Before collaborating on the underrated 2001 comedy Human Nature and the inventive new metaphysical romance Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, director Michel Gondry and writer Charlie Kaufman separately established strong creative identities. Widely hailed for his innovative music videos and commercials, Gondry expresses a playful, childlike sensibility through special-effects wizardry and the formal rigor of a great avant-garde filmmaker. Best known for his Björk videos, including "Human Behavior" and "Bachelorette," Gondry has also directed memorable clips for The Chemical Brothers, Daft Punk, Foo Fighters, and The White Stripes. Many of his videos and commercials have been collected in the DVD release The Work Of Director Michel Gondry.
For his part, Kaufman has earned an unusual degree of attention for his screenplays, which express fundamental human longings through bold surrealism. After writing for television shows, including Get A Life and Ned And Stacey, he broke through with 1999's Being John Malkovich, a comedy about the discovery of a portal into the titular actor's head. Kaufman re-teamed with Malkovich director Spike Jonze on 2002's Adaptation, a daringly self-reflexive work about Kaufman's attempt to adapt Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief. Kaufman also adapted Chuck Barris' autobiography Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, which George Clooney turned into his directorial debut.
Literally entering the human brain, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind stars Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a couple who undergo a non-surgical procedure to erase painful memories. Gondry and Kaufman recently spoke to The Onion A.V. Club about the challenges of working together, dealing with audience and studio expectations, and taking revenge on the guy responsible for Human Nature's awful DVD cover art.
The Onion: Eternal Sunshine is your second collaboration. How do you feel your sensibilities complement each other?
Michel Gondry: I think we share a common negativity. Once, I was talking to Björk, and she said to me, "You're the most pessimistic person, but at least you're funny." And I think that's something you could say about Charlie, as well.
O: The script for Human Nature was written before Michel came on to direct it. How was the writing process different this time around?
Charlie Kaufman: We developed the story together to pitch as an idea and sell it to a studio. That's it, right there. Then we sold it and I went off and eventually wrote it.
O: Was it difficult to get studios to buy the concept?
CK: It was amazingly and surprisingly easy. I kinda didn't expect it to happen. I'd never pitched anything before, and I was just trying to go through the motions. I never compromised on what I was trying to get, yet there was actually a bidding war. We put it out there, and within a few days, we had several good offers. All on a five-minute pitch that I didn't expect much from.
O: And the studios were aware of the achronological structure and everything else?
CK: Yeah, they were aware that it was going to take place mostly in this guy's brain, and that it would show their relationship basically backwards, from the end to the beginning. They knew all of that and still wanted to do it.
O: Both of you deal with abstraction, both visually and conceptually. In the various stages of pre-production and production, do you find it difficult to communicate these concepts to your collaborators, or to other people involved in the movie?
MG: Sometimes it can be hard, because we imagine scenes in a very detailed way, and if others don't share our vision, then it's not always easy to convey what we want.
O: To that end, do you feel your audiences are more sophisticated now in handling a certain level of disorientation?
CK: From my vantage point in writing a story, I can't and don't and have no interest in thinking about the level of sophistication of the audience. I can only think about what interests me, and maybe what I would want to see if I were watching the movie. To me, that's the key to writing something that's not pandering. I go about my business and try to do what I'm interested in doing in the best way I know how to do it. That's my job.
MG: I come back to the idea of geometry. I think of a story like working with Lego blocks. If you replace one scene to fix one problem, then a second problem arises, because everything shifts out of place. You want just the right balance in the storytelling, and that's what drives both of us. Before anyone sees the film, we need to achieve our own sense of fulfillment. If the movie is rejected, then it's not very pleasant. But if we're not satisfied, no one will like it.
CK: I think we both recognize the necessity of embracing the idea that what we're working on may not be embraced, if that makes any sense. If we're too concerned or at all concerned with questions like, "What are people going to think? Are they going to like us? Is it going to make a million dollars?" Wait, I guess a million dollars isn't good. [Laughs.] "A million dollars? Oh no!"
MG: One million dollars?! Wow! [Laughs.]
O: Were you ever pressured to straighten out the timeline or do anything to make the film more traditionally accessible?
