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Michel Gondry: From ‘Eternal Sunshine’ to ‘The Science of Sleep’

He’s the man behind 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind–and we’re not talking about Jim Carrey or Charlie Kaufman – that would be director Michel Gondry.

It was eight years before Eternal Sunshine that the French-born Gondry was really working on his craft; he started writing his own film based on some of his very disturbing, and at the same time very imaginative dreams. What was born was The Science of Sleep.

The film stars Gael Garcia Bernal as Stephane, a young man who believes his dreams are taking over his real life. He moved from Mexico after his father died, and is now living in Paris, where his mother resides.

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For Gondry getting started on this script was pretty simple: “It’s kind of autobiographical,” the director told Hollywood.com. “My goal was to do a movie with dreams but how they interact and to work with real life. I wanted to see how I could make a movie about my dreams and still be entertaining. There’s a lot of movies about dreams if you just go in a dream and then you come out. Sometimes you’re sleeping in the middle because you need to merge back, to come back to reality before you dive again.”

Gondry uses a lot of special effects in The Science of Sleep; many of them are very simple, but others take dreaming to a whole new level. Unlike most films, Gondry shot the effects prior to shooting the movie. “We shot most of the animation actually eight months before we started principal photography,” he said. “So we went into my countryside house that my auntie sold me a few years ago and we set up a few cameras, two cameras, and two little sets. My cousin is an architect and we used to make our own system when we were kids; he built the toilet paper roll city for three weeks. And then for one week, we set it up in front of the camera and we animated it all. So we already had a month to go before we started to shoot so I could project them and the actors could actually participate by watching them, and they would understand what kind of shot they would be in it.”

Choosing the right cast was essential for Gondry. He almost didn’t go with Gael because of his good looks. “I think he’s very handsome so he would give me a little hard time to really imagine that he would feel this rejection,” he said. “So I have to push him into the most awkward place that he wasn’t initially; but he has this range that goes from being really comical and sometimes even sarcastic to very dramatic and even aggressive and sometimes he even reminds me of Chaplin. There was this moment before he dives through the window and he does something that’s very like Charlie Chaplin which I always loved. The fact that he’s a little smaller like Chaplin gives him this energy to fight back; sometimes the little smaller people get this kick they need to compete with others, it gives them extra energy.”

Gondry brought out his sexual side while writing the role of Stephane. “A lot of times I am aware that I am dreaming and I do experimentation – when I’m not trying to have sex with some ladies, as most men do in their lucid dreams. But when I’m done with that, I keep experimenting.”

And experimenting with big hands is also something he works with, which he finds sexually symbolic. “It represents my penis,” he declared succinctly. “I think I really experienced it when I had this recurring nightmare and I would wake up with the feeling of having huge hands. It’s a representation of our body and our mind; it’s how if you want to move your right arm, you’re going to send an order from this part (gesturing to the left side of his brain) and that corresponds to your right hand and that corresponds to all your nerve endings because on your hands. We have much more nerve endings that on your arm; you have small arm and huge hands, and actually the homunculus has a small penis—and that’s not a topic in the film, so this comes from experience, really…I’ve been to see a psychologist and people like that who ask ‘What does it mean?’ It doesn’t help me for any scene, but it’s just good to feel that it’s not a random feeling; it corresponds to really the configuration, the connection of my brain to my body.”

But don’t think all of his dreams are sexual—some stay mainstream, and he puts some thought into them as well. “I remember a dream when I went into a recording studio and I was changing the quality of the song and really thinking it’s fascinating how my brain is recreating all this information,” he recalled. “I can tweak it and put more treble and bass and make it go faster, so I guess it’s interacting with the fact that I’m a director and I’m kind of directing my dreams.”

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The Science of Sleep is so personal to Gondry, not only because it’s his own concept and the first film he’s written and directed, but because he got so deep into all the characters. “I think there is some depth in the character and there is this, in this specific movie, these two characters are like soul mates for each other,” he said. “They bond with each other on the creative level in a way that nobody else can bond, because they are really soul mates.”

“From the guy’s point of view, it should translate into a physical relationship, and since it doesn’t work out this way, it’s awful for him,” Gondry explained. “And from the girl’s perspective, the fact that it should be translated in a physical way, it’s an affront and it’s hurtful for her because she doesn’t see. It’s the fact that he should be physical would ruin it, and she finds it so precious; for him, the fact that they don’t have sex is disturbing, distressing, and for her, the fact that he would like to go and sleep with her is very stressful. So there are all positive things that add up to something quite negative and in the very end; I think it’s open to anybody to believe that they’ll end up together or not. Initially, I wrote it that they cannot be together but I didn’t want to be this way because I wanted to have her all for myself. I just wanted to have a kind of happy ending as much as there could be in this story.”

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