The French director on Mood Indigo, Duke Ellington and what happened when Kanye bowed down to smooch his tootsies
Walking through Michel Gondry's personal history is like an easter egg hunt. He drums on Kanye West's hit single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone"? He spent 2005 as an artist-in-residence at MIT? He solves rubik's cubes with his feet? It's all a bit whack, which is why there should be no surprises when it comes to his cinematic efforts. The man behind The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind has manufactured a formative visual aesthetic that's as bewildering as it is stimulating. In his latest film, Mood Indigo, Chloé (Audrey Tatou) contracts some sort of floral pneumonia, as a flower begins to grow in her lungs, testing her relationship with her oddball friends and wealthy lover Colin (Romain Duris). All of his madcap adventures find their way into his films somehow; we sat down to pick the mind of the serendipitous auteur to find out what was behind his obsession with jazz artist Duke Ellington and that time Kanye kissed his feet.
If you played the Pianocktail what would you play and what kind of cocktail would you make?
Michel Gondry: Well I would play "Sunny" and I think I would make a very sweet and very energetic cocktail.
With what kind of ingredients, what do you like to drink?
Michel Gondry: Beer, so that wouldn't really go! I remember one time we went to buy vodka to celebrate, and my dad said "No, no you have to drink whiskey!" That was in the 80s. I was probably eighteen.
I was wondering before you started it all if there was an image that came to your mind that was something you just had to create?
Michel Gondry: Well one of my most vivid memories from reading the book for the first time was the ice skating scene where the guy stretches and goes inbetween the legs of Colin and makes him fall over and all the catastrophe that ensues. Of course love, and the sickness and the horrible job Colin has to do. I think I always visualised it well before I was a director; the illustration, the book, the movie would all start in colour and end up in black and white but without any noticeable transition so you wouldn't instantly realise – like blood going from the body, it becomes whiter and whiter.
So it's like the more she becomes sick, the more the colour fades?
Michel Gondry: Yes and everything gets smaller. The apartment shrinking was something which really sparkled in my imagination. I experience it when I go back to spaces where I used to go on holiday when I was a kid – I visit them now and they seem much much smaller.
“I didn't want to simplify too much because there is something very visual and vivid in the whole world that I didn't want to betray.” – Michel Gondry
Why is that do you think?
Michel Gondry: I think when you're smaller, the spaces seem bigger. Your brain is more fresh, there's less stuff in your brain, and so there's more room to absorb details. That's just my own theory, I'm not sure it's right! Then when you're older everything seems smaller because your body is bigger and your experience is bigger too.
Do you think as we go on things are a bit more disappointing, and the magic is lost?
Michel Gondry: No I don't think so, I think we have a stronger and stronger feeling for the people you love and I don't think that goes away.
Is it ever difficult to translate the things you imagine on to film? What was the most difficult thing you've had to translate?
Michel Gondry: [Mood Indigo] had a lot of elements to make work together. I had to get people to forget about all the details going on around Colin and Chloe in order to feel their love. But I didn't want to simplify too much because there is something very visual and vivid in the whole world that I didn't want to betray, but as things go on and get simpler and simpler, I think we get to feel that more.
Has there ever been a moment when you felt sensually overwhelmed or visually bombarded? When was the last time you had that sensation?
Michel Gondry: I think you can have that in a museum, but it's also a thing that you have when maybe you meet somebody and everything seems to be interesting and magical and colourful. But it's always different. Maybe it's the location, like in some hotel where everything feels sparkling with lots of moving detail, or maybe in nature when you go to a mountain and everything is full of life, or when you're next to a river – you get this feeling. But I think in the movie what's important is how it starts. I wanted to show that Colin is idle, rich, has very good taste and is an inventor as well, and makes gadgets and lots of things that work in different ways. As the story goes on and gets deeper and sadder this doesn't go away, and the film becomes much more sober.
The character that becomes obsessed with the author is really overwhelmed to the point that he falls into a crazy addiction. Has that happened to you?
Michel Gondry: No I would have that feeling only for a girl. I got obsessed with Janis Joplin when I was a kid, but not to the point where I would get myself sick. I would get myself sick over a girl who leaves me and stuff like that.
Is there any movie you would be happy to never see again?
Michel Gondry: There are but I don't want to be critical of anyone, because I don't like it when people say bad stuff about mine!
What does the music of Duke Ellington mean to you?
Michel Gondry: Well, I grew up listening to him because he was literally my father's god. He was the most important figure in his life. So I heard a lot of him. It's funny because with most kids they reach an age where they start to reject their parents and distance from them in puberty but I didn't have that – the music they liked, I always liked too. The day he died in '74 we went into mourning, and we didn't speak at the dinner table; I was very sad and my dad was devastated. He had an orchestrality which was completely unique, and he experimented all his life. He invented styles. Even when jazz became bebop, and after swing, when you would think that a jazz musician would be obsolete, he did this album – Money Jungle – which was a response by a trio to this new fashion of bebop. He was actually more avant-guarde than these younger musicians. All his life he was avant-guarde, like a Picasso of music, and he always recreated himself.
The way characters move in this film was inspired by the Disney Silly Symphonies, no?
Michel Gondry: Yes, that's true. Before the 50s the styling of animation was very stretched and people were like plastic, elastic bands. If someone had to reach a cup like that, they would not get up, their arm would stretch until they reached the cup and then come back to the same position. It's something I really liked.
What was it like working with Kanye and what was the most fascinating thing about him?
Michel Gondry: Kanye West is very interesting, a great innovator of music. The first time I met him was in a small bar in New York, he bows down on his knees and he kisses my feet because he said I was his video idol. He told the press he met me and Prince in the same day and that meeting me was more important, so that's extremely flattering. But I do a video for him, we talk about the story and we are in tune – I do exactly what I promised – and then he rejects the video and even shot another video with an animator. That was really upsetting as I had done exactly what I said I would, but he has an entourage who sort of criticised it – they didn't like it. Eventually he liked it and he used it again, but in the meantime when I saw him again I made fun of that. I always like to go straight to the problem – we joked about it and ended up playing some music together. The last time I saw him was last year in a hotel, when he invited me to play a new song with him he had written with Daft Punk – it was amazing actually. We have a good relationship, with ups and downs.
Mood Indigo is out in cinemas today