Learn from Michel Gondry's Masterclass: Dream-Fueled Filmmaking, Directing Commercials & Being an Outcast
Michel Gondry lets us glimpse into his one-of-a-kind mind and filmmaking inspirations.
Michel Gondry's films exhibit the kind of surrealism endemic to dreams: disjointed imagery, products of the brain's random neuron firing, coalescing into an evocative narrative. Whether characters suddenly find themselves sleeping on a bed in the middle of an empty beach (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), fighting their colleague with giant hands (The Science of Sleep), on an airplane landing backward Microbe & Gasoline), or flying around the city in a cloud-shaped spaceship (Mood Indigo), Gondry's movies are ethereal in style and rich in subtext and symbolism. "In dreams, emotions are overwhelming," says Stephane in The Science of Sleep— and that's exactly Gondry's cinematic modus operandi.
Last week, in honor of his new release Microbe & Gasoline, Gondry conducted a masterclass hosted by IFP and UniFrance. He revealed his subversive method of working with actors, his sources of inspiration, his ambivalent sentiments regarding music videos and commercials, and joked about his technological primitivism—"I can’t use an iPhone; I can’t figure it out."
"When you shoot a movie, after the first week it’s like you’ve been walking for a year. You think you’ll never pull through, but the last week goes by just like that."
Below, we've culled some of Gondry's most interesting and educational revelations.
Use your dreams as creative fodder
Much of Gondry's work features dreamscapes—which is no surprise, given that his movies are often inspired by oneirology and dreams of his own.
"Remembering my dreams is a big part of my life," Gondry said. "Every morning when I wake up, I have a strong feeling for what I just experienced. Some of my dreams are really cool stories."
Gondry's biggest inspiration in this regard is David Lynch, whom Gondry claimed has mastered the art of giving the audience the feeling of a lingering emotion from a dream. "David Lynch is one of my favorite directors," Gondry revealed. "He abstracts the story and keeps the essence of the feeling. So there’s a feeling of fear, but he doesn’t need to make a story to lead to this; he can just impose feelings on you. He helps show the most unexpected element should come from the most mundane story. "
"In dreams, you make drama out of nonsense. Your brain manages to create a story. With films, people make up explanations."
Gondry experiences the elusive phenomenon of lucid dreaming; in this sleep-waking state, he conducts "experiments." Sometimes, he even recreates his dreams in his movies. "I had many dreams of flying in airplanes backward and not going higher than the trees," he said. "It’s very vivid, this feeling that the wings would be broken by the buildings and the trees. So I put it in Microbe & Gasoline because it fits into the story. Initially, I wanted to shoot it with the trees breaking the wings, but I couldn’t."
The fact that the process of creating meaning from disparate events also occurs in movies is not lost on Gondry. "In dreams, you make drama out of nonsense," he said. "Your brain manages to create a story. With films, people make up explanations."
Other than dreams, Gondry derives inspiration from feelings he experiences and his own memories. "It's hard to get inspiration from books," he admitted. "I always try to figure out how I'd make a book as a movie. It's painful."
Give actors conflicting directions
"You have to get what you need, but you can’t just ask for it," Gondry said. "If your actor needs to be sad, you can’t just say, 'Be sad.' You have to find another direction, like… 'Look down.'"
But the directions Gondry gives are entirely contingent upon the context. In Microbe & Gasoline, he worked with two child actors. "When we did the haircut scene, at first, it was horrible," he said. "It was very contrived." After a take, Gondry complained to one of his crew members, and the child actor happened to overhear. "He got upset and worked hard to change and make it good," said Gondry. "Kids have no ego. You can say, 'That's terrible.' You can’t say that to a professional actor."
When working with professional actors, Gondry has to get creative. On Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, he encountered a unique problem: "Jim Carrey had a very comedic over-acting way, and Kate Winslet would play really realistic," he said. Because he couldn't give them contiguous direction, Gondry took Carrey aside and told him the scene was very serious; he then took Winslet aside and told her the scene was comedic and to "go over the top. They would act together and it would be perfect!"
