Michel Gondry has always been a filmmaker who puts his own, unique stamp on his material, whether it’s romantic fantasy (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), buddy comedy (Be Kind Rewind), concert film (Dave Chappelle’s Block Party), or even a superhero flick (The Green Hornet). But his new film Mood Indigo, an adaptation of the fascinatingly multi-talented French writer Boris Vian’s 1947 novel L’écume des jours, may be his Gondry-est effort to date: charmingly whimsical and cheerfully inventive, filled with whirring gadgets and knockout visuals and gravity-defying dancing, with a healthy dose of lovelorn melancholy thrown in for good measure. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Mr. Gondry about Mood Indigo, as well as the legacy of Eternal Sunshine and his friendship with Dave Chappelle.
Flavorwire: Tell me a little bit about you and Boris Vian. When did you first come in contact with his work?
Michel Gondry: Well, when I was an adolescent, we didn’t have the Internet, and so we didn’t have access to the presentation of sexuality in the media, like there is now. So Boris Vian had written these books where he pretended he was just a translator, and the book was written by an American called Vernon Sullivan – and he actually wrote the books, but they were really racy, and they had a lot of sexual content. That was how most adolescents approached his writing, and by that time, we all knew that it was [really written by] Boris Vian. So those books had a lot of sexual elements to them, and we started to like the writer, and went to his other works. L’écume des jours – Mood Indigo – is the most famous of his books. And then I read most of his books after I read Mood Indigo. So that’s how most adolescents, at least of my generation, came to know him. The generations after and before me, as well, all had a special relationship with him. He connects with adolescents and young adults like no other writer does.
When and why did you decide that you wanted to make a film out of this book?
I think I always had the dream of doing it since I read it. Even though I was not even a director [yet], I always had a visual element that would come to me while I was reading the book. But recently I was approached by a producer called Luc Bossi, who had written a first draft of the adaptation, and he asked me. So it was not really my decision, I just accepted an offer that was given to me.
The film has a sort of handmade style that is both familiar from your other works — I’m thinking particularly of The Science of Sleep — yet also very much its own creation, specific to this story, in terms of tone and pace. How did you settle on the visual and narrative style of the film?
The narrative in the book is very progressive, sort of linear. There is a sort of falling down. And in terms of the technical/visual elements, there is a way that he invents new worlds by combining existing worlds. And there is something handmade in the writing that I wanted to reflect in the way I was making the film. There are constrictions of new objects made out of mixed, existing objects. So I didn’t want to use CGI for that. I wanted to see them for real – see them work – so that’s why we made them practical.
The pairing of you as a filmmaker with Audrey Tautou as an actor seems so perfect, it’s a little surprising it took so long to happen. How did your come to work together?
Audrey Tautou was my first choice – I admired her and the movies she did and how she acts. And the fact that at the same time she’s very fragile, but she has something very strong inside her. We met when I did an exhibition in Paris, and we became friends. So she was the first person I thought of when I was asked to direct Mood Indigo.
And what was your relationship like on set?
She’s great – you can talk to her, she tries many things, she’s always right on the spot, she acts very truthfully, and very genuinely. We tried many things, and I think she really enjoyed the experience. She’s very supportive of the film, very proud of it. And she liked all of what was going on around. And most actors don’t mind that you have complicated stuff around them, because they see that they’re part of something unusual, and it’s a different experience for them.
I understand that the US cut of Mood Indigo is a different version of the film than the one that played in other countries, which was 36 minutes longer. So often we hear about evil American distributors forcing international filmmakers to shorten their films. Is this a case of that, or just of you fine-tuning the film for a different audience?
I had more time. I had a few more months to work on this edit, so I tried. And I was asked to try that, to be honest. But I promise you that I have no issues with that. What happened is, because it was an audience that didn’t know much about the book, we could take more liberty, a little more freedom from the book, and I think I focused the through-line, the story, more on the main characters played by Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou. And generally the first version of a movie is four hours long and the second version is two and a half hours. And the third one is two hours, and this was the fourth one, that was 95 minutes or something like that. I think it’s a normal process, and if you have more time, you make the story more concise. For instance, Blade Runner: I like the studio version better than the director’s cut, which I see as more indulgent.
I’m not really against it. Especially when you know your movie exists in one form already, and it’s been out, and it’s been created on DVDs and put on TV, and then you don’t mind having a different version. Because after, you can watch both, people can find a way to see both versions, and so on. So I had no issues in doing that.
When you go back and watch the film in five or ten years — presuming that you revisit your own work — which version do think you’ll queue up?
I don’t know. I’m torn about it. Because first, when I saw the short version, I liked it better, and then lately at the cinema and some festivals, I watched the old cut, and I liked it better. So it’s even, I think.
The love story in this film is so earnest and so sweet, and it reminded me, in that way, quite a bit of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which recently celebrated its tenth anniversary and seems just as beloved now, if not more so. What do you think it is about that film that people love, and relate to, so much?
I think anyone who has difficulties in their relationships or is going through a breakup wonders — I mean, through this movie and through this concept — they wonder: if they had the choice to erase this relationship from their memory, would they do it? And then it’s something you can really envision, and at some point, right in the beginning, you say, “Yes, I would erase it.” But then, as time goes by, you [see that you] will lose something you’re really attached to. And I think most people realize that even though they have issues in their relationship, there was something really precious about it. That’s one idea [of] why they liked it. I think the screenplay was great, we had very good performances. And there was something, I guess, that was probably very romantic. We didn’t shy away from the sentimental. There are not so many movies with a bit of an edge that are sentimental as well. I’m surprised about it – it was very well received and well respected, and it’s true that people keep watching it, and it’s very nice.
The year after Eternal Sunshine, you directed Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, which, for my money, is one of the greatest of all concert documentary films — there’s just so much joy in it, it’s such a pleasure to watch. Chappelle has been on a bit of a comeback kick lately, doing big shows and personal appearances again. Have you had any contact with him since the film was made, and is there any chance of you working together again?
It was great. My main problem was, I had a hard time to understand them and they had a hard time to understand me, a little bit like when I did the interview with Noam Chomsky, but it was a great experience. It was fun because many times I was the only white dude in the room, and many audience members – I remember going to do a talk in a black dormitory, that’s funny – they choose, sometimes, to be amongst African Americans in this type of context, and they thought I was a black person, and I was very flattered that they took me amongst them. But we keep in touch – I saw Dave a few months ago. We had some ideas, and I hope we’re going to work again together. He’s a great guy and he’s extremely smart and of course funny, but he’s very clever and I think he has a lot of integrity, and that’s why he wanted to stop his show – everybody thought he was crazy, but he wanted to stop it before it became too much. He thought it was becoming a little bit of a caricature.
Mood Indigo is out Friday in limited release. We also talked with Michel Gondry about the films that influenced Mood Indigo and his other works; keep an eye out for that feature tomorrow.