Michel Gondry is no stranger to experimentation. In the past five years, he has made a big studio adaptation of “The Green Hornet,” a documentary about his aunt called “The Thorn in the Heart,” the real time story of some Queens high schoolers on the bus “The We and the I,” and the fantasy drama “Mood Indigo.” Even so, his latest completed project is unique: Solely consisting of a conversation between the filmmaker and noted linguist Noam Chomsky, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” relies on Gondry’s hand drawn animations and voiceover to explore Chomsky’s rich theories of language. The movie, which closes the DOC NYC festival this week, will be released by IFC Films on Friday. Gondry spoke to Indiewire about his experience with the project and how it compares to both his recent work as well as his earlier music videos.
In the movie, you state a very personal investment in exploring Chomsky’s ideas. But after working on it for so long, did it ever start to feel like a chore?
That’s the challenge with the set of every film. But here, the work itself was completely different because I I had a lot of freedom. And when I started drawing, most of the time I had an idea in mind, but it gets readjusted when I’m drawing. This is something that I can’t really do in a (narrative) feature film, so it was really different for this project.
How much of your relationship with Chomsky is not seen in the film?
Well, I saw him four or five times maybe over two or three years before proposing the idea. A lot of time my ambition was to understand him and to get him to understand me. Sometimes, I would share some ideas and I would try to get him to commend them. My ambition was to go into his mind — it was difficult, as you can see in the film.
Eventually, you screened the film for students at MIT. What, if any, scientific aims did you have?
I was interested in his particular work, of course. I follow it with great interest. But I thought I could express myself more through his scientific work and that was not done before. There was no visual sense to his work — and that was my interest for this film.
Early in the film, you tell Chomsky that you’re intimated by his intellect. Did that change over the course of your conversations?
Not really, because I am still intimidated by him, and I don’t have one percent — or one thousandth — of his knowledge. So I feel overwhelmed, but the truth is that I work in a different field. It’s an advantage: There is no sense of competition and I feel that I can still bring something to his work using animation because there is a complexity in animation. Even though I use a simple style, there is some complexity to it: You have 24 drawings [per second], and you reach another type of depth, but that’s not the equivalent of [the ideas] he’s going to talk about. That is very complex and profound; with illustrations, I can’t always reach this level of complexity, but it’s how I feel I can. It’s not a competition, of course, but it made me feel adequate, at least.
Given how long the animation process took you, how much room did you have to improvise?
Once I had an idea I just had to carry it out — but sometimes, I was not sure where it was going. What I would do — not all the time but most of the time — was I would play a line of his dialogue, pick a segment and play it in a loop to influence the drawings some of the animations. Because they were abstract, it allowed me to illustrate what I was saying. I would not portray that by trying to explain it in a illustrative manner because it was too narrative. The abstraction helped me not to betray what I was saying or what he was saying, because I think I could get it wrong and that would be bad.
About your animation style: You just do use a Bolex camera and draw each frame by hand? No computers at all?
Yeah, like a normal film. It is my own personal way. I don’t want to say modern technology is bad. I don’t want that to be the subject. It’s just that, for me, it’s very practical and it’s true I’m very influenced by or inspired by the work of people like Norman McLaren. I also love Len Lye, a New Zealand animator. The early abstract animators are very important to me. I grew up watching them. They have a very strong connection to sound and image, which sort of inspired me when I started to do music videos. I decided I wanted to make visual music.
This does feel like a return to the aesthetic of your music videos. Now that you’ve made big budget productions, was it rewarding to return to something that you could make entirely on your own?
That is my dream, to use what I learned from music videos in feature films. It seems to be fragmented to think this way, but I think it’s not, because each music video I did had a concept that would run through the music video and I thought [at that time] it could run through a movie as well. It would not be maybe your typical movie and it would not be just visual; it could have words and a story. It’s not easy, but when I worked with Charlie Kaufman, we had sort of a sense of doing that because there was strange imagery in the story. The screenplays that I read don’t much interest studio producers.
You make a playful reference to working on “The Green Hornet” while completing this project. How do you feel about that experience in hindsight?
I don’t have regrets with “Green Hornet, I still find that it was exciting to shoot on the Columbia sound stage. I got to shoot in the studio where Busby Berkeley did his choreography, so it was a dream — and then we blew up the whole set and we cut the car in half and made the cast run through the windows. All that was something that was really exciting to me — ever since I first saw “The Blue Brothers” and those types of early eighties movies, I was very excited to be doing that. So with “Green Hornet,” the reviews were not the best and it was not really matching superhero fan expectations, but if you think of as a big budget 3D movie — it’s still an achievement.
How much of your career did Chomsky know about when you started interviewing him?
None of it. I think I got a lot through his assistant and her son, who were fans of my work. That is a connection that I have with a lot of people that I meet. They have children who loved my videos and films, so I got this connection and she has this influence on him and I think she pushed for me. Chomsky is not a moviegoer — since his wife died, he’s not seen one single movie. So he doesn’t know my movies but he was open to me. And I think he had a good experience.
How did the MIT audience respond?
Well, it was the first time the movie had screened and I had a great reaction. People were laughing their heads off. They were laughing at mathematical jokes; they were really responding to some very abstract ways to do a movie. I felt I might have encountered more resistance from a different audience. At MIT, we couldn’t fit everyone that wanted to see it — because he is an important figure to them, because he’s there — but a lot of them were coming from work and the response was great. But until now it has just screened for people who know my work and I don’t know how it’s going to work in the normal world. It was funny because they really responded. There were lots of comments about my difficulties to understand just the basics of English and not to talk about them. Since then, I added a few short scenes that I didn’t have time to finish before. It was basically the same.
Your movie “Mood Indigo” is reportedly being cut down for its U.S. release…
It’s finished. It’s coming out in the spring.
Do you get to take a vacation now?
Yes, now things are pretty quiet. I finished “Mood Indigo,” I finished with Chomsky; there was still some work but I had to slow down a bit because I have made three movies in the past year.