Film Comment - Michel Gondry
Film Comment speak to Michel Gondry about his film Microbe and Gasoline.
Microbe & Gasoline is somewhat of a departure from the past couple of films that you’ve done. Can you talk about what motivated you to do something a bit more personal, instead of something more elaborate with a big budget?
I think especially after Mood Indigo, which was an adaptation of a very iconic French book, I wanted to do something really coming from me, something personal. So I turned back to myself and some memories. As I started to collect them, I focused on the friendship that I had developed in my teenage years.
How did you get back to that place? Were there books that you revisited or music that you listened to? Did you go through old notebooks or diaries?
No, I didn’t have to. I mean, everybody has tons of memories, and if they connect to each other, and they serve the story, then I keep them. Some I write down and then I cross them [out] because they’re outside the main story.
It’s hard to explain. You write them down and then you write little [index] cards and sometimes they just don’t fit into the continuity. I really wanted to keep the ones that explained why the two individuals, the two teenagers, become friends with each other.
Friendship is really hard to get right in film. Romantic relationships are shown all over the place, but a frank depiction of friendship, which I think this is, is sort of rare. How did you achieve that?
I think it’s a lot about the casting. But even in the writing - I remember what my issues were at this age, which still probably are the same, and how I would exchange frustrations with my friend about what his issues were, how he would respond to my problems. I just put that on paper.
Was there a lot of improvisation? Because - there are a lot of dogs walking in front of us right now - there’s a saying: you shouldn’t work with children or animals. But you got excellent performances out of your young actors. Is the approach different?
Yeah, I didn’t treat them like dogs, if that’s what you’re implying. [Laughs] No, we didn’t improvise much, actually. When we rehearsed, we changed some lines, some words that they felt were too outdated or they would never say.
They’re obsessed with the old as opposed to the new. They say that “we’re still in the paper age.”
Yeah, because they like to make stuff with their hands. That’s why they bond as well. Daniel likes to paint and draw, Théo likes to construct stuff, to work with mechanical things. So they aren’t into video games and iPhones and all this technology too much. That was not really a statement I was trying to make. It was more that I was trying to adapt the type of activities we were doing at this time to kids living now.
Were you a hobbyist as well at that age, or were you more into art?
More into art but not like museums and stuff. I liked to draw and build stuff as well, like planes or cars or whatever.
This is your second film with Audrey Tatou. Her character is a lot more complex than the usual ingénue roles she’s often had. Did you write the role of Daniel’s mother for her?
After Mood Indigo, she suggested that instead of going to do Ubik -another big adaptation - I should do something more personal. She was very supportive of the project, and she accepted the role of the mother, which is a very small part. She just embodied, very accurately, my mother at this age when she was very nice but she had depression, so she was not very reassuring.
It’s a very realistic portrayal of depression, which again in many films is usually an abstraction or a device to get from one point to another. Is it based on your memories at that time?
It was based on my memories. I remember clearly the day that my father asked us - my brother and me - to comfort her and I simply refused because I felt that I didn’t have to be subjected to that at my age. Maybe I was wrong, but that’s how I felt.
Music isn’t a huge part of this film because Daniel is sort of set up in opposition to his older brother who has a punk band. Was that also something from your personal experience?
At the time I did the portrait [that Daniel draws in the film], my friend Renoir and I were more into punk and new wave, and my brother was into heavy metal. So I shifted everything, because now punk isn’t very avant-garde. Daniel and Théo are against music in general, against pop music, and stuff like that.
When you’re approaching writing a film, are there any books or images that you return to help guide the process of structuring it?
No, I listen to some music to help me write and focus, but it’s hard to translate it into book because even if you start from the book, it’s such a different way of writing. You have so many pages and chapters that you have to put it in slices. So, no, I don’t start from books.
If you were here without the intrusion of an interviewer, what do you think you would drift towards?
Michael Jackson. I mean, my taste goes from Bach to Olivier Messiaen to John Cage. Early electronic music. My grandfather invented the synthesizer in the late Forties.
What was it called?
It was the Clavioline. It was even used by The Beatles. I’m so proud of that. It didn’t make my family very rich - I didn’t come from a super rich family at all. My father played a lot of Duke Ellington, and he loved the sound of the Hammond organ. I love jazz music too but Duke Ellington was one of the first to use the old synthesizers from the Thirties before my grandfather. So I love this music.
I’m sure I inherited some of my grandfather’s inventiveness. My mother was creative - she was a musician. So I have some genes going into this direction and… I wanted to talk about something else concerning music but I forgot.
We can move around the store. I don’t know if it will help.
I’ll tell you something, I have so much stuff at home that I can’t buy anything anymore. So the goal is not to buy anything.
Going back to Microbe & Gasoline, the film has some interesting symmetry to it, visually and in terms of the story and where it begins.
Like at the beginning, when Daniel looks at the back of Laura’s head, and then at the end, she looks at the back of his head, and you can hear her thoughts, that she wants him to turn around. I feel like there are several moments like that. Was that something you envisioned immediately, or did that evolve during the writing?
I think this idea came quite early - the irony that first Daniel’s in love with Laura and then she’s in love with him. It fulfils Théo’s prophecy that Laura’s going to be in love the day he doesn’t care any more for her. The symmetrical part is them going away and then having to come back.Read the full article