You wouldn’t notice Michel Gondry unless you were looking for him. The 51-year-old French director of such fantastical, visually mesmerizing movies as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind is thin, cool, and reserved, though his boyish blue eyes contain a mischievous glimmer. When he speaks about the subjects that impassion him — including his latest film, Mood Indigo, which premiered in the US in limited release this past weekend — he exudes infectious energy.
As it happens, Mood Indigo is perhaps Gondry’s most technologically intricate movie, stuffed with stop-motion effects and elaborate Rube Goldberg-style machines. Based on a seminal 1947 French novel L'Écume des jours (Froth on the Daydream, adapted as Foam on the Daze in the US), the film is a dreamy romantic comedy that follows a wealthy French dilettante, Colin (Romain Duris), as he woos a woman, Chloe (Audrey Tautou), who falls ill with a peculiar sickness: a flower growing inside her chest. I sat down with Gondry in New York to ask ask him about the film, his upcoming projects, and his relationship with technology old and new. Mild spoilers follow.
I watched Mood Indigo through a Vimeo link that your representatives sent me. That’s been a debate that’s been going on for a few years now: are you able to enjoy a film as much on the small screen? David Lynch famously hates the idea.
The iPhone seems to be very small. Vimeo is a bit bigger. Sometimes you see people watching movies in the subway, and they cut you off from the real world a little too much. People used to do that in the ’80s with the Walkman. But, even back then, if you put music in your ears and you watched reality, you’re like in a movie, but still it’s a movie based on reality. But I’m sure what David Lynch is upset about is the size of screen. As small as it is, [the screen] captures all your focus and attention. It’s true that it’s more engaging, it’s more magical, to go in a theater and watch it. And let’s say you go with your girlfriend and best friend, or boyfriend, then you can go and have a drink and talk about it. And it makes something special out of it. It’s a different experience.
There’s lots of interesting vintage technology [in Mood Indigo]: the room with the typewriters, the search engine, the car with the GPS, even vinyl. There was lots of vinyl. And there was lots of interesting vintage technology fused with the modern — such as the GPS — so I was curious how you thought about that, merging old and new.
I saw it as a game. Sometimes there’s the roots of this technology we have now in the past. Like in France, before we had the computer we had this machine, it’s called the Minitel, in the ’80s, that was unique for France. It looked exactly like a computer now. You could just get the address and phone number of things. And some advertising, but it was very crude. That was the machine we used to do the search machine [in Mood Indigo]. And it’s also like a periscope from a submarine. All this technology mixed together [was] really fun for me to build.
And I think it’s quite [like] what you have in real life. Some things are really very close to how they were built. Like the car, you still have four wheels, and four seats. And then there’s other stuff, like the phone, that’s completely different over time. And when you watch a movie, depending on the time of the movie, you either see what you would see in the ’50s — the girl turning the rotary phone, or in the ’70s — the people going in the phone booth, then in the late ’80s — people having the huge cellphone. And now there is the iPhone. And all that changed constantly. And it’s funny to play with that in cinema.
Colin (Romain Duris) and Chloe (Audrey Tautou) take a ride in a cloud car in 'Mood Indigo' by Michel Gondry. (Drafthouse Films)
Do you feel a sense of nostalgia? Like with the internet you can go back and see, like we did with an earlier article at The Verge, all the previous Walkmans. And you could do that, sure, in a newspaper. But it’s much easier now. You can see everything from the past.
Yeah, you have a huge library between your hands. It’s true. Like for my next movie, I wanted to have the grandfather of the main character inventing the first digital recorder. So I just went to the internet and wrote "first digital recorder." And I find it in 10 seconds. The first one was Japanese in the late ‘60s. And then the second was in ‘72 by an American guy. So I took this one and I sent a picture to my art director. And now it’s going to be in the movie.
Do you feel like, in your movies, there’s this desire to preserve the old technology? In Be Kind Rewind, very literally, you don’t want to see the old VHS store go away. I used to work at a VHS store, and I would carry a huge stack of 40 up to my chin. And there’s something nice about that. And I actually preferred the VHS because it was more durable.
You know what’s funny is for my next movie, I’m going to watch all my dailies [the raw footage cut each day during filming] on VHS. I drove everybody crazy. For my first movie, I watched all my dailies with this system. And it’s the only way you can watch every single moment of the film. Because when you’re on DVD, you skip, you skip.
Right, it goes forward too many frames.
