Over a year after opening their first collaboration “Mood Indigo” in their native France, Audrey Tatou and director Michel Gondry were on hand in New York last week to discuss their visually audacious adaptation of Boris Vian’s popular 1947 novel “Froth on a Daydream.”
Drafthouse Films’ U.S. cut of the film, supervised by editor Tariq Anwar (“The King’s Speech”), runs a whopping 40 minutes shorter than the international one that played in France, but the essence of the story remains unchanged. Like the novel, the film centers on a single and rich young man (Romain Duris), who falls for and eventually marries a beautiful woman (Tautou). Their marital bliss is cut short when a water lily starts to grow in the woman’s right lung, causing her to be bedridden. Things only get bleaker from there.
Tautou sat down with Indiewire to discuss the fantastical romance and was joined mid-way through the interview by Gondry. The film is currently playing in select theaters.
Have you long wanted to work with Michel?
Audrey Tatou (AT): Yes, yes! Because I really love his work and I love his movies. They are always a piece of fantasy and there is always a piece of poetry. They are always unique. I like movies that have strong personalities, and Michel Gondry is so creative that his films are always something special to watch. It’s true that in this movie, [Boris Vian’s cult novel] was the perfect thing to allow him to explore and to raise his creativity to the maximum, because the book is like that. It’s very, very rich in ideas and in imagination.
I couldn’t believe he wanted to pick me. He sent me a little cartoon that he had made for me. He sent me a little short animation movie. I didn’t know he was preparing a movie so I didn’t really understand what he was asking me.
What was the cartoon?
AT: It was in New York City. And he was writing a letter and flying through the ocean. He brought me the letter with the Michel Gondry style and asked me to make a movie that I had wanted to do forever. I always wanted to do this film. And he said he would love for me to play a part.
You’re no stranger to acting in films by visionary French filmmakers. Watching “Mood Indigo,” it’s impossible not to think back to your first film with Jean-Pierre Jeunet, “Amelie.”
AT: Yes, but the way of working between Michel and Jean-Pierre is totally opposite.
AT: Because they have a very different nature. Jean-Pierre Jeunet is very precise and prepares everything down to the millimeters. He knows exactly the image and the frame he wants to shoot on the day he wants to shoot it. Michel is the opposite. He likes surprises and accidents and he likes improvisations. He creates a big mess intentionally. We are completely lost in this mess but it helps us to be free and to not be aware of what we’re doing, like a storm of ideas that is very spontaneous. They are very different.
Would you have made this film immediately following “Amelie” given the similarities between the two projects?
AT: Oh, of course! I never tried to escape from the “Amelie” character. I never tried to break my image or to show that I wouldn’t do something else. I was very confident that some directors would have a vision that would go further than that story. Maybe there are not a lot of directors who are like that, but I thought there were probably enough to know that I would be able go beyond what I did in “Amelie.” I never choose a part based on what people are going to say or the effect that I am going to produce. I’m really not concerned with that and I really don’t care about that. I’m happy when people are happy with it, but for those who think differently I’m happy to. It’s not my concern.
You’ve starred in many adaptations of famous French novels at this point in your career. Does it feel a bit surreal to know you’ve played literary figures that folks in France grew up reading?
AT: In fact, I don’t really think about that. As soon as it becomes a movie, I almost forget that the book was written by somebody. I become the heroine of the movie directed by someone, and I don’t feel like I’m the incarnation of the literary character. It’s something that belongs to everybody, so I’m just the suggestion of the character. One of the suggestions. So I never feel any special pressure by that.
Watching “Mood Indigo,” my senses were overwhelmed. Was it overwhelming as an actor to be on a set where, I imagine, so many things were happening around you? How did you focus on what you had to do?
AT: I was very, very curious. It was as if we were in a different world, but it was so real and so concrete that we were in a fantasy world that was our daily life in a way. It was not distracting, it was very helpful. We could touch everything and we had everything under our eyes, so it was like as if we were working in a natural setting. It was true, it was real. We were not in front of green screens, so we didn’t have to work with our imagination. When we were in the see-through car, we were really in the see-through car.
What is it like for you to see the finished film? I imagine you had no idea what it was all going to look like in the end.
AT: Well we had an idea because, again, we had everything under our eyes. The entire art team was working just beside our studio or they would come to set after we worked all day. Of course all the animation we discovered at the end, but everything else was so existing. The thing that really surprised me was how many ideas were in the movie. It’s a bouquet of ideas.
[Gondry enters the room.]
Was this a huge passion project for you, Michel?
Michel Gondry (MG): No, not exactly. I was asked to do it. They asked Jean-Pierre Jeunet and he couldn’t do it, so they went for me. And then they lost money. [Laughs]
Sorry, I’m saying stupid things. But it’s true!
AT: I think he had a lot of pressure with this movie. The book is so famous and there was this legend about this specific book, which was supposed to be impossible to adapt. So when Michel had to start to do the shooting, it was a big machine. What you see in the movie is like 30% of everything.
MG: We went into places and shot things that never made it.
