Writing and directing his very personal project
Making a name for yourself in Hollywood hasn't been hard at all for Michel Gondry - at least that's true in the last three years. With a boding career as a music video director, Michel turned his sights to the movies.
After the hugely popular success of Charlie Kaufman's Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, in which Michel directed, his name got bounced around for a few different projects. But, there was one film Michel was determined to make his next - The Science of Sleep.
Michel wrote the script, and took the helm as director on the film; it stars Gael Garcia Bernal as the lead, Stephane, a newly planted resident of Paris, moving to the city where his mother lives after his father dies in Mexico. Stephane has a very vivid imagination, switching between reality and non-reality in his dreams.
The Science of Sleep became a very personal story for Michel, turning Stephane a bit into himself. Finding the right actor to play him was more difficult than he thought; Gael was just too handsome. "He would give me a little hard time to really imagine that he would feel this rejection. So I have to push him into the most awkward place that he wasn't initially; but he has this range that goes from being really comical and sometimes even sarcastic to very dramatic and even aggressive and sometimes he even reminds me of Chaplin. There was this moment before he dives through the window and he does something that's very like Charlie Chaplin which I always loved. The fact that he's a little smaller like Chaplin gives him this energy to fight back; sometimes the little smaller people get this kick they need to compete with others, it gives them extra energy."
After he got Gael, he knew the other characters had to mesh well with each other. "I think there is some depth in the character and there is this, in this specific movie, these two characters are like soul mates for each other. They bond with each other on the creative level in a way that nobody else can bond because they are really soul mates. From the guy's point of view, it should translate into a physical relationship, and since it doesn't work out this way, it's awful for him. And from the girl's perspective, the fact that it should be translated in a physical way, it's an affront and it's hurtful for her because she doesn't see. It's the fact that he should be physical would ruin it, and she finds it so precious; for him, the fact that they don't have sex is disturbing, distressing, and for her, the fact that he would like to go and sleep with her is very stressful. So there are all positive things that add up to something quite negative and in the very end; I think it's open to anybody to believe that they'll end up together or not. Initially, I wrote it that they cannot be together but I didn't want to be this way because I wanted to have her all for myself. I just wanted to have a kind of happy ending as much as there could be in this story."
The special effects were also a little more difficult for this movie because he filmed most of them before having any of the actors on set. "We shot most of the animation actually eight months before we started principal photography. So we went into my countryside house that my auntie sold me a few years ago and we set up a few cameras, two cameras, and two little sets. My cousin is an architect and we used to make our own system when we were kids; he built the toilet paper roll city for three weeks. And then for one week, we set it up in front of the camera and we animated it all. So we already had a month to go before we started to shoot so I could project them and the actors could actually participate by watching them and they would understand what kind of shot they would be in it."
There was even a lot more Michel wanted to do with the animation - he wanted to turn the film into 3D. "Animation is a constant invention but I can't remember a system that was really working. Initially, I wanted to do the dream sequence in 3D with an effect, a real effect; if you put one eye darker than the other and you see something that is moving even if it's flat, you try to see it in 3D because it delays your perception. So by delaying one eye, you see one eye from a different perspective because the image is moving; I had practically all the scene of the dream with always a camera moving so if you put those glasses you would see all the dream in 3D in the theater. But I had so many things to do in this movie that I couldn't; we had to give up on this idea."
One of the special effects involves Stephane having larger than life hands; Michel pointed out that's his sexual side. "It represents my penis...no; I think I really experienced it when I had this recurring nightmare and I would wake up with the feeling of having huge hands. It's a representation of our body and our mind; it's how if you want to move your right arm, you're going to send an order from this part (gesturing to the left side of his brain) and that corresponds to your right hand and that corresponds to all your nerve endings because on your hands. We have much more nerve endings that on your arm; you have small arm and huge hand and actually the homunculus has a small penis - and that's not a topic in the film, so this comes from experience really. It's interesting that going through the process of making the film, I could find finally because I've been to see a psychologist and people like that who ask 'what does it mean?' It doesn't help me for any scene, but it's just good to feel that it's not a random feeling; it corresponds to really the configuration, the connection of my brain to my body."
Getting this film made had been in the works for ten years. Michel started writing The Science of Sleep in 1996, eight years before Eternal Sunshine. "I just wanted to see how I could make a movie about my dreams and still be entertaining. There's a lot of movies about dreams. If you just go in a dream and then you come out, those are some of the best movies; sometimes you're sleeping in the middle because you need to merge back, to come back to reality before you dive again. So I'm not saying I did better, but it was my goal to do a movie with dreams, how they interact and to work with real life."
And The Science of Sleep is more than just reality; it opens in theaters September 22nd, rated R.