You never know what to expect from New York-based French filmmaker Michel Gondry. Yet no matter what kind of film he is delivering, whether it's a romantic feature like last year’s Mood Indigo or a documentary about Dave Chappelle’s block party, the youthful 51-year-old knows how to draw a crowd. The Berlin Film Festival’s world premiere of his innovative, partly animated documentary Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? was no exception. Even if the session was sold out, young Berliners queued for tickets to watch Gondry’s take on Noam Chomsky, the American linguist and philosopher who is generally not a drawcard for the young hip crowd.
Gondry, of course, has fans of all ages thanks to his prolific output of innovative video clips—for the likes of Björk, Beck and The White Stripes—as well as his weird and wonderful movies (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind). With Is the Man Who is Tall Happy?, the eccentric Frenchman not only captivates us with his images and his idiosyncratic style, but with his cute quizzical way of speaking. He, in fact, turns the usually dull use of voice-over into an artform.
Gondry had been on Berlin’s competition jury and his fellow jurors had all joined him for the premiere. I sat behind masterful Chinese director Zhang Yimou, who has always seemed fairly serious in our interviews. Yet here he was leaning forward and laughing. It’s hard not to when Gondry is around, on screen or off.
HB: How did you come up with the images in the movie?
MG: I had used this type of visual expression with graphics to tell little stories or send a little note to a friend. I wanted to do it with animation that’s derivative [of] or inspired by Émile Cohl, who is said to be the first person who did animation in 1907. He did this very simple figure on a blackboard with white chalk; it would just move and then transform. I had a picture of his film from a book my grandmother bought us in 1969, and even if I didn’t see the image move, I was always haunted by the graphic. So it influenced me and I started to draw and do animation.
Why did you use animation in this film about Chomsky?
Going into this conversation I felt very overwhelmed. I think using animation helped me understand him and his concept and helped me understand myself. When I listen to my voice, I feel like I’m quite naïve. I’m frustrated because we have a hard time with communication especially when we are talking about language. I illustrate things and sometimes it’s on the surface and sometimes it’s deeper. So there is a combination between something really naïve and something sort of mathematical or geometrical, which sort of defines who I am.
Does your French accent help?
It is a problem but it is a help as well. When I don’t understand the meaning I blame it on the accent. “Can you say it again?” Overall, it helped me look less stupid than I feel I am. I think I’m more articulate in French.
Was it hard to remain objective when around such a great mind you clearly admire?
I don’t think I’m preachy; I’m not trying to prove anything, just trying to express my imagination to match with his brain. Of course, I’m a big fan. I’m not going to do a video for someone I don’t like — this is why I’m not a film critic. I’m not going to write something about a movie I hate. That would be stupid.
But the French invented film criticism, Cahiers du Cinema etc.
Yeah, I’m not really happy about that!
You are above all playful. Did you find you could be playful with Chomsky?
Yes, because I’d met him before and he has a sense of humour so I wanted to use that because one of my goals is to show he is not so serious or academic. I wanted to show his human side.
When did you first meet?
I first met him in 2007 and 2008 and we met several times in the next few years. In 2010, I suggested the interview and documentary and we did it.
What did you feel about him when you first met him?
Well, of course, I was impressed and fascinated. I tried to show him my concept and I was a little bit over-enthusiastic. I was hoping too hard and I felt he wasn’t taking me seriously. Then little by little he found out more about me and got to know where I was coming from.
So he didn’t already know your work?
No. I showed him some of my animation like the clip I did for the American singer Cody ChesnuTT ('King of the Game'). But his secretary knew my movies and was a big fan so that helped.
What did he think of the finished film?
He was really sort of impressed and he was very courteous and nice and warm. He never goes to movies and went to see mine three times. That made me proud.
Are you into Chomsky’s theories?
Yes. I believe what he says about generative grammar. I think his work is scientific and I want to expose his work.
In the film he says he is 85. Do you feel an obligation towards his heritage?
Yes, but it’s a personal feeling. I wanted to finish the film before he dies because I sort of need his approval. It’s a form of insecurity. I want to have that satisfaction because I’m doing so much work and there is an elastic point of view on his work and I feel it’s nice if he watches it. It’s like if you do a movie with an actor that you really respect you want them to watch the finished film. If the actor dies before he sees the finished film you’re going to feel frustrated.
Did he talk more off-camera about his wife Carol Schatz who died in 2008 after they were married for almost 60 years? It was really interesting to see this man who seemed extremely confident suddenly be undermined by this well of emotion.
I felt he was talking about her without me asking. Like right at the beginning when talking about the Tadoma Method in which the blind and deaf are learning language, he said, “My wife did a lot of work on that” and he comes back to his wife many times. At some point, I asked him a very personal question that may have been a little too intrusive about his feelings about his wife’s death. But then when I asked him what makes him happy, at first he was very guarded, but he thought it through and then gave me a lot of examples and really answered the question.
There are elements of a love story in the movie because it shows his great relationship with his wife. Your 2004 movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was one of the greatest love stories. Does this film have a lot in common with your earlier work?
Well, yeah, I’m really romantic or sentimental of course. It was important for me to show Noam’s human side.
Was there footage you couldn’t use to tell a fluid story?
We talked about genetics quite a bit and while it was really interesting you don’t want to lose the audience. I read quite a bit about it so I could follow him and understand. The discussion was a bit more complicated, and while it would have been great, I couldn’t put everything in.
Were you nervous at the premiere having the jury watching?
I was very pleased they came and I was a bit nervous but I knew they would not judge the film. They all came because they were curious about it.
Regarding your movies, you are still best known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Do you sometimes worry that people want more of that?
It’s challenging that you’ve made a movie that had some success, so the movies that come after are compared to that. I hope with the next one people will forget Eternal Sunshine, but maybe it will never happen. It’s better to have one [hit] than zero in any case! (Chuckles)
Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? screens at the 2014 Melbourne International Film Festival and is scheduled for national release in September. Watch the trailer below: