French filmmaker MICHEL GONDRY breaks away from his regular collaborator Charlie Kaufman for the dreamy, hallucinogenic head trip THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP. BY FILMINK'S DAVID MICHAEL
Set in Paris, The Science Of Sleep is the idiosyncratic yet inventive study of the romance between Stephane (Gael Garcia Bernal) and his neighbour Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg). The shy Stephane, who is lured back to his family home with the promise of a job, becomes infatuated with his neighbour, whose rich imagination matches his own. Awkward and uncertain in his approaches, Stephane is more successful when wooing Stephanie in his dreams. A perceived blissful relationship then begins as the success he finds in his dreams seems to replicate in his life, only to erode as he becomes derailed by a perceived rejection by Stephanie. With his insecurities again on the rise, Stephane gradually becomes uncertain about what is actually a dream and what is reality. Written by Michel Gondry, the film enters the world of dreams in much the same way that Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind dealt with memory, where Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet's couple set about wiping their troubled relationship from their minds.
“It's interesting how the brain works in dreams,” says Gondry in his thick French accent. “It's really close to filmmaking in the sense that you work with editing in your dream. In real life, you don't have cuts – it's only one shot. In dreams, you have lots of cuts, and when you dream, the logical part of your brain is put to sleep.”
If director Michel Gondry dreamed of anything for his career in film, it would be the chance to carry out his madcap visions in their purest form, free of external influence. The Science Of Sleep has the distinction of being the first film he's written, as well as directed. Charlie Kaufman wrote the scripts for both Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, and Gondry admits that his work was perhaps overshadowed by Kaufman in both those films, with the writer winning an Oscar for the latter in 2005. The Frenchman felt that he “became like the journeyman” next to his more celebrated screenwriter. “It was not easy to deal with,” he shrugs, and such an indent on his ego and reputation is understandable. Gondry's video clip work with bands such as The White Stripes, Radiohead and The Chemical Brothers has garnered him a reputation as one of the most innovative directors of music videos ever.
“I made a conscious decision to work on my own and write a script by myself, and I didn't know if I was capable of that,” says the director of his determination to make The Science Of Sleep his own. “I still feel that I don't really have the skill. Working in France gave me complete freedom, which was a big difference. On Eternal Sunshine, I had all these voices in my head: Charlie Kaufman, Jim Carrey and two producers. I had to digest four opinions and come up with solutions.”
Gondry felt that the bureaucratic structure of making films this way impeded on his creativity as a filmmaker. “Sometimes, you need to communicate with your actors to have an immediate collaboration,” explains the director. “If people talk to you before you can talk to your actor, it's very dangerous. It's like when you try to educate your child, and his mother contradicts everything you've said. Then you have no authority.”
In achieving this singular vision, it seems that the odd bridge was burnt along the way. Initially, The Science Of Sleep had begun as a collaboration with Welsh comedic actor Rhys Ifans, who played the man-ape Puff in Gondry's under-rated Human Nature, but is perhaps better known as the Y-front wearing Spike in Notting Hill. The two had worked on the early stages of a script for The Science Of Sleep, with Ifans suggesting the title. The actor exorcised his disappointment at being frozen out of the film in an interview given to a UK newspaper.
“I felt betrayed,” said Ifans, when Bernal was cast in the role that he had earmarked. “I considered [Gondry] a real friend for a number of years. We worked very closely together and he'd talked about me doing this film many times. I was really hurt, let down and angry.” Gondry, who acknowledges Ifans for coming up with the title in the credits of the film, doesn't want to dwell on its early incarnation. “He helped me out with the writing of a version that's completely gone now.”
The script to The Science Of Sleep gained its shape over an eight-year period, and swiftly became a distinctly personal story for Gondry. Inspired by his own “past experiences of rejection” by women, the film was actually shot in the same building in Paris where Gondry lived almost twenty years ago. In fact, his son and his mother still live two floors above the apartment where they shot the film. Stephane's job in the film as a calendar design artist is also drawn from Gondry's personal experience.
