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6 Filmmaking Tips from Michel Gondry

The filmmaker behind ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ shares his thoughts on inspiration, storyboarding, and why a little immaturity can be a good thing.
Director Michel Gondry On The Set Of Columbia Pictures' The Green Hornet
Sony Pictures, Inc.
By  · Published on June 13th, 2019

Growing up, Michel Gondry did not aspire to become a filmmaker. He thought, instead, that he might be an inventor or an artist. But after going to art school and getting into making music videos, first for his own band, Oui Oui (he was the drummer) and then other artists, Gondry realized that the combined technical and creative aspects of filmmaking suited his interests perfectly. In addition to making a number of iconic music videos, such as The White Stripes’ “The Hardest Button to Button” and The Queens of the Stone Age’s “No One Knows,” Gondry has made a number of commercials for such major brands as Levi’s, Heineken, and Volvo. He made his feature film debut in 2001 with Human Nature, a Charlie Kaufman scripted comedy-drama that received mixed reviews from critics. However, Gondry’s sophomore film, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), was a critical and commercial success that remains Gondry’s best-known film to date. Since then, Gondry’s films have spanned everything from mainstream Hollywood fare (The Green Hornet) to small budget French-language films starring non-actors (Microbe and Gasoline). With his dreamy style of storytelling and trademark innovative visuals, Gondry is one of the most recognizable and distinctive filmmakers working today, and he’s learned plenty of lessons along the way. The following are six of his best filmmaking tips.

Be Careful Where You Find Inspiration

In 2013, Gondry directed and co-wrote Mood Indigo, a surrealistic romantic drama adapted from the 1947 novel Froth on the Daydream. Speaking with Den of Geek in July 2014, he discussed his approach to taking inspiration from other works and his explanation doubles as some quality filmmaking advice:

“In general, I try to pick from my own dreams and my own imagination, so I don’t… like, you see so many directors surrounded by pictures, books of photographs and paintings. I don’t try to get inspiration from existing forms of art that are completed, and forms of art too similar to filmmaking. I don’t like that. I think, if you think of an image, you must think of what’s inside that image, otherwise the surface of the image will be the only result. It’s the function of the image [that is important]. If you start with a book, you’re already starting with the surface, but then you use the surface and you create depth.”

Immaturity Has Its Merits

From his music videos to his films, Gondry is known for his imaginative, dreamy imagery. As such, the question of where he gets his ideas and how he maintains his creativity often comes up in interviews. When speaking with online interview magazine The Talks back in July 2011, the director gave the following insight into how he stays creative:

“People complain about me that I am immature, and I think I am sometimes immature. And sometimes when I have to deal with a situation with my son or deal with my actors I am mature because I have to be the adult. But it is true that creativity is very much associated with a certain form of immaturity. When you become an adult you often have to limit your creativity – I mean, you can still be creative if you are working in a system – but if you do creativity that is only connected to pleasure, then you make big electric trains and you seem to be either a child molester or a big kid.”

Storyboard in Moderation

Storyboarding is an important part of the filmmaking process—and one that you might imagine plays a major role in Gondry’s creative method considering how visually innovative his films are. However, as he explained in a BUILD series interview promoting Microbe and Gasoline in June 2016, he actually makes a point of keeping storyboarding to a minimum. Experience is the best teacher, and the director’s cautionary tale about going overboard with storyboarding presents a good opportunity to learn from experience second-hand:

“I had a bad experience with my first movie, for which I had drawn every single page of the script as a storyboard. I realized it was not good for the actors because they felt a little trapped. They knew all the corners of the frame. So after that, I really decided I would not do storyboards, especially for what concerned the actors.”

You can watch the full interview below, the featured quote starts at 14:00:

Leave Room for Uncertainty On Set

Every filmmaker has their own unique approach towards working with actors. To rehearse or not to rehearse? How many takes is too many? What sort of atmosphere on set produces the best results? Particularly in regard to this last question, Gondry elaborated his approach speaking with The Guardian in February 2007, and his reasoning is pretty compelling:

“Actors are so used to being complimented, so sometimes I feel I need to put them a little off their balance, so they feel they don’t know what they’re doing and are refreshed. So when they ask: ‘Was I good?’, I say: ‘Yes, but don’t worry, if you were bad, I wouldn’t tell you.’ I want them to feel comfortable but not too comfortable. A lot of times, I throw in counter-orders at the last minute. […] When you reach a stage where there is no uncertainty, you enter the world of schtick, where everything is predictable. So I always try to preserve that, sometimes by overcomplicating a situation, or sometimes by letting my doubt come across. So I give people a lot of freedom.”

Tailor Your Directing Style to Each Actor

While Gondry might have certain general rules for how he operates on set and works with actors, he also makes the case for tailoring your directing style to each actor specifically, as he tells MakingOf as part of their “Reel Life, Real Stories” video series back in May 2011:

“You can’t speak the same way to all of them. Each actor interprets in different ways your direction. Some actors who are coming from more… realistic acting, you can push them more to bring the comedy. Some actors who are coming more from TV or comedy, you have to turn them down. And they won’t respond the same way to your directions. Some actors are perfect the first take, and then they get less good, some actors are the opposite, they get better and better. So you just have to figure that out in rehearsal or in the first day of shooting and then use that to your advantage.”

You can watch the full interview below, the featured quote starts at 11:20:


Don’t Micromanage

Gondry selects his collaborators very carefully, and like many filmmakers, he tends to work with the same collaborators time and time again when he finds a creative partnership that works. However, once you’ve got the right team together and make sure everyone is on the same page, he makes the case for taking a more relaxed approach in terms of management style, as he explained in a masterclass he taught at the Made in NY Media Center in June 2016, as reported in Indiewire: 

“I’ve learned to let go, to not micromanage. I think me and my team get in tune in the beginning on the story level, the statistic level, we talk about being really honest. Unless there’s something I can bring to the technical aspect, I just let them do them.”

What We Learned

With well over 20 years of experience making everything from rock music videos to sports drink advertisements to Oscar-winning films, Gondry’s career has spanned everything from mainstream blockbusters to experimental arthouse fare. However, in spite of the wide range of outlets into which he has poured his creativity, the end products all ultimately bear Gondry’s distinctive creative stamp and unique style. With this in mind, perhaps the most important general takeaway from the filmmaker’s career is that when you develop a truly unique style and point of view, you can apply it to whatever creative context you happen to find yourself in.

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Ciara Wardlow is a human being who writes about movies and other things. Sometimes she tries to be funny on Twitter.