And even on digital, for how hard they try, it’s never the same. And then you go and skip to the next shot and the next shot. And you never have enough patience to scroll through it. Only VHS gave me this feeling of watching every frame. So every shot will completed on VHS, and I’m going to watch them. And I have this little printer...and I use the timecode to create what I like. So it’s not nostalgia to me. It’s like, when things get more advanced, the advancement is made to increase the sales. It’s not meant to improve the use. Like when the VHS recorder came along, you could program it. And I don’t know anyone that ever programmed a recording. You would record it when you were there.
And it’s the same now with applications. I guess now, many people who have smartphones use applications. But what I mean is, it doesn’t get better for the user. Like the sound of the phone now, for how many gadgets they have, the phone is still as shitty. And you don’t understand a person’s voice any better than you did 40 years ago. So it doesn’t improve. It’s just about [sales and marketing]. So that’s not being nostalgic, it’s just about finding the best equipment. And sometimes in the beginning, they create the best object, because they think that’s why they’re going to sell it better. And then they realize no, it’s this sort of detail that we can use to seduce the buyer.
Clearly you have a lot of stop-motion animation and interesting visual effects in your movies. And we’re living in a world where today you look at something like Transformers and it’s all CGI. What’s the value to you in continuing to make things that are handmade or stop-motion animation?
I would like to do CGI if it’s something that’s really completely different. I don’t know if you’ve seen this artist called Cyriak. He does this crazy video with this car that multiplies or a car that jumps around, and he does everything with After-Effects, home-computer style. And it’s just genius. If I could do like what I did with the video for the Rolling Stones, which was 18 years ago, it was completely CGI and morphing and digital. But we created some effects that you couldn’t see anywhere else. And ultimately, you have to push the machine to its limit, or go beyond the machine. If you just use the CGI to reproduce something you could do otherwise, or it's to fill up the background of a car just because an actor is too lazy to drive a car...that’s being lazy, and that doesn’t bring anything magical to the movie. That’s why it’s a way to control or postpone the decision. You stick your camera at a moment and then later you decide how it’s going to look. And I like to make the decision before. There must be some nostalgia, because I grew up watching those films with [practical] effects.
In Mood Indigo and a lot of your movies, the environment tends to be very animated. It’s almost magical. It’s almost like Fantasia. What inspires you to make the world look like that?
Yeah, when you wake up and hear your alarm clock, you want to destroy it. And when something is obnoxious you want to break it. When you watch Tom & Jerry, they destroy each other in each scene. But in the next scene, they’re put back together. So I think it comes from that, and from many other things. When your cellphone doesn’t work, you feel it’s doing it on purpose to piss you off. So you imagine it has a conscience. You just express that, knowing it’s not how it really works. It’s your connection to the world. And you put your anger into what you see around you. That’s why the apartment [in Mood Indigo] shrinks and gets more and more opaque and dirty and organic as life gets worse and worse. I think it’s how you feel with things. You receive bad news and you see the sky blacken. It’s how you feel.
Michel Gondry stands in a field during the production of 'Mood Indigo.' (Drafthouse Films)
You’ve gone from music videos to big-budget movies. Does [production size] matter when you’re making a movie?
It’s more about the story. The next one is going to be quite small, but the story could be really touching and popular, I hope. I like to alternate. The Mood Indigo, even though it’s not a huge project, for a French production it was quite big and the team was quite big. So I wanted to go to something that was just two guys talking to each other and having fun, and just focusing on them. And then later on, I’ll see what I do. But at this moment, I don’t want to do anything visual. It’s just going to be about two kids.
Do you have a title for the next project?
It’s called Microbe et Gasoil. That’s two nicknames. Because one is sort of dirty and smells like gas and petrol. And the other one is tiny, so they call him "Microbe." We’re going to shoot it in three weeks, and it’s going to be probably finished in a little bit less than a year.
The last thing I wanted to ask you — in terms of the things you watch and see, do you watch a lot on the internet? Because there are a lot of interesting things online that people who enjoy your style might enjoy as well. Do you like animated GIFs?
I’m not sure. And there’s Vines. Maybe I did. People send me stuff. I read, I enjoy watching stuff.
A lot of people have used Vine to create stop-motion.
See, I don’t have an iPhone, so I really go to YouTube and Vimeo on the net. So I miss out on a lot of things. But I can’t use an iPhone, because I can’t work out the touchscreen.