Visually, The Science Of Sleep is akin to a compilation of Gondry's previous work. There's the giant hands from The Foo Fighters' “Everlong” video; the same animal costumes from his Oui Oui video; transmogrifying perspectives from The White Stripes' “Denial Twist”; and throughout the entire film there's that free-flowing cocktail of stop motion animation, optical effects, and location shooting, which is his natural mode of expression.
Despite Gondry's aesthetic talent, making a film in France without studio backing and his collaborating scribe Kaufman put him in a precarious position: could he pull off his own film? The director is no stranger to battling his own internal neuroses, and he freely admits to having been seriously depressed after Human Nature, and wanted to give up on filmmaking altogether. “It wasn't so much about how the film was perceived, but I didn't know if I had much to say,” says the director of his crisis of conscience after Human Nature. “At the same time, a friend said that after you reach 35-years-old, you have nothing new in your brain, and I was really scared. I feel okay now though, but I'm still insecure.”
Gondry's answer to his state of mind at the time was to shoot two music videos, including The White Stripes' “Fell In Love With A Girl”. A visionary effort that reproduced Jack and Meg White as animated Lego figures, it indicated that perhaps the best foot forward for Gondry would be to embrace his childlike vision with abandonment. “I found that I could be creative again,” he says of his apparent liberation. As the director has already said, he wasn't completely enamoured with the process of making Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but its success and positive reception undoubtedly helped bolster his conviction to go it alone. “Without Charlie – who was very opinionated on a lot of issues – I felt naked,” he says of making the leap. “I had to go through that and prove to myself that I could do it. And I was ready to fail. I'm always ready. It's something that I talk about a lot with Charlie. We agree that when we do a project, we must have the chance of failing, otherwise we don't deserve any success.”
In many ways, the key was to return to a looser framework of working, in a way taking him back to the homespun feel of his early videos for Oui Oui, the French band he played drums for during his art college days. Gondry made sure that there was always room left for impulse and surprises. “When I'm shooting, I work with chaos and disorganisation on purpose,” he reflects. “I get better results from accidents, and I don't like to have it all planned. Even when I do videos that are all planned with storyboards, there is always room for accidents. When it's loose, it gets scary and interesting. With The Science Of Sleep, I wanted more room so accidents could happen during the shooting. I wanted the script to be more abstract. When a script is so detailed, you just follow it, but I wanted to explore more. I know where I'm going, but I don't know exactly how I'm going to get there.”
Gondry admits that he doesn't invest much thought in the scientific and academic approach to dreams, although he is enthusiastic in offering snip-bits of knowledge that he's gained from his studies. “Apparently when you move from country to country, normally there is a delay of six to eight days until the location where you have been comes into your dreams. Your experiences can be in your dreams the same day, but the location is delayed for some reason.”
In reaction to sections of the press dismissing The Science Of Sleep as maybe a little too whimsical, Gondry suggests that people's resistance to dreams is perhaps at fault. “It's hard to entertain people with something abstract,” he reasons. “That's one of the reasons why even great films about dreams are difficult to follow, because you think everything is possible, so there is no sense of danger.”
Talk turns to the actual creative influence of dreams. I mention the late Robert Altman, who claimed to have dreamed the whole movie of 3 Women (1977), and then shot it as he dreamed it. Does Gondry have a notebook under his pillow, in anticipation of dream inspiration? “I sometimes wish that I had it next to me more and wrote more in it,” he says. “It's so difficult when you have a vivid dream to write about it, but sometimes I really make the effort, because the images are so crazy. I use two columns: one column is the narration of the dream, and the other one details what they make me think of in real life, and I find all sorts of connections.”
Dreams are often embraced as folly, although in truth, it's scientifically proven that they're instrumental in our learning and development, especially as we're growing up. “Everybody dreams, but a lot of people don't remember their dreams, so they just ignore them,” concludes Gondry. It's a missed opportunity. Since a third of one's life is spent asleep, maybe it's time we all embraced the science of sleep…