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French director Michel Gondry’s career might be as nonlinear as his 2004 head-trippy love story Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. In the years since winning a best screenplay Oscar for the Jim Carrey-Kate Winslet mind-bender, he tackled a Dave Chappelle sketch comedy documentary (Block Party), a Seth Rogen-led studio tentpole (The Green Hornet) and an animated conversation with Noam Chomsky (Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?).
Though the trajectory may appear haphazard, Gondry says there’s a through-line: he is always directing “something really personal.” In the case of Green Hornet, he first began writing a screenplay about the masked hero nearly 20 years ago when it was set up at Universal. With his latest, the French-language road trip adventure Microbe & Gasoline, he reunites with his Mood Indigo star Audrey Tautou (she plays a supporting role in the coming-of-age adventure).
This weekend, Screen Media Films releases Microbe & Gasoline in exclusive engagements in New York and Los Angeles before it expands with a regional rollout. Gondry, who splits his time between Paris and New York, talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the pitfalls of comic-book movies, re-teaming with Chappelle and the fuss surrounding Jack Black in blackface in Be Kind Rewind.
You haven’t made a studio film since Green Hornet. Why not?
I don’t know. I read a lot of scripts. It’s hard to fall in love with the big movies, expensive movies, where you go on board and the script is already quite advanced. By this time, I feel that there is not enough room for me to be creative or to feel connected to the character and the story.
You were rumored to have clashed with Seth Rogen. Any truth?
No, not really. He was very nice. We got along very well. It was, at times, difficult for me to find my place. What happened is he was writing and acting and producing the film. And so it was hard for me to be able to express myself. Although I don’t feel I was put aside.
Do you keep in touch with Dave Chappelle?
Yes. I mean, not every day, but I talk to him. I met up with him a year ago at The Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, and that was very nice. We have hard time to understand each other. My bad English. His urban English. But we get along very well.
Did you talk about collaborating again?
Yes. He, but he has many projects and I have many projects. It’s hard to find the project that we both want to do at the same time.
What was the worst moment of your career?
I had worked on the first version of The Green Hornet for several years. It was in ’96 or ’97, and I had worked with Ed Neumeier, who is a screenwriter who did RoboCop and Starship Troopers. We wrote a script that was really [evocative] of the original. And then after one month working with it and having done drawings and so on, the executive of the studio, that was Universal at the time, just said they had shelved the project. They just said to me, “Next time you pick a project, make sure it’s on the top of the pile.” And I was very frustrated, because that was him who asked me to work on this project. So that was quite a low part of my career.
What profession would you do if not this?
I would like to do shop-window decoration. In Paris, you have very nice ones at Christmas with the mechanics and the snowy landscape. I always thought it would be a great job for me.
You are the grandson of inventor Constant Martin. How did that influence you?
I’m not sure it was through his contact, but I wanted to be an inventor when I was a kid. And the funniest thing is nobody really liked my grandfather except for me. He was living across the garden from us, and I would go and see him every day, every evening. My brother and cousin, they didn’t really like him. They found him boring.
Who would you most like to meet?
Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman, who worked on quantum mechanics and had a great way to explain physics events and was extraordinary as well as very funny. Unfortunately, he’s dead.
There was some criticism of Jack Black in blackface in Be Kind Rewind. What did you make of the controversy?
I don’t think that there was anything to be offended by because everybody gets upset at him. It’s clear that all the people — Caucasian, African-American — in the scene are grossed out by his actions. The only thing that could be seen as controversial is [the scene in which he pretended] to play Jackie Chan. He put some Scotch tape on his eyes to make them Asian. His character is a bit stupid.
In the realm of Hollywood movies, I would say Groundhog Day.
What was your most memorable moment on Eternal Sunshine?
It was at the end of the second week, maybe the first week. It’s the scene where Jim Carrey comes back to the office of the doctor and wants to start the [memory-erasing] procedure. I wanted to do it in one shot, so we shot with a dark light because we are inside of his mind and the memory is being decayed as we speak. So Jim has two roles to play — him in the memory and Jim visiting this memory. It was about three minutes in one continuous shot, and nobody believed I could do it. But I insisted. I’m quite stubborn. It was really complicated because we had to shoot Jim on the left, let’s say by the door, and then we’d go over to Tom Wilkinson, and then we’d go to the right and we see another Jim Carrey, dressed differently, who was in the memory. When the camera would leave him, Jim would change his clothes, change his haircut and sit right in front of the doctor before we reach him. And we did that many times. After like five or six takes, it worked perfectly. That was sort of a miracle, and everybody applauded. I think at this moment, I had gained the respect and the trust of all the crew. After that, people really would follow my idea, even when it seemed unachievable.
Where do you keep your Oscar?
On the top of a shelf in my living room in Paris.
Would you do another big-budget movie?
Yeah, why not? But not a superhero one.
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