French filmmaker Michel Gondry’s ingenious new hand-animated documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, takes an imaginative look at the life of controversial MIT professor, philosopher, linguist, anti-war activist and political firebrand Noam Chomsky. Complex, lively conversations with Chomsky accompanied by innovative, often playful illustrations by Gondry reveal the life and work of the father of modern linguistics and explore his theories on the emergence of language. The film is both a beautifully animated work of art and a vivid portrait of one of the foremost thinkers of modern times and its unique visual style broadens the concept of documentary filmmaking.
In an exclusive interview, Gondry talked about the inspiration behind his visually inventive juxtaposition of animation and documentary, how he used hand-drawn illustrations and humor to bring to life a series of intellectually stimulating interviews with Chomsky on a variety of complex topics, and why he hopes his unconventional approach will help to reveal the humanity of a very complicated thinker and make his ideas more accessible to a broader audience. Gondry, who has a variety of projects currently in development, also discussed plans to adapt Ubik, a sci-fi tale based on Philip K. Dick’s 1969 novel, for the screen. Hit the jump to read the interview:
MICHEL GONDRY: There are not many people I would try to meet in the world. It’s due to Chomsky’s achievement, his uncompromised political views which are very detailed and backed by fact, and even more, his scientific contribution, and the fact that he is somebody amazing. I felt that I could maybe help his voice to be heard in a different tone and help people to see the human side of him more prominently, and therefore, open people’s minds to hear more, because I think he’s saying a lot of important things that we should listen to.
How did you first approach Chomsky and convince him to participate?
GONDRY: Well, he’s quite approachable. For instance, you have his email address and his website. You can email him, and most of the time, he’ll answer you in the next hour. He’s very approachable this way. I was in contact with MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) and had done some work with them as an Artist in Residence, and I met a lot of people there. I didn’t know him very well and I didn’t notice his work so much when I started to interact with MIT. So once I knew his work better, and I knew he was there at MIT, I asked if I could meet him. Of course, I was very intimidated. I had a short conversation with him, and then, each time I would go to MIT, which was once or twice a year, I would meet him and have a talk. One day, I showed him an animation I had done that was on the same principle, and I asked him if he would be interested in doing a series of interviews that I would illustrate in this fashion, and he said yes.
You both have very bright minds but you conceptualize your worlds in very different ways with very different sensibilities. Was that part of the attraction that led to your collaboration?
GONDRY: Well, the way you put it, it’s like we’re on an equal level, but I really feel like I’m meeting a mastermind and somebody with whom I am really impressed. The idea that I could do a personal work based on what he has to say is very humbling and at the same time very much an honor. But it’s true, the fact that he’s not necessarily artistic gave me a little bit of leverage because I felt very overwhelmed. The idea that my expression is not in his territory and is quite removed helped me to feel that I could contribute by illustrating. By my illustrations and my animation, I would do something that is outside of his usual spectrum. And so, it helped me gain a bit of confidence to have a conversation with him and sometimes try to make a point or express a personal opinion. I found that, okay, I can’t compare myself to him, but yet, let’s say he’s going to say a sentence, each word he’s going to pick has a lot of meaning and is very complex and deep, and he has years of studying analysis, plus he is a genius. This is a lot, but I feel when I do animation, I have to do 24 drawings each second, and I sort of catch up with that a little bit. There is an amount of work that requires a certain technological sophistication and skill that make me feel a little bit more equal. I found I could sustain the conversation because I had that in mind.
During your series of interviews, what did you discover you both share in common?
GONDRY: Well, I think he has views on creativity. He talks about creativity and he has a book about it in which he refers to it a lot. He talks about creativity not necessarily in an artistic way, but in the way that a scientist is a creative person who puts things out in the world. The idea that everyone shares this creativity and you have different opportunities in your life to express it more or less is something I really believed even before I knew about him. So that was one thing – this very democratic aspect of creativity. I found that the way you can use creativity in the professional world is much more elitist. It’s like the world of moviemaking is very self-protected and not open at all. It’s something that I disagree with, and he has the same view. The basis of his thinking is that we all share the same brain and that’s a very democratic approach. If you take a child from South Africa and you put them in Boston, they’re going to speak with a Boston accent. And so, that’s a way to see the world as everybody is equal, not as a result of politics, but as human beings. And this, I share.
