French-born Michel Gondry started his career making music videos for his own band, Oui, Oui. When his work caught the eye of Finnish pop star Bjork, the pair’s collaboration jump-started the director’s unique and unparalleled efforts in the world of music advertising. When he moved into commercials, Gondry continued devising or adapting groundbreaking visuals. One example is the “bullet time” technique, best known from The Matrix, which Gondry perfected on a Smirnoff spot. His feature debut came in 2001 on Human Nature, and the follow-up was Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his second collaboration with writer Charlie Kaufman. That film, photographed by Ellen Kuras, ASC, also incorporated innovative camera techniques from the world of music videos. His other credits include The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind and this month’s The Green Hornet. David Heuring talked with the iconoclastic French auteur to find out what first got him excited about filmmaking, and how he navigated his first voyage through the movie-by-committee approach that is the Hollywood studio system.
ICG: You’re known for unique, imaginative imagery in music videos and commercials. Do you rein in your visual instincts when you’re making a narrative feature? Michel Gondry: I’ve always been interested in stories. I don’t think I ever made a music video without a beginning, middle and end. There is always an evolution, a dramatic climax and so on. I developed that based on the structure of a typical pop song, which can very much resemble the structure of a story from a movie and which you can amplify. The verse can be the first act, the chorus becomes the crisis and what have you. You don’t want to have the action in the face of the audience constantly. You want to balance it out with psychological or emotional parts. It’s not the same, but there is similarity with music when you alternate moments of great excitement with other moods. Some people confuse storytelling and dialogue. Dialogue is one way to tell a story. But you have amazing storytelling in silent movies, too.
Do you find inspiration from other filmmakers? Of course I do. But I’ve read many autobiographies of great directors, where you can find two great directors saying the exact opposite thing! So it’s important for a director who wants to do personal work to be able to say that something is a bunch of bullshit. That sounds dismissive, but I have a lot of respect for all those directors who make great films like Kubrick, Welles and Scorsese. But you could say that they have influenced people in the worst possible ways, too. When people try to imitate them, it can give the worst result because it’s already a form that has been achieved. Personally, if I look to inspiration, I’ll go back to something that is so different that it can’t be influenced by the form or the look of things – only the energy, innovation and the modernity.
Do you have an example? There was a mini-Chaplin festival a while back and I went to see three or four films. Limelight was playing, which is not his best, but it is still amazing. There is a final moment where he is on stage and there is an audience within the movie. Rather than use the laughter and applause of the audience, which any director would do, he made it almost silent with only the sounds coming from the stage. Everyone with me in the theater was laughing so hard at such a great slapstick number. I thought it was a very bold choice to cut out the sound of the audience in the movie. Now that doesn’t mean I am going to cut out the sound of any of my scenes. But it means that there is always room to explore and try something different.
On a large action picture like The Green Hornet, do you have to guard against the technology overwhelming the human drama? Yes, of course. Today, in the digital effects age, visual effects can be removed from the shooting. There are two side effects that I think are very dangerous. One, the actors are not connecting with the action because they are working against blue or green screens and they don’t see the world in which they are participating. In some movies, you can see that they barely connect because they are all in different places in their minds. It’s depressing to shoot all on blue screen. We did two weeks, which is very little for this type of movie. But it was already a lot for me to bear. The second side effect is that you get movies that are three hours long, with two hours of traditional story and an hour of visual effects. To me, it’s important to have the full participation of as many contributors as possible. We have a lot of car chases, explosions and effects in The Green Hornet, but they always involve the actors. And the conflicts and comedy between them continues over the action. I think that gives a tone to the film.
What strengths did John Schwartzman, ASC, bring to the project? The main thing with John, besides the fact that he makes everything look great, is that he comes from a family of actors. His main priority is to give the actors the maximum time to deliver their best performance. As a director, it’s invaluable to have a director of photography who provides this great visual look, but with such efficiency that you never sacrifice anything from the performances. I think the studio felt very safe with John as a balance to my presence, since I never directed a movie on this scale before. But really it’s his attitude towards the actors that defines him.
How do you maintain your originality within the studio system? When you are given a project that already exists, you have so many problems to solve, and these problems are all opportunities to use your creativity – that is something Steven Spielberg said. My job, then, as director, is to fix all the problems that are appearing. And in fixing them I bring my personal stamp. You might say that my way of solving problems is my style.
So you grew accustomed to the committee process in Hollywood? A lot of times, directors do their best work when they are coming off a failure and they are in a position where they have to take a lot of suggestions from the outside. Once they have a great success, they become so powerful that they close the conversation. The result can be a decline. I was in a good position on this movie. Some people have liked my previous work, and I’ve had some recognition. So I have to either convince people of my idea or go with what is proposed to me. I came onboard when it was developed to a certain point, so I had to adjust to that. At times, I did get discouraged because so many people were telling me what to do. But I knew I had to forget my ego, try to make good choices and remember that it doesn’t matter whose idea is retained, as long as the idea will make the movie better. It seems to have worked pretty well.
That sounds like the essence of collaboration. I use my influence and my creativity to try and push the project in the direction that seems to be better to me. Although there are disagreements, eventually we all absorb the ideas of everybody else and we make them our own. So many times I start an idea, and one of my collaborators will be against it. Then a week later, I don’t like this idea any more, but now he likes it, so now he is going to fight for it. Sometimes I am fighting consecutively in the two opposite directions, without remembering it! It’s not so important to fight for one idea. You just have to keep the flow going, and make the film better by adjustment.
Can you provide an example? There was a period where Seth [Rogen] and Evan [Goldberg] asked me to leave them alone with the film for one week. This was very difficult for me to accept. But they looked at every possible take, and they came back with a lot of humor. As a director, you don’t want to let go. But they came back with a version that was much better. So I kept building on it, and the final version really combines all of our creative forces. It’s really a combination of their humanity and humor and approachability, and my creativity in the way it is shot, and how we create moments that are out of the ordinary.
You’ve manipulated time in interesting ways with your imagery. Is there something about the sequential nature of film that sparks your creativity? Film represents fragments of time put together; what is between the fragments is what makes it alive or dead. I am doing a three-minute animation project right now with my Bolex in a closet. It’s very small in size, but in a way it’s very big in scale. I’m going to see it next Tuesday, and I can’t wait. I probably won’t be able to sleep on Monday. You go to the lab and you see the projection of your work, and it’s like looking into a new dimension. I still don’t fully understand how it works, and I’m really curious about why sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. It’s endlessly interesting.
What’s your take on the advent of digital cameras? Well, 20 years ago, people were confidently saying there would be no more film in five years. In the 1980s video cameras came along, and they were not smaller. And they still are not really smaller than film cameras. It does change the way you think of the shooting, because you do not think of the necessity of stopping the camera. But I have a concern. The people who develop a new technology want to force it on you. And they are not necessarily creative people. So I think it’s been a lie, a little bit. I do most of my work on film. There is something about film that is hard to explain. The digital post tools, combined with the mechanical system of the film camera and the chemistry of the film – it’s a combination of elements that is very hard to reproduce. And there is no necessity to reproduce it. I did a video last year in which each person in a marching band was wearing a slightly different nuance of color on their clothes. There were 10 different reds, 15 different greens and 20 different blues. People said that I had to shoot with the RED or the Canon 5D. So I did that, but I also tried my Bolex in the mix. The only system that could give me all the different reds was the Bolex, with 16mm film stock! This is one reason I always like to shoot on film. It’s more flexible. That was good news for The Green Hornet. We shot on film, so we have all the texture and grain that gives it dimensions and a great feeling.
Interview by David Heuring. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood.