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Michel Gondry

Writer and director of The Science of Sleep

Sep 02, 2006 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

French director Michel Gondry is internationally renowned for his award-winning commercials, music videos, and feature films. After studying graphics at a French art school, he began shooting videos in 1987 for his band Oui Oui, for which he played drums. Gondry gained notoriety in 1993, when he directed the music video for Björk’s “Human Behavior,” which depicted the singer being hunted by a bear in a forest, flying to the moon to plant a Soviet flag, and then being eaten by the bear. Gondry went on to direct memorable videos for artists such as Beck, Foo Fighters, Kylie Minogue, The Polyphonic Spree and, most recently, completed his fourth collaboration with The White Stripes for “The Denial Twist.” The video offers a surreal take on the band’s weeklong guest appearance on Late Night With Conan O’Brien in 2003.

In 2001, Gondry directed his feature film, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted Human Nature, which was met with mixed reviews. He returned with 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslett. His contribution to the film’s story earned him an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay alongside Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth. Gondry’s first screenplay and latest film is the comic fantasy The Science of Sleep, starring Gael García Bernal (Y Tu Mamá También) and Charlotte Gainsbourg (21 Grams), the daughter of actress/singer Jane Birkin and the late Serge Gainsbourg. Based largely on personal experience, The Science of Sleep explores the relationship between Stephane, a young creative type with an overactive imagination, and his neighbor Stephanie, the unassuming beauty who lives across the hall.

I sat down with Gondry at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills to discuss, among other things, his new film, the difficulties presented with telling a personal story, and girls with big feet. Affable and gracious from the start, Gondry was quick to acknowledge his schoolboy crush on drummer Meg White when asked if he liked Jack White’s new band The Raconteurs, even getting up to show me her secret dance. “She’s moving at the very last moment of the beat,” he explained in a thick French accent. “She’s very laid back. She’s very sexy.”

Was making The Science of Sleep more satisfying for you because you also wrote it?

Well, it’s not that it’s more satisfying. It’s more scary, and it’s challenging. The second one [Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] I think I didn’t really deserve to do it, because I was coming from an unsuccessful one [Human Nature], which is a very good place to be—to start with an unsuccessful one. It can only get better. But this one being the first one I wrote from scratch, it’s scary. It’s like to go out to space—the void, but it was good.

I imagine it’s difficult to write a film after working with a Charlie Kaufman screenplay. I imagine there’s a lot of security in working with one of his scripts.

Of course. It’s better than to start with a mediocre writer.

You have a very pronounced visual style. Do you ever have to stop yourself from going too far? Do you worry—

Yes! I have this process of expanding with ideas and then compressing to reinforce the subject or the storyline, and budget-wise, as well. So I let myself go as wild as possible, and then I eliminate, to get what’s essential of the story and the character. A lot of times you get attached to parts that are not necessary for the story, so you have to spend time cutting them in the editing room. So now I try to cut them in the writing room to save money on production and spend more time for the scenes that matter. But you never know what’s going to be useful. Sometimes, if you end up showing 30 percent of what you shot, you could’ve saved 70 percent of the day, and spent more time for the scene that was working. But you know, sometimes when you don’t have time for a scene, the scene’s going to be even better, because you just go more with your instinct, and you don’t get too attached to the detail, and you could end up shooting a scene that becomes pivotal.

But beyond that, because your style is so unique, do you ever worry about going into self-parody?

Yeah, sure! It’s hard, because you don’t want to deny yourself—to deny who you are, and you don’t want to parody, so you have to find a place where you’re challenging yourself. Like for instance, I have this scene in the next movie [Be Kind Rewind] where this girl has giant feet, and Georges [Bermann, Gondry’s producer] said to me, “That’s you going into self-parody.” It’s about a song where [the singer] sings “Your feet’s too big,” so it was written with some girl with huge feet, and my producer [said] people will see that as your parody of yourself, so I understood immediately. So this was a clear example.

I understand the film is based on personal experience. Was it important for you to not have it be too autobiographical?

No, it was important for me that nobody would get upset while watching the film.

You’re referring to the real-life people portrayed in the film?

Yes. They made me make sure I was not giving myself the nice part. Not that I think I would’ve deserved to be portrayed nicer, but I was still hoping some way that this girl I had feelings for would change her mind, so I was like, “Yeah, I’m not going to do a stupid movie that makes her mad at me. I will show her how much I have love for her.” And it’s interesting, she went to [see the] film and we had a conversation and she was not upset. Maybe it would’ve been better if she was upset.

