Bright Lights Film Journal

“How My Brain Works”: An Interview with Michel Gondry

“I didn’t want to live under the shadow of other films. I want to exist on my own.”


Like a mashup of cinematic countrymen Georges Melies and Jacques Tati, Michel Gondry isn’t afraid to invent visual singularity. After his mind-blowing videos for Bjork, Beck and every other music big-shot opened doors for right-brain Hollywood theorizations like Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the Versailles-born Gondry graduated from child-like prodigy to full-fledged auteur. He’s behind the camera for the star-studded, blowout Block Party Dave Chappelle threw for Brooklyn before disappearing into Africa, in theaters now. He’s also furthering Eternal Sunshine‘s investigations of dreams and romance with the upcoming The Science of Sleep, and is adapting Rudy Rucker’s 1984 cyberpunk classic Master of Space and Time for the silver screen and human dynamo Jack Black. Roll it!

Scott Thill: Let’s talk about Block Party. How did you get involved in it?

Michel Gondry: I met Dave through my agent, and he was looking for a director. He had an idea to throw a big party with a big concert with his friends in music, basically. He had a relationship with the musicians featured in the concert for a long time before he began putting them on his show. I mean, they kind of started together. He put them on the show, and I think since it became so successful that he wanted to put together a tribute to them. So he was looking for someone to shoot everything, and we found out that we had much in common. The way he had creative control over his show and the way I have creative control over my videos, and other similarities. So I was immediately excited, and obviously the lineup he was proposing for the film was amazing. We worked on it for about six months before we started shooting, but the lineup just kept getting better and better.

Can you explain your similarities a bit more, in regard to how you both run your projects?

I think it’s the fact that he had a lot of freedom on his show, it was very creative and he felt like his own boss. I am the same way with my videos. Obviously, it’s a complicated difference, but there is a warmth in his work that I responded to, the same kind my work has as well. And even though our culture and countries are different, we found we had a lot in common, especially when we talked about how we see movies.

A straight-ahead documentary seems like a departure for you.

I always want to learn something when I work. I thought … wait, I’m losing my train of thought.

(Laughs) Sorry about that!

Let me take off my jacket. I was about to … hold on. (He leaves to lose his jacket.) Sorry. Basically, my job is to find out who they really are, to find something in common through which I can express myself, or conversely how they can express themselves through me. And I think that in documentary film, you have to break down the same layers, because when you start to shoot somebody, they first put on a show. And they are not necessarily natural, because they think too much about how people will think of them, how they will be perceived. So I found out during the shooting that it is not in the first five or ten minutes of shooting that you get anything interesting.

They have to feel comfortable.

That’s one interesting thing. But to shoot a film without exactly knowing the story as you shoot, and finding the truth of it all as you go along, was something that was very interesting to me.

What did you find that truth to be during the course of shooting Block Party?

Well, the first day we started, we had such a little crew, and although the production company wasn’t really into the concept, they let us do it anyway because it wasn’t costing any money. But it was empty. We couldn’t find anyone in the streets. And I was saying, “Let’s talk to these people. Let’s go into that barbershop. Hey, maybe this guy would be interested.” But it was really hard to find anyone.

That’s hilarious.

Yeah, as crazy as it seems. But then at some point, while we were looking for a car wash, we ran into a school with a marching band and I told Dave, “Let’s just go talk to them.” And I could see during all this how Dave brings magic to the people around him. I know it sounds corny to say that, but whenever he met people in the street, something happened.

Is that why you took the film to the streets, so to speak?

Well, I didn’t know what to expect. I had spent some time with him, so I knew that people constantly recognized him and were familiar with his work, but I didn’t expect him to have the effect he did on the people around him. I just thought that everything would happen more naturally with him in the streets.

It’s funny, because people say the same about you: You bring a magical energy to not just your work, but the people you work with as well.

Oh, that’s good. See, you just answered your own question about what Dave and I have in common. That’s psychotherapy.

(Laughs) Nice! Thank you, Michel, now I won’t be needing you for the rest of the interview.

Very good.

