Fans of his work may revel in the high-concept surrealism of director Michel Gondry’s filmography, while other audiences not attuned to his style may find it abundantly aimless and self-referential. Either way you look, Gondry’s filmography, music video and commercial entries reflect the work of an undeniably smart, adventurous filmmaker. His latest film “Microbe & Gasoline” reflects a bit of a departure for the 53-year-old director: There are still houses on cars and planes flying backward, but unlike the fantasy intrinsic to films like “The Science of Sleep” or “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” this story involves two young teens (largely drawn from Gondry’s youth) constructing their dreams into reality for themselves.
What does it mean to show these dreams cinematically? How can a director get there? And how is the understated “Microbe & Gasoline” still as much a Michel Gondry movie as he’s ever made?
Last week, the Made in NY Media Center by IFP hosted Gondry (and presented in partnership with UniFrance) for a masterclass in the creative process behind his filmography, music videos and commercials. Here, he discussed how dreams come to him, how he translates their language to cinema and how to get the rest of his cast and crew on his wavelength. Here are some vital lessons below for filmmakers with a similar knack for the surreal.
Look inside your head and see what’s there.
Rarely does Gondry work on many films at once, and it’s apparently only happened on a single occasion, when he was writing “The Science of Sleep” as his longtime collaborator Charlie Kaufman was finishing the final draft of “Eternal Sunshine.” Instead, the director waits until he is completely finished with one project to search his mind for another.
“I finish a movie, and my head is empty,” said Gondry. “I look inside and try to see what’s left. At this moment in time, what was left were these memories and this friendship. I was always befriending the most outcast pupils. Every year, my best friend was a rejected kid from the class. I wanted to investigate why I was more interested in this type of person, rather than the most brilliant kid in the class. It’s hard to tell why, but it feels curated.”
Many stories that fascinate Gondry come from his own subconscious: In fact, he struggles to write all of his dreams down. Yet he stresses to budding filmmakers that capturing any dream you have isn’t going to feel as vital to someone else.
“When you tell a dream to a friend, it can be extremely boring,” said Gondry. “You select the dream you’re going to tell. You speak about the funny contradiction. You abstract the story and keep the essence of feeling. You can extract what element imposes its feeling on you. I think that’s what makes David Lynch’s movies so strange. He’s one of my favorite directors. He helps show the most unexpected element should come from the most mundane story. If you’re already in science fiction, like in ‘Vanilla Sky’, it’s already a heightened world so the dream in the film doesn’t take you away.”
Draw from what’s close to you.
Gondry will often draw his films from the sort of dreams he experiences and remembers at a specific time. After shooting “Mood Indigo,” his dreams moved toward stories that resembled his youth, the kind of stories that would become “Microbe & Gasoline.”
“The first third of the movie, before [two main characters Théo and Daniel] build the car and leave, was very specific to what happened to me,” said Gondry. “When I was writing the beginning of the story, I didn’t know where it was going to go. Then I had dreams that were the result of rethinking this age. I started to write these dreams and they made up the rest of the trip. It’s a bit abstract, but it’s a dream that’s very close. The film is very close to the dream I had.”
Gondry constructed a film where he largely embodied one of the main characters: Daniel, a boy who has obsessively drawn and painted from a young age. Théo served as a compilation of a few kids Gondry used to know, who the director described as “weird.”
“I wanted to do a movie that was completely normal and real, and the characters created these dream things,” said Gondry. “I wanted to step down from ‘Mood Indigo’ and find the characters, because ‘Mood Indigo’ suffocated me a bit.”
The process involved Gondry diving deep into his past. The character Audrey Tatou plays in the film is based on Gondry’s mother, and embodies the depressed woman that as Gondry describes, “gave me a lot of her fears.” To further complicate his family history, shooting the film took Gondry back to his grandparents’ home, a place of emotional significance for the director.
“The house you see in the film is actually the house of my grandparents, the house they had,” said Gondry. “My grandparents built that house and it was exactly the same. For me it was really challenging to go and shoot in this house where I would go every day, where I would see my grandmother every day. When I watch the scenes now, I have this nostalgia of being here and the nostalgia of shooting here 40-50 years later. There are these two layers of nostalgia.”
Show in the film how the world is made.
In an age of computer graphics and pre-visualization rendering every effects shot seamless, Gondry encouraged filmmakers to show their audiences how their effects were constructed, which he approached in different ways between “Microbe” and his earlier films.
