The prospect of holding ones weight conversationally with one of the world’s most prominent thinkers is daunting enough, but in sitting down with cognitive scientist and activist Noam Chomsky for the animated documentary “Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?,” director Michel Gondry chooses a personal path through the intellectual distance. Illustrating Chomsky’s ideas on linguistics and his childhood memories via Gondry’s hand-drawn 16mm animation, the film is at once dense and incredibly playful, packed with the “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” director’s trademark visuals and Chomsky’s logical clarity whether explaining the emergence of language or simply what makes him happy. We sat down recently with Gondry to discuss the film, his decision to cut down his latest effort “Mood Indigo,” and why Roman Polanski shoots Paris better than any French director—but first Gondry described how his path crossed that of Chomsky in the first place.
What brought you to this project in the first place?
I had a relationship with MIT’s Media Lab through this woman Michele Oshima, and was invited to be artist-in-residence. I was meeting a lot of people—students, teachers—and there were many fields that interested me in science, ones between art and science, which is really what I’m interested in. One day I realized he was teaching there, and I asked to have a meeting with him. He just takes meetings pretty easily; generally in the beginning you meet him for 20 minutes, and if it goes well you can see him again, and so I met him maybe five, six times before I suggested the idea.
At first I was a little shy and Michelle pushed me, but I had a video extract from [“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party“] and also an abstract animation piece, so I showed them both to Noam Chomsky and asked him if he would be interested in doing some interviews that could be illustrated with this type of animation. He said okay, so we set up a few days for interviews and we met two times with three or four months in-between so I could show him the work I had already done. But he’s very easy to approach, especially if you’re coming from a different field than his.
In the interviews and the animation, were you using the same 16mm Bolex camera in this film from your days in Oui Oui [Gondry’s early rock band, for whom he directed his first music videos]?
Yeah, the same kind. When I finished and took the last roll of film out of the camera I was kind of sad. I realized I might not do it again, because it’s a format that…I mean film has been replaced by digital now, and when I started [“Is The Tall Man Man Happy?”] it still made sense. It makes sense now for animation because you can accumulate a lot of data into a film camera; it’s very reliable, but it’s from the past now. It’d be like shooting B&W film—it would be an artistic statement.
You talk with Chomsky about his theory of generative grammar, saying that we all have a basic set of linguistic tools through which to see the world. He also talks in his other works about an innate visual grammar; did speaking with him illuminate any questions of your unique visual perspective?
That’s one of the things that got me interested in meeting with him in the first place. I had questions about the complexity of the world, and how we all have a short time on Earth but it all amounts to something really complicated. Maybe it’s something that replaced my spiritual beliefs which have sort of gone away—to find a reason why we can work together in such an intricate way. And the innate vision of things seems to have a logic behind it. I remember taking a train to go to Paris when I was a kid, and you see all the buildings going by, and the intricacy of the city just on an architectural level. This got me to think, “How it is possible that all these masses of people find ways to work together in such a big city?” When I would talk to Chomsky though and try to explain those feelings I had, it was hard because he’s quite matter of fact. If you talk about things that are a little too vaporous, he doesn’t respond.
I noticed that. When you tried to suggest something that’s not incredibly concrete, he’d try to rein you in.
Yes, and I think I understand that because I know, for instance, when Einstein put out relativity he had all sorts of artists and spiritualists who came to him with written proofs about their beliefs and he really didn’t want to get attached to that. I think this is the same thing. In the end I didn’t make my point about the way we make cities, because when I said that he took it a different way.
You weren’t too familiar with Chomsky’s work, is that right?
Right. It was complicated because his books—that’s one of the reasons that I wanted to do this film, was so I could give more people access to his theory of language. It was hard for me because when he writes in a very scientific way, and my memory is terrible so I forgot what these words mean, so I have to go back to the chapter before and see, “Oh, that means human behavior.” Everything is like that.
So I couldn’t catch up, but when he explained it—especially to me—it simplified it in a way that was still accurate. On the other hand, the fact that I was drawing 24 frames per second is something that he didn’t do, but could respect. So his depth of knowledge was something that I could never equal, but my animation has a form of complexity—I could balance it out and feel not quite so overwhelmed and stupid. And the idea that I could play his sentences and draw frame-by-frame something that could amount to what he says was sort of reassuring. That was one of the concepts of the idea. I would match up the complexity of his speech to the complexity of animation which lets you absorb 24 different images per second.
You showed the film to him?
Yeah, when I was finished, yes. It was the only film he watched about him, because he’s doesn’t watch movies very much. He really liked it, though.
