Michel Gondry interview: Mood Indigo, Eternal Sunshine, Ubik

We talk to one-of-a-kind filmmaker Michel Gondry about his new film Mood Indigo, Eternal Sunshine, Philip K Dick adaptation Ubik and more...

Over the period of 20-or-so years, Michel Gondry has steadily built up a voluminous and relentlessly individual body of work, ranging from commercials and experimental short films to full-length features. Although Eternal Sunshine Of A Spotless Mind is arguably Gondry’s best-known and most acclaimed work, he’s also made such films as Be Kind, Rewind, The Science Of Sleep, his quirky collaboration with Noam Chomsky, Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, and The Green Hornet, while flawed, has much to enjoy in it.

Mood Indigo is Gondry’s latest feature, and once again, it’s hand-crafted, warm and decidedly dreamlike. Based on the novel L’Écume des jours by Boris Vian, it’s about a young man named Colin (Romain Duris) who falls in love with a girl he meets at a party (Audrey Tautou), only for his world to fall apart when she falls desperately ill. Like all of Gondry’s films, there’s far more to the story than that summary implies, and as ever, the joy of Mood Indigo lies in the curious world he’s created. In many ways, it’s his most accomplished and moving film since Eternal Sunshine.

On the eve of Mood Indigo’s UK release, here’s Gondry himself to tell us about its making, what inspires his filmmaking, and the current status of his long-teased Philip K Dick adaptation, Ubik. Oh, and why he’s somewhat frustrated by the ongoing popularity of Eternal Sunshine, and what he thinks about superhero movies…

I have to say, I found Mood Indigo profoundly moving. How did you go about adapting the novel, first of all, because it’s a very visual story, isn’t it?

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Yeah. I was asked about five years ago to start to think about making it, but to be honest, I think that when I read it 30 years ago, I’d already started to adapt it. Like, when you read a book, you sort of visualise it? Even though I had no ambition to become a film director, I had some images that got stuck in my mind.

So when I was asked a few years ago to direct the film, I had these images come back into my head. So it was a parallel between the first reading and the new reading, and those images combined with each other.

It felt to me as I watched it, that it’s a compression of life. Of meeting and falling in love, and obsession and illness. Is that what interested you?

Yeah! It’s a very simple and strong love story. And all the surroundings are reflective of what’s going on in the characters’ minds. It takes on different shapes – there are objects moving, the apartment’s shrinking, but it all reflects what’s going on in their lives, between them.

If it wasn’t so fantastical and surreal, the subject matters it touches could be so sad as to be unbearable, almost. So do you think, by exploring difficult themes like death and illness in a dreamlike way, that makes them easier to take?

I think so. I wanted to find a simple story where I could use all my creativity and ideas. And because the story is simple, it allowed me to explore many ways of illustrating it. 

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Your films often deal with dreams. Where does that interest come from?

I had a lot of dreams and nightmares as a kid, and I always used them creatively. They come to me during the day, and sometimes they’re like a location that exists in my mind, and I go back to exactly the same location I’ve been to before. I live constantly with my dreams. They’re part of my memories at the same level as my waking experience. So it’s natural that how people dig into their own memories to create their stories – well, not everyone, but some people – I dig into my own experiences in my dreams. My dreams are as strong as my real experiences, so it’s natural that I include them in my movies.

Do you think films are like dreams, in the sense that we can use them to make sense of the real world? They’re like our brains solving problems in our subconscious?

Well, I’m not sure I like to explore them on an intellectual level, you know? Like psychoanalysis or symbolism. I think, in a very simple way, they reflect how we feel. Like, if you get angry and you beat a guy up in your dream,  it doesn’t take an Einstein to get the connection. Now, the psychoanalytical explanation of dreams is very much like fake science – that’s my own opinion. I don’t think dreams really work like that, but what’s interesting is, you find connections between your dreams and your experiences. That’s what’s interesting. I just try to reproduce, with honesty, what goes on in my dreams. That feeling in my heart while I’m dreaming, that’s what interests me. I don’t really need to explain anything.

Your films are always visually inventive. There’s always something surprising in them, whether it’s stop-motion or hand-drawn animation, or model effects. Do you think that impulse to invent comes from your background, with your grandfather being an inventor?

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Yeah, maybe. I always wanted to be an inventor myself. I wanted to be either an inventor or a painter. And when I bought my first camera, I realised I could be both of those things combined together. Half a painter, half an inventor. I thought that was what the camera could be used for.

So certainly, I had a background that pushed me in this direction, that helped me in this direction. And it’s true that I like to make experiments, to put things together and see what the results are. I’d mix stuff.

Like, when I was a kid, my favourite two drinks were orange juice and milk, and one day I wanted to make my favourite, favourite drink. So I mixed them up, both of them, and it was disgusting! But at least I tried it! [Laughs] 

You have to try it once, don’t you! You mentioned your love of painting. I thought the first half of Mood Indigo reminded me of Marc Chagall. I don’t know why – the lovers, floating. That sense of weightlessness in his paintings.

Yeah, yeah. Maybe like when they leave the church, they’ve just got married and they’re floating on water. I try not to think of too many existing forms of art when I’m making my movies. I mean, there’s literature, of course, if I’m adapting an existing story. I get my images from what the writer thought of. But in general, I try to pick from my own dreams and my own imagination, so I don’t… like, you see so many directors surrounded by pictures, books of photographs and paintings.

