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Michel Gondry: Requiem for a Dreamer

Michel Gondry: Requiem for a Dreamer

Articles - Directing

Michel Gondry knows a thing
or two about the human mind.
Judging from the surreal music
videos he’s concocted for the likes
of Björk, The White Stripes, Foo
Fighters and Kylie Minogue, it’s safe to say that
Gondry’s in touch with his own hyperactive imagination.
His first feature, Human Nature (2001),
dealt with the behavioral (re)conditioning of a man
raised by apes (actually, raised by a father who
thought he himself was an ape… don’t ask) and
the notion that civility does not trump the libido.
His stunning sophomore effort, Eternal Sunshine of
the Spotless Mind
(2004), tackled the most precious
currency of gray matter—memory—and what
happens to one’s heart when you try to erase it.

None of Gondry’s previous work, however,
can hold a proverbial candle to the cerebrumcentric
subject of his new film. The Science
of Sleep
actually spends a hefty part of its
running time inside the main character’s addled
noggin… specifically, in one man’s flights of fancy.
Stéphane, played by Gael García Bernal, is the sort
of daydreamer who runs an imaginary TV network
inside his frontal lobe, complete with cardboard
cameras and a built-in green screen attached to
his retinas. Having recently returned to Paris to live
in his late father’s apartment, Stéphane soon falls
for his neighbor across the hall—Stéphanie (the
comely Charlotte Gainsbourg), a woman who may
or may not be unattainable. Awkward in real life,
Stéphane instead turns Stéphanie into the literal
woman of his dreams, wherein the two can ride
macramé ponies next to paper maché streams
and live happily ever after in a cave furnished
completely with yarn.

Michel Gondry, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Gael García Bernal on the set of The Science of Sleep (2006).

Like the delusional hero of John Schlesinger’s Billy Liar (1963), Gondry’s alter-ego begins to blur
the lines between reality and REM cycle, in much
the same way that the director treads over the
boundary between live-action and stop-motion
animation, linear narrative and free-form freakout.
Call it the missing link between Salvador Dali’s
“The Persistence of Memory” and “Pee-Wee’s
Playhouse,” or just a romantic comedy turned
inside out, it’s easily Gondry’s most personal
film. Having written the script over a period of
several years and unabashedly proclaiming
that the movie is “highly autobiographical,” The
Science of Sleep
offers a peek into its creator’s
own insanely beautiful view on matters of the
head and of the heart.

David Fear (MM): How did you come up
with the concept behind
The Science of
Sleep?

Michel Gondry (MG): I’ve always been fascinated
with the notion of lucid dreaming…
the idea that you can control what’s going
on in your subconscious. Ever since I was
young, I’d dream about people I’d never
met before and then want to meet them in
real life. Or someone from my family would show up in my dream and I’d believe that
we were sharing the same dream, so I’d give
them a code word with instructions that
they had to say back. My mother or brother
would suddenly be in my head, and I’d tell
them, ‘You have to say ‘27’ when you see me
tomorrow!’ That would be my proof.

MM: Did that ever happen?

MG: Unfortunately, no… I used to wake
up and believe that it could happen, but I
don’t believe it anymore. Still, there was
something romantic about the idea that
two people could share the same dream.
You could be in a relationship without ever
having to be awake.

MM: You’ve mentioned before that your
childhood has been a huge source of
inspiration for your work. Would you say
that your dreams have played a big role in
your creative process as well?

MG: When you have a mixture of things
going on in your life and all around you that
gets filtered through your imagination (to
me, that’s what a dream does) it generates a
lot of original imagery. So when I’m working
on a music video or a film, I try to recycle
what I see in my mind as much as possible.
I like the way that something you’ve seen on
the street on the way to work will suddenly
show up 10 times larger or 10 times smaller
or in a totally different color… I’ve even used
something from a dream, only to realize
later that it originated from something I
saw in another film! But I figured, well, my
mind changed a few things after it digested
those issues/64/images, so…

MM: So it’s technically yours?

MG: Sort of, yeah. (laughs) It’s a mix of the
abstract and concrete, recognizable things.

MM: Like the oversized hands? I remember
that they showed up in the Foo Fighters’
video for “Everlong,” which also takes place
inside a dream.

García Bernal in The Science of Sleep (2006).

MG: Yes, exactly! That came from a state
I was in when I woke up from nightmares
when I was a kid, where it felt as if my
hands were far too large for my arms. I
only just figured out what causes it about
six months ago… it has to do with the
connection between the cortex of the brain
and the geography of the nervous system
that sends messages of movement to your
limbs. It perfectly mirrored the anguish that
Stéphane goes through, so I wanted to use
the concept again.