Are you hoping a lot of guys relate to this movie?

Yeah, I think a lot of guys can relate to it, but I think it’s going to go a little beyond that, that people will see the romantic aspect, even if the characters are not [similar] to their own character. I think there is something common in the way there is a love, there is a romance. It’s kind of romantic, so two people can identify with it. But I don’t know. I can think of the audience if I don’t just try to please myself or, as you said, try to not parody myself too much.

I think there’s so much going on entertainment-wise with the humor and the visuals that you’re able to get away with telling a very personal story.

Yeah, I think it’s a very personal story and I try to make it engaging by not being too private—by private joke—or elitist. I try to make people like this film, so it’s really what I hope is my trademark. I just try to have a good time with the people I’m shooting, and make them look human, despite who they are trying to be. I’m trying to push them and make them be themselves.

The characters, you mean?

The actors. I don’t like recreations or imitations. You see an actor really excited about disguising himself into somebody else, but it’s skilled. But I think to me the skill is to have somebody who’s going to be engaging to help the audience follow the story through them. I think you have to find what’s best in you. It has to come from yourself—from the actor, more than miming, because it’s like a monkey doing it. It has to come from inside, and I learned how to get that. A lot of time it’s going through confusion, surprise, having to react to some situation, so a lot of times I change the orientation of the scene. I start with a new idea.

How did you come to work with Charlotte Gainsbourg, and what made her right for the role of Stephanie?

She has something quite in common with this person I was thinking of. She has this quality of being amazingly interesting and beautiful, but if you didn’t know her, at first you could maybe question it. We know that she’s not a bimbo. She’s beautiful despite— She doesn’t have the stereotype of beauty that you would see in [a] magazine. And I think it was important that the character of Stephane doesn’t know he falls in love with her, before it’s too late. He feels he likes the girl because she is pretty, but when he starts to look at her from the inside, he likes her on the outside, but then he figures out that— He thought he would be the only one to find her attractive, and he turns around and looks like, “Oh, there’s a man [who] finds this girl attractive,” because she is. [Gondry is referring to a scene from the film in which Stephane becomes jealous after seeing another man showing interest in Stephanie.] He thought he was so unique by finding her attractive that he fooled himself. So, Charlotte has this dimension, and when you get close to her, that’s for life. There’s no way out of it. It’s not like a girl that you get saturated from—somebody who’s really pretty at first, but then you get tired of her. When you’re hooked to [Charlotte], forget it, that’s for life. She’s really exceptional. Everything she says, you believe.

It struck me how Stephane could be very prudent in discussing women with his male co-worker, but then could be very explicit with Stephanie. How do you explain that?

I think it’s near Tourette Syndrome in some way. It’s like he can’t help but challenge himself to say something stupid. He just wants to be entertaining, and it pushes him to say something out of context, because he thinks it’s funny, and it’s a kind of self-loathing, as well. He doesn’t believe he can be seductive enough. He kind of ruins the situation by doing that. Basically, when it doesn’t work out with Stephanie, that’s all that is left to him and he’s now abusing. It’s kind of sad in a way, but that’s real.

But then how does it end in real life? It just goes on?

Yeah. It ended by not talking to the person for two years, and then starting to exchange email, and talking a little like before, and then it’s the same. If I say, “Okay, let’s have dinner,” then she would retract immediately because it was too personal. This person, I have only one time [had] dinner [with her] in my life, but we went through exactly all the scenes that you can see in the movie. But in terms of doing something social, we never did more than one dinner, and we worked together.

I know you’re a musician also. With all the success you’ve had as a filmmaker, would you rather have had that kind of success as a musician?

No, no. I have to say it’s more fulfilling to do what I’m doing now. I was a drummer anyway.

You were just one component, whereas filmmaking allows you—

I use a lot of my brain. It’s very satisfying. When I stopped being a drummer and started to be a director, I really expanded my brain usage. You feel like you’re going from 20 to 80 percent. It’s more rewarding, and it’s better for aging. Pop is immature—not that I’m full of maturity, but my job requires some of it.


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Accent Reduction Course
November 26th 2009

Michel Gondry is certainly one of my favourite directors.

March 11th 2010


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May 5th 2010

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November 21st 2010

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November 21st 2010


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December 15th 2010

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