Arguably the western world’s leading surrealistic feature filmmaker, director Michel Gondry has infused his movies with the same playful experimentalism he’s brought to groundbreaking music videos for Bjork and The White Stripes. From The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, Gondry’s films have explored the unending dance of human creativity and passion in the face of obstacles both real and imagined. His latest film, Mood Indigo, marks a kind of full circle, returning Gondry to one of his early inspirations as he adapts French author Boris Vian’s 1947 romantic fantasy novel Froth on the Daydream (published in America as Foam of the Daze).
The film stars Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou (pictured above) as Colin and Chloe, two lovers making their way through the most inventive dreamscape Gondry has ever devised, only to find their lives darkened by unforeseen, possibly unalterable circumstances. We spoke with Gondry last week about the influence of surrealism on Mood Indigo, his return to filmmaking in France, and his next film, which will again star Tautou.
Nerdist: One could argue that Mood Indigo is both your most fanciful film and your darkest.
Michel Gondry: Yes, it starts with something very light and fun and then – it’s true – it doesn’t shy away from something dark at the end. That was something that was very important to me.
N: How did you come to adapt Froth on the Daydream?
N: Well, it’s a book I read when I was in my late teens and I was starting to grow as an artist. So it was very influential to me. It was one of the books I read that made me want to become an artist, because it makes you feel a lot of freedom and creativity, and it sort of opened my mind to this type of creativity.
N: Was it important to make the film in France since it’s based on a French novel?
MG: Yeah, well, more importantly I think [because] it’s from a French writer. So I wanted to make it in France with French actors. Even though there are a lot of elements from America, like jazz music and some references to Hollywood actors and cartoons, I think it’s very important that it was done in France and in French.
N: How would the production have differed in America?
MG: Maybe in America it would have been harder to pull it off. I would have had to make it for half of the money in America, but I would have needed more money at the same time.
N: The film’s experimental quality and surrealism harkens back to your early music video work. Can you talk about the film’s lineage and the inspiration for its particular type of surrealism?
MG: Well, I think Boris Vian was not exactly a surrealist. But he was influenced by French art. Because his books and stories are very romantic. Some are much darker. But I think there is definitely a very strong surrealistic influence in it. It’s something that really sticks to me, because when I discovered surrealism, when I was young, I thought it was the most important creative movement of the twentieth century. It really freed many forms of art and made people use their subconscious, or whatever’s going on inside their minds, without questioning or analyzing it. Just [taking it] for what it is. One of the later surrealists is Tex Avery, a filmmaker who made cartoons in the ’40s and ’50s. He played with absurdity, and he was a huge influence on me. And Boris Vian was a huge influence on me. So when it was time to direct this movie, I was coming with my ideas influenced by his writing.
N: Even though the film is – like many of your movies – made in the twenty-first century, it doesn’t have an overly glossy aesthetic. You continue to take the homemade, DIY approach that you’ve long taken with your work. Does this approach become more important to you as more and more films use CGI? Do you find CGI lends a quality to films that you try to reject with your work?
MG: Because the quality of CGI visuals is moving so fast, what was very of the age of the technology is, five years later, very obsolete. As for things you make where you don’t try to hide how it’s made, they don’t age. I’ve always liked when you can see the process of creation within the final product.
N: You’ve cast yourself in this film in the role of a medical doctor…
MG: I was a medical doctor for twenty years before I was a director… No, I’m just kidding. [Laughs] I tried different actors I really liked and they were not available, so I was upset and somebody said, “Oh, you should do it yourself.” It was funny, because being the doctor of my actors was like being the director. But it was fun to do, because it was such a small part. I made the doctor much more creepy than he is in the book.
N: In this film, you’re working with Audrey Tautou, who’s known for bringing an offbeat quality to numerous film roles. Do the two of you share a similar sensibility to filmmaking?
