For his latest documentary, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Michel Gondry sat down with the linguist, philosopher and political activist, Noam Chomsky, to discuss his life and work.
To make his ideas easier to understand, Gondry illustrated their conversation with his own eccentric brand of animation. Here the French film-maker discusses the project and his fascination with Chomsky.
How did you meet Noam Chomsky?
"I met him because I was invited to MIT as artist in residence and I found out that Chomsky was teaching and asked to meet with him. He had no idea who I was and we had some conversations. The first time I found it hard to express myself, but I was very intrigued, interested and impressed by him. I think his secretary was my best advocate because she liked my movies very much, and his son was a big fan of my videos, so she pushed for him to see me again."
And how familiar were you with his work at that time?
"I was familiar years before before I met him. First, I became interested in his activism and his political views. It was very eye-opening on how things worked in society. I then realised he was a very important scientist in linguistics in the 50s. Generally, great scientists have something a bit average to say on politics and politicians, and artists are not really great scientists. So he is one of the very few who is equal on both."
Did he ask you to explain the concept of the film before agreeing to participate?
"No. I in fact showed him a short clip with the same technique of animation and I told him it would be nice to talk about generative grammar and use this technique to illustrate it. He said, 'Okay, let's do it.'"
Was there anything he said that particularly touched you?
"What touched me is the way he constantly talked about his wife [Carol, who died in 2008], directly and in-between the lines. I was thinking he's like Inspector Columbo who always talked about his wife but you never saw her. So that was very nice and very human. And then when he talks about what makes him happy, he doesn't find anything that makes him happy. I don't think it's because he's not happy but because he's not asked this question many times, so he needs time think what makes him happy. Then he finds many reasons to be happy. So that was touching. To hear about his first memory, that was touching. And then after I asked him if he had told this memory to anyone and he said, 'No, I have never been asked.' Maybe he talked about it to his wife. So I was very honoured by that."
Did he say anything you disagreed with?
"Well I hope he doesn't impose his view but I went to interview him because he's somebody I felt was important. Certainly my political views, I may be very influenced by him. But I think a lot of times I when hear or read what he has to say, it sort of puts words to what I've felt. He has a lot of thoughts on creativity and how anyone should have access to creativity and about how most people, when they do a job - except for the higher ranking people - don't do a job that helps them to flourish or become more satisfied with themselves. So, for instance, I have this home-movie factory I developed where we give people little movie sets and they can come and tell their own stories and then watch them."
Have you always felt this way about creativity and the world of work?
"I always had this philosophy that anyone has creativity, because all kids have it. But then when you grow into an adult, you're sort of forced to lose it otherwise you're called a grown-up child or not mature enough. I feel it's because people need you to do the dirty jobs because they don't want to do it. So you do the low-ranked jobs so that other people [higher up] can really enjoy their life. They don't want you to be creative because then you're going to want to do a better job. So that was my philosophy way before I heard about Noam Chomsky. Then when I read him, I felt like he was putting words to what I feel and believe."
You do music videos, feature films, documentaries. Is this how you challenge yourself and keep creative?
"Yeah, and that's why I don't think I am so successful. And because of this I feel like I can try doing something different, because it's not like I had some huge hit and would be tempted to do the same thing again. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the movie that has the most recognition, but then I would feel embarrassed to try the same thing again because I know it would be trash, and that's not so funny. I try different things because I have an idea and then I want to see how it looks and how it's going to work."
Which of the different areas you work in gives you the most freedom to experiment?
"I think music videos. But I can tell you, this movie with Chomsky, I had complete freedom. And I was using very personal words to express myself. So this might be the most free project I have done."
Can it be difficult to keep the creative flame burning?
"Well I am lucky because am doing a job that requires it. If it dies out I will have no job so I had better make sure I keep it alive. After a movie I feel a little done and not so creative, so I do a video and then it sparks again, and it's been like that between each movie."
Did you have much creative freedom working in Hollywood on The Green Hornet?
"It's more rigid but there are areas where I can be creative. But it is complicated because you can be creative in some areas and not necessarily over the whole movie. So to really make the movie succeed - not necessarily with the others but with yourself - you have to try and find an overall creative idea that will make the movie special. I'm not sure it was possible to do that with The Green Hornet because there were so many outside elements I had to deal with."
What about something like your adaptation of Boris Vian's Mood Indigo? Does that feel personal?
"Yeah, it is personal but I was very challenged by the fame of the book and the history of the impact he had on the youth of many generations. I felt a little overwhelmed by the task, so that was a little pressure. But I have to admit that when I did the film, I forgot about this pressure and I did everything I wanted."
But you're cutting it down, aren't you?
"Yeah, a bit of a shorter version because I felt the necessity to stick to the book as much as I could and I think maybe for people in other countries who didn't know the book, it would be easier for them to watch it because you focus more on the main character. The book has four characters with different stories and it's not so easy to follow."
Finally, what did Noam Chomsky think of the documentary?
"When he watched the film he was really excited and he said, 'Let's make another one,' and I thought, 'Okay, maybe I will do another movie on anarchy.' He is very on the Left and he has a lot to say about how we could organise society in a better way, so I would like to talk about that. But I need to be well prepared."
Is the Man who is Tall Happy? screens as part of the Edinburgh Film Festival on June 20th & 27th; Mood Indigo opens in cinemas on August 1st