DVD RE-RUN INTERVIEW: Chaos Plus Time: Gondry and Kaufman on Memory, Methods, and “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”
by Anthony Kaufman
[EDITORS NOTE: This is a re-run review from the indieWIRE archive, a collector’s edition of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” a film that was listed on my year-end top ten lists, will be released on DVD this week (January 4, 2005).]
Imaginative minds think alike. With “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” their second collaboration since 2001’s “Human Nature,” music-vid whiz Michel Gondry and surrealist scribe Charlie Kaufman further prove they are among the most unique cinematic storytellers working in today’s mainsteam culture. And what they don’t share in backgrounds — one is a boyish French dreamer; the other a shy Long Island-born intellectual — they make up for in similar working methods that combine the wildly chaotic with the highly formalist.
Think of Gondry’s geometric music videos for the White Stripes (“Fell in Love With a Girl”) and the Chemical Brothers (“Let Forever Be”) or the “bullet-time” special effects he pioneered for the Stones’ “Like a Rolling Stone” clip — the rigors of mathematics and technology serving as gateways to outrageous new realities. Or Kaufman’s scripts for “Being John Malkovich” and “Adaptation” — both movies and mazes, crazy flights of fantasy encased in meticulous puzzles.
“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” is another goofy, cleverly ordered head-trip, again focusing on Kaufman’s trademark lovelorn misfits: the dour Joel (Jim Carrey) and his blue-haired girlfriend Clementine (Kate Winslet), who he discovers has undergone an operation to erase him from her memory; and a second set of screwball, but no less involving characters, the staff of memory-erasing company Lacuna Inc., played by Kirsten Dunst, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, and Elijah Wood. (Lacuna Inc.’s website is worth a look at http://www.lacunainc.com and special discounts are available.)
indieWIRE contributor Anthony Kaufman recently sat down with Gondry and Kaufman and chatted about chaos, structure, Darwin, “American Splendor,” and finding the humanity of their characters. Focus Features releases the film on Friday.
indieWIRE: I’m a little sick right now, so you’ll have to excuse me if my brain is a little fuzzy. But maybe that’s good, because this movie is kind of fuzzy…
Michel Gondry: Fuzzy the Bunny, the character of Robert Crumb.
iW: Actually, the drawings that Joel scrawls in his book reminded me of Robert Crumb.
Charlie Kaufman: The drawings were done by a friend of mine, Paul Proch, who I used to be a writing partner with at National Lampoon, and we did a couple of stage plays and screenplays together. I really liked his cartoons and introduced him to Michel.
iW: Do you think there’s a similarity between Crumb and Proch’s work?
Kaufman: I could sort of see it, but I see a [Ralph] Steadman influence. But Paul is his own person; he’s very singular. I’ve known his drawings forever, so it’s hard for me to think of them as somebody else’s.
Gondry: I went to see him [Proch] and it was a very touching moment for me. He has an enormously rich life inside, but it doesn’t transpire outside. When you go into his home and you look at his books and drawings, it was like an explosion.
Kaufman: That’s what is amazing about Paul. He’s very quiet and when I first met him, I could barely hear him talk. In film school, I don’t think people really saw him. And then he came in with this script and it was so crazy and inventive and funny, I thought I got to know this guy. It was always a surprise what comes out of him — if you can hear it.
Gondry: I can totally identify with that. When I was 14, I went to an English class for one month every morning and at the end of the class, the teacher still thought I was a girl.
iW: This guy reminds me of you both: with your great imaginative interior lives — and the film is also, of course, set in the interior life of someone. How does this mind of yours work? I read about this dialectic in both of your methods between geometry, mathematics, and structure verses the opposite of that, chaos and disorganization and improvisation. How do these things work together?
Gondry: Organization comes from chaos. If you look into nature, the way the cells keep adding to each other, it’s a structure. So if you do chaos in a sincere way, you create an organization without knowing it.
Kaufman: It’s true; I like to live and work in the chaos because that’s my experience, and I’m not interested in organizing things into packages that make people comfortable. And I think I have a taste that constructs things symmetrically, too. I think the fact that I’m disorganized and I have to struggle with what I’m writing for a period of time allows for lucky ideas. If I figured something out right away, then the story goes in that direction and I’d never get to that point of being stalled for a week, thinking about it, and finding something later that’s going to take the story in a completely different direction. Maybe the first story would have been better? But I never would have gotten to this thing that I’m really happy that I finally found. So maybe the equation is: disorganization plus time equals something that interests me.
Gondry: If you look at Darwin’s evolution theory, all the species that are in harmony with their environment stop evolving or eventually disappear. If you look at the species that involve into human beings, we were never really fully adapted to the environment, so we had to struggle and find solutions and simply, evolve. I think this is the same in the work. If you are comfortable in the first stage, if you are happy with yourself, and you don’t need to struggle to create something and confront the mess, it doesn’t evolve. I think chaos is good, in this way.
