INTERVIEW: Not Quite Human: Michel Gondry Makes The Leap To Features With "Human Nature"
by Guy V. Cimbalo
(indieWIRE/ 04.11.02) — Among music video directors aspiring to make their first feature film, the competition for a Charlie Kaufman script must be fierce. First Spike Jonze nabs an Academy Award nomination for “Being John Malkovich,” and now Michel Gondry, the director of some of Björk, White Stripes, and Daft Punk‘s best videos, has made a successful leap to the long form with an equally obscure Kaufman invention.
“Human Nature” concerns the age-old complications that arise when man attempts to domesticate the wild kingdom. Tim Robbins is Dr. Nathan Bronfman, an anal-retentive behaviorist and a thirtysomething virgin; he has dedicated himself to teaching table manners to white mice. Bronfman falls for the equally maladjusted Lila Jute (Patricia Arquette), a nature writer cursed with excessive body hair. What starts as an unlikely romance between the two quickly deteriorates, however, when they discover Puff (Rhys Ifans), a feral Tarzan who has been raised as an ape. Bronfman sees in Puff the chance for fame and fortune– in a series of Pygmalion exercises, he determines to mold the perfect gentleman from a mewling beast. Needless to say, none of it goes as planned.
What could have easily descended into an exercise in oddity and left-field plot developments takes on an oddly heartbreaking, completely funny love story in Gondry’s hands. Where Jonze played “Being John Malkovich” completely straight, the artifice flies in “Human Nature.” Gondry uses his visual flair to create a vision unlike any other — “Human Nature” is a familiar world, but clearly not our own. Fine Line releases “Human Nature” on Friday.
indieWIRE: You’ve been doing music videos for a while now. Had you been in the market for script for a long time?
Michel Gondry: Yeah. I read so many scripts — really boring — the worst were the scripts that tried to be quirky: where the writers said, “How can I do something bizarre?” When I read ” Human Nature,” I knew that the brain that wrote these characters is fucked up for good, but in a good way. Not a very boring, normal guy trying to be cool. I like to be surprised when I read, and I liked how the story was evolving. A lot of people were scared and were really pushing me not to do this project, but I really wanted to do it.
iW: In tackling a plot like “Human Nature”‘s, were you worried about controlling the tone?
Gondry: I was worried anyway because it was my first feature film, and I knew the tone was really important — the story can be great, the lighting can be great, but if you don’t connect with the movie, it’s hugely awful. In many ways the tone was my main preoccupation, especially because the script is so indifferent, it’s almost written like a play. And it’s not reality based, but the characters’ motivations are reality based. Their frustration and hope make the characters really believable, contrasted with a story which is unbelievable, like the scientific or the philosophical elements which are completely bullshit. Anyone who takes that as the premise for the movie is completely wrong, because we are not talking about education. It’s about how people are fucked up, and we get more fucked up, like a long chain of screwing. There is no message — the movie’s not about this philosophical conversation. So in a way, maybe this title is misleading.
iW: It struck me that these characters have more of an animal nature than a human one.
Gondry: Most guys you would ask want to fuck. It’s all conditioned. It’s why there are two people on the planet, because no matter what happens the guy will always want to fuck the girl. It’s really basic and stupid but sometimes there is such hypocrisy in movies — everyone is so pretty and they can have any girl they want, and the hard part is deciding which one. And sexuality is romanticized, and ignores the fact that sometimes we are a little grotesque.
iW: But these characters can be so grotesque. Did you feel the need to buffer the audience from them?
Gondry: I didn’t want them to be completely disgusting. I knew that on paper they were a little bit extreme, but especially with Lila, I really didn’t want people to be distanced from her because of her condition. We have to feel the embarrassment of her condition, but also to feel for her. Patricia and I had a long conversation about how to make that happen. Because of her personality as a human being — she’s very warm, vulnerable — she gets people to like her character. That was important to me. And for the same reason I chose Tim Robbins. I mean he actually plays a bad guy, but there is something about his behavior, his physique — he has this real boyish face — that counterbalances the extreme aspects of his character.
iW: Thematically, the film struck me as a kind of stoned version of Mike Leigh’s “Naked.”