MM: Your first two films were collaborations
with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman;
this is the first project where you’re directing
something you’ve written yourself.
Did you find that it was easier to work from
your own screenplay?

MG: No, it was much, much harder.

MM: Really? Most directors would say
the opposite, since you’re able to direct
the movie in your head as you write it.

MG: Yes, but when you’re the one
writing, everything becomes much more
embarrassing since you take every criticism
personally. You’re much more vulnerable and
thus, more fragile. You start saying, “You’re
right, this script has no value. I agree.” You
feel as if you’re naked; there are no one else’s
words to hide behind, you know?

MM: How closely did you work with the
set designer for the dream sequences?

MG: Very, very closely. But the whole process
was totally chaotic. I started with one
designer who was just going to work on the
animated sequences and then I found this
other person who I thought would be perfect
for the filmed sections. Only I didn’t want to
hurt anyone’s feelings, so I hired them both.
Then there was a third person in charge
of overseeing all aspects of production, so
it was the three of them all trying to make
decisions. Honestly, I have no idea how we
managed to make something that was even
a little coherent. There were many days
where I just wanted to run away… I was
hoping that I could hide somewhere in Paris
and wait until they just canceled the whole
film. (laughs) But I look at it now and they
all did a great job.

MM: What kind of discussions did you
have with the actors regarding the jumps
between reality and the world inside
Stéphane’s head?

MG: Well, the discussions with Gael and
Charlotte were mostly about their interactions
and how the back and forth between
them would play out. Everyone seemed to
instinctually understand the dream sequences,
which are quite far out. But how to play the more human aspects
of the story—how to make all this fantastic
stuff feel emotionally real—that was more
difficult. Luckily, it worked out fine, because
you could feel the dynamic developing
between the two actors from the very first
conference call I had with them. We were
each in different countries, but Charlotte
has this very soothing, reassuring voice. You
could hear Gael’s nerves being calmed as she
spoke. But her character is the more obscure
of the two, and I told Charlotte that I really
wasn’t sure what was going on in Stéphanie’s
head. I was hoping that she would tell me
through her performance. I wanted to get to
know this character better.

MM: Did you feel like you knew Stéphanie
by the time you’d finished?

MG: No. Which is kind of cool, actually.
Charlotte is so rich and brought so much to
the character that I feel like I never knew
what was going on in Stéphanie’s head; she
made her more complex. I wanted them to
exist in their own relation to the story as
much as I was, and that meant that they
would have to find how it related to them.
The film is very autobiographical, but I
didn’t want to tell a story that was like three
or four different versions of me up there.

MM: How is it autobiographical exactly?

MG: The way Stéphane makes things with his
hands and the way he believes his immature
love is strong enough to seduce this girl, then
it doesn’t work out… I have to admit that the
story, in that respect, is very personal.

MM: The look and feel of the film resembles
your music video work more than your
previous films.

Alain Chabot and Gael García Bernal in Michel Gondry’s The Science of Sleep (2006).

MG: I always feel a little uneasy when I hear
people say that, only because I know that
people are very suspicious of video directors
who make films. Most of them are just concerned
with surface, but I’ve always tried
to tell a story in whatever I’m doing. Even
when you’re trying to incorporate an artist’s
personality into something, it’s always
about: Who are these people and where
are they going? That never changes. I don’t
want people to think that the aesthetic is
driving the film, or that something is driven
because it’s like, “I want to film the city a
certain way!” The visuals are important, but
without a narrative, they’re just pictures.

MM: It’s more that there’s a sense of
freedom and breaking the rules that I
associate with your video work.

MG: Oh, okay. That’s fine! (laughs)

MM: What made you decide to shoot in
Paris, as opposed to New York, where you
live now?

MG: I really wanted the story to be physically
connected to my past. It was rooted in feelings
I had when I was younger, so it made
sense to go back to the city of my youth. I was
an animator and painted backgrounds before
I became a director, and it was very similar
to Stéphane’s job in the movie: Toiling away
in the basement, doing this grunt work with
photography that was only partially creative.
Actually, we shot in the very building I used
to live in when I was with the mother of my
son… where she still lives, two flights below
where we filmed. I thought it might make me
melancholy to go back there or I would get
sad watching the film, but none of that happened.
It’s the me from two years ago dealing
with feelings that the me of 20 years ago had,
so the distance helped me deal with the painful
parts without breaking down. MM

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