Veteran film and music video director Michel Gondry has worked on a few episodes of television as a guest director in the past, but he will truly make his mark on the small screen with the 10-episode first season of Dave Holstein’s dramedy “Kidding” on Showtime.
Gondry tells Variety he was drawn to the project by its premise, which explores grief through Jim Carrey’s character Jeff/Mr. Pickles, a children’s television icon who must continue to play the upbeat man on-screen while his family falls apart around him after the death of one of his young sons.
The series is a reunion of the director and actor, who collaborated on the 2004 film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.” That experience informed this project, with Gondry wanting to capture “the Jim that’s a little bit sad and touching” that he found on “Eternal Sunshine.”
Gondry credits Carrey for being willing to “go far” for the role, which included shaving a strip of hair at the center of his head for a pivotal one-take scene in the premiere. And while he said Carrey trusted him as the “guardian” of the material, he also trusted Carrey to bring his own instincts as an actor. “The actors are their characters,” says Gondry. “Sometimes they know things that you don’t know, so you have to let them try different things.”
This came into play most notably for Gondry during a scene in the second episode in which Carrey’s Jeff confronts his father (played by Frank Langella) over wanting to air an episode where Mr. Pickles talks about death.
“He takes the tape off his shelf, puts it on the desk and screams at it as if it’s a person,” Gondry says. “When he did it, I said it was crazy and we could never use it, but when we looked at it, it was exactly what we needed. I was looking for a more subdued Jim, but he can’t always be subdued. He has to explode sometimes for the story and for entertainment. And that’s something he brought that I didn’t expect I would use, but I did.”
But he admits the process wasn’t always so seamless.
“One time he was frustrated and he yelled at me, and I told him, ‘Jim if you scream at me I will stop liking you, and if I don’t like you I can’t direct you,'” Gondry recalls with a laugh. “I said, ‘Jim, let’s have a good talk because I think you’re pissed off, and I can see that in the camera.’ … We talked a bit, we had a big hug, and we were right back to being a creative team.”
The dual quality of the series, given the show-within-the-show, also presented a fair set of challenges. Gondry says he was concerned, for example, that the stakes weren’t very high for the world of the children’s show. “That was the main thing that scared me,” he says. So he had to quickly commit to the idea that when the characters are at work, “these are the most important problems that exist in the world.”
Gondry also found himself wanting “to have fun with the puppets and be as creative as possible” with Mr. Pickles’ show. He designed about half of the puppets, as well as the set, with the goal of making it “vivid and colorful but not like clown outfits” so that it would realistically appeal to children, but also show a clear dichotomy between the world of the children’s show, and Jeff’s real life.
“Sometimes in the real world he would try to present himself like in the show, and when the two worlds intertwine, there is an explosion that appeals,” he says. “The most important [aspect] was actually how he would transition between the one world of the show within the show to the other, real world, and how he would carry his wisdom from one world to the other.”