All of your film work so far seems to riff on childlike wonder and fear, whether it’s Joel in Eternal Sunshine, Puff in Human Nature, or yourself in the doc I’ve Been 12 Forever. Do you feel that Dave fit into that role somewhat in Block Party?

(Pondering) Uh, I don’t know exactly that this aspect works completely with Block Party, but yes, there is certainly a huge kid within Dave Chappelle. You can see it in the way he tells his stories. They’re very irreverent, controversial and often graphic but my son — who’s 14 now but met Dave when he was 12 — completely dug him, even though they speak different languages and come from different cultures. There is a deeply childlike quality to Dave and his work. But I also think that he likes it that way. We talked about that while we were editing the documentary. And he enjoys showing the creative process at work, and that’s what interests me the most: Seeing what’s going on in the brain of an artist as he comes up with ideas.

How did the shoot itself go?

Well, there was magic happening in the streets; the concert was amazing. I remember the day of the concert — although I felt that I had failed in my job and that the shooting was a disaster — people would come to me and say, “This is so special!” And I was like, “Yeah, really?” Because I wasn’t focusing on the music at all: I was running around, trying to create little events around the big event.

Did you feel the pull of Wattstax and other docs as you filmed and edited Block Party? Was there any direct visual homage?

No, basically when I shoot something I always try not to have references. When I watched Wattstax and Woodstock, I looked for how and why they created the story, and it certainly wasn’t in the look. Let me give you an example. I noticed for instance in a lot of popular music documentaries, there aren’t many cameras being used. Sometimes it was just one or two, and those simple shots communicated quite a bit. They didn’t have to be filled out with fast editing or crazy angles, so that was one of my first rules: not necessarily to get that nostalgic look, but more to have a commitment to the shot. When you shoot on film, you have to make your choice as you shoot. You don’t postpone everything until the editing process. Of course, we used more than one camera for Block Party, but every unit that was shooting was independent. I didn’t want them to think about the editing stage at all, but to instead seek out stories, sounds and shots that they found to be important. And it didn’t matter if they were shooting the same thing as someone else, or if they weren’t shooting the concert at all. I really pushed people to have their own minds while shooting, and that’s what I got the most out of working with documentary. I wasn’t trying to pay homage, because I didn’t want to live under the shadow of other films. I want to exist on my own.

You’re a bigger fan of film than video.

Yeah, I think you get more information with film than you do with video. I guess I’m a little older; I was born in 1963 and became very independent and self-sufficient with film, and I didn’t find that possible with video. Although people would expect the opposite — that you can do anything with video — but I still believe you can do a lot with film without having to rely on a large crew. We didn’t shoot a lot of footage compared to other documentaries. Then again, we only had three days to shoot; some documentaries are shot over the course of several years. I just recently watched Hoop Dreams again, which is amazing. And obviously, you couldn’t make that work as well with film. It’s just completely different.

Video seems to transmit a different feel than film.

Yeah, I guess I wanted to feel like I was capturing history in some way by shooting with film. I had the ambition to see it on the big screen, and even though we shot it in 16mm and Super-16mm, when we screened it, it looked like 35mm, very sharp. I wanted people to experience the film as if they were actually at the concert.

What do you think of the proliferation of tech as far as filmmaking goes?

Maybe because I come more from the craft side of things, but I usually don’t feel engaged by films steeped in it. I mean, I like it and was blown away the first time I saw it, but still I like the feel of involvement during a shooting. People working around me, making sets and so on.

For you, it seems like CGI is used to blend action within the frame or disparate mediums like film and video, and the like.

Yeah, I like to take a digital effect and push it to do something different. Like with the Rolling Stones’ video for “Like a Rolling Stone,” which is already ten years old. I used morphing in a different way than it was used at the time. And I think people should always keep that in mind: Move towards something different.

Most of the visual invention in Eternal Sunshine is spatial or situational. And it seems that you could have just done it all on bluescreen, but the result of your method feels much more physical.

Right. Well, to me, it’s more fun to build an apartment or Chinese restaurant. I think that’s just how my brain works. It’s more exciting to build a kitchen and film in it than to move the whole thing to a bluescreen on a stage.

How would you respond if someone offered you an FX blockbuster like King Kong?

