Michel Gondry

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Coming off the whirlwind that followed the release of his film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry was cited for the Kratz Award for Creative Excellence at the MVPA Awards, recognizing the director's pioneering ways in the promo field, and a nod for Best Direction of a New Artist for the excellent "Walkie Talkie Man" clip for Steriogram (see Creativity, May 2004). The past few months have also seen Gondry take a dip back into spots, with a recently completed campaign for French utility EDF, leading up to the start of production on a new feature he also wrote, tentatively called The Science of Sleep. Before he dives under again, we caught up with Gondry to share some insight about the director's superb second film.

Eternal Sunshine, which stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet was based on an idea by Gondry and French artist Pierre Bismuth translated into a script by the other master of space/time disaster Charlie Kaufman. With the film, Gondry in short order accomplishes a number of death-defying feats: he turns a compelling yet thorny idea, full of potentially confounding elements into a touching, troubling, hopeful, tragic story; foregoing clinical sci-fi, he makes a story based on the fantastical ring incredibly true; he wrings a quietly affecting performance from manchild Carrey, and establishes the standing in the film world that he has long had in the promo and spot universe. The film is a moving, thought-provoking odyssey through the joy and ultimate tragedy of romance that made perfect use of Gondry's visual sensibilities-which graced the story without becoming its subject. It plays with time and reality in telling its story of two people who attempt to literally erase each other from their memories. The delicate balancing act achieved between the story threads and the time and perspective tricks as the melancholy Joel, played by Carrey, concurrently lives his memories and a meta version of his own reality, is all the more remarkable given Gondry's organic approach to shooting the film.

In fact, Gondry says for his second feature he purposefully let go of the rigorous pre-planning and structure that he used to guide him through his inaugural effort Human Nature, and allowed the peculiar magic of the Eternal Sunshine story and characters room to grow. "I wanted to try a different way," says Gondry. "For Human Nature I had scripted and drawn all the scenes and sets were constructed exactly that fit my idea for the script. For Eternal Sunshine I didn't want to have anything in mind until I would find the right location. I was much more flexible. I didn't want to have the arc of the character too defined, because it was so complex. It was more about improvising and being more fluid." The location itself, though, Gondry was less flexible about - the New York setting was so integral to the story, Gondry fought to keep the shooting in the city, with help, he says from producer Anthony Bregman (who produced along with Steve Golin). "We decided to go for a smaller crew-which was still big-shoot more on location and use more New York. I think it was the right choice."

The more organic production process required a high-maintenance communication system among the main players to keep the story from spiraling out of control. "It was a very complex process of going back and forth between Charlie and I and Jim Carrey and I and the producers and I, and stretching the possibilities in every direction. Ultimately we tried to opt for visceral every time, As long as it felt visceral and had something that made you doubt yourself a little, it was accepted. If it was too intellectual it was rejected."

The wondrously hangdog performance by Carrey was coaxed along with some guerrilla tactics employed by Gondry to keep the oft-excitable actor off balance, and, as a result, out of acting mode. "I tried to create a small chaos around him," says Gondry, citing a few incidences of observing Carrey when he hadn't been "on" and identifying with his somewhat lonely, isolated quality in those times. "I tried to put him in a situation where he didn't know where he was or who he was, to make him react in a way where he wasn't in control."

Gondry's visual acumen enhanced the core of the story revolving around Joel's struggle to retain memories that grow sweeter as they are played back and face erasure. The physical depiction of memories fleeing enriched the story and the feeling of loss and unreality-scenes in which book jackets in the background become blank, voices go out of sync, faces blur, or characters are actually yanked away. "The script had very beautiful images, like everything would become a husk, where everything was fading, or becoming foggy, translucent," says Gondry, adding without a huge budget for CG, it would have been difficult to pull off. "On paper it was very poetic and I had to find a poetic way to shoot it, and that way was not to produce a world but to find another technique. I found by trying different techniques, by unsynchronizing sound, or playing with the intensity of light and doing dissolves with a piece of glass sometimes it would give exactly the effect of losing control of what's happening and creating a distance that can increase gradually."

Nearly all of the effects were done in camera. One of the film's key images, in fact, was the result of a purely practical concern of Gondry's on location. The pivotal frozen river scenes where Joel and Kate Winslet's Clementine establish and cement their bond feature the two shot from above lying on ice, in one scene (and on the movie's posters) next to a large branching crack. While the shot became deeply meaningful after the fact, at the time, Gondry's concern was merely that the ice look like ice -so he positioned the camera near the now famous fissure.

Gondry's self-propelled next film, The Science of Sleep (the name will change, says Gondry) is "about a man with a vivid dream life who falls in love with someone at the wrong time," and stars Gael GarcĀ”a Bernal. The film will combine animated and live action elements and begins shooting this summer.

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