Younger brother of Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman who went to France in the mid-1920s and shot all of Jean Vigo's films, among others. In the US after WWII, he photographed a numbe...
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
We first encountered the bounties of Michel Gondry's imagination in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, his second collaboration with Charlie Kaufman (after Human Nature) that earned both parties new legions of admirers. Gondry's latest film, Mood Indigo, is perhaps his most visually imaginative, bringing objects and ideas to life in a sweet, simple, sad love story about a French dreamer and his sick wife. In a conversation about the new movie, Gondry taps into the tenets of his mind, discusses bringing his visions to life, and even reconsiders the impeccable message that made Eternal Sunshine such a winning film a decade back.
When developing the more surreal elements of the film, is there a certain direction you go in visually? Were there margins you set for your aesthetic style, or do you just let your imagination run wild?
Michel Gondry: There is stuff that comes back, it’s funny that you mention the insects. I did something very close to that with the shaver in The Science of Sleep. And I was probably more or less consciously influenced by Boris Vian from a young age. It’s … just making you believe that objects can be alive, that there is not a strong difference between things [and people]. In the imaginary world, the table has four legs; I could put shoes on the legs of this table, and it is something different. So it’s how I imagine things. It’s sort of functional, it’s not really an artistic way of looking at things. So it might be messy at the end, but it doesn’t come from trying to be a type of image.
Is that just sort of how you live your day-to-day life, being an imaginative person and writer, just noticing things like that?
MG: Yeah. Things remind me of something else… or sometimes, even when you see something far in the distance, you don’t really understand what it is. So your brain tries to find an explanation. It can be the shape of a cow, or a shop window, or anything. But your brain tries to tell you what it is. In a way, my imagination takes from that. It’s like when you try to remember a dream, but it’s all messy. Sometimes you try to make sense, to make a story out of it, but it’s really hard. Your feeling tells you [that] you’ve been through a very complex and traumatic story, but then if you look at the detail, the rest of it makes no sense. I try to put that in order so it becomes something more explainable. So I do that with everything I touch.
Mood Indigo has a particularly unusual structure — the conflict comes to life very late in the film. And you can say the same for some of your other movies. Can you talk about how diverting from the norm helps you tell the stories you want to tell?
MG: I don’t know, exactly, the format… so that’s by ignorance, I guess. Some people say that there are only seven types of stories you can tell. That’s quite depressing! … In the movies, they don’t tell you exactly what kind of story it is. You decide it yourself. It’s just a story when it finishes. It’s my technique. so I don’t have the preconceived idea. Some people, maybe, say that I don’t know how to tell a story. Maybe we just on what the story is.
Drafthouse Films via Everett Collection
We got to spend a lot of time in the “happy chapter” in Mood Indigo, before the sadness sets in. Did you particularly want to immerse your viewers in this dreamlike state before we hit the hard stuff?
MG: In the French version, we had much more time on the dark side. Incidentally, when we tried to distribute in … some other countries in which Sarte’s part is a little lighter. In the first version it was much heavier. And some people felt, myself included, that it was a bit long. So I felt what I wanted, for sure – I didn’t think of balance – I wanted to start as ripe, full, inventive. A little bit shallow at the beginning to show the contrast with the really, really somber, emotional [ending]. So I didn’t see it in terms of balance, but in terms of cooperation.
Speaking of the mood, I wanted to hear you talk about the very interesting use of color in this movie.
MG: That was the first visual impression I had when I read the book. I discovered the book a long time ago, way before I ever thought I would become a film director. And it stuck with me. I though, if ever I was asked to do this adaptation I would do it this way: start in color, finish in black and white.
I feel like it’s very gradual.
MG: Yeah, it starts in the middle, when Colin is looking for a job. At this point, we lose 10 percent of the color, and then the next part is 20 percent, 30 percent, 50 percent, and so on, until it’s completely black and white … We wanted to [shoot the film] in winter, and we shot in black and white. Even though it was digital, we set the camera so it was black and white. So we could not come back and change our minds. I didn’t want to give any possibility to anyone to influence me to change that.
And did you think that they would be able to?
MG: I had one bad experience on a video, where I was supposed to do it in black and white. We shot it in color for blue screen purposes, and then the producer convinced me to keep it in color. To this day I regret it. Stick to your plan!
You mentioned earlier that you had ideas for this book when you read it many years ago. Which ideas were in your head back when you first read the book, and which ones came to you as you were making the movie?
MG: I had a list of numerations in the book which I sometimes wrote down, and I wanted to present the film a little bit like a personal flashback of my first impression reading the book. I remember the ice-skating rink, the stretching guy, all the chaos … I had many impressions that stuck with me from the beginning.
Was there anything that came about during filmmaking that wasn’t among your original impressions?
MG: The characters were very transparent in the book. We needed these actors, like Romain Duris, who are emotional. In the book they are very transparent. We needed to correspond to how young people are hanging out in Paris. I couldn’t think of a French young actor who I would love to work with. So that’s why I picked these [actors].
Focus Features via Everett Collection
Like you said, the characters in this story are transparent, and in the movie can get a little wacky. Can you talk about finding the humanity and gravity in characters, and in a world, like this?
MG: A lot of [the writing process] gets in the way of directing the actor or finding right tone or finding the emotional thread. So I managed somehow, more or less, to forget all the technique. To really stick with the actors. That’s one of the most important things to do.
Was there anything specific that these actors brought to the film?