I would try it, but I would try to combine all the different technologies I know, not to be nostalgic but rather to incorporate what already exists.

You’re interested in absorbing traditions rather than working with the technology that will just make everything easier for you.

Well, trying something different is what gets me excited. I like trying something that everyone thinks isn’t going to work until they see the results.

What about P2P technology? Have you ever downloaded a movie?

No, I could not do that. It’s too time-consuming and complicated, and I always mess something up on my computer.

What do you think about how it might change arts and industry?

It’s difficult to judge. I mean, I always preferred to go and buy what I was looking for. But I have iTunes, and I buy songs sometimes. It’s frustrating, however, because your choices in terms of music are limited. They don’t have everything. I know this is a big issue now, and could change the future of music and film. I mean, the only time I had full control was when I was putting together my Director’s Label DVD with all my videos and shorts, and I came up with the idea to have a 50-page booklet. Because that’s the kind of thing that I think will save the medium. These have to be objects you want to own instead of watching once and throwing away. Much like books: You have to keep them all on the shelves, in case you ever want to go back to it, give it to a friend and so on. The idea with the DVD was to make a something that you’d want to own, rather than something you own the rights to use. It’s still a hard concept for me to grasp.

Materiality still seems to make all the difference.

Yes, and it’s still a hard for people to understand that. When they pay for a record, they feel they’re not just paying for the people who created the music but also for the paper, the plastic and all that came with it. It’s something they can feel it in their hands.

Are you worried at all about the effect P2P and downloading will have on your work?

Well, I’m afraid of making an expensive film, so I don’t think so. But maybe I should make a big expensive film, as they seem to be the ones that are going to be most preserved.

Let’s talk about your upcoming projects. What’s going on with Master of Space and Reality?

It’s still in the beginning stages, but we are starting work on it. I have a lot of ideas. I also want to turns things inside out.

Are you a Rucker fan?

Yeah, I like him because his work is quirky, mathematical, geometrical and unpretentious. I don’t know much about him — I’ve only read two or three of his books — but we talked over the phone many times and he’s very fun.

What about Science of Sleep? You’re a big dream theorist.

Well, it’s a very romantic story, so the title is a bit deceiving. I mean, there is a science of sleep in the film, but it’s more observational. I observed dreams that I had and put them back into the context of when they happened. At one time, I didn’t know the outcome of the film as I was shooting it. I wrote the scripts myself and it had optional endings, because I wanted to discover not just the character but myself during the shooting. I didn’t know what the ending would be, so I shot a bunch of them and used the one that ended up being closest to the truth.

Do you miss being in a band?

I’m actually in one again, me and MC Paul Barman. I’m drumming.

What’s harder to keep on track, a film or an album?

That’s a good comparison. I don’t know actually. It’s funny; I don’t know what’s the more corrupt business, film, advertising or music.

Your family was progressive by even today’s standards. Do you think such progressivism would startle in today’s increasingly conservative environment?

Especially in your country. Yeah, it something I talk a lot about with Bjork, because we were raised in similar families. And we always say that the freedom we were allowed growing up is what allowed us explore our creativity, and in a way made us stronger. We had to fight to get what we wanted. I think being surrounded by creative people is very important, because children are exposed to it at an early age.

Right. Today’s kids have lots of eye and ear candy, whether pop music or video games, but the culture at large seems to have become more stifling.

It’s hard to tell what the future will bring. When my son came to live with me in New York a few years ago, he had to leave the video games at home.

How do you feel that double-edge of technology works with something like war, for example, which is becoming more virtual as we speak?

To me, it’s less about technology than it is about information, the medium and how people interpret what is happening. I mean, how is it that 3,000 people dying in New York on 9/11 became the biggest disaster in the world when a few years later 200,000 died in another part of the world? It’s about how the information gets conveyed and transformed into public opinion. It’s the same with religion: Two thousand years ago, some guy died and still today everyone’s crazy about it. Well, crazy to me, at least. I feel that same way when someone talks about an incredible event or metaphysical occurrence. I always think that it’s probably something very simple; it’s just that the how of it all has been distorted by those telling the story. Now that’s what fascinates me: How stories become created, amplified and distorted. Because our lives are shaped by these stories.