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Michel Gondry
From Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

A candid conversation with ingenious director Michel Gondry

The visionary storyteller on his ongoing Home Movie Factory, boyhood fascination with Czech cartoons and how he translates his most vivid dreams into films

“The closer you are to other directors, the more you look at their work and may be jealous if they’re one step ahead of you. You’ll be like, ‘why not me!’ I believe for most people, it’s like that. It’s just human nature.”

I’m sitting opposite a very candid Michel Gondry inside a former textile factory in Montreal’s Southwest neighbourhood. The space has been converted into a DIY playground by the Chromatic team according to the French filmmaker’s fanciful vision. In person, he’s casual and self-effacing, speaking in low-keyed tones, sporting muted colours and not taking up an inch more space than his chair’s compact metal frame allows. We’re here to talk about his globetrotting Home Movie Factory, but I’m breaking the ice with a picture of Icelandic musician Björk on the cover of Dazed’s Autumn 2017 issue, an artist with whom he shares both a longstanding creative bond and a yearning to explore uncharted territories.

Since they first collaborated on her 1993 video for “Human Behavior” – a David Attenborough and Goldilocks-inspired gem about humans’ confusing ways, told from the POV of a giant teddy bear – they’ve imagined some of the most surreal and shapeshifting images ever set to pulsating beats. I’m eager for him to elaborate on a famous quote where he admitted to feeling green with envy whenever he saw other directors work with the avant-pop icon. “I said it out loud as a joke to make fun of myself, but I also said it because it’s true,” recalls Gondry. “I had a very strong connection on many levels with Björk and I said that if she were to go work with other directors, which is totally legitimate, I’d have the feeling that she was cheating on me. I stand by every word,” he adds with a grin.

While Björk has called upon the likes of Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham to conjure up some of her most visually striking videos, Gondry has also had his fair share of other musical entanglements, collaborating with Radiohead, Daft Punk, Beck, The White Stripes and even his own, now defunct French rock band Oui Oui. That’s in addition to directing roughly a dozen features and documentaries, honing in on personalities as wide-ranging as left-wing intellectual Noam Chomsky and stand-up heavyweight Dave Chappelle and sharing an Oscar with Charlie Kaufman for the high-concept, mind-bending romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

GONDRY’S DEMOCRATIC FILM DREAM

Which brings us to his longest-running endeavour yet, one that residents of Tokyo, Johannesburg, Rotterdam, São Paulo and now Montreal might be familiar with, and whose origin story can be traced back to the making of Gondry’s quirky 2008 comedy Be Kind, Rewind. In that film, Jersey video store clerk Mike (Mos Def) and wacky film buff Jerry (Jack Black) set out to re-enact Ghostbusters, Rush Hour 2 and the entire Hollywood canon using a no-frills digital camcorder after every VHS tape in the store is unwittingly erased. Black and Mos Def's mini-movies-within-the-movie are completely in keeping with Gondry's entire filmography: simple, resolutely lo-fi and both silly and startlingly imaginative.

During the making of Be Kind, Gondry had the spark for his Home Movie Factory, a travelling playground that he could pack up and roll out in communities around the world. Aiming to allow non-film-schooled folks to collaborate on a movie and “have fun without buying drinks, Nikes or going to Disneyland,” he tells me, this free-of-charge and open-to-all initiative tasks participants with creating a short film from scratch in under three hours, with the Factory providing a wealth of costumes, instructions to guide them along – a breakdown of tasks begins with “pick a genre”, “choose a film title” and so on – and roughly 15 generic sets. Among them: a tent pitched in a forest, a doctor’s office, and a vintage video-rental store much like the one where you’d find Mos Def’s good-natured clerk. 

FROM CAR PLANTS TO FILM FACTORIES

While Gondry is hesitant to label the Factory as politically motivated, it’s rooted in his unabashedly utopian vision for society. “In the 1970s, some car factories tried to shift the fabrication chain. They split people into groups, with each dedicated to one car, so it completely reversed the process,” he explains to me in the screening room where Factory groups cap off their Gondrian odyssey by watching their collective creation. “Each group of workers would build a car completely from scratch. The idea was that people would be more motivated and work harder once they’d see what they achieved. They would be happier.” While he points out the initiative was short-lived, he isn’t ready to dismiss it as unsuccessful. “Perhaps it ultimately proved less productive, but you can’t deny it bettered workers’ quality of life. And that’s never taken into account, now, is it? Just look at industrial working conditions around the world – they’re not good.”

In keeping with his desire to see groups of friends and strangers come together and self-manage to create something collectively, Gondry’s Factory employs local craftsmen to build sets and streetscapes according to pictures of their city, which strongly impacts the stories themselves. This recognition of individual tastes and talents also bleeds into Gondry’s own filmmaking. The filmmaker, who’s always felt a closer kinship with American cinema than the more literary Nouvelle Vague legacy of his country of birth, has always given precedence to his collaborators’ unforeseen flashes of brilliance over meticulously rehearsing scenes as he’d imagined them. He mentions a moment from The Science of Sleep for which Gael García Bernal suggested something he himself would never have imagined. When Bernal’s vulnerable hero goes up to his boss to propose printing a calendar of his artworks, his touching performance, acting out one of the paintings for his superior (to the point of being overconfident) wasn’t part of the original plan. “What I learned there was to always let people go ahead with their first idea, then tweak it if need be. Actors are for the most part underconfident, especially in the case of non-professionals, so if you give them direction before they even begin, they won’t be able to move away from it. I prefer to have them do whatever they have in mind and then adjust accordingly, otherwise, I miss out on the unexpected things they bring.”

