Each Pray’r Accepted
Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman’s 2004 film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, was the second collaboration between an innovative director widely celebrated for his groundbreaking music videos and a man occupying the unusual position of being a famous screenwriter. It’s an amazing film, as inventive and complex as the duo’s previous Human Nature but with an even more powerful emotional center. The story of a man (Jim Carrey) who decides to undergo a procedure designed to eliminate all traces of his former lover (Kate Winslet) from his mind after a bad break-up, Eternal Sunshine was the most fascinating film treatment of the nature of memory since Memento, and marked Charlie Kaufman’s most mature and intelligent script until he took the directorial reigns himself with Synecdoche, New York, as well as the arrival of Michel Gondry as a feature filmmaker to be reckoned with. I interviewed them just before the film opened.
Q: Talk about the idea for the film, where it came from, how you got together on this, and how Human Nature intervened.
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: Michel has a friend named Pierre Bismuth – he’s an artist – who had an idea of sending cards to people saying that they’d been erased from someone’s memory, and not to call them anymore. And Michel came to me with that idea and asked me if I was interested in working out a story, so we did. We pitched it around town, and we sold it, but I had to do another script first, so, in the interim we worked on Human Nature.
Q: Human Nature had a very different visual feel. Was it difficult to make the transition to the more straightforward style in which Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is filmed?
MICHEL GONDRY: No. In videos, I always try to go in a direction that is new for me, and I don’t want to be attached to a certain visual style. I hope I have more to say than just something visual. There’s a bunch of lessons I got from my first film experience that I wanted to apply to this shooting, and I wanted the memory to feel real and vivid. That’s why I decided to work with the director of photography, Ellen Kuras, because I saw this quality in her work – how she could capture very precise, very vivid moments. I remember watching this movie she did, Swoon – I was not a big fan of the film, but I noticed a couple of shots that really were vivid, even though it was in black and white. It’s a very hard quality to define, but she definitely had it. When I started to talk with her, I realized that it was because she cared for the story and the character, and a lot of elements that are not related directly to the technical aspects of the camera or the film stock. It was more about what we all wanted to show, telling the story of these two people. I think she made a great contribution to that. I didn’t want to have a preconceived notion of how things would look. I spent maybe six weeks taking pictures in New York and around the suburbs, to learn about how people live. It’s very hard when you’re a foreigner in another place – you go into a hotel room, and it’s a very abstract sense of how people live. By going into peoples’ apartments and taking a lot of pictures, I could have a feel of how life is for them. Now, it would be much easier, if I were to re-do the film, because I have been here for nearly two years and I understand what it’s like for people.
Q. Both of you have made your mark on popular consciousness by making a concerted effort to push the boundaries of reality and to challenge issues of identity. When was the last time somebody said to you, ‘I don’t care who you are, this is just too outlandish to put on film’?
MICHEL GONDRY: That was, oh, two months ago. Even between us, it’s a conversation we have. How far can we go? Where do we lose the meaning? It’s hard to know. Movies are made of pieces stuck together, and after a hundred years people accept that one second you see something here, and the next second you see something there. But those are artifacts that have been created to tell stories, and they need to be pushed. It’s just like in music – you could invent an entirely new melody, but it might sound like nothing. So it’s a fine balance. Personally, I like to try different things and be creative every time I do something, but sometimes we need to be reminded that maybe people won’t understand, so I need to move back and try something else. It’s an interesting process.
Q: Now that you have a reputation based on the screenplays that you’ve written, do you worry that it might be limiting in how people perceive your work? Do you find, when you’re writing, that you have to come up with something that will top what you’ve done before?
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’m not really interested in topping myself; I’m interested in challenging myself every time. And I’m not interested in the idea, ‘okay, now I’ll screw them up by doing something really straight’. I don’t even think about other people when I’m writing; I think about what I’m interested in, how I can struggle with this idea, how I can do something that’s honest with it. And however that comes out, it comes out. I’m perfectly happy failing in my attempt; in fact, I welcome it, because I think that if you want to do something that’s original you have to embrace the idea of failure. So I do.
Q. Can you say something about the casting of the two lead characters, and how they’re playing against type? And how do you make the movie work for us when it’s told in such an unconventional, out-of-sequence way?
