Sunday, August 27, 2006

THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP—The Evening Class Interview With Michel Gondry

The Science of Sleep has all the trademarks of a personal dream that you might share with a good friend if you trust them well enough, especially its whimsically-constructed dream sequences where clouds literally are puffs of cotton, water consists of cellophane in stop-action flow, stuffed horses gallop over the fields of courtship, and time travel occurs in increments of seconds, providing the opportunity to correct grievous errors or to at least capitalize on the wit of the staircase. But as lovingly as the dream sequences are created by a talented child with scissors, construction paper, glue and glitter during an afternoon hour committed to artwork, the film is not necessarily a tribute to the dream life, as much as an examination of what happens when a dreamer cannot distinguish between his dreams and his so-called real life, between the fantastic and the banal, between the infantile and the mature, and between what he dreams to have for himself and what is not really his to have. It is about misalignments between parallel worlds that should probably best course alongside each other without leaning into each other, like neighbors you know but shouldn't fall in love with.

The Science of Sleep is not, perhaps, as polished as Michel Gondry's previous collaboration with Charlie Kaufman—Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind—it doesn't quite have that film's mainstream sheen; but, that's not to say it's any less accomplished; it's just more idiosyncratic, bearing Gondry's signature preoccupations without any artistic compromise (or is the right word restraint?). You'll either mount his button-eyed horse and trot enthusiastically through his imagination or tire of his stylized simulations, or maybe even a little of both. For me the dreams of Gondry's character Stephane—played to near perfect pitch by Gael Garcia Bernal—feel like dreams but don't necessarily look like dreams. Still, they're approximate, and his effort towards approaching the viscerality of dreaming is noteworthy.

More than the film itself, I wanted to talk to Michel Gondry about dreams.

* * *

Michael Guillén: Michel, it's a pleasure to have the opportunity to speak with one of the world's most successful dreammeisters. Congratulations on The Science of Sleep.

Michel Gondry: Thank you.

MG: The Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung was fond of saying that it was important to proceed from the dream outward. It's my understanding that, in effect, that's what you've done with The Science of Sleep. You filmed the dream sequences first and then built the rest of the film around them. Could you talk about how you engineered that process? It's an unusual way to make a movie.

Gondry: It's not exactly like that, but, I basically didn't want to use a dream as a tool to help the story, which is the way they are used in most movies; they're just a way to show that the character is having those feelings and they are never true. What I wanted to achieve was to show the dreams I had and show them in the context of the event during which they had occurred and put them in parallel to see what was going on and understand them maybe after the film. Not trying to analyze them before I would use them in the film. So being neutral about them and then see what was going on between the real life and the dream life; taking a good part of my own experience.

MG: Can we talk some about your animation process? You eschew CGI in favor of stop-motion effects?

Gondry: With regard to the animation, it's true that most of the dreams have been shot before the live action. It's a process that's hard to explain to a producer because, you know, you do principal photography and you get your green light a few days before you start to shoot really. We had to put our money on the table to do these animation sequences that we [shot] ten months before because we didn't even have the actors signed. It was the only way for me to have them ready on stage when we did those sequences because I didn't want to use blue screen. I wanted the actor to participate [with] this landscape, see them and enjoy them in some way. It was like I was showing them my toys. They would help them in the tone they have. The blue screen's so cold, or the green screen, whatever, it's so cold because the actor doesn't have time to connect with what's happening around them and they even end up to not even connect with each other.

MG: Well, there's certainly a human touch to the animation; a child-like touch. Some critics have said that the dream sequences are repetitions of images from your well-known music videos, but, I tend to think of them more as amplifications of those images, or—as Jung used to say—a circumambulation around the image, a continued fascination or familiarization with something that is of particular importance to you as an artist. Can you talk about how you chose the dreams you wanted to show in the film because I'm sure you have a wealth of dream imagery and had to choose some images over others?

Gondry: The one[s] who basically would make sense with the story. So, since I didn't want to manipulate them too much, I had to pick the one[s] who make the story go forward. To me it was important to not transform them, to be honest and objective about them, to keep what makes them real dream[s]. So I picked one[s] … for instance, I have this feeling for this person who could be represented by Stephanie. I had dreamed about her so I used those dreams because it makes sense. Sometimes I have lots of dreams of cataclysm, of the moon exploding and the end of the world, and I used that at some episode where Stephane wants to take control of his dream. I tried to use what I had in my memories to construct the story.

MG: You've gone on record as criticizing the symbolic approach towards dream interpretation, especially Sigmund Freud's theories where specific equations are drawn between an image and its meaning, and have insisted upon a scientific treatment of dreams. I'm not clear on how you're using that term "scientific", however, and wondered if you could tell me what it is that makes your creative approach scientific?

