An Interview with Michel Gondry

A still from Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?

New Inquiry film columnist Brandon Harris interviewed French director Michel Gondry about his new movie: Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation with Noam Chomsky

Brandon Harris: When did you encounter Noam Chomsky’s work?

Michel Gondry: Eight years ago, maybe more recently, but I was not very familiar with him at the time. Of course, I was taken by his political work and his views on many things but especially his views on creativity. I responded to it a lot, especially his view that creativity is something that is common to all human beings but you see a very small range of people using their creativity to make their living. I think we share that, thinking that this is a shame. Then I started to read his science work and that was very impressive.

Had you read any serious semiotics texts or political history before encountering Chomsky?

None of them really. The political aspect of history always intrigued me. My dad was a communist when I was a kid. It was the scientific approach to writing that always struck me as a child, astrology, astrophysics, and all that. It struck my imagination since I was very young. Not so long ago, in the 20s for example, we believed that our galaxy was the universe. We’ve expanded our perception of the universe in not so many years. The big bang was theorized only in the second half of the 20th century. The idea of looking back in time, the idea of the speed of light, all of that was very captivating to me.

Did you have any preconceived notions of what it would be like to embark upon this project with Chomsky? If so, how did it, and your relations with him, differ from what you had imagined?

He was very friendly. He was very human. It was not so hard to have him talk about his work and methods, how he was educated. He even talked a lot about his wife. It’s not that it surprised me but I’m really glad he brought up the subject. I participated in that, asking him personal questions. I really appreciated that, to have him describe his findings and theories like Universal Grammar was really exciting to me. You see a guy, you hear a guy here who has truly found out something himself. It’s a silly parallel, but once I went to see a James Brown concert. I went to see the guy who invented this style of music, who took existing forms and made something all his own, it is amazing.

I saw him do a nearly two-hour set, rather late in his life, in 2004 I believe. It was incredible that he was still able to physically perform in the way he did.

I saw him in the House of Blues in the late 90s. He had two drummers, one would play one song, the other would play the next, just so that it could always have the full energy. I went there to see him with Bjork. It was a great. Of course, it’s a very big leap between Chomsky and James Brown, but the idea of talking to someone about what they’ve discovered that is so seminal. Generally in history by the time an innovative idea has spread, the innovative people behind it are dead. Now in a lifetime you can spread your idea enough that you’ll still be there, you’ll still be alive to witness the spread because things go so much faster.  For instance, Isaac Newton, most of his major work was published after his death. So to have a guy in front of you who has found out something that has really changed the course of history is amazing. That is why I wanted to do the film.

Did the formal approach of animating representations of the ideas that your discussion touched on come about as a formal approach before you embarked upon the project or did you realize that was a path you wanted to take from the very beginning?

It came after when I started to talk to him. After meeting him a few times I realized I could do this project in this way. Like most projects you start with what you’re doing in that very moment and you feel very removed from the concept of the work you feel very removed from the final achievement. First it was an idea I had, then I had to convince him and then I had to do it. He was easy to convince.

What steps did your process entail? Did you shoot the interviews, pull selects from them, organize the conversational snippets between the two of you, and then animate those sections in some kind of order, or was it more chaotic and intuitive?

I shot the first half in the beginning of 2010. Then I went and animated some part. Then I showed him those parts and then I talked to him more…

That’s all built into the structure of the film, the back and forth you have with him…

Right. The back in forth was critical. His perception of my work was very important to me.

Had he seen your films before?

No. He himself was aware that I had had some success, probably because his assistant Beverly talked him into speaking with me. There is an interview where he talks with Tom Morello from Rage Against the Machine and it’s really great, these two men from completely different background sharing so much. It took me nearly four years to get to the finished film, a bit more than three years of animating in that time. I did it like a hobby, in the evenings when I would come home. It was a great relief from the other movies I was working on. The idea of animate something and to animate something that we had shot on film, so you don’t see the result right away, this was something I was especially excited about.

Has your relationship to this movie changed from the conception of it to what it means to you now because the length of time you lived with it is so much longer than your typical project?

Especially if I do animation I can start without going through the process of financing, convincing the producer, conceptualizing the idea. I had to conceptualize to propose the project to him, which is good because you have to be able to express what the project is. It is a good for me because as it evolves when you’re making it the initial idea can drift away and it’s important to always remind yourself of your concept so that it is coherent. The big difference is that this was self-produced. It cost a bit, but I could afford it. Then to finish it I needed a producer so we found a production company to help us.

Do the formal techniques that crop up in some of your previous films, such a stop motion, claymation, and various other 2-D animation techniques play heavily into the skillset you brought to this project?

Yes. I always start just like I did when I was young. Remember when you would animate something on the edge of a book? A flip book? I’ve always done that since I was a kid. It’s all just a continuation of that. There really wasn’t much to it, basic 2-D animation. You draw something then you take a picture of it. There is something oddly biological about it, like a fractal. I do classical animation in a very sort of naïve style. So I had that all in me from the beginning, that way of working.

Are you utterly convinced by Chomsky’s theories? Did you, while diving into his life and work, read any counter arguments to his work in linguistics?

Yeah, I find his theories pretty convincing, I think his work has a more scientific approach then the others. Sometimes when I’m not convinced I’m perhaps too dismissive and interestingly when I would try to challenge him I would always feel as if I sounded like a fool.

Were you increasingly at ease with him as time went on?

Yes. It’s interesting, after I showed him the first part of the film, I could tell he was listening a little bit more. I was more there to listen to him and to guide him to not go too much into theory. I am very in tune with his ideas about creativity and biology and appreciate people who have a more scientific background than a literature background but funny enough he has a literature background as well, he’s read all the great Russian and French novels from the 19th Century so he can really share a passion for telling stories. He’s really not into the French philosophy of the 20th Century. I feel the same way.

Foucault and Sartre aren’t your bag?

Yeah. There is a bit of a showoff in them. I think Sartre is a lot of showoff. I’m not so much into the psychoanalysts either, Lacan or Freud for that matter. I have a hard time with them. I haven’t read Marx but I should. That’s the articulation between philosophy and the politics.

You have time, man.

I am a bit ignorant as it turns out. I lack knowledge is so many areas. Anyways, I understand his point of view politically and scientifically and his arguments for generative grammar and I like that he tried to find the heart of the mechanism, going around recording the ways people speak in primitive cultures and finding not differences but universalities. This is something we share. I think this is why he really liked the film, even if we work in vastly different directions.