How did you first come up with the approach to pair your conversations with your own hand-drawn animated sequences? Did you know from the beginning or did your visual inventiveness evolve as you got to know him better?
GONDRY: The first thing that came to me was when he talked about the tree. I mean, I had this idea that I could never illustrate or demonstrate his theory. I was more interested in his scientific aspect because it was something that really excited my brain. Of course, I respect his political view and I share most of it with my lesser knowledge, but I was really more excited about illustrating his scientific mind process. So initially, because I couldn’t match the complexity of his spirit, I thought that I could express it through animation. I would translate through art, in a way, because it’s considered as art the complexity of what he was talking about. My first idea was to use abstract animation to illustrate what he says so I don’t have to have a clear understanding of every word. It would go through me in a sort of unconscious way. It would be faithful, because if I was not illustrating word by word, I could not make mistakes or misinterpret. So that was my first approach. But, after a while, I thought maybe I was running in circles. As the project evolved, I thought to myself that I could use some symbol to explain and then I could understand. I could even find a symbol for language from our conversation which was this triangle with this pattern. I submitted it to him. I said, “Okay. That’s my symbol for language. What do you think?” He said, “That’s pretty good.” So I started to develop an expression that could illustrate. There is a moment where he talks about the history of how he first wrote the generative grammar. I could just illustrate his speech more in a figurative way. When he talks about the operation of language through imitation, this is something I really understood, I think, and I wanted to illustrate it more objectively.
In the film, Chomsky says, “Sometimes what you think is rich and complex is actually at its core really very simple.” I was wondering if that was something you were hoping to convey visually by making his statements more accessible to an audience through your animation?
GONDRY: Yes. Because I think it’s how you see it sounds. You have to come up with a concept that something simple could explain a very complex observation because observation is complex. It looks messy as he says, but you have to find what’s causing that, and it should be simple, and I try. I mean, there is simplicity in my drawings that you could compare. But I think it’s a different way when he talks about it than the way I illustrate it. It’s not the same type of simplicity. I could not exactly identify those two things. I remember very well this sentence and how I illustrated it. It was easy for me because he took the example of a snowflake. I know how to draw a snowflake, so I drew a snowflake. That’s very simple, in fact. If he talks about a snowflake, I just draw a snowflake. That’s why it’s more complicated. It’s how I’m going to do a transition between the snowflake and the family, because there is this element, this gene that we share with people’s descendants. So how I transform the snowflake into people is where I can bring some complexity. But my simplicity sometimes just illustrates it very basically.
Chomsky is very elegant in explaining complex ideas and I’d watch your illustrations and I’d think, “Okay, now it’s starting to make sense.”
GONDRY: I think you can watch it several times. I’m still wondering because the way I illustrate it in an abstract way doesn’t give an answer to the question you may ask, but it helps you to follow his voice I think.
I like the question he raises about competition when he says, “What’s the point of being better than somebody else?” or he talks about how inspiration is a mystery. What are some of the things he said that really resonated with you personally?
GONDRY: Well, this idea that competition is pointless is really something that speaks to me, especially in America where competition is really prominent and very overwhelming, and it doesn’t bring the best out in you because what’s going to push you is to bring others down. The competition is not really friendly or peaceful. It leads to oppression in some ways. So I really shared this view. With inspiration, my views are a little bit different because I work a lot from inspiration, and so I thought about it and I have a different view. For instance, misinterpretation leads me to inspiration and creativity because I think my brain is trying to figure out some information that I’m confused about. So therefore, I’m trying to assemble things in a shape that I can recognize. Process is creativity to me, but he doesn’t analyze it the same way. I think when he says, “Nobody knows,” he’s probably talking against a lot of theories that are out there about creativity, about inspiration in sort of the spiritual or psychological way. That’s probably something he doesn’t respect and he doesn’t agree with.
