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Michel Gondry on Mood Indigo and His Music-Video Past

Michel Gondry. Photo: D Dipasupil/Getty Images

In a world where anything can be created in a computer, we need filmmakers like Michel Gondry more than ever. The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director has a real affinity for practical, tangible special-effects that have a certain handmade charm, and he’s never stuffed more of them into a movie than he has with his new effort, Mood Indigo, a whimsical tragi-romance where the courtship between Romain Duris and Audrey Tautou is threatened by a water lily growing inside her lungs. (For more proof of Mood Indigo’s out-there visual sensibility, check out our collection of crazy GIFs from the film.) Gondry called up Vulture yesterday to discuss how he made the movie his own, his sometimes-confusing friendship with Dave Chappelle, and why he wasn’t as successful a music-video director as you might have thought.

Is there any part of Mood Indigo that we might be surprised to find was accomplished using computer graphics?
Very little. There is one thing, when they go in the terminal and walk by a forest, and we did the forest in CGI, but that’s about it. Sometimes the mouse has been integrated in the background from blue-screen, but most of the time it was really there. I’m a huge fan of movies like The Incredible Shrinking Man, made before digital effects, where they had to build oversize sets. I think it gives you this magical feeling.

Mood Indigo is adapted from Froth on the Daydream, a book by Boris Vian that everyone grows up reading in France. How was it received there?
Some people in France were disappointed because they had imagined something else, and the film was infringing on their imagination. But I was asked to do an adaptation, and I didn’t want to shy away from doing it my own way — I didn’t want to be apologetic about it. Some critics in France were very influenced by Nouvelle Vague and think that you can’t be too visual in a movie, because they’re coming from writer backgrounds. So they’re against the director expressing things with a visual element. In their own way, they deny all the silent movies.

You’ve had a long and terrific career as a music-video director. I wonder, have you heard any big songs recently where you think, Oh, I know exactly what sort of video I might have made for that?
Except it’s too late! By the time the song reaches my attention, it’s already been made into a video. I use music to find inspiration when I write my own movies, but I don’t listen to much pop music anymore. I listen much more to classical or contemporary abstract music — it gives me more inspiration. For my next movie, I’m gonna use my mother’s music. She’s a great composer, and her music on the piano has been a source of inspiration to me.

Do you find that there is a whole new audience that has rediscovered your old music videos now that everything is on YouTube?
It’s possible. People can see them with a fresh eye now, because they were not so prominent in their time. Sometimes I read comments that I’m from the “MTV generation,” but that’s not true at all — I was not very successful. In fact, in the year 2000, they did a retrospective on VH1 and MTV, and each channel made a list of the best and most important 100 videos each. And I had zero videos on both of those lists. So I reject being called “MTV generation,” because they never played my videos on MTV. Now, though, people can watch my videos, and they don’t look dated because they didn’t get to see them much in the ‘90s. Also, now that the budgets for new videos are lower, the concepts become more important — and maybe that’s why videos like mine and Spike Jonze’s are watched more.

I can feel your influence in a lot of contemporary videos, like the clever, conceptual clips from OK Go.
That’s true. I know the guy who makes those a little bit, and I noticed some affiliation. But my favorite one that they did, which is not derivative from my work, is the one they did on the treadmill. I think this one is totally genius.

What’s your relationship with Kanye West like these days? You directed his video for “Heard ‘Em Say” way back when, but he rejected that clip and commissioned a new one. That didn’t happen to you very often.
Oh yeah, that’s funny. We had a little bit of fallout for five minutes because he didn’t like the video … and then he liked it again. I played drums on one of his records, “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” So we are very good friends. I don’t see him every week, but when I see him every other year, we have a drink. Last time, he invited me to his apartment and played me some music he did with Daft Punk. But each time, I sort of make fun of him for changing his mind very quickly about that video.

I’m surprised that you haven’t directed a movie-musical yet.
I know! There is this Busby Berkeley movie being made [which Ryan Gosling may direct and star in], and they didn’t ask me. But it doesn’t look like I will make a musical. If I was asked to do a musical, I would want to find something really different and innovative. But mostly they make these movies in a way you would expect — you have to be quite conventional to get the budget you would need to create this world — and it doesn’t feel innovative to me. For instance, the musical with Björk, Dancer in the Dark, that’s something very inventive … and I was a huge fan of Singing in the Rain, it was groundbreaking. So I have thought lately about doing a musical, but it would have to be in my own style. It’s, how do you say? A conundrum.

You directed Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, and I’ve heard that the two of you met recently to discuss a new project.
You know, it’s hard when I speak with David, because we don’t understand each other very well. With my French accent, he can’t get what I say, and he has a little bit of an accent — if I can say so — and that makes it even harder for me to understand him. So I think we talked about a project a few months ago, but I don’t really know! But I hope we can work together, because he’s a genius.

Your website used to have a section where people could send in a photo and you would sketch their portrait and send it back. What prompted you to want to do something that time-consuming when you already have a full-time career as a director?
I was hoping I could make money! I thought, If I make 20 bucks for each and it takes me three minutes to draw, that’s a really good thing. The problem is that I started using ink, and then it took me 20 or 30 minutes to [draw] each portrait, so it was hugely time-consuming. I ended up making 1,600 of them, and then I published a book of it.

Another way to make money off the idea, then?
It didn’t sell very much. [Laughs.]

Michel Gondry on Mood Indigo and Music Videos