CLUJ, Romania–Academy Award-winning writer-director Michel Gondry shared his thoughts on the creative process and the lessons he’s learned across his celebrated and wide-ranging career during a masterclass Saturday at the Transilvania Intl. Film Festival.
Gondry appeared in conversation with TIFF artistic director Mihai Chirilov, who introduced the French filmmaker by describing his own personal connection to the director’s work. Nearly 20 years ago, explained Chirilov, at the festival’s first edition, Gondry’s first movie, “Human Nature,” appeared in competition. “I don’t know if our invitation ever reached you,” Chirilov quipped.
Gondry recalled the early days of his career making music videos. “It was an age when you need to find a job, to pay the rent,” he said. “Doing this as a job was quite amazing.”
The director’s distinctive style and creative range were evident early on, as was his life-long preoccupation with animation. “Through the videos, I could explore this abstract and graphic aspect, and also tell small stories, interact with people out of my universe.”
He added: “I think over the years, I developed a way to express myself.”
Working with the likes of Bjork and Beck taught the young Gondry how his self-doubts could help serve his budding career. “You have to oversell yourself, because you are under-confident of what you can achieve. So you promise a result that you’re not sure [you can] achieve,” he said. “But after, there is a responsibility to deliver what you promised, and you work a little extra-hard…and you [create] a work that is better than what you thought you could do.”
Gondry’s grandfather was an inventor, and the creative streak ran through his life from the start. “I can’t remember myself without drawing. I always drew. I was quite shy, I didn’t really interact with people around me, but I could draw, and my parents or other people would respond to that,” he said. The creative boundlessness that would characterize his later works found expression on the page from an early age. “I felt that with drawing, I could do anything I wanted.”
Chirilov pointed to “a certain childishness” in the director’s work, a sense of being “stuck in your childhood.”
“People always say that I’m playing, or there is a naïveté, which is true,” said Gondry. “But also there is the idea that you have. You have an idea, you have a concept, and you’re going to try it and see if it works. And that’s the most exciting thing in my work. Sometime producers don’t understand why I want to do something in this way that was not done before. They think if it was not done before, then it’s a bad idea.”
He continued: “Any little thing I’m going to do, it’s the illustration of an idea I had before. The excitement is to see if this idea works or not. The concept that it’s childlike or not, it’s a bit beside the point. I’m not trying to be naïve, or to be childlike. There is this word that is always attributed to me, it’s whimsical. But I don’t really know what it means….Experimentation is what really drives me on.”
With his feature directorial debut, “Human Nature,” Gondry chose a similar path as long-time friend and collaborator Spike Jonze, who made the leap from directing music videos with his Oscar-nominated “Being John Malkovich.” “I remember the first day of shooting, I couldn’t believe I was doing a feature film. It was something I never dreamed of,” Gondry said. In the anxious days before the film’s release, with posters for “Human Nature” plastering the streets of Paris, the director expected the opening to be “the most amazing day of my life.” But in the end, “it turned out to be the worst day of my life.”
“Human Nature” was slated to hit French theaters on Sept. 12, 2001. While waiting in the green room for a TV appearance on the eve of the film’s release, Gondry watched in horror as images of the burning Twin Towers flashed on the screen. Mid-interview, reports arrived confirming that it was a terrorist attack. “They all left the room, and…then the light switched off. We were in the dark,” he said.
The movie flopped, and reviews were generally poor. The setback prompted a period of soul-searching for the young director. He escaped to the French countryside, where he found himself sitting beside a river one day with a notebook in his lap. “I wrote on one side everything I found that failed [in the film], and the reviews that hurt me the most because I felt they were true. And I turned the notebook and I wrote a solution for each line that was on the other side. That was extremely constructive,” he said. “When I went to shoot ‘Eternal Sunshine [of the Spotless Mind],’ I had this notebook with me all the time, and every morning I would read a few pages.”
The method paid off with a film that would earn Gondry an Academy Award for an original screenplay he co-wrote. Starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet, the offbeat romantic dramedy won rapturous praise from critics and remains for many Gondry’s best-loved work—a fact the director himself said he often struggles with. “I’ve done nine movies or 10 movies since. People always come to me, telling me that this film is my favorite film. And I have to live with that,” he said. Asked how he would react if a fan were to tell Gondry she hated the film, he said with a laugh, “I would maybe be happy.”
Gondry acknowledged that bad reviews still sting, although he’s learned to be more accepting of criticism, recalling how he would frequently butt heads with Jonze, a producer on “Human Nature.” “I had a tendency to refuse all of his ideas, because I felt he wanted me to not be myself,” he said. “I took everything that he said as frustrating or negative.” Gondry taught himself not to reject an idea for personal reasons, but rather to “accept ideas that if they are good for the film, or refuse them if they are bad for the film.”
The lesson didn’t entirely translate to TV, where Gondry last year directed the Showtime series “Kidding,” which again saw him collaborating with Carrey. He confessed to being “very frustrated” within the confines of a TV system where even an Oscar-winning director has to defer to the decisions of a showrunner. “It’s like being at school. Maybe I’m too used to being a director. I have no problem when the producer, the writer, give me directions. I have to filter a bit, and sometimes I don’t have choice, but it doesn’t bother me when I do a film,” he said. “To do a TV series, it’s like you have a teacher…who’s telling you how to do your job.”
Returning again to the playfulness of his work, Gondry noted the upside to holding onto a child’s worldview. “I think when you’re a kid, you learn the world by playing,” he said. “At some point, I decided to continue with this way of interacting with the world. To me, it’s not abnormal. It might look like I’m not very mature from the outside. When you go into adult life and have to work, or do certain activities that are not so fun, you change your behavior.”
He added: “I found a way to earn a living by playing, so there is no reason for me to stop.”