Of all the things that Chomsky talked about, what did you find the most surprising or fascinating?
GONDRY: I think when he talked about the mutation of language and how he retraced history with precise timing. [For example,] between this year and this year, there’s probably one mutation and it’s in one person. It’s really like the [evolution] of language through human thinking. It’s different from animals. It’s how it appeared in his opinion, and it’s a very common thing to me. I remember the evening of this interview, I felt so enlightened and enriched. That’s why I illustrated it in a more realistic way because I felt that was really something that was clear and made sense, and it was answering lots of questions and complex ones. So that was really a great part, and he comes back several times to it about how we perceive the world. In this example, he talks about the tree, for instance, and the idea of why we understand a tree to be different than the tree that grows back from the same branch. I loved those conversations because they make you think of very complex things, and he can use a simple example to illustrate them.
What did you learn about yourself in the process of making this?
GONDRY: My ignorance. (Laughs) A little bit. But also, like for instance in doing this interview, sometimes before I’m going to do an interview I think, “How can I talk about this man? I’m really ignorant.” I was sort of lazy at school, but I realize I still have something to bring to the subject which is comforting. I feel I am not as stupid as I thought I was. He made me feel stupid at times, but overall he made me feel that I could bring something to the table in a conversation or at least with my illustrations. For instance, I wanted to ask him, “Are you afraid of dying?” and he said, “No. I don’t care.” I know I care about dying and I’m afraid of it. So here I see a difference, but it’s not news to me because I always knew that. I mean, just confronting this idea, it’s interesting, because I see this man who is near the end of his life and he’s just at peace with this idea, and I wish I could achieve that with me. So that’s something that resonates with me. Something else that I learned about myself from talking to him and doing this process was that it gave me some trust in myself that I can work in my own field on sort of an equal level to his field that seems to be much more complex. And using abstraction and animation, I don’t feel I look ridiculous next to him because of this work. That gives me a feeling of value.
How did the final film compare to what you’d originally envisioned?
GONDRY: I envisioned fragments. The closest is when he talks about the tree and how I illustrate it. That was the first image that I drew, but I did not know where it would end. I think there is a human element that I was not sure I would get and I’m happy because I think I captured it. But it was very apparent in my mind that I didn’t do a story about it. I did some fragmented story and it was sort of a free expression of my feelings while listening to him. Also, it’s sometimes funny which I didn’t expect, and I guess I make fun of myself, but I even make fun of him sometimes. So I certainly think that humor is important to me and I didn’t necessarily expect it would be funny at times.
GONDRY: I think he was very appreciative of the honesty and the work that I had done. We didn’t have much time to talk about it, but I showed it to him halfway through and he said, “Yes, I agree with what is there.” He was sort of humorous because he agrees with himself. But, in fact, it says as well that he thought my illustration was coherent. But I think and I imagine and he said he really liked it. I can imagine that there are not many people who would take the time to illustrate like when he talks about the sentence, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” and I take the time to animate each word. Even if it’s kind of rough, it’s still pretty honest and decent work to do and I think he was sensitive to that.
What do you hope an audience will enjoy or appreciate most when they see your documentary on Noam Chomsky?
GONDRY: I hope they’re going to see his human side and that he’s more approachable, because he is so uncompromising that people get irritated and sometimes they miss out on some very fundamental things you can learn from him, either politically or when he talks about the environment or something just purely scientific. So I hope people form different opinions and in the future that there’s a trace of him. I mean, of course, he wrote all these books and you have him all over the internet and also the commentaries. But I hope I really illustrated his voice and that remains so that people in the future can see it, or maybe for the scientific part, that’s cool and could be shown as clips. Sometimes I imagine it could be possible to use in an educative way which interests me.
What are you working on next?
GONDRY: I have diverse projects. One is a science fiction film called Ubik. It’s a science fiction story based on a Philip K. Dick novel that I’m trying to adapt to the screen. Otherwise, I don’t know. I’m still trying to figure out what will be my next project.