Helmer brings indie sensibility to Sony superhero pic
He’s bent the rules of time and space with musicvideos for Beck, Bjork, and the White Stripes, as well as with his second feature, “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” But when it came to making Sony’s big-budget “Green Hornet” reboot, French director Michel Gondry hewed closer to the studio playbook — while still keeping touches of his artsy approach.
“I had a meeting with the big people at Sony and they looked into my eyes and asked me, ‘Do you want to do a commercial movie or a very independent movie?’?” says Gondry from Paris. “Of course, I knew the answer, but I thought it was a trick. And then I finally said, ‘Of course, I want it to be commercial.’?”
But the gravity of that answer soon dawned on him.
“I realized it’s not such a trivial question, because every time you’re faced with choices, you have to keep reminding yourself that you made a promise and you have to hold to it,” Gondry says. “Basically, the concept of working on a big-budget film is that you have to think about the audience a little bit more than usual.”
For a director known for his quizzical dreamscapes — filled with disparate locations that miraculously overlap, bullet-time slow motion, backscreen projections, handmade puppets, and any number of visual tricks — such a promise might sound hard to keep.
But according to Gondry, there was plenty of room in “The Green Hornet,” which opens Jan. 14 in 3D, to satisfy himself and audiences. “There are recipes that the studios apply that make successful movies, but there’s also a pretty strong unknown factor, and in this unknown area is where I could play and bring more personal stuff.”
Indeed, Sony brass welcomed Gondry’s unique perspective on the property, which follows the misadventures of a millionaire playboy-turned crimefighter and his kung-fu sidekick.
“Michel’s work has always been highly original and specific,” says Doug Belgrad, president of Columbia Pictures, “and he brought that sensibility to the action and attitude of the movie.”
“It was risky,” adds veteran studio-based producer Neal Moritz, “because Michel had never made a big movie before. But we knew the genre had been done a lot in the last few years and we wanted to do something different.”
Gondry cites several moments in the film that could be described as “unusual,” he says, such as the time-stopping effect of the fight sequences or a surrealist flashback/mindtrip in which slow-witted hero Britt Reid (played by co-writer/executive producer Seth Rogen) tries to piece together the film’s central conspiracy. “But they’re commercial, too,” he says.
While Gondry says he expected some pushback from the studio, he found execs open-minded. Even he admits the sequence that takes place inside Britt’s brain was a little weird on paper. “But that’s why Neal (Moritz) was great,” says Gondry. “He said, ‘Just shoot it.’ And the fact that they let me do it, and it ended up in the film is quite surprising.”
Sometimes, Moritz let Gondry experiment because it was the only way to see what he was talking about. “Michel is a visual genius,” says the producer, “but his English is not the best, so a lot of times, we’d just say, ‘Let’s see it.’ And once he shot it, we’d say, ‘That’s awesome; let’s do it.’?”
There were times Gondry’s ideas were rejected, Moritz adds, “But the beauty of Michel is that he comes up with idea after idea after idea.”
The biggest challenge for Gondry was not innovation, but staying energetic for the duration of the 80-plus-day shoot. “For me, it was like shooting two movies,” he says. (By comparison, “Eternal Sunshine” took about 54 days.) “I wasn’t used to such a long experience.”
Working with such a large crew — virtually none of whom he had known before — also took some getting used to. “First, you have to convince people that you’re not an idiot, because everyone always thinks directors are idiots. But after the first week, this was solved, and I found ways to work faster.” He offers some suggestions: Always do company moves before lunch (“after lunch, it takes hours to move three pieces of equipment”); and never call cut (“because as soon as you call cut, you have 10 technicians that jump on the actor.”)
While Gondry admits the size of the crew sometimes felt “over the top,” he believes he was still able to achieve spontaneity. “You have to be really detailed for the big stuff, but for the small stuff, like for the acting, you have to balance the precision with chaos,” he says.
And while Green Hornet fanboys showed some resistance to Gondry’s vision of their beloved superhero at July’s Comic-Con, he doesn’t consider it “a superhero movie,” anyway. Rather Gondry sees his version closer to a “buddy action comedy from the ’80s, where the action is really happening with great danger but the audience is still driven by the characters.
“Let’s say I wanted to be somewhere between ‘Robocop’ and ‘Ghostbusters,’?” he says.
If Gondry nails that ambition, don’t be surprised to see his name on a “Green Hornet” sequel.