Last week, I shared a short list of some of Michel Gondry’s favorite documentary films and filmmakers. There’s also a quote in that post in which he says he often favors docs to narrative films because they can be more entertaining and also keep him awake. But does he also favor making doc features to narratives? So far he’s made three of the latter, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, The Thorn in the Heart and now Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?: An Animated Conversation With Noam Chomsky. The former group consists of about double the amount of titles and includes his more well-known films, such as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind and The Green Hornet.
The answer to the question of his preference isn’t clear, but when I talked to Gondry by phone last Thursday he shared some thoughts on the different types of films he’s made and how documentary production has influenced his narrative filmmaking, and vice versa, as well as how this latest doc was so soothing and fun to do that he considered the process more like a hobby than work. He also addressed the occasional miscommunication he had with Chomsky and how this was actually appropriate to a film about the world’s most famous linguist. I also should point out that some of our conversation involved a bit of miscommunication and some parts where I was entirely incapable of putting what he said into text. So, this interview is not our complete discussion, and I must apologize to him and readers if any part of it is a misquote.
Nonfics: Your film opens with you saying that you first discovered Noam Chomsky through two other documentaries, one of them being Manufacturing Consent. One of the directors of that film passed away this week…
Michel Gondry: Oh no!
Nonfics: So we have to give thanks to the late Peter Wintonick for leading to this. Can you talk about what you like about that doc?
Gondry: It’s a very engaging movie, and it certainly made me aware of Chomsky, which is great. The subject of the film is a critique on the media that was very in tune with how I felt, especially coming from France and going to America. I’m not saying the media and information is better in France, but it’s not as much of a show as it is in America. So I was very receptive to this critique.
Nonfics: It’s interesting that you decided to make a documentary about a man after seeing two documentaries already about him. Did you feel there was something you didn’t get from those films that you could explore here?
Gondry: I wouldn’t say I didn’t get something from those films. I was already interested in illustrating Chomsky’s concepts and observations and findings with drawings and graphics, so that’s why I felt I had something different to bring.
Nonfics: So you knew from the get-go that you wanted to do this film with animation?
Gondry: It was before. I had met him several times, and then I had this idea to do straight, natural cinema with animation without being too descriptive, and I found I could do that with Noam. I asked him, and he said yes right away.
Nonfics: There are a few moments in the film where the two of you have some miscommunication, and it definitely fits the film. Did you anticipate that going into the interviews and expect to include it?
Gondry: The miscommunication is something I experience all the time, and I have to live with it because I’m mostly living in a country where it’s not my native language and I’m not very good at learning language. So I navigate a lot in the fog when I’m having a conversation with the most famous linguist in the world, but it was very challenging. I don’t think he minded. He would spell out words for me. So that was perfect for the images I wanted to draw.
Nonfics: I’ve always wondered what Chomsky thinks of visual and cinematic language. Did you also try to discuss with him the connection between verbal and visual language?
Gondry: He’s not very much into movies. When I explained to him the concept, he was intrigued. I explained this thing called synesthesia, where I associate colors to numbers or letters. He was intrigued by that. We talked about visual representation, but not in the way you’re talking about. He’s not so much fascinated by visual art.
Nonfics: Animated documentaries are great because animation allows for some of the most unreal imagery there is, yet docs can use it to depict a sense of reality that live-action documentary just can not portray. Were you interested in that relationship between animation and reality?
Gondry: It can bring you more strongly to reality when you hear the voice and what you see is not reality, it’s something very subjective and sometimes abstract. There’s the principle of documentary that you don’t have control, because the discussion goes in whatever direction the speaker takes it. So you don’t have anything planned or scripted, it takes you wherever it wants. And then you have to match that with animation, which is by definition something you do frame by frame and is much more constrained. The contrast between the two forms of expression does something to the brain that I find interesting.
Nonfics: When you work with fiction you deal a lot in fantasy, so for you to take on the occasional nonfiction film seems like the opposite kind of project. And the docs you’ve done so far are very different. What draws you to a making a documentary and why do you not have a single approach to doing them?
