at the same time, which makes the practical more committed to the reality you’re trying to create. For Science of Sleep, I started shooting some of the effects stuff eight months prior to principle photography. And when we shot on set, I could project those elements on a big screen behind the actors, and we were all on the same page about the world they were stepping in to. And it allows them to adjust the tone, and communicate that directly. And the actors were excited, there’s a positive energy that comes out of it. And then they react to the image, they can feel, they can see. And maybe they became more cartoonish and would overreact, but at least they’re not acting against a blue or green screen, which make a huge difference. However, that we all commit to the artistic decision really makes it more adventurous in a good way. In fact, because we can’t change our minds later, I think makes the process more creative. And post production houses don’t have the same way to create the shape and the art, and I don’t think it’s as artistic as simply when you do it with the camera. There’s too much calculation.

Do you plan to avoid CGI in the future?

Gondry: No, I want to use CGI, but really only in ways that you can’t do with the camera. I’ve always have felt that the blue screen is the worst way to shoot a situation. Afterwards, I can always tell when it’s a blue screen, and I don’t think the actor is in the moment. Now you see it used in the lamest ways, for instance, they use blue screen when people are driving a car, cause they can’t be bothered to get the person at the right city at the right time, and they just put them on a set with a blue screen, and I think that’s the worst. It disconnects the actor from the reality you’re trying to create around them. And it really does that, I mean you see so many movies now where they do that!

I couldn’t agree more. On the Science of Sleep DVD, in the commentary and in the documentary included, you talk about the film was shot at the place you lived, and some of the events are decidedly drawn from your previous relationships…

Gondry: Yes.

So, how personal is this film for you, do you feel like you’ve put yourself on screen?

Gondry: Eh. Well, it’s very exhibitionist, but it’s more I wanted to explore the repetition of imagination, and the dream life interacting with real life. I used myself as an initial laboratory, and I had an issue with someone who never was my girlfriend, but we have this crazy bond, but unfortunately didn’t lead to a real relationship, and it led to a lot of suffering for me, but I decided to use that as material to tell my story. It was the first thing I wrote, I thought I’ll dig into that to tell my story. It’s not that I wanted to put myself front and center, I just wanted to do a movie that was crazy and personal.

Well, I really liked it.

Gondry: Thank you, thanks a lot, it means a lot for me. It’s the first movie I’ve done that I can watch and watch again. I think probably it is narcissistic, but it is all the craft we all make together, and some of the people who made the film with me were involved in the emotional part of the story, which makes it really complex, but I think everyone was up for the experience.

I loved the film, and I thought it got at the truth of this character who keeps self-destructing around the woman he’s really attracted to.

Gondry: Yeah, he doesn’t have a lot of weapons, cause he’s running out of tricks to try to – not conquer her – but show how much he likes her, so he’s desperate and becomes really inappropriate.

(Laughs) I wish I didn’t relate, I’ll just put it that way. (Laughs) I wish I had never done anything like that. But…

Gondry: But you did.

Yeah. We all have, I’m sure.

Gondry: Yeah, I think there is as much love on one side as the other, it’s just, the timing is wrong, and one scares the other by the intensity of their love, and instead of being attracting it’s repelling. I wanted to have the tag line for the movie be “Love is unattractive” but marketing didn’t think it would be a good idea. If you find love too early with a girl, then it puts you in a position where you’re not attractive because you’re obviously needy, and I’m sure everyone’s experienced that.

For me watching it, not to tell you what your movie’s about (laughs), but my father is very sick, and the opening has the main character Stephane (played by Gael Garcia Bernal) talking about his recently deceased father, so part of me saw his problems with Stephanie (played by Charlotte Gainsbourg) not feeling comfortable falling in love with someone because his own pain. But that’s my interpretation. Of your movie.

Gondry: I’m glad you have your own interpretation, cause I think that’s what it’s made for. I think Stephane uses a fragment of his love for his father to attract the girl, which is really wrong. But he is this way. He’s got contradictory emotions and links them together, and that’s scary for the girl.

I thought I’d ask, what’s going on with Be Kind, Rewind?

Gondry: We are finishing the editing now. I’m very excited and pleased, it’s a sharp movie. It’s much more about community, and people coming together to make a project. I see it as part of a cycle, when I worked with (Dave) Chappelle, when I did Block Party with him, it kind of opened my eyes of seeing people coming together. I didn’t have much of a sense of community before that, but it really grew on me, I’ve been looking into that, and the imagery people get when they have a common project, and I think this new movie’s about that.

And when can expect to see that?

Gondry: Late Summer.

Late Summer, okay. A little ways off. Have you seen the film The Host? The Korean monster movie? It’s great.

Gondry: No

I was interviewing the director, who also did Memories of Murder (another great film), and I asked him what was the last great movie he saw, and he said it was Science of Sleep.

Gondry: Oh great!

So what was the last great movie you watched?

Gondry: It’s a documentary called God Grew Tired of Us: The Story of Lost Boys of Sudan, it’s about refugees from Sudan who come to try and live in America. Watching this movie, it really changed my mind, there’s so much to learn, and so much of our culture comes from Africa. We keep taking so much from their country, but we don’t give much back.

Sadly, we don’t.

Gondry: This is a movie that really moved me.

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