Michel Gondry on His Animated Noam Chomsky Doc and the Money It Takes to Dream Big
The "Eternal Sunshine" filmmaker drew every frame of "Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?" -- but all Hollywood wants from him is another "Groundhog Day."
Few filmmakers stretch the genre spectrum quite like Michel Gondry, whose directorial resume includes an Oscar-nominated romantic drama (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), a superhero blockbuster (The Green Hornet), a hip-hop concert film (Dave Chapelle's Block Party) and an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live!. Gondry leaves it up to his imagination, following his dreams and obsessions down whatever path they pave.
His latest film is both unexpected yet perfectly fitting to the colorful auteur's sensibilities. Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? is a documentary on scientist/linguist/political activist/writer Noam Chomsky, whose Renaissance man philosophies mesmerized Gondry. The filmmaker wrangled Chomsky for a series of interviews, which he then transformed into a bustling work of animation, meticulously hand-drawn by Gondry himself. The result is an experimental rumination on communication, creativity and the life of an influential member of contemporary intelligentsia. As interviewer and interviewee, Gondry and Chomsky confer and clash as they dig into the latter's vast body of work, Gondry helping the audience digest the big-picture ideas with whimsical cartooning.
The Hollywood Reporter sat down with Gondry to discuss Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? and how he caters to an imagination that demands budgets and scales of every size.
THR: How did your interest in Noam Chomsky evolve into making a film about him?
Michel Gondry: I met him because I was spending time at MIT. I was into his political views and work. Then I followed more of his scientific work and I was very impressed because he sort of invented something. That's why I wanted to talk to him, but it's true that it was hard. I didn't know what to say. I was trying to get to him, but he's skeptical. That's the posit of being dogmatic. So he's going to reject a lot of ideas. It was hard. Communication was not easy.
THR: What was your common ground with Chomsky? He doesn't strike me as a movie-lover.
Gondry: No, it could not be about movies. Our common ground was creativity. We don't have the same definition of creativity -- he sees it as a broad, general meaning that it's not necessarily creativity for art. Creativity is common to everyone and is not necessarily used. It's something we share. At the time, I was working at this factory where I provide materials for people to make their own films. My goal was to show that even if people work in a garage or a supermarket, they have very funny things to say. We never hear their voices. I think [Noam and I] shared that interest, people not coming from elitism.
THR: When did you start picturing this conversation as the foundation of a self-animated feature?
Gondry: After four or five meetings, I decided to use abstract animation to destroy the complexity of his theories, because I find them captivating and I wasn't sure I could illustrate precisely. I thought using abstraction was a way to find an artistic parallel to his sayings. So I envisioned it, proposed it to him, and I showed him an abstract drawing evolving. And he liked it.
THR: Does your love of animation come from cartoons you watched as a kid or experimental art that might be closer to the vision of Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?
Gondry: I watched Tex Avery. Not much to do with this. But abstract animation, like Norman Mclaren or Len Lyeor or Peter Foldes, who did some of the first morphing in the '70s. I always loved it. I want to see abstract art move. Especially in the '30s, you had animators doing innovative work, and I was entranced by that. It's basically what you see when you close your eyes, when you fall asleep. It's called a hypnagogic hallucination. I was always into that because I am very intrigued by my dreams. It's a transition between the real world and the dreams.
THR: What did you learn from speaking with Chomsky that you didn't pick up in his writings?
Gondry: He felt very human. He had a great caring for people. He's a very moral individual. His discourse, especially in politics, is very moral. It's all about hypocrisy. You should not do to others what you do not want others to do to you. He lives by that. He lives a simple life. One of the drawings I did was him and his wife working, and he framed it and put it on his wall. It's a very small place with lots of books. He does not create a distance from you even though he has all the means, all the reason of doing it.
THR: Your interpretations of Chomsky's words remind me of a filmmaker's relationship with a screenwriter. In the past few years, you've written many of your own movies. Does collaborating with writers feel as exciting to you as nurturing your own ideas?
Gondry: I'm still open to work on other people's screenplays. The We and the I was written by two screenwriters and myself. I like to be there when the idea is conceived, like I did with Eternal Sunshine. Otherwise, I find it less interesting. Sometimes it's hard to find material that's genuine.
THR: What was your process for animating the Chomsky interviews?
Gondry: The first part I did was the explanation of how we perceive the tree. It's captivating. It excited me to draw a tree. You start with a trunk and you divide each branch into two and each smaller branch into two or three. It's like a fractal. I would play the three-minute segment of his answer in a loop, and I would hear it again and again, the goal to allow myself to absorb it and put it out in an instinctive way. I was more illustrative and narrative in some other parts. Especially when he talks about his everyday life and memories. I would breach the two with transitions, my own ideas.
THR: Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? was a DIY operation, but I imagine dreaming big can often translate to a need for a bigger budget. Is that something you're interested in?
Gondry: Some of the dreams I have require more money. But I always feel I can do them with my own capacities. Sometimes simplification in execution gets me closer to my imagination. Since I was a kid, I've liked to see how things are done. Sometimes when you see how things are done, it's like watching a 'making of' within the story. You see the physical aspect, the construction of things. I want to do a big movie with [Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?'s] kind of thinking. This has a story -- it's not that I want to do a movie without a story -- but my conception of a story is different than a broader audience.
THR: What's an example of that type of story?
Gondry: It would have an abstract part, and that would be deep and complex and detailed. And then you would have a realistic part. Let's say I very often dream of an airplane that flies on the street. So he has to fly around a building and it's very scary. Say I wanted to incorporate that into a story -- that would be complicated to shoot. I would want to make it realistic. In Science of Sleep, we did animation because we could not afford to do the dream parts with realism.
THR: You're working on an adaptation of Philip K. Dick's UBIK, a film I imagine fitting into this larger-scale category.
Gondry: That's an example. It's very stream-of-consciousness, but it has to be realistic. That's something very personal, very dreamlike, but in a detailed environment. It's moving forward. We're still writing it -- not me personally. It won't be animated. It has to be realistic because there are filaments that are really surprising. The world regresses -- it goes from the future to 1939. It won't have a strong impact if it's animated. If you look at things realistically and then all of a sudden you're in the past, with no explanation for it, then it's striking.
THR: You have another film, Mood Indigo, which was released in France in April, though it hasn't arrived on American shores. Will it make its way here?
Gondry: This is an example with a substantial budget that was very surrealist and dreamy. Yes, [it will arrive] in the spring. Not a huge release.
THR: I imagine Hollywood is still knocking at your door, wanting to be in the Michel Gondry business.
Gondry: Maybe less than before … or it goes up and down. I'm not too dark. There's some lightness and humanity in my work. They respond to this. So they want me to be classically surreal with heart. Like Groundhog Day.
THR: They don't really make movies like Groundhog Day anymore.
Gondry: No, that's true. They're very into Swedish doctor crime stories right now.
THR: Maybe if Groundhog Day had a superhero in it.
Gondry: No, I don't want to do superheroes anymore. (Laughs.)