MICHEL GONDRY: First, for the casting, Jim was interested first and attached to the script, and we needed somebody strong to – I mean, (female lead) Clementine was clearly the character who’s more alive in Charlie’s script, and we needed somebody who had the strength to play Jim off. And so we met a lot of different actresses, and seemed that when I met with Kate, she had this energy and determination to – not to fight, but to really be there. And I really responded to her energy. There were a lot of other elements, of course; she’s a great actress, and she doesn’t seem to be part of the ‘movie star’ world. She doesn’t make the movie seem like a star vehicle. For some reason, with her, she feels more real. She’s also very funny. After meeting with her and reading the script again, it seemed like she had to be Clementine. With Jim, it was great, because I believe him as being a child and an adult at the same time, and I think if he plays quiet, you can really sense that. He doesn’t have the macho syndrome of a lot of Hollywood actors. I could never identify with a guy who has a lot of attitude and natural coolness like a lot of actors try to develop.
Q: Do you have any desire to go beyond screenwriting?
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I think I might try to direct. I think when I was younger, I saw being the director as the thing, and I don’t see it that way anymore. I see what I do as important. I like what I do, I guess, is what I’m saying. It’s a struggle to be good at it, and it’s a struggle that’s of value to me. Rather than taking the next step in the food chain, I would think of directing more as taking on another job, not so much for the purpose of protecting my work – although that’s important – but more to see what something would look like if I directed it.
Q: You’ve said that you’re not a particularly organized person, and yet your scripts are very formally inventive, very structured and intricate. How do you reconcile your work habits to the end product?
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: I’m just thinking of this as you’re asking the question, but I kind of think that maybe disorganization is helpful in that regard. Often, if you know too much where you’re going, and you can do it too expediently, then you’re going to go there; whereas if I’m really stuck – and this happens to me a lot – if I’m really stuck and I can’t think of anything for a week and a half, and then a week and a half later, after I’ve been stuck for all that time, all of the sudden, you get an idea, and it’s like ‘Oh my God! What would have happened if I’d come up with another idea a week and a half earlier? This movie would have gone in a completely different direction. I’m really glad that I got stuck.’ And that happens again and again to me. So I think that in my case, the combination of disorganization and time helps a script come to a reasonable conclusion. But I think being disorganized and having a week to write a whole script would probably be a problem.
Q: A lot of invention and spontaneity took place during filming. How did that fit in with the movie being so precisely structured and complex?
MICHEL GONDRY: I feel that it’s similar to what Charlie said. I worked with a musician at one point during the process of filming, and we were thinking about John Cage, who was composing music by preparing pianos and created something wonderful; and this musician explained that Cage’s theory – and there are a lot of contemporary musicians who work this way – was to have a very rigid framework, but within that frame, they would re-create chaos. I like this idea, to mix something very structured with something chaotic. And it can go both ways – you can create a very precise structure and put chaos in between, or you can have a chaotic structure with precision in between. If everything is chaotic, then it goes nowhere, and if everything is ordered and precise, it becomes deadened, too clinical. So I think it’s really a balance. My mind is really messy, and when I wake up, I don’t know what I’m supposed to do in the next five minutes, let alone the day, but then when it comes to some scene with the camera and the actors, I can be so focused – I can explain to twenty different people precisely what they have to do to make it work without thinking. It’s about a balance. You have to balance your creativity with hard work.
Q: The idea of erasing someone’s memories – you could have really gone anywhere with it. Why did you decide to concentrate on lost love?
CHARLIE KAUFMAN: When we first started talking about it, that’s what was interesting to us. I think, in reflection, the reason is because that’s something that’s real. We didn’t want it to be a spy movie or anything, because then it becomes about the conceit of memory-erasing, when we wanted to use the memory-erasing to tell a story about something that was actual. This was something that we could identify with.
MICHEL GONDRY: Before I started with Charlie, I talked to a couple of other writers and producers, and it was all about finding a plot – the guy has a secret that’s been erased, and people are trying to kill him. And I would say ‘No! That’s not what I want to do. I think we should make it human, make it low-tech, and use it to explore people’s lives.’ To me, it’s more fascinating that you can be attracted to and then not attracted to the same person in a short period of time, so why don’t we talk about that? I don’t understand why most movies treat things that we don’t experience in life. I’ve never been faced with a gun in my entire life, but in most movies, there’s a gun. I’ve seen one person dead on my life, and it was my father; but I see so many dead people in movies. I think sometimes, just by trying to talk about what we experience in life, you can be so original – it’s nice that some people think of it.