“There was a difference between the way I constructed [‘Microbe & Gasoline’] and ‘Science of Sleep,'” said Gondry. “The world of the dream for that film was made out of hand-crafted scales and objects, whereas here the film is very literal with no handmade stuff, but you have characters who build these objects.”
“I like to see movies that show the craft of the object,” said Gondry. “When you can clearly see how things are made, I prefer this type of film. I understand how it’s made, it seems to be better, it strains my creativity. I do a movie like I want to see a movie. I’d like to understand how things are made.”
Don’t construct too precisely – keep things lose enough for the film to surprise you.
Gondry compared working on commercial sets for companies like Gillette with his own features. One of the biggest differences lies in how pristine a feature can look. As Gondry says, “when 10 people are telling you how something should be, it’s hard for something to say anything.”
“With a film you think about how you will shoot it and work with the actor and everything,” said Gondry. “There’s a point of view with commercials that you don’t necessarily have when you shoot a feature film. If you pay too much attention to the detail, it gives an anal effect on the film. Every detail has to be an amazing shot. In real life, you’d find a bag on the floor. In commercials, everything has to be pristine, so it doesn’t end up saying anything.”
This spontaneity also goes for working with special effects. Gondry describes his process for using claymation in “Science of Sleep,” where the actors interacted with clay figures.
“We shot all the daytime realistic footage first, and then we changed the proportions of our sets,” said Gondry. “Some more narrow, some higher. We shot the rest in this transformed location. Many times we projected the claymation on the screen and had the actor act against it. I like that better than blue screen because the actor gets to engage with it. They can be part of the same space. We did the opposite of what people do in movies, we did the SFX before shooting.”
Sometimes your actors will help you see things you never could.
Traditionally, Gondry only gets one week of rehearsals with his actors. He wouldn’t wish for any more: When the cameras start rolling, nothing would surprise him.
“You don’t want to overdo the scene,” said Gondry. “If there’s something to be discovered, you want it discovered when the camera is running. Every director has a different take on that. Some like to rehearse and some like to have as different a take as possible. I didn’t have the possibility of rehearsing more than a week.”
He encouraged his listeners to go as far as stealing ideas his actors give him, whether or not they’ve even been cast in the role yet.
“For Mark Ruffalo as the lab operator in ‘Eternal Sunshine,’ he had this idea his character should have a pompadour, and he should be a fan of The Clash,” said Gondry. “And that was such a great proposition, something that would make the character richer. He didn’t read for the film but this interview we had, I knew he made it work.”
Enjoy the fear of lucid dreaming.
One key scene in “Microbe & Gasoline” was inspired by a lucid dream by Gondry, in which he was flying a plane backwards just below the treetops. He encouraged his audience to challenge themselves in their dreams and experiment with going to less comfortable places.
“I have no explanation [for the plane] except that it is very vivid,” said Gondry. “The feeling that the plane could never go above the trees, it’s very strong. When I became a director, I had a tendency to not direct the dream but try to open the door to more scary places, to enjoy the fear.”
“The trick is to be able to enjoy a lucid dream, to experiment, before you wake up,” he elaborated. “Once you know you’re dreaming, you have a tendency to wake up. You can interpret that as you can take off or land…I have no explanation except that it is very vivid. The feeling that the plane could never go above the trees, it’s very strong.”
Learn to let go and let your crew make the dream with you.
“Microbe & Gasoline” is the first time Gondry worked with cinematographer Laurent Brunet. Though he’s held onto some crew members over time, he pushed for filmmakers to trust collaborators old and new.
“When I’m doing a movie and need a DP, I’m doing a movie a year and my DP is doing six movies a year,” said Gondry. “So when I ask him to do my next movie, he’s not available. So I tried somebody I’d never worked with. I did interviews, I asked [Laurent] and, like an actor, he had the best understanding of the story. So now I prefer to work with him than with my previous DP. I’ve been working with my art director for many movies, but sometimes it’s great to discover new people. I think it’s good to discover.”
Even if the project is your own wild, crazed fantasy, Gondry asserts that sometimes all you need to do is step aside and let your crew do its thing.
“I’ve learned to let go, to not micromanage. I think me and my team get in tune in the beginning on the story level, the statistic level, we talk about being really honest. Unless there’s something I can bring to the technical aspect, I just let them do them,” he said.