When I shot, I specifically tried to create this chaos. Because I notice if everything is too smooth, you might be happier at the moment, but later you will miss something. Everything is chaotic and the actor has to work there, with less self-awareness.
iW: But Michel, judging from the work you’ve done, you seem to have a very structuralist mind.
Gondry: Yes, sometimes, I do use partitions. I don’t know. I don’t feel very non-chaotic.
iW: You don’t feel…?
Kaufman: He doesn’t feel not not chaotic.
Gondry: When I’m directing the actors, I always leave a little randomness. This is what I learned from my first film.
iW: Yes, I wanted to ask you about what you learned from “Human Nature”?
Gondry: I really wanted the characters to evolve, and I remember we talked about what they should feel at this part in the story. And I thought it was really interesting because this time I decided they should surprise me. And I thought it would be more like real life.
iW: Charlie, what do you think? Were there things that you learned on “Human Nature” that contributed to “Eternal Sunshine”?
Kaufman: I’m sure, but more importantly, “Human Nature” was a script I wrote years ago and this was a script I wrote last. And I’ve had a lot of experiences between writing “Human Nature” and writing this movie.
iW: I sense that there is more of a striving for the humanity of the characters in this film than in your previous films.
Kaufman: We’re always striving for the humanity of the characters. I think “Human Nature” is a different style of script and it’s a conspicuously comic script. It’s got a lot of jokes in it. This movie is conspicuously not comic. As I was writing it, I was realizing, I’m not writing a comedy this time. And I think it’s the first time that I can say that.
iW: Well, that’s quite a move.
Kaufman: But it’s not a progression. And it wasn’t conscious. It was just the way it was coming out. I do want to add that Michel and I were very concerned about the humanity of the characters in “Human Nature” and not making fun of Lila, the character, in a Farrelly brothers kind of mocking way. That’s why we cast Patricia [Arquette], who is a very warm and appealing person and that’s why we spent so much time on the makeup effects, so it wasn’t a joke. But the humanity of the characters is always important to me.
Gondry: If I can say something about the Farrelly brothers, I thought their last film was very human.
Kaufman: I didn’t mean to cast dispersions on them. I think some of the movies are very funny, but it’s not what we were doing.
Gondry: Their last film “Stuck on You,” I felt so connected to it…
Kaufman: No pun intended.
Kaufman: Connected? Twins.
Gondry: [Laughs] Okay. When they got separated, it gave me a deep nightmare about my last relationship and it was just a perfect image of people together. I think there was a real tenderness to this film, as well as in “American Splendor.”
Kaufman: That’s not the Farrelly brothers.
Gondry: I know. But the way the couple sticks together.
Kaufman: My favorite thing in that movie is you see the character Toby, and you see the actor playing him and you can’t believe it’s not a caricature when you see the actual guy. What I found moving was that I felt such sympathy for this man and I couldn’t laugh at the actor playing him anymore in the movie. That was such a brilliant thing.
Gondry: It was brave of the film to put them side by side. When you do a movie about someone real, they usually wipe out the real person, to make sure the public doesn’t get confused between the actor and the person.
Kaufman: I just want to say that in “Confessions of Dangerous Mind,” the script, it was filled with the real Chuck Barris.
Gondry: I read the script and it was genius. The director [George Clooney] that made “Confessions” said that I didn’t understand Charlie’s work. I am sorry that I didn’t fulfill his expectations.
Kaufman: That was an amazing moment, because he was being interviewed for an article about me to promote “Human Nature” and he said that Michel didn’t understand my work. Why would you do that? Hhh? (Sighs exasperatedly.)
iW: Isn’t your adaptation “A Scanner Darkly” for Clooney and Soderbergh‘s company?
Kaufman: I think they’re producing it, but it’s not my script. I think Richard Linklater is doing a version of it.
iW: I wanted to say something about “American Splendor.” I think there’s a tonal similarity between your work, where you have supernatural elements combining with real elements to make something very human.
Kaufman: We went into this wanting to tell the story of the relationship between these two people, but we were interested in the [memory erasure] device for reasons that are obvious: it’s interesting and it’s fun and allows you to tell the story, but the important thing was always the relationship and the other stuff was always in service of that.
iW: I found the secondary or parallel story about the relationships between the technicians very compelling — first of all, do you consider it a secondary story?
Kaufman: I think of it as an ensemble movie. I like the idea of being able to tell a story in two years and one night, in exactly the same time frame. That really excited me.
iW: I have to say during the pivotal scene involving the second set of characters the relationship between the lead characters came into clearer focus and finally moved me.
Kaufman: I think it was always our intention to have these two stories and your understanding of one story informs your understanding of the relationships, in general.
iW: Last question: Over the course of the last few years, what are your feelings about creating innovative work in this system that doesn’t always allow for that. Do you still have to fight?
Kaufman: Yes, I think you have to fight, but it’s a good fight and I don’t know what else to do. It’s hard for me to characterize it as innovative, because it feels like I’m patting myself on the back, but I’m just trying to do something that interests me and feels honest to me and excites me.