Gondry: I'm not saying my approach is scientific, I'm saying I like the scientific approach better than the psychological approach. The main difference is the scientific approach is requestioned every time the technology evolve[s], all the time discovery is being made, the community has to adapt. As for the Freud [theories], they are more like a dogma. They have been created by Sigmund Freud and that's it basically. It's not because somebody [found] a machine to look [at] what's going on in the brain. I think it's wrong. It's like the evolution theory vs. the creationist on what's written in the Bible. People have to adapt. You cannot ignore that the Earth is 5000 years old, except if you're in Texas. It's common sense in a way because it's been proven by many many different direction[s]. I think with psychoanalysis and dream interpretation, the functional bases have been proven wrong by scientists who are working with neurobiology.

MG: What I enjoy about your dreamwork translated into your filmwork is how you have categorized and effectively manifested a visual range of dream experience. For example, many people fly in dreams, but they fly variously and your translation of flying as swimming—which is often how I fly in my dreams—really intrigued me. The artist M.C. Escher has likewise connected birds to fish through his imagery. Could you speak about how you created that sequence with Gael Garcia Bernal where he's flying over Paris?

Gondry: It's an idea I had for a long time. I mean you always try to figure out how you can make somebody fly: you have back projection, you have blue screen, then you have wire that you remove. Nobody ever tried to have somebody swimming into clear water on a projected image behind for the simple reason it's a nightmare to unite. But I thought it was very close [to] the feeling of dreaming and this human touch quality you were talking about before that you cannot replace. It's funny because it was very hard to organize the ways to put him on the blue screen. I thought it would be like a science fiction movie if it was successful. Or if it was cheap it would look like a comedy, like a joke. Using the real water—I remember when I first started watching the dailies and being really worried about the bubbles—and I thought, no, it's great, it's a dream, even better with the bubbles. All those side effects you get by doing in camera effects are important to making simple ideas more visceral and more connected to what you really experience in the dream.

MG: You also have a keen sense of scale (for example the giant hands which you used in your Foo Fighters Everlong video and in Science of Sleep). What's that about?

Gondry: I had this experience of feeling my hands were gigantic when I was a kid. I had this recurring nightmare where I would wake up and for a half hour I was convinced my hands were nearly ten feet long. My parents had a really hard time to convince me I was fine. Lately, I [found] out what it is. It's funny because I have been seeing therapists and these kind of people to try to find an answer because it was quite clear—maybe with the extent of trouble that I carry with me, affecting my life—but I couldn't get any answer.

Lately, I went to a museum and they showed this little guy—a man in a picture with giant hands—actually he was a representation of a homunculus who is this character; it's a [representation] of nerve ending in this context. They give him a shape to be understandable. It doesn't have a shape in your brain, it's just grey matter anyway, but basically they find that all the connection that connect to the hand, all the connection that connect to the arm, all the connection that connect to the nerve endings that connect to the nose and face, they find out there are much more nerve endings to the hand and to the toes and to the arm, for instance. Even the brain doesn't have sensors. If you open your skull and touch your brain, you won't feel anything. So that's why there are these big hands in this homunculus character.

My feeling was due to this way that I have of waking up gradually, which is uncommon. Some part of my brain—even though I'm awake—I'm still functioning as a dream. I think it's like the start point of the story of Stephane's issue, is that I can wake up and really believe and be convinced that the dream I experienced is a real memory and I really did that in real life. I think when I was younger I would wake up [and] would have a hard time to squeeze back my image perception in my real body.

MG: That's fascinating, if I'm understanding you correctly. Likewise, you have a masterful sense of repetition and replication as in the rhythmically mesmerizing Daft Punk Around the World or the brilliant Kylie Minogue video Come Into My World where she keeps looping around and increasing in number. Have you, by any chance, seen Ilya Khrjanovsky's film 4?

Gondry: No. 4, like the number 4?

MG: Yes, exactly.

Gondry: It's about repetition?

MG: More about replication. You should check it out; I think you might find it interesting. Sidetracking briefly to your music videos, how does that work? Do the musicians come to you, you hear the music, you come up with a concept and propose it to them? Or do they have an idea already in mind that you work with?

Gondry: I'm open and I'm used to collaborating. I'm coming from being a musician, of doing my videos for my own band, with my band who were coming from the same art school as me. I happened to buy a camera and being quite good at it; but, I didn't see myself as a director. So when I meet an artist, a singer, I am okay to listen to what they have to say. To me it's very important that they believe that they can do their own video themselves. I remember when I was younger and I was watching the first video[s] of Michael Jackson, whoever directed them, I always assumed they were directed by Michael Jackson, which is naïve. But it's good in a way because I didn't want the artist being stuck into a world who belongs to somebody else. So I developed this way of harmonizing my idea with the idea of the singer and make sure they feel comfortable in this world I was creating and I was always creating this world based on their song, on their personality. That was very important.

