French director Gondry would rather play with paint than pixels

by Colin Covert

Star Tribune (Minneapolis) (MCT)

21 June 2007


The visionary French film director Michel Gondry learned early that making art was a good way to impress people.

“I would draw naked women and show them to my friends,” he recalled in a recent phone conversation. “I got some popularity that way when I was 11.”

cover art

The Science of Sleep (La Science des rêves)

Director: Michel Gondry
Cast: Gael García Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean-Michel Bernard, Emma de Caunes, Alain Chabat, Stéphane Metzger, Miou-Miou

(Warner Independent Pictures)
US theatrical: 15 Sep 2006 (Limited release)

Now he makes special effects movies with a difference. While big-studio films employ banks of supercomputers and armies of programmers, he does most of his magic tricks with egg cartons, cellophane, toilet paper rolls and imagination.

Judging by his playful, naive, insistently artificial visions, you might think that Gondry’s cher maman nursed him with a baby bottle of absinthe. In “Human Nature,” the first of his back-to-back collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, Gondry turned Patricia Arquette into a grotesquely furry Yeti. In the Oscar-winning “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” he allowed sets to fall apart to dramatize Jim Carrey’s state of mind as his memories of a doomed relationship were medically wiped away.

His third film, “The Science of Sleep,” a romantic fantasy that he also wrote, conjured a living horse from velour to carry young lovers Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsborough into the sunset. It’s just more fun to play with paint than pixels, he said.

“I would rather do the effects by finding tricks to do it physically with construction and mechanics,” he said. “I get more excited to do it physically because it’s more like a playground to me. I can play with texture and physics and mechanics. When it’s digital, it’s elements that are not connected together.”

Gondry, 44, was born and raised in Versailles in a family of musicians and inventors; his grandfather created one of the first mass-produced electronic synthesizer keyboards.

`I guess my parents were pretty cool,’ he said. `It was free-spirited. They didn’t put pressure on us. I was the middle one, so that’s one where you get the best treatment. The parents generally have some experience when you come into the world. The first one gets a little damage because the parents don’t know how to deal with a child, especially in the `60s. And then the last one becomes overly protected. So my parents were easy on me and I was a little bit encouraged because I was the artist of the family.”

Gondry made cartoon flip books as a child, attended art college, drummed in a rock band and began his film career making music videos (creating acclaimed spots for Daft Punk, Beck and Bjork). While his films give the feel of spontaneous, instinctive creativity, Gondry finds that improvisation works best in a context of careful preparation.

“I encourage improvisation and I’m really open to what people have to suggest. Still, the work is really carefully framed and prepared because you need a solid basis on the day. Everything goes so crazy, and you fight the schedule, so if you improvise then you’re going to waste a lot of time. But I realized that the best part was where unexpected things would happen. So I learned to cultivate that and work in a precise frame but have some room for chaos.”

Between his fiction films, Gondry directed the music documentary “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” as an exercise in simple and direct storytelling.

The idea “was as well to go somewhere with a camera without knowing what we would shoot. This is a very scary feeling. But I feel it’s very rewarding when something is happening and you feel it’s coming out of nowhere. I’m often tempted to go there, but maybe I’m sacred,” he confessed. “I’m doing all those visual tricks, creating those worlds because I’m scared of just being simple. Then on the other hand I do not know why I should do that because (absurdism) is me and it’s genuine and it’s what I do the best. So I’m a little bit in between.”

One quality that all of Gondry’s films share is a dreamy romanticism that’s semiautobiographical. His movies are about losing the girl, and Gondry has had some girlfriend problems in real life, experiences that taught him lessons worth sharing.

“I have good advice. I was with this girl I really loved and I never drank when I was with her. Because I get wasted only to meet a new girlfriend,” he said. “When I was with this girlfriend I was a little quiet. Then I lost her and I had to get wasted again to find a new one.

“So I thought maybe I should have got wasted with her sometimes and I could have maybe saved the relationship. So my advice would be whatever you do to get your girlfriend, do it sometimes once you have her.”

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