He’s an Oscar winner for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and beloved worldwide for his uniquely lo-fi, handmade aesthetic — a highly imaginative and visual DNA that has been liberally scattered across several decades of work, from music videos (think Daft Punk’s seminal Around the World) to commercials (such as the multi-award-winning Levi’s Drugstore), short films (including One Day, in which he’s chased out of toilet cubicle by David Cross dressed as a giant turd), documentaries (the Noam Chomsky starrer Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?) and features (the delightful Be Kind, Rewind).
Although Michel Gondry is rarely not pouring his creativity into something (he recently turned to TV with the Jim Carrey-starring Kidding), the so-called Crown Prince of Whimsy’s feature output has been considerably less prolific of late, with his last coming in 2015 (the abundantly whimsical Microbe and Gasoline). Thankfully, this is all set to change in Cannes with The Book of Solutions, premiering in the Directors’ Fortnight.
For someone who frequently deploys his life and personality as inspirations, the film is arguably his most nakedly personal to date. Loosely based on the period when he was in postproduction on his 2013 surrealist sci-fi Mood Indigo and ran away to finish it “because I didn’t want to have any input from the producers,” the film stars Pierre Niney as a director whose project has gone off the rails, and who flees with the footage to a country house to complete it with his long-suffering team. There, they become hostage to the Gondry-ish filmmaker’s wild manic mood swings, egomania and desire to do anything — anything — instead of actually sit down and watch his film, with procrastinations including building a chair, doing dry car runs to the hospital should he need to take his (totally fine) 75-year-old aunt, building an elaborate and wholly unnecessary edit truck (press the horn to cut!) and spending two days making a documentary about an ant. Some, Gondry admits, aren’t that far from his own experiences (well, it wasn’t quite an ant). And of course, The Book of Solutions isn’t lacking in his touch of analog — yes — whimsy.
Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Gondry reflects on his Hollywood career and suggests that it was only sparked because he knew Spike Jonze was lurking around the corner, though perhaps hampered because he started working with a writer of Charlie Kaufman’s caliber too early (someone who makes other scripts “all seem very dull”).
This is your first feature since 2015. Given it’s about a filmmaker who can’t just sit still and actually finish a film, does it provide an answer as to why it’s been so long?
Well, I did a TV show, and I did lots of commercial videos, and it was the pandemic, and I did a lot of animated short films for my daughter. She’s 8 now, but when I started she was 2 or 3. And we are starting the process of making them into a movie. So I don’t feel that I’ve done nothing. It’s the number one element of communication I’ve heard about myself and I feel like I should do something to correct it, because I don’t feel like I’ve slowed down.
No, I wasn’t for a second suggesting you hadn’t been busy — I’m totally aware of your output over the past few years. I was just talking about feature films. Is there perhaps a reason why this is your first movie in so long?
I have worked on projects, but in the end, I just didn’t like them enough. I was working for about six months to a year on a movie about Rin Tin Tin, the dog. But in the end, I realized I didn’t like the dog and was concerned it might bite me. So I gave up on the project.
Does The Book of Solutions offer a potentially comical window into your own creative process, one full of elaborate creative procrastinations?
It is comical, but from the point of view of [main character] Marc, it’s not comical — everything is as serious as can be. But it does come from my own experiences — some of the stuff I did, some I didn’t. It was quite personal. But the things I did weren’t just random, they were made with my heart and I had the belief that they were groundbreaking. It wasn’t just fooling around. All the time, it was super important. So I thought it would be fun to try to show that.
So which elements were true? While supposedly in postproduction on a film have you ever spent two days working on a documentary about an ant instead?
Well, it wasn’t an ant, it was a cockroach, actually a beetle, something like that. And I lost the tape, and I was totally devastated. It was a catastrophe because I felt like I was making history.