Gondry also mentioned an interesting logistical challenge, which he dubbed the "time aspect."
"Some actors start really great, but as they go through the text, they erode and become really flat," he said, "while some actors start great, but as you shoot more, they become better and better. It takes you a week to figure all that out."
Don't be afraid to be an outsider
Growing up, Gondry stuck to the sidelines. "I was always befriending the most outcast pupils," he said. "Every year, my best friend was a rejected kid from the class."
Throughout his youth, he actively rejected the mainstream, even when it came to movies. "When I was a kid, I wouldn’t go see ET because I didn’t want to lose my individuality," he said. "I was an outsider. I didn’t want to be part of the mass market."
Even today, Gondry considers himself an outsider. "I never felt I belonged to a group of directors, even though I heard or read I was part of one," he admitted. "I don’t spend time with those other directors."
Gondry's nostalgia for his rebellious teenage years is evidenced in his creative limitations. "I could never write something as intricate and realistic as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind without Charlie Kaufman," he said. "I'm much more at ease writing something like Microbe & Gasoline. It would be harder to bring to life characters that are adults because I connect with teenagers."
When working with a cinematographer, relinquish control
Gondry stressed the importance of allowing his cinematographers creative freedom. "Learn to let go," he said. "Don’t micromanage."
When he begins a collaboration with a DP, he wastes no time achieving a similar wavelength. "We get in tune at the beginning [in terms of] the aesthetic and technical and story level," he said. "We talk about being honest in each scene. Then I just focus on the actors, and unless there is something I can bring to the aesthetics, I just let them do their work."
"You can’t shoot a commercial like a feature film. If everything is pristine, it doesn’t really say anything."
According to Gondry, becoming mired in the details of cinematography can only stymie a film's imagery. "If you pay too much attention to the detail, it becomes like a commercial: banal," he said. "Every detail has to be an amazing shot. But in real life, if you look down to a handbag on the floor, it doesn't look like that."
Make commercials, but keep them separate from your movies
Gondry doesn't eschew commercial work altogether. "It's good for money," he relented. "And sometimes it’s good creatively. Something that’s really important is that it shouldn’t distort your way of shooting. In commercials, there will be 10 people telling you how it should be. Each shot is disjointed because it has to satisfy everyone. With a film, you have a philosophy and you can see the big picture. You can’t shoot a commercial like a feature film. If everything is pristine, it doesn’t really say anything."
In the above commercial for Gillette, Gondry collaborated with LCD Soundsystem. "The first element I brought to this concept was to bring it into a recording studio," he said. "I thought that was a great visual element: dials of sound, geometry of the walls. When I was first contacted, the concept was what you see. I just had to do it as well and originally as I could."
Develop a skill, like music videos, to launch your career
Gondry effectively built his career on music videos. "It was hard to do music videos in the beginning for bands I didn’t really like," he said. "For me, it was a job. I was learning a skill." After doing dozens of music videos for "artists I wasn't crazy about," Gondry received a call from Bjork's management. "She was the first person to really appreciate my videos," he said. "Nobody ever laughed when they saw my videos, but she did. It was her humor."
His favorite music video was one he directed for Daft Punk. "It’s exactly what I had in mind," he said. "It's very satisfying when you envision something and it's exactly there."
"When you do the scene, if there is something to be discovered, it’s better to discover when the camera is running," Gondry said. "It’s better to keep it as fresh as possible."
That said, Gondry has no problem mining material from auditions or readings. "You can steal from readings!" he said. "If someone comes in and finds something good for the character, even if you don’t cast them, you can take it to make the character richer."
Gondry has only directed one blockbuster film, and to his mind, it wasn't successful. "If the Green Hornet had been a huge success, maybe I would have done another blockbuster," he said. "But it wasn’t."
Of course, Gondry didn't let that phase him. "I don’t really decide where I’m going to go for my next movie," he said. "I don’t think I have much control over it."