I was wondering, since you’re in the process of adapting Philip K. Dick’s novel “Ubik,” did you try to glean any inspiration from Chomsky with his views on surveillance states and wiretapping?
Well, I think they’re probably both influenced by George Orwell. Chomsky referenced Orwell more than many philosophers, so you could see the parallel, but I think Chomsky is a much more rational person than Philip K. Dick. Chomsky doesn’t take drugs at all, so it’s very different [laughs]. I’m trying to avoid surveillance and that because it’s been done many times in movies; when I think of “Ubik” I try to see other aspects. Of course there is the idea we’re leaking words, but the film is more about all the ways that corporations are making all the decisions that we live by, unfortunately. In “Ubik” there is that—it’s not about states or government, it’s about corporations.
You’re going to attempt to put a personal face on corporations?
I’ll try. Especially when there’s fictional work, which is never as strong or scary as documentary or reality, in movies I rather want to explore more personal things, whether they’re sentimental or memories, experiences—things that I can relate more to, and talk more about.
What was your main relation to “Mood Indigo”?
Well, it’s a novel that’s very prominent in France, and one that every adolescent reads. Me and my son both have, so when I was asked to direct an adaptation that was the main reason.
Since it premiered in France, the film has been cut down for an international release by 36 minutes. Who did that decision come from, and why?
It came mostly from me. I had more time to look into editing, and so I tried a more fluid way to put it together. It was not a process that I wanted to resist.
That’s good to hear, because whenever a film is slimmed down the knee-jerk reaction is to point to the distributor or studio as causing it, like what has happened recently with Bong Joon-ho’s “Snowpiercer.”
Is it true for his case?
It appears that way.
I mean it could be true sometimes, but then you could also find something that you like better. For instance, I like the original version of “Blade Runner” better than the Redux, which was longer and heavier. Sometimes you self-indulge too much in the beginning or after when you have too much freedom, but it depends. For instance, I fought so we could have the shorter version to submit for the French Cesar. They wanted us to put the longer version out on DVD for the voters, but I was more for this new one.
In a case like that, how do you reconfigure the film when you’re cutting it down?
You have some ideas: if you try to cut directly from one point to another and it works well, that generally mean it’s better. I streamlined the film by cutting off the side stories a bit. The book is really talking about four or six characters so I spent less time in this new edit with the side characters.
I was interested in a statement you made recently when you said, Roman Polanski depicts Paris better than any French director. If that’s accurate, why do you think something like “Frantic” achieves that?
“Frantic” was very reflective of Paris, very accurate, but I was thinking more of “The Tenant” which was shot in Paris in ’76, I think. In my memory it reflects Paris very well, but then again I think Polanski was Parisian for a good while.
So you think perhaps an outsider’s perspective lends itself better to capturing it?
It depends, because when I watched “Last Tango in Paris” I didn’t feel that—I felt it’s just the typical Paris that you want to see in a movie. But Polanski, he was talking about the pressure of neighbors and the way they’re people you want to be friendly with, and how the building can make you paranoid. I lived this: I was living in a similar building and it was the same thing, where you feel that you can’t be yourself. So that was very accurate of Paris for me.
It’s interesting as well because for your last few films, you’ve integrated yourself into different communities and captured it fairly well.
When you’re an outsider, you pay more attention because you don’t want to sound or look fake, so in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” I spent a lot of time researching. I didn’t know New York very well, but I spent 4 or 5 months just taking pictures of apartments and figuring out how people were living. When I did “Be Kind Rewind” that was in Passaic, New Jersey where I think Bruce Springsteen grew up. But I really wanted to reflect the reality. Half of the people in that movie are part of the neighborhood, so we had to fight the union and find ways to incorporate them because they weren’t in the union of actors. For ‘Block Party,’ I initially was supposed to shoot in Central Park, and then I said, “No, let’s go to Brooklyn since that’s where most of those musicians come from, and it’s going to be much more authentic.”
It was complicated because the police were freaking out because of the safety and then it paid off. So being an outsider of the African American community I feel very respectful, I don’t want to push for cliché and stereotypes. Like when I did “The We and the I“, when I met all those kids from the Bronx I tried to see what we have in common more than what we makes them different. It’s a good way to avoid stereotypes, and I’m very receptive of their stories and where they live as well so I can represent it accurately. In fact they are pleased with the way it’s represented because you see in the movie that their lives are more difficult than a lot of people, definitely more than me.
“Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?” opens in limited release on November 22nd.