+ BIZ: Jonze, Kaufman, Gondry and Good Machine, Following the Laws of "Human Nature"
by Anthony Kaufman/indieWIRE
"We are shooting mice," says director Michel Gondry in a thick French accent. "It's okay, they're pretty well-behaving. But the animal rights people are watching everything we do."
It's the last day of production on "Human Nature," the latest script from Charlie Kaufman, the man responsible for last year's weird indie success story, "Being John Malkovich" and Gondry, along with his skeleton crew, is trying to get the last shots of his feature directorial debut.
But "Human Nature" was a movie that could very well have never happened. Charlie Kaufman's script was one of those screenplays that everyone in the business already knew about -- and already passed on, notes Good Machine producer Ted Hope. The surreal comedy examines the love triangle between an obsessive scientist (Tim Robbins) who tries to teach mice table manners, his naturalist girlfriend with excessive body hair (Patricia Arquette), and the wild boy (Rhys Ifans) that comes between them -- not your typical mainstream fare. "The industry had already proclaimed that this movie was unproduceable," Hope says. "It was one of those few scripts that I put on my shelf after reading and kept as an example of the frustration . . . You know, I want movies like this to get made."
Spike Jonze, director of "Being John Malkovich" -- who also serves as producer on "Nature" along with scribe Kaufman, Good Machine's Hope and Anthony Bregman -- handpicked the fellow music video director to helm the film. It's a rare and risky decision: Offering a first-time feature director whatever he wants, on a project that's following in the footsteps of the Oscar nominated "Malkovich," and all the expectations and pressures that go along with it.
But this isn't the safe and standard turf of Hollywood, as producer Hope makes clear. "In the studio system, you can go back to the well and ask for more money," he says on the phone from their Los Angeles production office. "But the price you pay is that you have to listen to everyone's ideas, you have to accommodate them in exchange for receiving that extra money. And the more indie way, as is the case with this film, the input only comes from the creative team."
So how to get financing without studio suits breathing down your neck? It wasn't easy. Remember, this was before "Being John Malkovich," the sleeper hit of 1999. Explains Hope, "Now you can say, 'From the writer of 'Being John Malkovich,' but you couldn't say it then. Let's face it, this industry only greenlights stuff when you can compare it to something else that was already financially successful. And you couldn't say the script for 'Human Nature' was like anything out there."
"So all we had," Hope continues, "was Spike Jonze, who people only knew from music videos and commercials, Charlie Kaufman, who people knew as an unproduceable original talent, Michel Gondry, who was this great music video guy who'd probably go over-budget, and Patricia Arquette, and us."
After realizing that a studio was not the right place to facilitate Gondry's original vision as a first time feature director, Good Machine put their bets on the international community. Around Cannes of last year, French company Canal Plus, who had financed Gondry's short film "The Letter," agreed to put up the financing in exchange for international sales rights. Gondry and Good Machine got the backing they needed -- without strings attached. "They gave us the creative controls," says Hope.
Once pre-production began, it became clear that the traditional methods of producing would have to be adapted to Gondry's methods, established in his years making music videos and commercials. "We probably could have gotten any number of super well-known cinematographers, production designers, line producers, to work on this film. But talking to Michel, it became really clear that he needed people that he had relationships with before," says Hope, like cinematographer Tim Maurice-Jones ("Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels"), Production Designer K. K. Barrett, and Costume Designer Nancy Steiner ("Virgin Suicides").
"In a more standard industry context," says Hope, "there probably would have been a production executive, who looked at a sheet of paper, seen that these people were not on a pre-approved list, and it would have been a trade off to get these people approved."
"It's just an example of the absolute need, in every production, to be willing to reinvent the rules if you need to," continues Hope, "to not think that there is a cookie-cutter way of doing it, but finding a way that actually works best for the team involved."
Shot for 40 days on "an incredibly tight budget," says Hope, the film required more effects and visual peculiarities than your traditional romantic comedy, including some CGI and makeup effects, artificially created rain, and a forest built on a soundstage.
"You can't ask for a bigger problem, but also a more delightful problem, then to have a director who's every new idea is good. It makes for a difficult way of producing in that you come up with ways to enhance your picture on a daily basis," explains Hope. "If we don't follow all of Michel's ideas," adds Anthony Bregman, "then it's kind of a waste to have someone like Michel direct this film, to freely imagine and translate the fantasy into a reality."
Gondry's imaginings date back to his ongoing and award-winning music video work for Icelandic pop star Bjork. The Paris-based director's first collaboration with the singer-songwriter was on the video for "Human Behavior." He's also directed commercials (his Levi's "Drugstore" spot landed him multiple awards) and other videos for artists as diverse as the Rolling Stones, Chemical Brothers, and Sheryl Crow.
"I had complete freedom on this movie," says Gondry. "The budget was not huge. But, as much as for the writing as the shooting, I really got what I wanted." Gondry adds, "I had everyone behind me, really pushing me to be myself and do my tricks and keep my way of shooting." His "tricks" included "a lot of rear-projection" and "old-fashioned camera techniques," like double exposure. "More than half of the movie has effects," he adds.
Their creativity and flexibility seems to have paid off -- initially, at least. Roughly mid-way into the shoot, Fine Line Features bought the film for domestic release at a price tag of over $3 million, according to Variety. Not every production has such luck -- or such a luxury to choose a distributor prior to completion. As opposed to facing buyers during film festival bidding frenzies, the Good Machine producers felt it was important to find a distributor ready to take on the marketing challenges of the film early on, "to get a head start on all the publicity," says Bregman.
"Let's face it," adds Hope. "It still is a Charlie Kaufman/Michel Gondry project, and how do you position that in the marketplace? We wanted someone who saw the film as we did and would go out with it aggressively."
So far, everyone seems happy with the arrangements: Producers Kaufman and Jonze retained creative control and got the director they wanted; Gondry maintained his style of filmmaking; Good Machine got the financing they wanted without studio interference, and everyone got a distributor who plans to take the film that all-important next step -- to the audience.
Now, all they have to do is get through this last day of production. Says Gondry, "It's not really over. I have to shoot those bloody mice."
According to Hope, "Human Nature" will be completed, effects and all, by the end of the year, and Fine Line will release in 2001.