MG: Yeah. Romain did. Audrey [Tautou] had this idea that she would be – she would say “very, very, very, very!” … that sort of style. Just a detail like that. Aïssa Maïga, who played Alise, she had this idea that she had a secret in her mind: a love affair with Colin. And people add their own agenda, and their little secret carried that way enriched the character.
Sure. Like Omar Sy’s character and the money. There’s a lot of interesting side stories going on.
MG: Yeah, the money was a big issue, and it was even bigger in the book. The fact that it keeps shrinking, he had to count his money, and everything. So I sort of thought I’d diminish that in the adaptation. I thought it was a bit reductive.
You just felt like it was a little unnecessary?
MG: Yeah. Reading the book, it can really digress … [in the film it felt] a little more trivial. In fact, maybe now the money issue was it was trivial to push it so far. It was too trivial to be pushed that far.
I wanted to talk to you about the ending. The ending of the movie reminded me of the ending of your other film, Eternal Sunshine. Even if something ends sadly, it’s better to experience it. Since it can be seen as the theme to two of your movies, can you talk about what this message means to you?
MG: The idea is that if you just erase everything, then it’s like lazy eyes, it’s less intense. Every person might say there’s one specific memory that ruined all your life, maybe you should erase it. I mean, in movies it’s different. You can really enjoy a movie that’s really sad. Because it resonates with a part of your life that’s not necessarily happy. But we cry in movies… it’s one of their purposes.
You can catch Mood Indigo in theaters now!
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A decade-long gap between sequels could leave a franchise stale but in the case of Men in Black 3 it's the launch pad for an unexpectedly great blockbuster. The kooky antics of Agent J (Will Smith) and Agent K (Tommy Lee Jones) don't stray far from their 1997 and 2002 adventures but without a bombardment of follow-ups to keep the series in mind the wonderfully weird sensibilities of Men in Black feel fresh Smith's natural charisma once again on full display. Barry Sonnenfeld returns for the threequel another space alien romp with a time travel twist — which turns out to be Pandora's Box for the director's deranged imagination.
As time passed in the real world so did it for the timeline in the world of Men in Black. Picking up ten years after MIB 2 J and K are continuing to protect the Earth from alien threats and enforce the law on those who live incognito. While dealing with their own personal issues — K is at his all-time crabbiest for seemingly no reason — the suited duo encounter an old enemy Boris the Animal (Jemaine Clement) a prickly assassin seeking revenge on K who blew his arm off back in the '60s. Their street fight is more of a warning; Boris' real plan is to head back in time to save his arm and kill off K. He's successful prompting J to take his own leap through the time-space continuum — and team up with a younger K (Josh Brolin) to put an end to Boris plans for world domination.
Men in Black 3 is the Will Smith show. Splitting his time between the brick personalities of Jones and Brolin's K Smith struts his stuff with all the fast-talking comedic style that made him a star in yesteryears. In present day he's still the laid back normal guy in a world of oddities — J raises an eyebrow as new head honcho O (Emma Thompson) delivers a eulogy in a screeching alien tongue but coming up with real world explanations for flying saucer crashes comes a little easier. But back in 1969 he's an even bigger fish out water. Surprisingly director Barry Sonnenfeld and writer Etan Cohen dabble in the inherent issues that would spring up if a black gentlemen decked out in a slick suit paraded around New York in the late '60s. A star of Smith's caliber may stray away from that type of racy humor but the hook of Men in Black 3 is the actor's readiness for anything. He turns J's jokey anachronisms into genuine laughs and doesn't mind letting the special effect artists stretch him into an unrecognizable Twizzler for the movie's epic time jump sequence.
Unlike other summer blockbusters Men in Black 3 is light on the action Sonnenfeld utilizing his effects budget and dazzling creature work (by the legendary Rick Baker) to push the comedy forward. J's fight with an oversized extraterrestrial fish won't keep you on the edge of your seat but his slapstick escape and the marine animal's eventual demise are genuinely amusing. Sonnenfeld carries over the twisted sensibilities he displayed in small screen work like Pushing Daisies favoring bizarre banter and elaborating on the kookiness of the alien underworld than battle scenes. MIB3's chase scene is passable but the movie in its prime when Smith is sparring with Brolin and newcomer Michael Stuhlbarg who steals the show as a being capable of seeing the future. His twitchy character keeps Smith and the audience on their toes.
Men in Black 3 digs up nostalgia I wasn't aware I had. Smith's the golden boy of summer and even with modern ingenuity keeping it fresh — Sonnenfeld uses the mandatory 3D to full and fun effect — there's an element to the film that feels plucked from another era. The movie is economical and slight with plenty of lapses in logic that will provoke head scratching on the walk out of the theater but it's also perfectly executed. After ten years of cinematic neutralizing the folks behind Men in Black haven't forgotten what made the first movie work so well. After al these years Smith continues to make the goofy plot wild spectacle and crazed alien antics look good.
Younger brother of Soviet filmmakers Dziga Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman who went to France in the mid-1920s and shot all of Jean Vigo's films, among others. In the US after WWII, he photographed a number of shorts and documentaries before being hired as cinematographer on Elia Kazan's "On The Waterfront" (1954).<p> For the next fifteen years Kaufman remained independent from Hollywood and worked almost exclusively with left-oriented directors on a number of outstanding films shot in New York. He worked on seven Sidney Lumet features including "The Pawnbroker" (1965), a strikingly photographed black-and-white journey through the mind of a concentration camp survivor living in Harlem.