Michel Gondry’s Sunny Approach
When working on set, French filmmaker Michel Gondry has a reputation for staying true to his high-concept vision – even when his leading actors approach him with odd requests. “While we were shooting Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Jim Carrey suggested his character’s arm fall off or his eyeball pop out of his head,” Gondry told an audience of admirers last week. “We didn’t use that idea. His ideas are pure horror.”
The editorial discretion paid off as the surrealist romantic comedy – which also stars media darlings Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood – won Gondry (and cowriter Charlie Kaufman) a 2005 Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. “The film is a result of opposite energies. Everyone had an opinion,” the director noted in a thick French accent. “[The film] could have turned out completely wrong – but it ended up being OK.”
Gondry visited RISD from October 10-11 to lead a master class, speak about his work and host one of the premiere screenings of his latest film. Shot using stop-motion animation, Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? illuminates his interviews with American linguist, philosopher and cognitive scientist Noam Chomsky. Given that his son Paul Gondry 15 FAV is majoring in Film/Animation/Video, he also taught a lively master class for students in the department. The father-son duo recently wrapped The Thorn in the Heart, a moving documentary chronicling the life of their “auntie” Suzette, who struggled to come to terms with her son’s homosexuality.
Speaking to the attentive FAV students arranged in a neat semi-circle, Gondry – wearing green corduroys, a plaid shirt and mismatched socks – admitted that his most emotionally charged artistic projects are often rooted in sentimentality. “A lot of French filmmakers from my generation are very cynical,” he noted. “To me, great filmmaking is a combination of artistic precision and human naivety. It’s the presence of innocence that touches people. My work can be dark or funny – but it’s not cynical.”
That affinity for humanity is also apparent in The Science of Sleep, his heartbreaking fantasy film from 2006 exploring the power of the subconscious. In the film, the lead character makes gifts for his love interest, who fails to return his affection. Gondry also made his debut as an installation artist after he assembled The Science of Sleep: An Exhibition of Sculpture and Pathological Creepy Little Gifts in conjunction with the film. The show included props made specifically for the film, along with many gifts he had given to former flames.
“I think [making gifts] is a highly normal thing for me to do. But I think it really freaks out the person I’m trying to impress,” notes Gondry. “In general, this practice hasn’t worked for me in the past. But I still do it anyway.”
Gondry’s strength as a director also lies in his spontaneity. Recounting a day when he was attempting to shoot a flashback scene for Eternal Sunshine in the woods, he said that for some reason the actors couldn’t seem to produce a usable moment. But after he uprooted the camera crew and moved to a different location, the scene went off without a hitch. “The scene was beginning to feel like something out of a James Lipton movie. It just wasn’t working,” remembers Gondry. “Sometimes you need to sacrifice something to get what you need.”
Gondry made another directorial coup when he convinced Carrey to completely change clothing in the short amount of time it took a camera to pan 360 degrees. The scene ultimately added a trippy depth to the film’s final cut. “After the shot is complete, it feels like you’re on a boat and just got to throw a grenade overboard [to celebrate],” explains Gondry. “Isn’t that the American spirit? You blow things up and then cheer?”
Before Gondry attracted international attention as a director of inventive feature-length films, he rose to prominence in the music video arena after producing a few humorous shorts for his band Oui Oui. Once Icelandic star Bjork and other musical tours de force took notice, he produced a total of seven music videos for her before moving on to make quirky videos for The White Stripes and one for Around the World, Daft Punk’s immensely popular dance hit.
“All that pretense and persona that goes along with rock and roll was completely foreign to me,” notes Gondry. “I wanted our music videos to be funny and fresh. Bjork was one of the few people who understood my humor.”
When students asked if he thinks about his audience when making creative choices, Gondry responded with characteristic candor. “Of course I want people to like [my films]. But I [also] want people to like me,” he admits. “I think most people on the planet [want the same thing].”
– Abigail Crocker
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