The anthology film Tokyo! presents three different director’s visions of Japan’s sprawling metropolis. Home to 35 million people as well as the center of Japanese government and one of the largest economies in the world, Tokyo inspired Leos Carax (Lovers on the Bridge), Bong Joon-ho (The Host), and Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) to each create segments that bring out the distinct essence of Japanese society in ways you may not have imagined.
Michel Gondry’s success making distinctive music videos for the likes of Bjork and The White Stripes has been parlayed into a career making wildly creative features, including The Science of Sleep and last year’s Be Kind Rewind. For his segment, titled “Interior Design”, Gondry brought his sense of playful invention and penchant for in-camera effects to the story of a young Japanese couple that move in with a friend who eventually becomes annoyed with them. When a series of personal frustrations begin to take their toll on the young woman, she undergoes a remarkable and unexpected transformation…
Mr. Gondry sat down with us in New York for an exclusive chat about his portion of the Tokyo! omnibus, along with co-writer Gabrielle Bell whose indie comic book “Cecil and Jordan in New York” was the basis for this short film.
ComingSoon.net: Your segment felt like a happy version of Kafka’s “Metamorphosis.” Where did the inspiration come from?
Michel Gondry: Gabrielle wrote the story. I think that was her friend Sadie who was the main character, who felt more and more useless. Now I know Sadie, and she’s very quiet and always feels like she’s removed from the scene, from the room. I guess she was complaining about something, and she had this idea that she wished she’d just be a chair. There’s something quite self-deprecating about that. My contribution was to make the transformation slow and painful, ’cause in the book it’s just sort of a morph, two or three frames. It’s not very much Kafka because in “Metamorphosis” the guy wakes up and he’s a cockroach. Of course, it’s a masterpiece. I always avoided reading it because I’d heard of it too much, but finally I said, “Okay I have to read it,” and I just realized how much you get a different idea from what the piece actually is. It’s very witty and funny and surprising. Basically, I think the Kafka story takes the most extreme situation and puts it in a normal context. It’s genius. This is different. I was mostly thinking of the Polanski film “Repulsion,” this sort of slow deterioration. I wanted the audience to not see it coming that she would become a chair. So it starts with a hole in the chest and there are two slots of wood, but it looks like she has lost her heart. It is misleading. The feet are in wood, and I thought about the “Pinocchio” from 1973 by Comencini where they switch back-and-forth between a piece of wood and the real boy’s flesh. As a kid when I watched that I was terrified. Like when he tried to cut the log of wood and the log of wood has this little nose and he hears the little boy’s voice and he jumps! That was enough to scare me to death.
CS: Yours has an interesting twist in that she enjoys her transformation, it becomes everything she ever wanted out of life!
Gondry: We’re not sure if we even have the same opinion about the ending and what it means. There is something a little bit cynical, ironic, and sarcastic about it.
CS: About the nature of that character?
Gondry: Yeah, the fact that she enjoys being what she has become.
CS: Many people get caught up in the cultural peculiarities of Japan, like in “Lost in Translation,” but your segment could have been about an American couple or a European couple just as easily. What are, in your opinion, the biggest commonalities between Japan and the West?
Gondry: I think Japanese people have a complex of lack of personality as a global entity. When we did the press conference there they always asked, “What do you think of Tokyo? What do you think of Tokyo?”, like they needed somebody to tell them who they are. It’s interesting, and maybe it’s rooted in the fact that they lost the war with America and then became overly American. It’s complex and I’m not sure I have the element to understand it, but they have become more American and European than the Americans and Europeans. They don’t see that they influence us, the life we lead with all the technology and fast communication. They see themselves as having no personality. It’s also self-deprecation. In our film, none of the three segments are very positive about Tokyo, which makes it more interesting than another film that just glorifies the city and thrives on stereotypes. As for us, it’s more like there are monsters between the cracks. If you spread the buildings, like you spread the butt, it’s something you want to see inside of!