I don’t try to get inspiration from existing forms of art that are completed, and forms of art too similar to filmmaking. I don’t like that. I think, if you think of an image, you must think of what’s inside that image, otherwise the surface of the image will be the only result. It’s the function of the image [that is important]. If you start with a book, you’re already starting with the surface, but then you use the surface and you create depth.

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When you make your films, you always end up with all these amazing props and things you’ve made and sets. Do you keep any of them?

I should do – I should keep them all. But it’s always a problem when people ask me, “do you want to do a retrospective?” Videos, for example, have become part of the culture now, and it wasn’t really like that 20 years ago. So I didn’t keep any of those things, from Bjork’s videos for example. Now Bjork’s trying to do a big exhibition, a big retrospective of her work in a French museum, and I was asked to collect items from the videos we made together. But I don’t keep nothing, because you don’t think it’s going to be used, and it takes up so much space.

So we keep some for a while, and then it gets destroyed. It ends up being discarded. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KDbPYoaAiyc

I was hoping there’d be a big warehouse somewhere full of your cardboard cars from The Science Of Sleep and things like that!

No, I wish it was! It’s all over the place, because I shoot in England, the US, France and Japan… [sighs]

Sorry! It’s frustrating. I’d like to. Sometimes I see an item that was used for this video, and it’s been left somewhere or put in a gallery sometimes, but I’m not even aware of how it got there.

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Going back to your earlier career when you were making commercials and things, you made the Smirnoff commercial with the bullet time. And that predated The Matrix by a year.

We had the same idea at the same time. But my idea was to reverse the use of the camera. So normally, the camera doesn’t move, but the subject moves. I reversed that, and had the camera move and the subject stay still. So we lined up a bunch of cameras and had them shoot at the same time, and then I used a morphing technique to transition between two or three camera transitions. Morphing was already being used at the time, but it was used to distort one object into another one – it was transformation, not a change in position.

So that’s the kind of experiment I like to do in videos and commercials. Sometimes, I can use those ideas in movies, but it’s harder to use a movie as a way to experiment with visuals, because you’re trying to tell a story. You don’t want something like that to distract from the story.

Is there one of those experimental commercials or videos you’re really, really proud of?

Well, umm. In a recent one, we had another effect where we morphed between took one person, and morphed them into another, just focusing on the body of the main character, and not doing anything with the background. So there’s a picture stuck to the body of the person who’s walking, and it creates a really druggy effect. The first time I saw it, I was like, wow. It was a really strong feeling.

The one with the Lego blocks, I think that’s pretty interesting.

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Ah, for the White Stripes?

Yeah. The one with the drum kit for the White Stripes was a pretty nice effect. I’ve been pleased with my music videos, but a few of them don’t succeed, but at least I’ve tried something new each time. 

You’ve never stuck to one form of filmmaking. You’ve done short films and documentaries and features and art installations. Is there anything you’d like to do that you haven’t had a chance to try yet?

Maybe make a masterpiece! A movie that will maybe… you know, I did my first video for Bjork, and everything I would do afterwards, people would say, “Yeah, but it’s not as good as your first video for Bjork!”

Then after that I did videos for Daft Punk and whoever, people forgot about it. It’s a different scale, and it takes years and years, but I would like to make a movie makes people forget about Eternal Sunshine. It’s just stuck to my butt, that film [Laughs].

It’s the favourite movie of everyone I’ve worked with, or who has worked for me. Some kids, for instance, they don’t even know about Eternal Sunshine, but they love Be Kind Rewind, because it speaks to them. Some have seen Green Hornet. But most of the time, when they come up to me, they tell me about how they were influenced by Eternal Sunshine and sometimes I think that when I do my next movie, it’ll be so good that people will stop talking to me about Eternal Sunshine.

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Are you still going to adapt Philip K Dick’s Ubik?

I’m not sure yet. I’m still working on it, but it’s taking forever. I’m going to do another movie first, for sure.

Can you tell me about that next film, what it might be like?

It’s a kid’s story. A road trip in France. You see two people’s friends developing. The feelings in their life.

What attracted you to Ubik in the first place?

It’s a very strong and dark story. There’s a lot of surprises. The book takes you to places you don’t expect to go. It makes it very hard to adapt, so I’m a bit scared at the moment!

So many filmmakers are drawn to his work. Do you think it has a similar quality to Boris Vian, because it’s so visual?

Yes. It’s a bit surrealistic, but it’s also different. The visuals in Vian are to serve very romantic stories, whereas the world in Philip K Dick is really more futuristic – more hardcore science fiction. The concepts are so far-out, they end up fighting each other, those styles.

Do you think you’ll ever go back to Hollywood and make another film as big as Green Hornet again?

Well, if they give me a screenplay. I’m not sure whether they would want me again, but if they gave me a screenplay that was better than one for a superhero concept, or I can be more involved with the storyline, then maybe. But right now, there’s nothing really that interests me. There are too many superheroes. It’s becoming absurd.

You’re not hugely into those kinds of movies, then?

No. I mean, the one I did wasn’t really a superhero movie, and people in America criticised it for that. They’re a bit closed-minded.

Michel Gondry, thank you very much.

Mood Indigo is out in UK cinemas on the 1st August.