In an industry where innovative ideas and originality are rare and elusive, the Versailles, France,–born Michel Gondry is considered a comet, blasting his way through music videos, commercials, and films and setting the bar higher each time for imitators. Many who have gone from directing music videos and commercials to making features get accused of not knowing how to get a solid portrayal from an actor. After all, a 30-second spot on Pepsi doesn't usually require an Oscar-worthy performance. Gondry, shrugging off the accusation, said his initial motivation for becoming a director was putting the humanity back into music videos.
"I think my goal when I was doing music videos, which I still do, was to shoot people in a humanly way," says Gondry. "As far as I can remember, I disliked the rock 'n' roll attitude and rap attitude in videos. I always wanted to find a different perspective in that. I love to shoot people in a way that you can connect with them at least without the artificial attitude. So I think I took that with me when I worked with actors—the communication, the art, or the way that I film people—and let them free."
As a child he had an interest in animation, but his interest in filmmaking didn't take root until he became the drummer for the French rock band Oui Oui while studying graphics at art school in Paris. For practical reasons, Gondry began shooting videos to help promote his band. Then, pop star Björk approached him about shooting her debut solo single, "Human Behavior," and the two formed an artistic partnership that led to five even more innovative videos. Since then, he's created the most memorable, groundbreaking videos for artists such as the Rolling Stones, the White Stripes, Foo Fighters, Beck, Daft Punk, and Radiohead. He's won countless awards directing commercials for the likes of Gap, Nike, Coca Cola, and Polaroid. For example, his commercial "Drugstore" for Levi's earned Gondry the Lion d'Or at Cannes and placed him in the Guinness Book of World Records as the most highly awarded commercial director.
Frequently labeled a visual genius, Gondry maneuvers with incredible ease in the dream landscape—he literally dreams most of his filmmaking concepts. Gondry's techniques are usually quite simple, with mostly in-camera effects and rear projection, but he's also pioneered a couple of higher tech special effects. For instance, he was the first to use morphing in his video "Je Danse le Mia" for IAM. He originated the "bullet time" technique made popular by The Matrix: in the Smirnoff commercial he directed, several cameras took simultaneous pictures around a frozen bullet.
Following his commercial and video acclaim, Hollywood came knocking, but Gondry was uninspired by a lot of the scripts until he found Kaufman's Human Nature, which became Gondry's first feature—a surreal, Rashômon-styled comedy involving a love triangle among a behavioral scientist (Tim Robbins) obsessed with table manners, his naturalist girlfriend (Patricia Arquette) with excessive body hair, and the feral man (Rhys Ifans) raised in the wilderness who comes between them.
Gondry recently reteamed with Kaufman on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (released March 19), an offbeat love story about relationships that asks, "What if you got a card in the mail telling you that your ex has erased you from her memory and asking you not to contact her again?" The film was shot almost documentary style and attracted a star-studded cast—including Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Kirsten Dunst, Tom Wilkin-son, Mark Ruffalo, and Elijah Wood. Many of them play against type in this film. Carrey, in particular, takes a turn à la Adam Sandler in Punch Drunk Love—it's a restrained performance and a Carrey whom audiences have never laid eyes on before. When casting, Gondry always prefers actors who are inventive, who can remain in the moment, and who are able to relinquish a certain amount of control.
"Especially in Hollywood, the actor has a tendency to believe they have to control the character and everything," he says. "I don't like to full-out trick or manipulate people, but I like to put them off balance to get something that I'm not supposed to give you. I think with Jim, I did that a lot. I didn't want to tame him at all. [The producers] were concerned he would [overact], but I think he just wanted to be seen as a good actor. So we talked a lot about his relationships, my relationships, and he was conditioned to bring out a lot of emotion he had through his relationships. He did little things that were really brilliant."
Oscar-nominee Charlie Kaufman has said of Gondry's slightly unorthodox approach to directing, "Michel allowed stuff to happen in a very organic way. What I like about Michel is that he's got this technical brilliance, and yet there's this human stuff going on. That's a really unusual combination." Gondry is known to spontaneously come to the set with new ideas from his dreams, daily, which keeps everyone involved on their toes. He also has a fast shooting pace and enjoys keeping the camera rolling, which allowed his actors to stay blissfully in the moment but sometimes frustrated others on the production.
"I like to have things unbalanced and not to establish [everything] when we start to shoot, because I think that when people are trying to figure out what they're supposed to do, they forget about what they want to do really, and to me they are better," Gondry explains. "As soon as everything settles down and gets quiet and organized, people stiffen and get in control, and I don't see the life happening. As soon as you say, 'Cut,' all the technicians, makeup artists, hairdressers, [and] costume designers jump on the actor to make everything perfect, and they are trying to help, of course, but they don't realize that [continuity] is not as important as if the actor loses a complete moment. So I try to keep them away, and sometimes the only way to keep them away is to not say the word 'cut' and just carry on shooting. It's a balance, obviously: I waste a little bit of film but then I save time because the actor is ready to go the second time. Jim wanted more and more takes, and then the [producers] yelled at me because I was spending too much film on it."
In the film, both leading actors found themselves performing predominantly in memory sequences during different phases of their characters' relationship—being strangers, being in love, the bitter breakup—but not always in that order. With such a nonlinear script, there was bound to be confusion for Carrey and Winslet. "Confusion can be a good thing because they lose control and they become more human," he says. "It was challenging to define the moment, because there were a lot of parts where we had to find a very elegant and poetic device that sometimes used the present and past tense in the same sentence. Like, he would say, 'Do you want a glass of wine, and then you were drunk.' That suddenly was one world, and even the part of the world you would remove because a character from the scene is watching himself, so it was sometimes confusing because the time continuity was a little challenging for the actor. But it's good, because life is so complex and unpredictable and non-justified than the story that you generally show in a movie. Sometimes the character is a little bit out of character, because sometimes we are out of character."
Gondry recently released The Work of Director Michel Gondry, a curated DVD compilation for Palm Pictures' Directors Label series featuring many of his videos and a personal documentary. He's expressed interest in making a movie based off of Roald Dahl's twisted first full-length novel, My Uncle Oswald, which is a bizarre story of a scheme for procuring and selling the sperm of the world's most powerful and brilliant men. Plus, he just finished directing music videos for Steriogram and The Willows, and soon he'll be in production for his next feature The Science of Sleep, in which he'll be combining his two passions: dreaming and filmmaking.
"It's a movie I wrote a long time ago," says Gondry. "I started to think of it when I did 'Everlong' [for the Foo Fighters]. Sometimes I do a video with a storyline that I like and I don't have enough [time] with a music video to explore it. So, I thought I should do a movie where two people have two dreams that are separate, but they end up sharing the same dream and meeting, [opening up] all the possibilities of mixing up reality and dreams. In dreams, you deal with this kind of thing and sometimes you even see yourself. I think dreams and real life are more interesting as inspirations than the movies themselves, because they are about us." BSW