Director Michel Gondry has spent his career bringing out the magical realism in everyday life. After getting his start shooting music videos in the 1990s, Gondry has walked us through the broken memories of a relationship in 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, made the streets of Brooklyn erupt with music in the 2005 documentary Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and turned the philosophies of Noam Chomsky into an 88-minute cartoon with last year’s Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?
His latest feature, Mood Indigo, is both a love story and a surrealist landscape brought to life. In the world of Colin (Romain Duris) and his love Chloe (Audrey Tautou), a piano dispenses cocktails, meals dance on their plates, and fate is dictated by an assembly line of typewriters. The movie is based on the 1947 novel L’Écume des Jours (“Froth on the Daydream”) by Boris Vian, a writer Gondry has long admired.
Yahoo! Movies spoke with the prolific director about the process of bringing his wildly imaginative visions to life, the enduring legacy of Eternal Sunshine, and the films that he still dreams about making.
YM: What comes first in a film like Mood Indigo: the visual elements or the script?
MICHEL GONDRY: We started with the script, and the question of how to go from the book to the story. The producer Luc Bossi co-wrote the screenplay, so basically we tried to figure out the backbone of the story, and how we could adapt it. It’s a very visual book, and I had many ideas that I carried with me all those years since I first read it. And I wanted to incorporate them in the film, as a sort of flashback of my first memory of the book. Then there is this big struggle, because there are plenty of ideas that seem unachievable, and I want to take on the challenge and do whatever I feel like, regardless of the cost. Then I had to bring it to fruition, which was very ambitious because there were so many ideas — like the shrinking apartment, or the cars. But for those things to be affordable for this kind of movie, I had to find a way to do them.
Mood Indigo (2014)
Was there one particular image from the book that you had immediately in your head when you were offered the movie?
Yes. I remember reading this book and really feeling it was very colorful at the beginning and black-and-white at the end. You would not see a transition; you would just realize it when it’s already in black and white. So that was the first idea I had, and I really wanted to use it for this movie. Because I’ve seen movies where there was a color part and a black-and-white part, but I never saw a movie where it gradually fades from color to black-and-white. So that was the first visual idea I had from my first reading. And then, the way the apartment gradually shrinks, and gets more and more small and opaque. All these ideas it seemed to me just from reading, and I wanted to illustrate them on film.
One of the characters in the film has an obsession with a philosopher — Jean Sol Patre — which grows to manic proportions. Any obsessions like that in your own life?
Well, maybe Noam Chomsky, because I have met him several times, and, of course, I’m a big fan of his. Meeting with him, I’ve seen how people get really… not really frantic, but they get really dedicated to follow his work. So that’s a parallel I could make, and I can make it on my personal level. It’s difficult to find a philosopher that nowadays would create the sort of hysteria like it’s being described in the book. At some point, I wanted to use this fanaticism that some people have with Apple – you know, when the new iPod or iPad come out, they line up overnight? You have Steve Jobs making those big statements on computer screens. At some point, I was tempted to make this parallel, but then Steve Jobs passed away, and I thought it was inappropriate. So I kept the idea of the philosopher.
That’s a very interesting idea though: A movie about the cult of Apple. Because there’s such a distinct visual element to those products, too.
Yeah, I wanted to show the guru coming out with a new computer in the shape of a perfect sphere that floats on its own gravitation, something like that. But I thought it was too crazy.
You worked on a fairly small budget, correct?
For an American movie, it would be — I mean, it was the same budget I had for Eternal Sunshine and Be Kind Rewind. So for a small movie, it’s a big budget. For a big movie, it’s a small budget.
Green Hornet had a huge budget, and you’ve stuck to more modest productions since. Is that a reaction to your experience working on a big studio film?
I would be perfectly open to doing another big budget movie; it’s just, I need to read a story that can engage me as much as I would like to make this type of big movie. They seem to be a little formulaic. I don’t think I want to do another superhero movie. So one of these days I may very well receive a screenplay for such a movie that would attract me. Although I’m not even sure a studio wants to do a big movie with me! So it doesn’t depend on me.
Money — the need of it and the lack of it – is one of the reasons for the deterioration of the world in Mood Indigo. I thought it was interesting, because it’s one of those things that’s often unspoken in movies: How much money the characters have and how it affects their lives. Is that something that preoccupies you?
Well, I had a relationship where my girlfriend was pretty sick, and we didn’t have insurance because we just moved to the U.S., and so I had to take some jobs to pay the bills. So I knew this part of the story — I lived it. Of course, it was not so difficult for me, because I was doing advertising and I booked four or five advertisements to make sure we would be covered with the expenses. But in the case of Colin, the hero, he has to take on more and more degrading jobs. He can’t catch up with the expenses. So it’s true, it’s not really talked about in movies. But I think [author] Boris Vian experienced that. Before the [second world] war, they had a pretty big house, and then they lost a lot of money during the war. They had to move to a little house that was actually in their garden. That’s another reason you see the apartment shrinking during the story.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind just showed up on The Hollywood Reporter’s list of the 100 Greatest Films of All Time. What are your thoughts on why that movie has remained so important to people?
I don’t know. I think it primarily illustrates issues in a relationship that you encounter where you are at the same age of the audience that likes the film, so you have a connection with them. And it was not like it was a huge box-office success. It’s more over the years that it grew, and, of course, through the DVDs, the VOD and stuff like that. Different generations of people can discover it, and a lot of people had this movie in the middle of a relationship crisis, and — in a way that I don’t really understand — were helped by the story to get their relationship back together. So that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people connected with this film. The screenplay, of course, is amazing. Charlie Kaufman had a way of connecting, and have a mix of tragedy, humor and humanity. And we didn’t shy away from being sentimental. And I’m very surprised at how it grew over the years. Also, at times it can be frustrating that people always talk about this movie — well, it depends on the type of audience. Like a younger audience, sometimes they know better Be Kind Rewind, because it represents the way they like to make movies themselves. Or sometimes the audience likes Dave Chappelle’s Block Party because it’s musical, and they don’t even connect that I directed other movies. So that’s funny. For sure, the most success with people I had was with Eternal Sunshine.
I’ve read conflicting things about your adaptation of Philip K. Dick’s novel Ubik. Are you still working on that project?
It’s been a long time, and I’m still questioning. It’s a very difficult story to do straight, a little bit the same way Mood Indigo was a hard book. And it means a lot to people — I don’t want to disappoint them. Sometimes a movie takes forever to exist. So we don’t know. At this point, I don’t know if it will work or not, so it’s very hard to talk about it.
Do you have a dream project in your head at this point in time?
Well, I’m going to shoot a movie in three weeks [Microbes et Gasoil], so I guess that’s my dream project. I’m very engaged with it and obsessed with it, so right now that’s my number-one movie. But maybe in the long run I’d like to do a big movie that has a very personal element, like a bigger-scale Eternal Sunshine. Or a comedy like Groundhog Day, which has a very smart concept but is very funny with a lot of humanity. I don’t know — I don’t think of it too much.
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