Michel Gondry: From elderly aunties to Green Hornets

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The French director and polymath on a return to documentary and his experiences playing with the Hollywood big boys

Michel Gondry made a name for himself in the 1990s as one of the best music promo directors in the business, working with the likes of Björk and Daft Punk. He broke into cinema in 2001 with false-start oddity ‘Human Nature’, following it in 2004 with a film scripted by Charlie Kaufman, the adored ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’. Since then, the Versailles-born director has made documentaries (‘Dave Chappelle’s Block Party’), dream doodles (‘The Science of Sleep’) and a broad comedy about filmmaking (‘Be Kind, Rewind’). The 47 year old’s latest two films couldn’t be more different. The first, opening this week, is ‘The Thorn in the Heart’, an intimate, French-language portrait of his eccentric aunt, Suzette, which he follows next month with a Hollywood buddy comedy, ‘The Green Hornet’, starring Seth Rogan.

In ‘The Thorn in the Heart’, was your aunt Suzette always aware how intimate it would be?
‘No, she wanted it to be strictly about her job as a schoolteacher. As the years went on – it took about four or five years – she was only being “the teacher” on camera, and I had to push her to get something unique. The film wouldn’t do justice to her if we didn’t approach the personal stuff. Obviously there were issues about her husband and son, and it took me a long time to get her to talk about them.’

Are you happy about showing your personal life?
‘I’m talking about my relationship with my auntie and my cousin – it’s not like I’m talking about my girlfriend or sexual preferences! For me, talking about my aunt is like talking about a Hollywood superhero.’

As a film about one woman’s effect on those around her, it continues your interest in communities and how people collaborate…
‘Yes, of course, and I am working on a new drama which we’re going to shoot next summer, which follows 35 kids going to school on a bus. It’s about how the group affects the individual. I’d written 25 versions of the screenplay and then we found this after-school activity centre in the South Bronx and did a workshop there. Basically we talked to the kids and used their stories. I like an audience to get lots of different perspectives on life. A lot of my favourite directors are from England, like Mike Leigh or Ken Loach, and they’ve dedicated their lives to showing that people can be interesting if you pay attention to them. It’s the opposite of what’s done in Hollywood.’

You also like to remind audiences that they’re watching a movie. In ‘The Science of Sleep’, Gael Garcia Bernal often addresses the camera directly.
‘Yes, but I don’t always want to make people conscious of this fact. In “The Thorn in the Heart”, it’s not really Suzette’s life, it’s a restaging of it. If there is a shot of her walking, she might stop and look at a flower, which she would never do in real life. I knew it would be fun to acknowledge that by showing me directing her.’

So what was it like giving directions to your aunt?
‘It’s wrong to make fun of people who’re hard of hearing, – it’s totally mean! – but it happened a lot when I would ask her something and she would not hear me. There’s a situation where she meets this old lady from another village and they both can’t hear my questions – I ask the same question ten times and they can’t understand. It’s funny because it’s a problem I always have directing English actors who can’t understand me. On that subject, another project I’m working on is a series of interviews with Noam Chomsky which will be played over an animated backdrop. I hear my questions back on the tapes and have no idea how he can make any sense of them. My girlfriend always makes fun of me saying that I can barely speak English and I’m working with the most renowned linguist in the world. He doesn’t actually mind it. I think he prefers someone who can barely speak than someone who’s coming at him with lots of philosophical baggage.’

Should people be surprised that you’re making ‘The Green Hornet’, a superhero movie for a studio?
‘I always wanted to do something for a wider audience, but always from an outsider’s perspective. My last film, “Be Kind, Rewind”, with Jack [Black] and Mos Def, had a schizophrenic aspect to it, so it was both broad and leftfield. Some people were put off by it. But its subject is like an indie movie; it’s about communities and the politics of making movies – the idea of people making their own fun. There are people who want to beat me up when they see this film, but I’m proud of it. The UK was its best audience – you seem more willing to follow my wild experimentation than the US and France.’

Did you have to suppress any instincts for ‘The Green Hornet’?
‘Yes, I did. And there were other people suppressing them too! That was the negative part, but in a movie like this where so much money is involved, if someone in a suit tells you they like it, then they really like it. If they don’t like it, they’re going to tell you to your face, and there’s no being polite or anything. Of course, I couldn’t do all the crazy stuff I had in mind, but I did a good amount of it. I remember when I was doing my first film, “Human Nature”, it was produced by Spike Jonze. We were friends and I appreciated his help, but I was reluctant to take advice. I would often do the opposite. Sometimes, his ideas were amazing, but I felt I had to defend my autonomy.’

Should people be surprised that you’re making ‘The Green Hornet’, a superhero movie for a studio?
‘I always wanted to do something for a wider audience, but always from an outsider’s perspective. My last film, “Be Kind, Rewind”, with Jack [Black] and Mos Def, had a schizophrenic aspect to it, so it was both broad and leftfield. Some people were put off by it. But its subject is like an indie movie; it’s about communities and the politics of making movies – the idea of people making their own fun. There are people who want to beat me up when they see this film, but I’m proud of it. The UK was its best audience – you seem more willing to follow my wild experimentation than the US and France.’



Did you have to suppress any instincts for ‘The Green Hornet’?
‘Yes, I did. And there were other people suppressing them too! That was the negative part, but in a movie like this where so much money is involved, if someone in a suit tells you they like it, then they really like it. If they don’t like it, they’re going to tell you to your face, and there’s no being polite or anything. Of course, I couldn’t do all the crazy stuff I had in mind, but I did a good amount of it.I remember when I was doing my first film, “Human Nature”, it was produced by Spike Jonze. We were friends and I appreciated his help, but I was reluctant to take advice. I would often do the opposite. Sometimes, his ideas were amazing, but I felt I had to defend my autonomy.’

The Green Hornet’ is a big-budget studio film. Will we be seeing the usual Gondry touch? Will you break the fourth wall again?
‘I think in “The Green Hornet” you’re going to see my touch on two levels. One is the relationship between Seth Rogan and the guy who plays Cato, Jay Chou. They have a very friendly and humane relationship. Also, you’ll see my touch in the parts of the film that are told in flashback or as a dream sequence. In terms of breaking the fourth wall, I don’t want to do that too much, because it’s hard enough to make people forget that they’re watching a movie, so attracting attention to the fact would just be silly.’

Read our review of 'The Thorn in the Heart' here

Author: Interview: David Jenkins



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