Best known for his music videos and the improvisational art style carried over into films like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry is making a constant effort never to be pigeonholed into one style or even one medium. In his latest film, The Thorn in the Heart, Michel plays the role of documentarian, exploring the life of his Aunt, Suzette Gondry.
Traveling to the south of France and turning his lens on various family members, The Thorn in the Heart blends new footage and interviews with vintage Super 8, trying not to shy away from some delicate family issues regarding Suzette’s relationship with her son, Jean-Yves.
Currently working on the just-announced plan to convert his upcoming The Green Hornet to 3D, Gondry was hesitant to go into details about future projects, but, in addition to going into detail on the making of The Thorn in the Heart, did share his thoughts on 3D and what it has to offer moviegoers in this exclusive conversation with ComingSoon.net.
Q: Take me back to the earliest stages of this. When did you decide to make a film about your aunt?
Gondry: Well, I always had a special relationship with my auntie when I was a kid. She’s a schoolteacher which makes her quite special in the family but some of the family would find it sort of threatening or boring, but I always liked that. The fact that she knew a lot about nature or about history. I always liked her and we just had that special relationship. We are not blood related and our upbringing was so different than the one of my mother. She was way stronger than my mother which I find comforting in this aspect of her personality. But after her husband passed away, she came to New York when my son moved with me in, I think, 2004. When I discovered all of her stories about how she used to teach, my son told me that I had to do a film about Suzette and I knew right away that I had to do it.
Q: The film plays as a mixed medium. You have film and video mixed with old Super 8. What was the starting point?
Gondry: We started on video with a little camera and I didn’t think of making a real movie yet. I just wanted to recount her stories. We did one summer like that and it didn’t feel right because we didn’t capture a very important element of the film and the video didn’t capture the quality of the light. So we started over with a film crew the next year. It only took three [seasons] like summer and winter and a fall. Not the full month, only a little each time. The Super 8, especially when we started to interview her son, Jean-Yves, that was his preoccupation when we was younger. He would make [model] trains and do Super 8 film. So he had a tremendous amount of material of the history of his mother. It’s mostly in the ’70s when the camera was invented. But I didn’t think, “Oh, I’m going to mix Super 8 and 35 or whatever. 16mm.” It’s just by necessity. The only artistic decision I made was to switch from video to film and later on when it became more personal and a little darker, I needed the video because the film was running out a lot of times. So I had a video camera by my side. When the film was running out, I would take the video camera and shoot with it.
Q: Was the whole family very welcoming about putting these personal stories on the screen?
Gondry: Well, only people onscreen I would ask. I remember my brother and my mother said they really liked it but they didn’t understand why I was preoccupied with having to repeat it. And Suzette, of course, had shifted my direction. At the beginning, it was really about her professional life. It was not really grabbing. It was too neutral. She was too much a teacher for the film. So we shifted to the story with her son which is much darker and when I shifted the story she immediately understood. She had witnessed it but maybe didn’t realize in the scheme of things that I would talk so much about this aspect of her life. She was a bit upset so I had to write her a long letter to explain why exactly I did that. She didn’t want to go to Cannes at first and then she decided that she would go. She was very happy at the end.
Q: Tell me about the title. It comes from something she says during one of the interviews.
Gondry: Originally the title was supposed to be “The Schools of Suzette” meaning, like, the school of life and the actual schools. She taught in eight different schools. But also how you learn about life. There have been a lot of films about that. Or maybe not. You could do tons of movies about teaching. It’s so important in life. But in this film it’s still very prominent, but I found that I could not stay exactly in this territory. Basically, the film got more depth when we started to evoke her relationship with her son. So I felt that was the way to go. We submitted this film to Cannes with that title so we had to keep it. I felt a little bad for why because the title is really about the negative aspect of the relationship. I felt it was a strong title, but it is a little arbitrary.
Q: Do you go in with a different creative mindset when you’re doing a documentary versus a narrative?
Gondry: I think I try to learn from both worlds and enrich myself. So I go back and forth. Is that how you say it? “Back and forth”? Nobody ever corrects me. My girlfriend just lets me speak with all my mistakes. She’s laughing inside. (Laughs) When I first started to create feature films, I thought I had to create every element of it in order for the film to be personal. Then I realized that I had to give more room because the best part of the text was when things are not exactly going as planned. So I try to cultivate that and have more of that in a feature film. All this kind of life that you can’t control. Then when I did “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party,” I had no script at all. I just had to see how life would happen. Sometimes nothing would happen. What if he was really magical because nothing was planned? Then I went back for “Science of Sleep” and tried, even when I was doing a lot of animation and where everything was art directed, to have the freedom that you do when you shoot just as a documentary. When I shot “Dave Chapelle’s Block Party,” I felt like sometimes I didn’t go deep enough. Even if you just interview somebody, the presence of the camera is such that you have to treat your subject as an actor in a way. To get them to be captivating and have them forget about the camera. It’s a limited amount of time before people really open up and then, on the monitor, feel more real. So I think I learn from both worlds. It’s a really nice way to complete both worlds.
Q: There are a couple of scenes in the film that are more on the music video side of things; stop motion and other animation. Did you have these planned from the beginning?
