Michel Gondry - Eternal sunshine of the childlike mind

Watching one of Michel Gondry's films can be a surreal, quirky and idiosyncratic experience. Rather like meeting the director himself, finds Stephen Applebaum

Michel Gondry's ire is rising. The idiosyncratic French film-maker is trying to concentrate on our conversation about shooting a short film, Interior Design, in Tokyo, but his mobile phone keeps buzzing peskily while noise from the kitchen of the hotel threatens to drown us both out. In a flurry of expletives Gondry rips out the phone's battery and, suddenly calm, says: "It's funny how these little things can become a big distraction."

It's an interesting way of putting it, since small things made large are also the stuff of Gondry's work. This is the man, after all, who used Lego and wool in videos for the White Stripes and Stereogram and put Gael Garcia Bernal and Charlotte Gainsbourg on a felt horse at the end of his first solo-scripted feature, The Science of Sleep. "I made my dream," he says. "I always liked fabric objects."

He understands why people like shooting big landscapes and big landmarks. For Gondry, though, being able to "build something small and project it big" is what makes film-making fun. He takes my microphone and some discarded plastic bottle caps, and pretends they're a building and a car. "So you put the camera here and then project it here... That's much more magical, I think, because you made it."

Gondry's mind has been working this way ever since childhood, when toys opened up a world of exciting possibilities for him and his cousin. They built a prototype cartoon machine, similar to a zoetrope, when they were 12, using Meccano, and drew flick-books and shot films. They still work together, occasionally. "He actually did the toilet paper city in Science of Sleep," says Gondry. "He's an architect. And that's the nice thing when I do a movie: I can bring people from the family back together and do things I used to do as a kid."

This child-like enthusiasm for making things was to the fore in his most recent feature, Be Kind Rewind, starring Jack Black and Mos Def as friends who become local heroes when they make their own "Sweded" versions of Hollywood blockbusters, using junk and ingenuity. It is there, too, in Interior Design, in the character of an aspiring director who takes his low-budget film, complete with William Castle-like smoke-machine effects, to Tokyo, to try to get it seen. Meanwhile, a sensitive girlfriend is becoming alienated from her surroundings, and gradually undergoes a fantastical transformation which, despite the fact that the film is an adaptation of a comic-book story, is pure Gondry.

The film is part of a triptych of shorts – the other two, Merde and Shaking Tokyo, were directed by Leos Carax (Pola X) and Bong Joon-ho (The Host) respectively – set in the Japanese capital. However, Tokyo!, as the fate of the young woman in Interior Design and the title of the Carax instalment imply, is no uncritical love-letter to the city. Although the directors worked apart, all three films say something negative about Tokyo. "It's funny," ponders Gondry. "You want to celebrate. But instead it's sort of a dark version of Paris, Je T'Aime."

Gondry thought it crucial that he worked with a Japanese team. "I think if you come with a crew you're more like a colonialist," he says. He loved the experience, but admits that it was difficult at first because his requests kept being met with a sort of "no" (or iie, presumably). "Although they don't say 'no' very much in Japan, they say: 'In Japan you don't do this. In Japan you can't do that.' I actually fired my location scout the first day because he was dooming the shooting. They got really scared after that and then worked very hard," he laughs.

Ever since he broke through with a video for the Björk song "Human Behaviour", Gondry has been producing wildly creative work that seems like the product of a child's unfettered imagination. Today, he is recognised in his own right. However, because of his close collaborative relationship with the Icelandic pop pixie, which produced a number of groundbreaking videos, and his subsequent work with the screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, on the features Human Nature and the Oscar-winning Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, there was a point, recalls Gondry, when people wondered if he was really any good.

"I'd hear people saying: 'Oh, it's all Charlie. He has no talent,'" he recalls. "It was difficult to live with that. At some point you start to question, or people question for you, whether you bring anything"

It did not help that he had come to feature film-making 'late', aged 35. "All directors compare themselves to Orson Welles, who did his masterpiece at 26. So when you start and you're nearly 40, you're like, 'Oh god, I'm so behind'."

Or so he thought. For when he was asked to put together a collection of his videos for DVD, he realised that although he was illustrating other people's songs, they were connected by a unifying vision. He also remembered making caricatures of some of his fellow animators out of matchboxes, drinks cans, and other everyday objects. "Sometimes I think of that and I think, 'I didn't know anybody who had done that, and it came from my imagination, so that was me.'

"You don't want to be too much aware of your instinct but, on the other hand, sometimes it's good to realise that you have your voice and you have your style, and keep that in mind to give you the confidence to carry on doing your stuff."

When he considers the "stuff" that he has done so far, he feels most confident about his short-form work. When he watches his features, "I am happy when they're finished," he reveals. "You always feel they're too long, and you don't know for how long you engage your audience. I cannot enjoy that so far."

Not that this has put him off making more features: he is currently reported to be prepping a $50m update of The Green Hornet, written by and starring the comedian du jour, Seth Rogen. It is a big leap for the director, who recently expressed amazement that Rogen was even listening to him. "I mean, look at my numbers on IMDb, and my average is $10m and his average is $90m a movie," he said.

Of course, history is filled with depressing tales of film-makers whose individuality has been squeezed out of them by the Hollywood machine. With any luck, Rogen will keep listening, and Gondry won't join them.

' Tokyo!' is out now on DVD

Arts and Entertainment

game of thrones reviewWarning: spoilers

Arts and Entertainment
The original Star Wars trio of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill

George Osborne confirms Star Wars 8 will film at Pinewood Studios in time for 4 May

film

Arts and Entertainment
Haunted looks: Matthew Macfadyen and Timothy Spall star in ‘The Enfield Haunting’

North London meets The Exorcist in eerie suburban drama

TV

Arts and Entertainment

Filming to begin on two new series due to be aired on Dave from next year

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington plays MI5 agent Will Holloway in Spooks: The Greater Good

'You can't count on anyone making it out alive'film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
    Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

    The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

    A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    Welcome to the world of Megagames

    300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
    'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

    Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

    Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

    Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

    The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
    Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

    Vince Cable exclusive interview

    Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
    Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

    Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

    Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
    Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

    It's time for my close-up

    Meet the man who films great whites for a living
    Increasing numbers of homeless people in America keep their mobile phones on the streets

    Homeless people keep mobile phones

    A homeless person with a smartphone is a common sight in the US. And that's creating a network where the 'hobo' community can share information - and fight stigma - like never before