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Michel Gondry’s Mysterious Career: How He Keeps Making Movies Even When Nobody’s Watching

The French director has tons of fans, but his movies don't always get the attention they deserve. But to hear him tell it, that's all part of the plan.

Michel Gondry

Michel Gondry made his first movie 15 years ago, and he never really stopped, although most moviegoers will struggle to name them all. It’s a pretty short list — he’s directed another feature every two to three years — but his playful oeuvre, which includes large-scale and minuscule productions in both English and French, follows such a jagged path that Gondry has himself become a living paradox: While his name conjures a unique handmade aesthetic and surreal, dreamlike experiences of lost souls, his output wanders so much that his films easily slip below most people’s radars.

“I feel forgotten sometimes,” he said during a conversation in New York last week. “It’s a bit disorienting.” The occasion for the conversation provided a perfect example of that disconnect: a new Gondry movie few people have heard about. At the end of last year, “Microbe and Gasoline,” Gondry’s eighth feature, had yet to land U.S. distribution. Finally snatched up for limited release by Screen Media, it was about to open on two screens, with a few more planned in the coming weeks. Don’t expect it to break any box office charts.

"Microbe and Gasoline"

“Microbe and Gasoline”

But the 53-year-old former music video director, who won an Oscar for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and navigated the studio arena with “The Green Hornet,” has other priorities beyond increasing his profile and chasing further success. He’s been there a few times. “Microbe and Gasoline,” a small, tender story about adolescent boys Daniel (Ange Dargent) and Theo (Theophile Baquet) who flee their middle school bullies by building a house on wheels and coasting down the countryside, has a gentle, unassuming quality that doesn’t scream for attention. The project offered Gondry a welcome alternative to the logistical hurdles of a big-budget production, which he endured for 2013’s “Mood Indigo.”

That sweeping, visually complex look at a couple coping with a curious disease — a major release in France that co-starred Audrey Tautou — was packed with complex practical effects typical of Gondry’s imaginative approach, including a “cloud car” and a piano that made cocktails with sound. The movie divided critics and faced worse scrutiny from its producers, who cut the film down by more than half an hour for its U.S. release. Needless to say, Gondry emerged from the experience feeling diminished. “It was very stressful,” he said. “We were a little lost in this machine. I was a bit exhausted.”

So he shifted gears to the other end of the spectrum. With its biggest effect involving a building on wheels, and its main charm stemming from the two carefree young leads, “Microbe and Gasoline” provided Gondry with the catharsis he needed from the broader challenge of navigating an industry in which his particular vision takes considerable effort.

It wasn’t the first time: After Gondry survived 2011’s Sony-produced “The Green Hornet,” a $120 million action-comedy that found a mixed reaction more than a decade after Gondry first tried to make it, he made another no-frills-attached project.

"The We and the I"

“The We and the I”

For 2013’s “The We and I,” Gondry shot the improvised tale of several Bronx teens riding a school bus without leaving the constrained setting once. The ambling story existed a world apart from “Green Hornet,” and even as it generated a mere $42,172 in the U.S., viewers who did see “The We and I” got their Gondry fix. “It was an extraordinary combination of a formalist, experimental exercise and ultra-real contemporary slice of life,” said Mark Urman, whose company Paladin released the film. “It was really all about him — his daring, his inventiveness, his distinctive worldview.”

The filmmaker’s name was its only real selling point. “People went because of him,” Urman said. “The exact same film made by a young American newcomer wouldn’t have garnered nearly as much attention or praise. Then again, I don’t think a young American newcomer would have or could have made that film.”

That’s partly because Gondry’s meandering style is so closely tied to his own quixotic interests that he finds a way to express it, no matter what scale he’s forced to work on. “I don’t know if I want to go back to bigger budgets or not,” he said. “It’s really not something I think about.”

Instead, other people think about it for him. Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” lay dormant for years as studios avoided its mind-bending story, which focused on a man erasing memories of his ex, because it seemed to demand pricey special effects. But Gondry’s technique provided an easy workaround. “Michel is a genius at handcrafting effects, so it was easy to propose an entirely different approach,” said former distribution executive James Schamus, whose Focus Features produced the film.

These days, however, Gondry has developed a greater preference for autonomy, and shows no interest in directing anything he hasn’t written himself. That doesn’t stop his agent from sending him screenplays with commercial hooks. “Most of the time, they don’t really match what I want to do,” he said. “The scripts usually have a producer attached, and it’s sad, because I can feel the will of the writer to please the audience. I can see where it’s going, so there’s not much surprise.”

Of course, some viewers may lobby similar concerns about Gondry’s whimsical storytelling, but he insisted that those hallmarks emerged organically from his creative process. “I have a world,” he admitted. “Even if I don’t choose to use it, I didn’t lose it. It’s still here. But instead of trying to force it in, I just focus on the story.”

While some filmmakers of Gondry’s generation have adapted their abilities for the evolving television landscape — Mike Judge, Steven Soderbergh — Gondry’s too particular about his interests to explore that terrain. Referring to “Game of Thrones” and other serialized cable phenomena, he said, “They just go over my head. I don’t want to be distracted from doing movies. It’s still a great pleasure to go into a dark room, sit down and wait for the movie to start. So when I shoot a film, I hope it’s going to end up there.”

Whether people see it is a different story. However, Gondry relishes his ability to remain somewhat marginalized in a niche of his own creation. “It’s like you’re bringing a little brick to this huge wall,” he said. He balks at the idea of art finding a way in the context of commercial mandates. “It ruins everything, because you’re not watching the expression of a director who has a vision,” he said. “It’s just a job.”

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