“If you give direction before (people) even begin, they won’t be able to move away from it. I prefer to have them do whatever they have in mind and then adjust accordingly, otherwise, I miss out on the unexpected things they bring” – Michel Gondry

AN EMBRACE OF THE UNCONSCIOUS

In this gentle, surrealistic comedy, as with Gondry’s heartbreakingly tender Eternal Sunshine, the Versailles-born filmmaker proves to be a skilled interpreter of humans’ tireless dream worlds and faulty memories. “I always had rich and sometimes traumatic dreams,” he tells me when I bring up his last film, 2015’s Microbe & Gasoline, a somewhat autobiographical look back on his youthful days, and whose second half was heavily informed by dreams he was having during its development. “I could easily make the connection between what I was experiencing at the time and my dreams. When they were not really decipherable, I didn’t even want to try, because I was in a way respecting them. It’s why I don’t like Freud or the psychoanalysts and how they treat dreams: they trivialise everything into tools to express something they believe is true. And I’m sure it’s not.”

He refrains from over-analysing dreams as Freud and apostles of his famed wish-fulfillment theory are so keen to do, as explaining the unconscious just kills any magic for him. “What’s incredible about dreams is that you leave something that’s bizarre and sometimes very trivial. You wake up with the sensation of having been through an adventure and you want to grab it – especially me, as a filmmaker. But it’s like sand, the grains just slip through your fingers and as soon as you look, there are only three left... I don’t want to explain them because I feel as though they’d then lose their power.”

As someone with a steadfast commitment to exploring fragmented realities and interpreting the most enigmatic of liminal states, Gondry praises David Lynch for his otherworldly renderings of a parallel universe. “Lynch has really strong ways to illustrate dreams. You know, when I went to see Lost Highway, I think I slept in the middle of the film, but I’m not sure. And I think that’s great – that’s really what it’s all about. So the psychological understanding of dreams where everything that’s protruding corresponds to a phallus, it just makes no sense to me, because it’s silly to assume everyone uses the same symbols and imagery in their dreams.”

ADOPTING EASTERN BLOC CRAFTINESS

Another philosophy Gondry finds wholly unappealing is the attempt to conceal the artistic process altogether – making sure the construction looks seamless, whether through CGI or other technological trickery. While he understands why some would want to go down that route, to avoid having the audience notice a stray nail on a wall that would take them out of the story, he prefers his work to convey a feeling of accessibility – that even neophytes with no training could reproduce what’s unfolding before their very eyes. “I remember what I used to like as a kid: in France, we were equally exposed to the Eastern Bloc cartoons and the Walt Disney and Hanna-Barbera cartoons. I liked both, but I had a special taste for the Czech animated films where you could see that the water was done with transparent wrapping paper, or that the sky was painted into the background. The craft was very rich and detailed, but the fact you could see how it was done made me dream. I could imagine myself doing it. And so I did.”

Interestingly, he compares his exposure to Czech cartoons to seeing The Cure live in Paris back in 1980. “On the one hand, it was the deepest emotional experience I’d ever lived, and yet I could also see how it was done. It was Robert Smith, (Simon) Gallup and the third one. It was guitar, voice, drum and bass, and the playing was so simple that it made me want to go home and start a band. That’s the difference between seeing something that blows you away but you think you could never do it, like a Renaissance painting with the light and landscape detail, and something really raw and handmade, which is just as powerful but also gives you the feeling – and perhaps it’s a misleading feeling – that you could go home and do the same. I always loved that feeling.”

“Something really raw and handmade... gives you the feeling – and perhaps it’s a misleading feeling – that you could go home and do the same. I always loved that feeling” – Michel Gondry 

NOT CARDBOARD FOR CARDBOARD’S SAKE

Whether he's animating Lego bricks in stop-motion for The White Stripes' Fell In Love With A Girl (christened "music video of the decade" by Pitchfork) or conjuring up García Bernal's janky time-machine in The Science of Sleep, Michel Gondry's singularly accessible visual DNA serves as an apt reminder that multi-million-dollar budgets aren't de rigueur when bringing great ideas to life. That said, he’s aware of the unnecessary “crown prince of whimsy” label that’s followed him around…sometimes on the very twee packaging of his own films. “A lot of times, I have issues with people who do billboards for me or DVD sleeves or credits for my TV shows because they make it look crafted – unnecessarily so. I think crafted can be interesting when you do it because you have no choice. When it becomes a gimmicky aesthetic, it’s just gratuitous and clichéd.”

Walking through the Home Movie Factory’s freshly designed sets as Gondry explains to me how participants must carry out the three-hour challenge, it strikes me that this project is the epitome of what his accessible brand of cinema has always encouraged: to give everyone both the freedom and the tools to be creative. It’s what’s so inherently political about it, even though he’s reluctant to bandy about such a word. When I ask whether each city’s distinct culture has left its mark on the Factory films, he points to a “generous and inspiring” group of kids from São Paulo. “They were young people from a favela who had never seen a single film in their life, and they made an incredibly pure movie,” he remembers. Come to think of it, there couldn’t be a more fitting illustration of Gondry’s highest aspiration: to allow people to create their entertainment, as opposed to consuming it. “The story had them getting off the train and realizing they’d forgotten one of their friends, so they’d go looking for him in every other décor,” he continues. “In the end, they find him and throw a party in the café. It was so incredible pure – a bunch of people unaffected by the history of cinema.”

Michel Gondry’s Home Movie Factory runs in Frankfurt until January 28, 2018