Gondry: In fact, we have a little bonus on the DVD that people can see where I did way more. I did two or three more of those little punctuations. I explain in this little card on the first of those why I did it. We went to this little house where Suzette used to live to do all the animation for “Science of Sleep.” Suzette has a such a great time. It used to be a place that her husband was running. They both grew up in the ’70s and the early ’80s and the warehouse was empty. When I bought the house, she moved out and I bought the house from her because it was sort of a family house. I thought, okay I want to bring life again and I thought this was the perfect way with an animation project. I was really happy to see the life coming from this warehouse that hadn’t been alive for 40 years. She was really thrilled by the experience. When I started the documentary on her, I thought she was giving me so much. I was a little worried about doing them because I was worried that people would start to think this was my schtick. I’d show them to her and she’d say, “No, do more! Do as much as you can!” She loved the process and would come in and see us work. It was a small crew between me and one animator. It was her and Jean-Yves who was working at the same time on his train. That was nice because even if I was indulging myself, I was also indulging Suzette. But I am glad those things are there. For the scene with the greenscreen, we were going to interview those kids because all the students of Suzette are now adults. I wanted to show children, but it became very academic because the teacher just had them answer questions. I don’t know how it came to me, but I thought it would be a nice souvenir for them. A nice memory to have to participate in the special effect. I didn’t know if it would be used, but I would do a special effect just to trick them and send them a DVD. I had this song in my by Serge Gainsbourg. I did it because I knew it would make them happy. It’s a nice recess in the film. On the DVD, you can see the full song. It’s about two minutes. There’s another really fun bonus. Before her son was doing Super 8, she rented a Super 8 camera. She didn’t know how to use it and used it like a still camera. She did a film, as she explains in the little subject, that she thought was never-ending. She could take photos forever. She didn’t understand that she had to hold the trigger for the duration of the shot. She thought she just had to pull it once. So the film she made is like a thousand shots. Glimpses. It was totally crazy. Everybody laughed at her, but I told her it was totally cool. It was avant garde. I told her I could make a techno video and actually for the DVD I wrote a techno song and put it with the titles.
Q: What are moving into next?
Gondry: Well, I’m finishing “Green Hornet” and I have a project with Bjork.
Q: There’s something you’re doing with your son as well, right?
Gondry: Yes. We started this project. But it’s hard to talk about this project because I realized that I talk too much and get excited and it’s not necessarily helping the project sometimes. Because there are negotiations and things like that. So my brain is really boiling at the moment with a lot of direction. Lots of different projects, but mostly focusing on finishing “Green Hornet.”
Q: Can I ask about the 3D that was recently announced for “Green Hornet”? What are your thoughts on 3D in films?
Gondry: I’ve always loved 3D. In fact, as a kid, I was exposed to 3D at an early age because my grandfather was a specialist of 3D in cinematheques. And then my cousin put it in “Science of Sleep” with toilet paper tube cities. But he was a specialist and I always wanted to do something in 3D.
Q: What do you feel 3D offers you as a filmmaker?
Gondry: I have a lot of ideas. I’m not supposed to talk about that because people have a lot of opinions, but I’m the one who knows what it really means. It’s a tool that I’m really excited to embrace and I have tons of ideas. There’s one thing that has never been done and I can’t wait to do. That can only be done in 3D. I’m really excited to know that the studio is going for it. It shows, really, that they believe in the film. If they wanted to dump us, they wouldn’t have done this.
Q: Going back to “The Thorn in the Heart,” what was the final reaction when you screened the film for your family?
Gondry: I thought would be devastating for Jean, but actually it was the opposite. He thrived on it. The experience is something he’s been dealing with all his life. So for him to see it again, it was not more pain. He was actually happy that the world could see that he didn’t have the best care as a child. I mean, he had care, I guess, but having you be your mother’s pupil is really a terrible idea. I mean, I’m sure there are cases where it’s very successful but for him it lead to problems. For being the son of a great teacher, which he was, it’s kind of a paradox. He was really happy but Suzette was quite hurt. I opened a lot of wounds and she is like 82 or 83. I was taking a chance because I’m not sure if you can reconstitute yourself at this age. But I don’t want to sound like I’m doing psychoanalysis or all these other things that I don’t even really believe in. But I did witness them talking about things that they would never talk about in the entire world. He introduced her to his boyfriend. Things got a little easier. I’m sure there’s tons of problems, too but I think overall it helped. We did a screening for the entire village and the people that had been around her all her life. A place where everyone knows the secret but would never communicate it except behind your back. It was a really good experience for that. They felt dignified by it. Jean has a daughter and she was pretty upset about it, but I think she’s coming around slowly.
Q: Did you find yourself getting to parts of interviews where it just got too personal?
Gondry: Well, we went pretty personal. I think the limit was more whether or not it was boring. That was how I made the decision. I could draw the line at the beginning, but it would be a bit more boring. I felt going this way was much more evocative and universal in a way. But it’s true that I exposed some stuff that was a little painful. I mean, it may not seem important in big cities but in remote parts of France, it’s still a big deal.
Q: There’s a song that comes in throughout the film. Can you tell me about choosing it?
Gondry: Yeah. It’s produced by Faith, but it’s by a group called Spleen. It’s through my lead [crew member]. She’s this French woman that I met though a friend. I do all the side projects and I don’t ask people to find them. I just go out and find them myself and get to work with a lot of upcoming people. I mean, I want it all done properly and to make sure people are paid but in this way of working I have to find people who are really willing to help the project. I get to meet great people. This lady was available and she was amazing. She really helped me to bring life to the subject. Most of the cues were her choice and I never questioned them because they worked so well. It’s not my statement to put this music in the movie, but it gave a nice sense of time passing. This part of France is on the edge of a national park so it’s not going to be destroyed by entrepreneur or stuff like that. You go back every year and feel like you can rely on it and there’s something you can expect that’s going to be there.
The Thorn in the Heart opens in Los Angeles on May 14th.