Your director in Book of Solutions, Marc, is a bit of an asshole — he’s an egomaniac, he’s rude, he takes advantage of those around him. I’m assuming you’re a lot nicer to work with and people who know you aren’t going to think you just wrote a film about yourself?
Well, it was actually based on a moment in my life when maybe I wasn’t so nice. But Marc does care about other people. He just thinks that all the other little things he does are of more importance.
In the film, it’s pointed out that he made a commercial with George Clooney, which obviously you’ve done yourself (a 2006 Nespresso ad). How many other overlaps with your own career are there in this film?
It’s for you guys to find out! But I put the George Clooney line in because in this village where we shot — which is my aunt’s village, like in the film — people know who I am and are flattered to see me, but they have no idea of my work except the Nespresso commercial with George Clooney.
It’s been almost 20 years since Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and since then you made Be Kind, Rewind and The Green Hornet, but I think it’s fair to say you never fully embraced Hollywood. How would you view your Hollywood career, so to speak?
I think I’ve split it, half and half, between France and Hollywood. The difference is more the big budgets of Hollywood. When you do a studio film, you already have the hierarchy you have to work with, so you’re not surprised if you have to listen to more people than on a small movie. On Eternal Sunshine,I was very lucky to have two producers who allowed us to get the best of these two worlds. For The Green Hornet, it was a bit more difficult because I arrived last minute to replace the director and it was more difficult to bring my own ideas. But I was asked recently why I didn’t do more Hollywood movies. The reality is that I had many offers, but the scripts weren’t good enough. It’s very hard to work after having worked with Charlie Kaufman. The scripts all seem very dull, so you really have to make an effort. So maybe that’s a reason.
As you mentioned, you’re still making plenty of short films. Are they perhaps better suited to your artistic style and way of working?
In my opinion, making a movie is the ultimate dream. It could be ultimate pain at the same time, but that’s the risk you run. My first film, Human Nature, I couldn’t believe I was doing a movie because it wasn’t at all my ambition growing up, or even when I was doing music videos. So I was amazed that I could do a film and that it was written by Charlie Kaufman. And I imagined that the day I would see the billboards on the walls would be the best day of my life. It was actually the worst, because it bombed. Then I got some perspective on the whole experience, but still, I wanted to do more. I was super scared. And I was really scared when I was preparing Eternal Sunshine, and I think the only reason I did it is because I knew that if I didn’t do it, Spike Jonze would. I was really concerned.
So is there anything that Spike Jonze has done that you’ve thought, “I wish you hadn’t done that, I would have”?
Oh yes! And I’m sure he’s the same, but he just doesn’t want to admit it.
Given that you’re well-known for your homemade aesthetic, I imagine you’re not overly concerned about being replaced by AI. What are your thoughts about this daunting new arrival?
It’s true that people know me for doing handmade stuff, but I’ve done digital stuff for years, from very early. I did a video for The Rolling Stones in 1995 [for “Like a Rolling Stone”] and it was all digital. So now I’m a little bit categorized, but that’s life — it’s better than being ignored. I can see the shticks I have, but I don’t want to have any shticks. For artificial intelligence, what I want to do is use it in a way that it hasn’t been used before — to find a fun idea and create something that looks really different. I have some ideas, but I’m not going to tell you.
Your work has straddled many different mediums, and also genres. Alongside AI, is there anything you’d still like to do?
A period movie, like something from literature. The problem is, the literature I like the most is Russian, and I can’t do a movie with English or American actors pretending to be Russian. But I have a lot of ideas in my head. And there are many little things I don’t like in bad period movies, particularly those that pay too much attention to detail trying to re-create the period, so it detracts from any creative work.
You’ve described yourself as someone who has been 12 years old forever, and you made a short with this name about your inspiration. Many people find their creativity numbed as they get older, but not you. Do you still feel 12?
Yes. It’s hard, because when I look at my face, like now [on this Zoom call], it’s not me. It’s like somebody who is miming. But I feel it more than ever.