By Matthew Sorrento.
Though obviously concerned with the dream life, Michel Gondry also focuses on the desires we have while awake. As an artist he aims to deliver dreamlike visions in relatable movie scenes. The variety of his surreal features – Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2003), The Science of Sleep (2006), Mood Indigo (2013), and parts of his misfire feature debut, Human Nature (2001) – reveals his unwillingness to fall back on the traps of surrealist imagery, i.e. those “weird pictures and fancy colors,” as he described the style in a recent telephone interview. His new feature, Microbe & Gasoline, a more personal, semi-autobiographical project, is his most realistic narrative film to date, even if it depicts the fanciful desires of its two young characters, how their dreams fuel their day-to-day.
In the interview transcribed below Gondry discusses the importance of his own dream life in his work as a screenwriter/director, while suggesting that his projects based on another writer’s script, like Charlie Kaufman’s for Eternal Sunshine, don’t feel quite his own. Gondry also discusses writing as the dominant stage of creation for him (while shooting is more of an execution of his ideas), along with his pleasure for directing fresh talent.
To me, you seem like an artist’s artist. Are you open to working in other mediums besides film?
I’ve tried several times to work in TV, but I haven’t found any projects that inspired me. I prefer to stay in movies.
You are involved in visual art, as well, correct?
Yes, I do portraits. For several years I did a project where people would send me their pictures and I would do a color ink drawing of their faces and send them back. I ended up doing 1600 portraits like that. This is how (my book) 1000 Portraits developed. But it is a side project, really.
With Microbe & Gasoline, I see that you are going for realism unlike your earlier narrative projects. Would you say your new film is more personal for you, since it’s more realistic?
Yes (Microbe & Gasoline) is very personal. But Science of Sleep was also personal. It really captured an issue that I had at the time, how I wanted to reflect daily dreams as part of life. My new one is also very personal – it’s on an issue that was pressing for me recently: the stories of what I experienced as an adolescent.
Most viewers think of you as a surrealist, so I was encouraged to think about the dream worlds of your two title characters – the boys who meet, build their own car, and journey together – beyond their “waking life.” Was this context important to you? When first seeing the work of Dali, Freud said that he had to think about what the conscious state of the person having these “dreams” would be, while his analysis usually involves analyzing the daily life to get to the dreams.
Well, first of all, I don’t like Freud. (Laughs) The first part of the film is really close to reality, to me, when the boys meet, get bullied, want to escape. The second part, when they begin building the car for the trip and then travel, really relates to dreams that I had while I was writing the first part. So, they must be connected to the experience I had when I first began writing and remembering during the beginning of the story. I included dreams I have had many times, like the airplanes going backwards, and new dreams I had while writing. So really, they are all my dreams, connected to me remembering my past.
Would you say that films about personal journeys are most important to you?
Yes, very important. As directors, we have to be very careful about using personal material and not making caricatures of our lives. But, in general, it’s always interesting to make our personal lives into journeys for others to see.
How important is your cinematographer in making your dreamlike visualizations?
In general, we tend to think of dreams as weird pictures and fancy colors. But in truth, we don’t dream like that. Really, dreams are only weird in the content, but they look really normal. That’s why it’s scary in a way! You dream about something really absurd, but it’s all in the aspect of reality. That’s really how I want to show dreams, as honest and personal.
I’m also curious about all the memorable details in your films, something like the smiley-face crackers at the start. Do these details all come from the writing stage, where they are drawn from dreams or memory, or do you think of them while shooting and then add them?
Most of those little things are drawn from memory while I wrote the script (of Microbe & Gasoline) – all based on memory, though perhaps also from my dreams as an adolescent. So they all came out when I wrote, and all details were there in the script.
Do you enjoy working with younger actors?
Yes, it’s great – they are excellent because they don’t have much experience. They can just be themselves. You have to spend a lot of time to cast (young roles for) the film right, but then, when you find the right actors, they are easy to direct. They listen to you, and they don’t get upset, actually. They have no ego, and really, I wish it could always be like that! (Laughs)
I guess that rehearsal was really important for them.
Yes, that was important, but they knew their lines really well from the first day. What was really good about rehearsal was that we could work with them to get the material so it would sound true when they would speak it on camera – really, it was about them getting relaxed with the material.
Did anything unexpected happen when shooting that ended up being really good for the film?
Yes, I was expecting more of a shy and subdued performance from Ange Dargent (who plays Gondry’s surrogate, Daniel Guéret/”Microbe”), and sort of meek. But he added a lot more energy. So it was really a surprising performance for me. Even though (his character) is bullied, he still has a strong personality. And what’s funny is that in my memory, I remember myself being very timid. But when I watch home movies of myself, and talk to friends I had back then, they say that I was not shy at all! I had a lot of energy. So in the way (Dargent) approached the character, it became closer to me (than I expected it would). And that was a great surprise.
The motif of vehicles in the film, the car, the motorcycle – would you say that this element reflects just their desire for escape? How about their yearning for maturity?
Well, there is a sense of escape, for sure. And with the car they build, when they drive and ride, it is all them – they are in control of their destiny, for a short amount of time, not having to ask for anything from anyone.
Matthew Sorrento is Interview/Book Review Editor of Film International. He teaches film and media studies at Rutgers University in Camden, New Jersey, USA. His recent publications include ‘Documenting Crime: Genre, Verity, and Filmmaker as Avenger’, in Framing Law and Crime (edited by Caroline Joan “Kay” S. Picart, Michael Hviid Jacobsen, and Cecil Greek; Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 2016); ‘Alex Cox and the Hybrid Western’, The New Western (edited by Scott F. Stoddart; McFarland, 2016); and ‘The Service Tragicomedy: From Woody Allen to Full Metal Jacket’, A Companion to the War Film (edited by Douglas A. Cunningham and John C. Nelson; Wiley-Blackwell, 2016). Sorrento directs the Reel East Film Festival (reeleastfilm.org).