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
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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

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