The snow was up to my knees on the day I sat down with Michel Gondry at his Park City lodge to talk about his newest film, Be Kind, Rewind, which was premiering at the Sundance Film Festival. I had been chasing Gondry down for a while; I hadn’t been able to get a one on one with him for his last film, the wonderfully bizarre The Science of Sleep, and I missed the Be Kind, Rewind press day in Los Angeles. I’m actually glad I did, since I would have had only a few minutes with him in the rushed and hectic setting of a junket. In Park City we got to relax, drink some coffee and talk for about a half hour. Every interview should be allowed to be that laid back.
The best thing about finally interviewing Gondry is that he turned out to be exactly who I thought he would be. His films feel so personal that you begin to believe you know the guy… and you may just be right. Remarkably open and friendly, the word that best describes Gondry is the word that he uses to describe his own movies: sincere.
Be Kind, Rewind opens today.
You have an aesthetic that goes through your films, the use of handmade
objects. You focus on things that are hand crafted, especially
obviously in this film. What is it that draws you to this aesthetic?
been doing that all my life. I like the idea that an object is
unfinished and your imagination finishes it, completes it, so that you
participate as a viewer in the completion of the object. I remember
that my best friend, who is doing the music for my next movie, he wrote
the songs that were completely unfinished but they had so much
potential. I was always trying to find a way to finish them or to get
him to do them in a way that was more polished, more accessible,
because I knew he had the great potential. But then I realized I wasn’t
doing him any good because they were at their best unfinished. You
could hear in the dissonances of the guitar, whatever instrument he
would bring, he had this very special technique of playing the
instrument where he had this disharmony where you would imagine great
harmonies, like an orchestra. So I like this idea that the viewer, or
the listener, is given something you have to finish.
Besides the art direction aspect of that, is the unfinished feeling something you try to bring to the films themselves?
talking a lot about creativity in the work I do because it’s a subject
I can talk about with more confidence than any other. There’s the
existence of people making things, so it’s obviously part of the story.
In Be Kind, Rewind, they create the films from whatever they can find.
In Science of Sleep it’s about the two characters that make things
together. It’s a subject that interests me. Maybe by doing interviews,
where I get how do I get this idea, how do I feel about this thing I
did, I get to question it. Especially when they ask me the same
question I try to find new answers so I go deeper, to places I didn’t
suspect. I remember in one interview somebody asked me about loops in
my work and I realized I was doing loops because I was afraid of dying
or something like that. So I get to know this subject a little more
So interviews are like therapy sometimes.
If you have the time to go deeper. When you go ten interview in one hour it’s a little hard. I try to make them interesting.
How much is filmmaking therapy? So much of these characters and stories are you.
I think the dysfunctionality is good for filmmaking, but I don’t think filmmaking
is good for making you balanced. I don’t think it makes you more
balanced. I don’t want people to think that I am making these films to
get treated. Plus I don’t want them to think that because it feels
selfish. When you are trying to be too creative people call you quirky
or selfish and other people tell me I am the reason they started to
make movies, which is the best compliment I could get. I think
inspiring people to be creative is a good goal to achieve.
Your vision is so singular and personal. Do you feel like you have ever successfully gotten what is in your head onto film?
No. Of course I don’t feel this way. I’m still trying. When I watch my
films I see the flaws. I see the naivete and I can’t believe how
forgiving the people are. But not all the people are forgiving! But I
think overall there is a general sense I am not cheating and I am
sincere. If I had the wrong attitude I would be very easily attackable.
I try too much, I have an embryonic philosophy that I am growing over
the years and I try not to be too much in contradiction with what I
believe in. This goes to the type of story I want to tell, the type of
actor I want to work with.
What is it that attracts you to an actor?
I think there are many reason. You start with one actor, you say, and
then you see how it’s going to work with another one and then the
choice becomes how to create an ensemble. In the beginning you know
them first from their work and you can tell – I like actors who don’t
pretend they are great actors. I think performances that are praised,
especially in the American movies, are to me not necessarily good.
People confuse sometimes affectation, imitation with acting and a lot
of times people have the best of intention when they deliver a
performance… You compare: ‘Oh she looks so much like this guy, she
looks so much like this singer, it’s amazing, she did such great work.’
To me I get good performances, but to me a good performance is somebody
who forgets about what he’s doing. I like to connect with actors who
are natural. Obviously depending on the project, like on this one, Jack
Black being funny is a great support for the film. When you get the
laugh all along the film it gets the audience really there with the
character. An actor like Jack Black you don’t think of him being
nominated for the best performance, but when I see him I feel he is
there. I like how he gets so involved into this project without any
irony. He’s in complete denial of how ridiculous this is.
Speaking of irony, there’s not much of it in your films.