CK: There were discussions with the studio. We were back and forth with them over issues like, "When will you lose the audience?" or "If it's too challenging and they're too confused, are they gonna walk out? Or is that confusion going to excite them, and they're going to want to figure it out?" We did test screenings and that sort of thing.
O: What was the test-screening process like?
CK: We had two or three of them, and a lot of it had to do with displacing the audience in time, and what they think of that. We learned some stuff and applied it in the editing, but it was important to us to keep that achronology.
MG: I think the purpose of test screenings is different for the studio and for the filmmaker. For the studio, I think they want to know whether the film works or not. For the filmmaker, they're useful because we're able to have a detached perspective on everything. Because we know where the story is going, and we know all the torture that we've been through to make the movie. We know each little moment, but it's hard to see the work as a complete assembly, and to feel what the characters are feeling. We need other people to watch it with us and come at it from a fresh perspective.
CK: The sad thing about working on a movie is that you can never see the movie. I can never watch anything I've been involved in, because I know it, and I know what the making of it was like, and I know what's been cut out and changed. I just know it.
MG: For Human Nature, the only time I really experienced the film is when I saw the French dubbed version. [Laughs.] The characters had different voices, so nothing was quite how I remembered it, and for once I could see it as a story. Whereas before, I wasn't distanced from it enough.
O: The test-screening process seems inherently flawed, because people volunteer to see movies like Eternal Sunshine when they're released in theaters. They're not recruited.
MG: Yes, they bring in the people who are least interested in what you're doing, just to have a worst-case scenario, I guess. It can be really depressing. People get angry. It was pretty nice this time, but sometimes people get angry because you try to do something different and they think it's unfair. I think it's that way when you're shooting, too: People get upset when you're using the streets, and they honk at you and yell at you. And then they're happy to turn on the TV later and watch this sort of stuff.
CK: I think it's New Yorkers you're talking about. There can be an arrogance on the part of film crews and production assistants who are a little too "You can't walk here!" People have every right to say, "Hey, this is my street!" So that reaction is understandable.
O: [To Kaufman] What was the extent of your involvement in Eternal Sunshine after the cameras rolled?
CK: I was very involved in editing the movie. After production started, I think that was my biggest sphere of influence. But even during the shoot, I would talk to Michel about the problems he was having, and I did some rewriting as we went along.
O: Do you feel, at this stage, that you have to have a certain amount of control over how your scripts are treated? Is it possible for you to sell a script without caring where it goes?
CK: No. At least it's not possible for me to do it willingly. It can happen, and it has, but it's not my favorite scenario.
MG: You don't think that sometimes, for curiosity's sake, you could give a script to someone and just see how it turns out?
CK: No. I spend an enormous amount of time and effort on these things. It's important to me.
MG: But isn't there, like, a director you worship so much that you don't want to interfere? Sometimes, I hand a project to the editor and let him work on his own for a little bit.
CK: Yeah, but that's a controlled situation. You can let an editor work for two weeks, and then you come in and say "No." You're talking about something else for me. You're saying, "Give it over, and then see the movie when it's done."
MG: Yes. I think it would be interesting.
CK: It might be interesting, but the difference between a movie and a play is that the production you end up with is the production. If a movie that I spent all this time on turns out to be crap, it's never going to be made again.
MG: It's very challenging, because Charlie always wants to have an explanation when you're working with him. Sometimes, I just have a feeling that an idea is going to work, but Charlie wants to know why. It was good for me to think more deeply about why I liked one idea over another. There are a lot of whys when you're talking to Charlie. Why? Why? Why? But it's often very helpful. If there's something that Charlie doesn't like, he can get extremely particular about why it's not working. I like having someone around who can articulate precisely what's wrong, because through this process, you can find the best solution.
O: Was your working relationship on this film similar to Human Nature, or were there differences?
CK: It's a different movie, and it's got different issues within it, so I think that always changes what we're talking about. But I see a continuity. We're still the same people.
MG: As I do more movies, I hope Human Nature will find its place in the overall context of what I'm doing. When I did The Work Of Director Michel Gondry and put all the videos and commercials together, they feel happy with each other. I think, one day, it will be the same with Human Nature. I feel good about it, but the opposition to it wears down on you.