MG: Yes, definitely. She loves the craft and she was very intrigued by the way things were made. She actually drew and animated the last animation sequence, the one that her character has been drawing [throughout] the whole film. Her acting is just great, she gives one hundred percent. She’s always natural. We really liked working with each other. I give direction but I need actors who come with their own ideas, and I give them some freedom. She really appreciated that. Even though she’s tiny and fragile she has something in her face that reminds me of the great, very romantic American actresses. I was very excited to be working with her. She’s going to be in my next film.
N: What can you tell us about that film?
MG: It’s a sort of coming-of-age movie with two teenagers who are outcasts, and you see them sort of struggling with the rest of the class at school. They eventually build a car, and they go and cross France with their special car that they’ve built. But they’ve built the car in the shape of a house so the cops cannot arrest them. They are not of an age to drive, so when the cops drive by, they stop the car and it looks like a house. [Laughs.] So they have many funny adventures. It’s quite imaginative, but it’s gonna be shot in a very realistic manner.
N: Will that film have an original script?
MG: Yeah, I just wrote it.
N: Going back to Mood Indigo… One of its recurring images is that of many typists typing on machines passing by on conveyor belts. The image opens and closes the film. What does it represent to you?
MG: Well, this was not in the book. But I wanted to acknowledge the idea that I was taking a very prominent book… And there was some irony in the fact that the writer, Boris Vian, never had much success, hardly sold any books. And now that he’s dead – he passed away – this book has become the most famous French book. So there’s something ironic that I wanted to signify. That’s why the character of Colin is forced to work in this factory when he’s looking for jobs to save his wife. There is something very fatalistic about the way the story unfolds. And once it goes wrong there is no hope of getting better. In fact, reading a book, the ending exists already, you can’t change it. So it was a representation of this.
N: You were talking about surrealism earlier. The movement began in Europe, but it’s been adopted by some American artists and filmmakers. Yet when American filmmakers employ surrealism, it often results — as in the case of David Lynch for example — in very violent imagery. Whereas France, and Europe in general, seems to prefer a more fanciful approach.
MG: Maybe there is a difference but there is some crossover. Like Bunuel, he was in France and in [North] America. And to me he was one of the true surrealists, his movies were like dreams. He may be darker than I am or some of the other surrealists. It’s a question of time as well. I think now it’s more violent in movies. But if you look at Un Chien Andalou, by Bunuel and Dali, it’s pretty horrible. The first image is this eye being sliced by a razor. So it was pretty violent. I don’t know. I think surrealism is one of the most important art movements of the twentieth century, way more important than nouvelle vague in my opinion. Because it reached out to many countries at once and many forms of art. It was not limited to some critics who became directors. It was a real rethinking of art. In my opinion, it had a much greater impact than a lot of cultural movements. So I don’t think so much of the difference between the two. There is always a forward and backward with the two countries, and friendship that existed between artists in the two countries.
N: You’ve always displayed a willingness to experiment in your work. But since the film industry, at least in America, is ever more concerned with global box office, it becomes more resistant to experimentation; so it sometimes seems that we see fewer features by filmmakers like Terry Gilliam and Jeunet than we used to. Do you see any noteworthy young filmmakers today who experiment in their feature films?
MG: Well, Quentin Dupieux, for example. His films are more and more crazy. He does exactly what he wants. So he’s an example of somebody who does movies exactly the way he wants to see them. He has no fear. They come and go sometimes. I was just at the Berlin Film Festival and we gave the Golden Bear to this movie called Black Coal and Thin Ice. It’s a Chinese movie, and it’s amazing. It’s very dreamy and dark. And there is Wong Kar-wai, who does very dreamy movies as well. There is room for every type of movie. I think it’s important that directors renew themselves so they don’t become a caricature, but I’m surprised all the time.
N: Thank you very much, sir.
MG: Thank you. Thanks a lot.
Michel Gondry’s latest film Mood Indigo premieres Friday, July 18th.