Gondry: Charlie talked about “Naked.” It’s a movie that was very important for Charlie, and I saw it later and I could see why.
iW: The science in the film takes on a very human note. There’s almost a Jacques Tati sensibility to all these tools.
Gondry: For example, those big light boxes in the film. They came from my misreading the script, being French. Charlie wrote, “He shows Puff flash cards,” and I know what flash cards are, but when I read the script two years ago, I thought it was something that flashed. It’s silly but I liked the idea too much not to use it. The thing was so stupid visual and flashy. I like the idea of lo-tech and high-tech, it’s futuristic but completely stupid.
iW: Were you going with a “Brazil” kind of flair?
Gondry: But not the Kafka-esque. I think I wanted it to be stupid and over the top in a kind of playful way. I was looking at a lot of scientific documentaries from the fifties.
iW: There are so many genres crushed together in the film. How did you keep the film coherent?
Gondry: There’s a combination of naïveté and realism in the film, between Charlie’s writing and my personality and the actors’ personalities, it all came together without a real label. For instance, I would define myself as being naive and perverse at the same time. And I think that if that is consistent it will make the tone consistent. Visually the film moves between a naturalistic and the very artificial look, but the spirit is always the same.
iW: There’s a kind of childlike perversity to the proceedings. How did you manage to keep things innocent or charming?
Gondry: It is not something that you decide that you want to do. You asked how I chose the script and I think I was drawn because of my personality. Charlie and I are very different. But these combinations were good.
iW: The set pieces are so richly imagined. How did you develop the visual elements in the film?
Gondry: I wanted to produce my first impressions on reading the script. I enjoyed it in the same way you enjoy a book. Like the scene where Puff is trying to resist his sexual attraction and is jumping on the screen, it was written in very few words, very fast. And it immediately reminded me of Robert Crumb, very graphic and over the top and quick as well. When I shot a scene, it was really dictated by the look of the scene, which is why I shot a lot on stages.
iW: How important was it for you to control the visual elements?
Gondry: It was very important. Maybe for my next project I’ll be totally open-minded and go on location and start to shoot. There is a great interview between Jean-Luc Godard and Fritz Lang from the sixties, called “The Dinosaur and the Baby.” Fritz Lang tells Godard that when he has an actor open a door with his right arm, he builds a set with the door near the actor’s right arm. Lang didn’t understand how Godard did it when you don’t build a set. Of course Godard was making films so cheaply, he had to improvise a solution, because he couldn’t build a set. I really like both those points of view, but for “Human Nature,” I went with the Fritz Lang approach. I mean I’m not saying I’m Fritz Lang, but I envisioned these scenes really clearly in my mind.
iW: Did you envision “Human Nature” as a slapstick film?
Gondry: Since I was a kid, I’ve always loved Chaplin films, Laurel and Hardy, Jacques Tati. Especially Tati. My message is different, but I like the ridiculousness of something that’s fancy and modern but completely un-functionable. The slapstick was something I didn’t want to avoid. I know some people were worried about the graphic-ness of the comedy when it’s broad. It’s like being naked, going out there and having to be funny, and it can be grotesque at times, but I think as long as you have something else to say then it’s fine. I like the idea of this guy filling a whole room just to show mice what fork to use. Or to teach Puff a simple sentence, “Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” the entire room is filled up with these signs. It’s so stupid, when I think of it, it makes me laugh. When I work with Björk, we use “stupid” as a quality. Sometimes when something is not stupid enough, I toss it away until I can find a more stupid idea.
For a related story about “Human Nature,” when it was in production, please visit http://www.indiewire.com/film/biz/biz_01Cannes_010518_Gond.html