CS: That’s especially so in Leos Carax’s second segment where the evil main character is throwing grenades leftover from the Nanking Massacre in 1937. It’s the darkness lurking in the sewers just below the surface.
Gondry: It’s funny, those grenades remind me of soap my Auntie uses that’s from the ’30s. We use them still today.
CS: (laughs) It’s still good?
Gondry: Yeah, like the soap from Marseille. They’re all twisted and brown but you see them everyday in the kitchen. She has a box of soap marked “1932.”
CS: Is soap like wine, does it get better with age?
Gondry: They don’t get worse at least.
CS: In your piece the woman has trouble competing for attention with her boyfriend’s career as a filmmaker. From your experience, what is it about being an artist that makes relationships more difficult than having another profession?
Gondry: A few months ago I might have commented with a different perspective. It seems very arrogant now to take the perspective of an artist and talk about problems. I just realized most artists are privileged people, especially filmmakers. I don’t see many filmmakers who come from challenging backgrounds. Gabrielle is a comic book artist, that’s different.
Gabrielle Bell: Even that is very privileged. To be able to say “I am an artist” is a very privileged position.
Gondry: Yeah. I went to see Chris Rock. He said, “When somebody complains about his career he should just shut up, because if you say the word ‘career’ you should not complain. It is the difference between having a career and having a job.” Since then I’ve been starting to realize how selfish and privileged artists are and they don’t share their privilege much. It seems a little arrogant to talk about the artist’s problems, although it’s true we talk about that in the film. I don’t know why I wanted to talk about that at this moment. I felt guilty lately about being an artist and just being spoiled. The only reason why people are artists is because they just have the opportunity to be an artist. Everybody would want to be a director. Everybody would want to take the camera on a shoot and yell at people.
Bell: Not me, I’d want to be a cartoonist. (laughs)
Gondry: I guess not everybody.
Bell: The difference between the two characters is that one says, “I am an artist and this is what I do. This is the one thing I do.”
Gondry: He’s actually a crappy one.
Bell: The other person says, “I am a person. These are all the things that I do.” In a way, just to say you’re an artist is like an illusion that can carry you. You’re focused on one thing and it gives you a certain kind of drive. He had this kind of drive, like an idea. She did not have that. In a way she wasn’t able to cope. They moved to the city and started a new life. She didn’t have the thing driving her to
Gondry: Survive? Thrive?
Bell: Thrive. (laughs)
Gondry: It sounds sort of biological to me. “The species will thrive within the niche environment.”
CS: You have been making features for almost a decade now. How has your process of directing evolved in that time?
Gondry: The main job of a director is to cover up his incapacities, pretend everything is alright. Everyone can feel insecure except him, or her. All those questions you have to answer. When I did “Eternal Sunshine,” the last weekend before we shot Jim Carrey asked me, “What advice can you give me to prepare for my character?” (laughs) I have no idea what to say to you. But I came up with something that turned out to be very helpful. I told him, “Don’t talk about yourself at least for this weekend.” He’s very self-centered, like a child. He always brings subject to him. I say, “This weekend you’re not going to talk about yourself once. You’re gonna call your friends, ask about their story, write that down in your notebook.” Now I realize it was pretty arrogant to say that, but it’s funny that I see in interviews he talks about this advice I gave him as though it was very precious. I had no idea what I was talking about. I think that little bits like that is how you direct actors. First of all I don’t say anything, then I pretend I know what I’m doing. Most of the time I say something and they do the opposite. I think you can say the most random thing and just see what happens.
CS: Just go from the gut?
Gondry: Not even! The first thing that comes to your mind. I would not even call it the gut. Your gut is diarrhea when you shoot a movie.
CS: So more like intuition.
Gondry: Yeah, I guess you could call it intuition. It’s a very flattering word for what I would call “randomness.” Lots of times you realize that randomness has a better result than something that is calculated.
Tokyo! opens in limited engagements this Friday.