O: [To Gondry] Your videos employ a lot of effects techniques—some that are state-of-the-art, and some that are as old as cinema itself. Could you talk about the effects on Eternal Sunshine?
MG: I had a lot of conversations with Charlie about how things would look once we're inside [Jim Carrey's] brain and his memory is decaying. First of all, I wanted the memories to feel really vivid and real, which is why I decided to work with [director of photography] Ellen Kuras. Charlie had a very poetic way of putting this decaying memory into words, and I had to find something that would affect me the same way. It was hard, because the effects process takes a lot of time to choreograph, quite apart from the other aspects of production that you have to pay attention to. We decided early on that each time you see an effect in this movie, it has to give you a visceral response. You have to feel it.
O: What about the music for the film? Why did you choose Jon Brion?
MG: I find that his melodies are very original. And he has this thing he shares with Charlie and me: We're all a little unbalanced, a little unsatisfied with the world. He's very skilled, and he understood our way of looking at things, so when we thought a part of the score needed work, he knew how to fix it. And very few people can work this way, because they think they're being mistreated. Because Jon respected Charlie and me, he could work like that, but he doesn't like others telling him what to do. He would not listen to the producer, for example, just the writer and the director. His music is populist, but it's also specific and original. I think his music ties the film together well.
O: To what extent are you participating in the way this film is being marketed? The trailer is unconventional and seems close to the movie's spirit, but the TV commercials are a different story.
CK: For the trailer, there's no one saying, "In a world where…" We got that guy cut out. He was in one version, but now we just have title cards that say certain things that the studio people thought needed explaining. They've shown us the trailer at different stages, and they take our criticism, but they're very selective in what advice they take from us. Same thing with the posters. In a way, the poster is a variation on an idea that Michel had.
MG: We're happy with the poster now, though it took some time to work out the right design concept. A lot of times, people say, "But nobody will judge a film based on the poster." I get so offended when I hear that. I'm like, "If you don't care about what goes on the poster, then let us do it, because we do." To me, the poster for Human Nature is hideous. The guy who decided to do this image, especially for the DVD, I made him promise to apologize to me after the video came out and didn't rent well. Because he promised me it would be a success.
CK: [Sarcastically.] And it turned out to be the number-one video in the country.
MG: That's true. [Laughs.] This guy, I insulted him on the phone. We had worked on this film for four years. I wanted to go and paint his house.
CK: You wanted to paint his house?
MG: Yeah, like paint big X's on his house. He put a fake naked Patricia Arquette on the cover to attract guys who probably wouldn't like the film, because he thought it would rent more. We had been working for four years on this project we cherished, and he arrived for two weeks and destroyed everything. Now I can't even give this film to a friend, because I'm ashamed to hold this horrible cover. And I hate this guy. If I see him someplace now, I will kick his balls off. I really viscerally hate his guts. Talking to him on the phone was so hard, because he'd give you a little hope that you have some kind of control over how it turned out. Then, as soon as it turned out that you're not in agreement, it was like, "It was nice talking to you, but I'm going to do it my way anyway." So basically the only option you have is to agree with him. Forget it.
O: It's hard to watch Human Nature without also thinking of François Truffaut's The Wild Child and Werner Herzog's The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. How does Human Nature jibe with those films, and how does it play against them?
MG: The Wild Child is a pure lie. I saw the commentary on the case, which we examined when we worked on Human Nature, and Truffaut is a liar. Because the real wild child never learned to talk, and as soon as people who were funding the research on him discovered that he would not go further, he was sent back to his family and he had a miserable life. The movie should have talked about that in a more interesting way.
CK: This is something I want to talk about for a second, because when people criticize Human Nature, it's usually over what they see as this simplistic idea that nature is better than civilization. In actuality, that has nothing to do with what the movie's about. In fact, the movie was mocking that simplistic idea. The movie is a parody of that stupid notion.
MG: We have a hard time talking about this movie, because it was not about something so simple as nature vs. civilization. To me, it's about what your real interest is when you're doing something that's supposedly to be nice to someone.
O: It ends up being about sex, right? That seems to be the underlying motivation behind virtually all of the characters' actions in the movie.
CK: It's about sex, but it's also about people being hurtful and lonely and trying to find a place for themselves. They want to find a connection with other people, and they're not finding it.