Gondry: Each one has a different motivation. The one of my auntie (The Thorn in the Heart), you could say it’s somewhat similar to the one on Chomsky because she’s pretty old and has a million stories and she didn’t want to write them, so I thought — actually my son convinced me to do it — I had to record the stories so we had that in the future. For Block Party, I was not so familiar with this African-American community, although I was a big fan of the music. And following Dave around and seeing all these bands especially the marching band and all this fascination the kids have for Dave Chappelle was something that intrigued me a lot. Chomsky’s approach to the world really interested me. It’s similar to my views, although of course it’s much deeper and more complex.
Nonfics: Do you have a pile of ideas for docs you want to make or do they just come about spontaneously when you come across a subject you’re interested in?
Gondry: It depends on who I meet. It’s sort of a commitment because it takes time to find something truthful in your subject and you don’t know where it’s going to lead you, and it can be scary. So I don’t do it so often. I [have] some recognition with feature films so people have an interest in watching my documentaries. Right now I don’t really have a subject for another documentary. I’m focusing more on finding the right story to do a feature film.
Nonfics: You say docs are scary because you don’t know where they’ll go. Do you prefer making films where you can do every bit of the planning ahead of time?
Gondry: Yes, but to me it’s really crucial to not know where the conversation or story will go. Because if you know and you are the agent or agitator, it alters the relationship with the subject, and then you don’t find the truth. One of the most important things that I learned from doing documentaries, and I use it for feature films, is to leave a gap for surprises. You don’t want to control everything. In feature film, as well, even though the story is written before you start to shoot, most of the time, you want to on the day of the shoot leave some freedom up to the actor, to the lighting, to the action. Documentaries teach you that because you go out and sometimes nothing happens and you waste time or film, and then something happens and you’re rewarded. Suddenly you have something you could never have planned happen, and it is really good.
Nonfics: With this film, though, you had to do a lot of planning for the animation beforehand, didn’t you? Do you feel you had more control over this doc than the others?
Gondry: Not really. The process was different. What happened was I had three interviews and I was starting to edit the sound, and meanwhile I had some idea really quick how to illustrate the tree or some other subject and had some sense of how we’d draw them. I was very excited, so I would start to do that segment, and then at the same time or just after I would start to edit the whole film and I would have to obviously incorporate the part that was already animated and then find the transition, so it was a whole different process. It was very organic.
Nonfics: So ideas would come to you over the three years?
Gondry: Yeah, nothing was preconceived. I did use abstract animation to illustrate his concepts, I had that in mind. And then I didn’t know it would go someplace, and then he’s talking about his wife and his childhood, so each time I would have to find the idea and let my mind drift and be guided by his voice. That was very fun and very soothing for me.
Nonfics: Would you use this technique again?
Gondry: Maybe for a feature film, to change the context.
Nonfics: It seems like a lot of work. It never felt like too much?
Gondry: No. As I said, there was a lot of pleasure doing it. I did it as a hobby while I was editing or shooting — well, not shooting, because that’s too exhausting — but when I was doing pre-production or post-production on movies I would come back home and do that. The setup was very light, so I could move it around with me. I could come back to it wherever I was, even traveling to promote The Green Hornet. I had my light box with me so I could continue to animate on the plane or in the hotel room, on holidays or anytime.
Nonfics: You said you wanted to finish this documentary before Chomsky died. Why was that so important to you, especially if he doesn’t watch movies?
Gondry: I was hoping he would [watch]. It’s sort of childish, but I need some approval from somebody of his importance. He was my most important audience. When you do a project like this, you never know how long it will take you, and you have to put a limit otherwise you could work forever.
Nonfics: He did see it, then?
Gondry: He saw it once and he’ll see it again tonight.
Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is now in theaters and available on iTunes, Amazon Instant, SundanceNow and other VOD outlets. Read our review of the film, by Daniel Walber, here.