MG: That's marvelous how that works. Returning to dream imagery, another dream image of yours that I loved was in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind where the house is being consumed by the sea. I've had that dream too. Can you speak about how you brought that image to fruition?

Gondry: Charlie Kaufman had written in a very poetic way the memory decaying and I was trying to find a way to preserve that visually. I couldn't just use what he had written because some would be purely CGI and complicated. They read very good but I had to find my visual way to interpet them and keep the same level. So this idea of the background decaying was a thing we agreed with Charlie on the house being eaten by time in fast motion and then being drawn into the ocean was part of that. We took a real house, we put some sand in it, and then we put some walls that matched the same house into the ocean and waited [for] the tide to rise. We shot it there. By mixing those two with editing, we captured this feeling. It's the feeling when you're on the sand and the tide is going down and you feel the sand leaving below your body attracted by the water.

MG: Well, it worked. Clearly, lucid dreaming is of predominant interest for you: being aware of the dream experience as you are experiencing it. Or as the Tibetans would say, bringing a spark of light into the dark recesses of the human psyche. Are you familiar at all with the dream work of Carlos Castañeda and the shamanic practice of approaching dreams not as the psychic reworking of the day's refuse but the experiential chance to use dreams as gateways into alternative dimensions and universes?

Gondry: It seems I grew up with a lot of New Age belief and current implication. I [have] become very drawn to science and [I've] become a little—not scared—but a little differences with what people want to believe. I know of this person but it's the type of reading my mind would have over and over when I was a kid so now I am not drawn to that; I am more interested to try to read science magazines. I think they are more magical to me. It's the same way I find astronomy more magical than astrology.

MG: Understood. You've initiated a website where keywords in participants' posted dreams link into specific images from The Science of Sleep; what motivated that project, how's that working and what are you gaining from it or hoping that others will gain from it?

Gondry: It's just a way that people can share their dream. It's working well. I had some more ambition in the beginning. Technically, the time was too short to put them together where I see how I'm going to do this website. The idea was like it would be a real community of dreamers. We wanted to create a network … like a brain, if you will, with all the dreams of this community and they would be connected by theme. You would have this map with all these dreams that you could travel through. I recalled some of my dreams and I put them on the website but I got discouraged because I had too little control over this website. I lost interest in investing energy in it. I would like to do something more about community.

MG: Finally, I've been spending so much time discussing dreams with you that I've hardly touched upon the film itself. Are you pleased with The Science of Sleep? Did it achieve what you set out to do? How do you hope to further these dream themes in future film work?

Gondry: I don't think I would do too many other film[s] about dreams. I need to work with reality a little bit. But I'm pleased that people connected emotionally with the character, which was the most important thing no matter what you do and what subject you're talking about. I have to thank everybody around me who make me do this film and my actor who believes this character. They took some of my pain away, which is great.

MG: Well, Michel, thank you very much. You are a true purveyor of visions and I hope the film does well among the public. Thank you for the time; I appreciate it.

08/30/06 UPDATE: Via Dave Hudson at the Greencine Daily, Eugene Hernandez offers up a clip of indieWIRE's SoHo Apple Store Q&A with Michel Gondry, recapped by The Reeler, and YouTube.


milenkos said...

Great interview, Michael, there's always a chock full of good info here!

Reel Fanatic said...

Fantastic interview .. I'm insanely jealous! ... There are few directors working today who are more innovative than Gondry .. I've watched "Block Party" three times now, and find something new and fascinating each time

Michael Guillen said...

Thanks, Miljenko. I like the new look of your blogsite!

And thanks, Keith, I always appreciate your stopping by to visit.

milenkos said...

have you checked out the SCMS! I think you should be a member. I will start writing some interesting stuff too: I'll let you know.

Michael Guillen said...

The SCMS? What is that, Miljenko?

Anonymous said...

Excellent interview. Thank God we have you to provide us with this glimpse at the director and his latest film. Really great reading and has me really chewing on all the thoughts on the film.

Science of Sleep is to date the best movie I've seen in 2006. It took me a couple of beats to digest the ending but I love what he did there (though I don't want to spoil anything). Of course there is that part of me that wanted a huge American in Paris Gondry style cinamtic climax to end all in dream overload nirvana.

Michael Guillen said...

Blake: I am so pleased that you appreciate my interview with Gondry. And I am especially honored that you picked it up for Cinema Strikes Back. Thank you for that. I love getting the word out on this particular film.

Dennis Cozzalio said...

Maya, I was interested in the movie before, but I'm excited as hell for it now after reading your excellent piece. Thanks so much for all the great work you do here at The Evening Class. I'm passing it along to everyone I know!

Michael Guillen said...

Thank you, Dennis, and please let me know what you think of the film once you've seen it. I'm going to be catching it one more time before its official release.