I don’t think I could be ironic because if I was not being myself I
would not have the language to make it sound deeper. I only have one
option, to make it sincere. Obviously I have a good amount of naivete,
although I am complex in other ways. But if I was not sincere people
could see really bad filmmaking. I would be really worried. Sometimes
in interviews I get into some area where I’m in danger, it’s not my
territory and if the journalist asks me a [follow up] question to what
I just said, I feel ‘Oh I should never have said that because I don’t
have the knowledge.’ So I try to stay in the place where I feel
Putting that sincerity on film, how does it affect your relationship to
reviews? Do you pull yourself away and ignore the reviews?
I should do that, but of course I don’t. You get a good one and then
you get addicted; people appreciate you and they think you’re smart but
then you read the one that’s mean and you’re devastated. In a way
because I put a lot of myself in the film the reviews try to get me by
being very personal. So I should not read them. But on the other hand
it’s a very complex situation: if people don’t like the film they’re
not going to come to me – except sometimes in France – and say, ‘I
don’t like your film.’ So you don’t have a reality. I’m not at the
stage where I can have a clear judgment on my work. When I do a video I
can see it and tell if it’s successful, this is good, this is bad – I
don’t need people to compliment me. With movies I don’t have the
How important is the commercial success of your films to you? You’re
making movies that are right on the edge of being commercial and being
I think it’s important to find your audience in the sense that you work
in a budget and if your movie makes more, that’s great. But if you
don’t lose money that means you can shoot again. I would be incapable
of making a decision based on being more commercial. The few times in
my life when I made that decision, I totally regretted them. If you do
something for the success, if it doesn’t work you’re going to be really
disappoint because you sold your soul for the money. But if you do
something because you like it, if it works that’s great and if it
doesn’t work at least you like it. I’ve had conversations with
producers where they push me to make that decision and I am very
opposed to the argument of ‘Yeah if you do that you’re going to
alienate your audience, you’re going to make the film more complicated,
people won’t like it.’ The only thing I can say is whether I would like
it or not. When I make it I know if I make a decision for the good of
the movie, so I don’t make the decision to be more commercial. But on
the other hand when you do a movie that’s not very highly regarded and
does not do well commercially it’s a bummer.
You can make movies that will be received one way today and in a couple
of years be received totally differently. I think Eternal Sunshine is
one of the films, where it didn’t maybe set the box office on fire but
it’s turned into –
It’s made 100 million worldwide*. So for 28 million dollar budget…
I thought in America it didn’t do that great…
In America it could have done more, especially when compared to Jim
Carrey’s other movies, but it made 34 million domestic, so way more
[than the budget]. When you add those other territories… All of my
films, even my first one, have been profitable. I’ve been lucky. But I
think what you said about the film being considered differently after
time has passed, that’s because the film can be considered among all
the other films, as part of a whole. Then you look at it differently. A
lot of people look back even at Human Nature and judge it differently.
How different is it to be working from your own script as opposed to
collaborating with someone like Charlie Kauffman? Would you go back to
directing someone else’s script?
I do, actually. My friend Gabrielle Belle, who does the comic Lucky,
cowrote a short we shot in Japan and she’s writing with me my next
film, which is kind of science fiction. I don’t mind to collaborate. It
was sometimes difficult with Charlie Kauffman because he had so much
attention that I felt a little ignored, but it was a decent price to
pay for what I got – to get great screenplays.
You have the next film lined up. Is there a long term plan or do you take it as it comes?
Initially I didn’t think I could be a film director. I did the first
movie and it wasn’t the best situation, but I thought ‘I don’t know if
I can do many movies.’ Now I feel that I can do not as many movies as I
did videos – I did 100, so it would be impossible – but I think I can
continue and progress. I don’t have a general plan. I think making the
next thing is the best possible plan for the director. At these things,
these festivals and at awards, the competition makes you forget how
lucky you are to make a film. It’s such an incredible process, to have
the film out. I think sometimes the competition makes you forget about
that, forget that just getting nominated is amazing. People come to you
and say ‘I’m so sorry for you.’ That’s insane. If you’re talking about
the Oscars, by chance, most movies don’t win. One percent of the most
successful – which is incredible. And people can still come to you and
say, ‘Sorry it’s not fair.’ I can’t believe that!
You get great performances out of your actors. How do you work with them? Are you hands on?
I’m hands on in a way but I’m not in their face. There is a general
confusion in my shooting because of the way I speak and people have a
difficult time understanding me, so I give the direction really shortly
before we shoot. Sometimes I don’t like at the beginning of the scene
to give direction because I like to be surprised. But then when I see I
can do something I throw these little indications that make half the
people confused. I like to make them more confused because they forget
about the acting process and they become more natural. That’s the way I
like to see people in movies, when they are not in control of their
appearance. People who are just themselves. That’s how I really
appreciate my friends. Being natural is the main quality I always seek
in anyone as far as I can remember.
*Box Office Mojo says 73. His point still stands.