AT: When you really like the book, you want to do the best and to please everybody. But you can’t please everybody when you adapt a book on the screen. Not everyone will be pleased.
MG: When you decide to adapt some Russian novel, it’s like everyone knows about it but nobody has read it. So it’s fine, it doesn’t matter. You’re doing a prominent novel, but most people haven’t read it. As for this one, every French person has read it. If there’s one book that everyone has read it’s this one. So everyone has the book in mind when they watch the film. So it makes it a little harder.
So you no doubt felt pressure then in adapting this, especially given your singular style.
MG: Yeah I had pressure. But then I said fuck it, I’m going to do it.
What has the reaction been like in France?
MG: It’s been good and sometimes not so good. A certain type of critic doesn’t really want French movies to be visual. They think movies started from books and they forgot this part of moviemaking, like Chaplin and Buster Keaton, which I didn’t forget.
There’s no acclimating to your vision. You really just thrust your audience into your zany world in “Mood Indigo.”
MG: Yes, that’s how the book starts. When the movie starts, this world is crazy and easy and this guy lives a very shadowed, easy lifestyle, and then it all goes down in a little dark hole. I wanted to start it as explosive as possible, with a lot of detail and happy accidents and then to make it darker. It’s funny because when I did the first screening I really preferred the second part, the darkest part, but the studio wanted the first part to be more prominent. I said the darkest part is more pure, but I think anyways they both count on the darkest part because the beginning is so bright and vivid.
About the mix between light and dark, did you read The Village Voice review?
MG: I never read my reviews [Laughs]
It was very favorable. In it, Amy Nicholson calls you “a swoony pessimist, a big-dreaming romantic who believes in love at first sight but never lets his films end with a kiss.” Would you agree?
MG: That’s very nice. I mean, as long they like the film I will agree with what they say. [Laughs] Sometimes somebody writes a bad review and I say, “This guy is an idiot!” And then my next movie he writes the best review, and I’m like, “Well, this guy isn’t so stupid after all.” [Laughs]
So you read your reviews?
MG: Never. I hear them. As a director, and I’m sure it’s the same for every actor, you hear great stuff and you read bad stuff. There is a big dichotomy between what you hear and what you read.
AT: You can read 20 amazing reviews and have only one that is bad or not that good, and that is the only one you will remember. It’s as if you buy a new pair of shoes and they are so beautiful and you like them but inside there is just one tiny stone, and when you wear it that’s the only thing you feel. So that’s exactly how it works. I think that directors are very sensitive to that fact.
How about responses to your films on Twitter?
MG: I don’t know how it works. I’ve never sent a Tweet. I think I have an account but I don’t know who runs it. I’ve never done one in my life.
It’s remarkable the film retains an emotional pull amidst all the effects you throw into the mix, Michel. How did you work to keep the love story grounded?
MG: Well there are different techniques. One is that you have to say ‘fuck off’ to all the crew. There are moments when it’s unbelievable how people who work on the hair or on the little bit of skin here, they have no other care or interest since this part of their job is the only thing that needs to look good. So you have to push everybody to the side so that you can have a connection with your actor and give some air to your actor. It’s even harder when your film has technical elements, like this one, because you have to put everything in place and then when your ready to shoot you have to take it all away so the actor can really do their job. I’m really focused on that, because I like to think in camera, but at the last minute the most important thing is that there is something happening between the actors. But good actors can have a lot of scenes going around them but sometimes it sort of helps the performance because it takes their mind off of who they are supposed to be.
I like actors who are themselves. I know in America you like actors who change their nose or wear a lot of wigs, and they like to take pretty girls and make them super ugly, and with Audrey it’s different. We take a very ugly girl and we make her very pretty. [Laughs]
AT: One day I remember it was the Golden Globe’s press conference before the nominations and an American asked me, “Would you ever want to play an ugly character?” And I was very surprised because I don’t really know what that means.
MG: Charlize Theron played this very criminal girl and the film gets a lot of recognition and then she comes onto the awards and she’s like in an advertisement. It’s a big distraction.
Audrey is starring in your next film. Is she your new muse?
MG: She’s been my muse for years. Since she was seven. Or six! [Laughs] I’m not supposed to say those things
AT: You’re not supposed to say lies! [Laughs]
What can you tell me about your next film together?
MG: It’s about two teenagers who go across France. It’s based on memories I have, and Audrey happened to look very close to how my mom looked when I was this age. That’s the only reason she was cast. We had to add a bigger nose. [Laughs]. Audrey said to me that after “Indigo” you have to do a smaller movie before you do another big one. So I followed her suggestion and I wrote this movie.
AT: You have to have the essential pleasure of making a movie. It’s such a huge factor and adventure for a director because you really are the leader and the captain. On this movie especially the boat was so huge.
MG: And it’s true. The most pleasure you have is when there’s something happening in the scene with the actors.
Was making “Mood Indigo” a pleasurable experience or was it overwhelming at times?
MG: Mostly overwhelming
AT: For him, yes.
Did you take a long break after or did you dive back into it?
MG: I took a one-year break where I couldn’t leave my bed. I made a hole in the side of my bed. [Laughs]