SXSW 2010 Interview: Writer/Director Michel Gondry (THE THORN IN THE HEART)

GATW Guest Writer

by: GATW Guest Writer
March 25th, 2010

The Thorn In The Heart

Innovative filmmaker Michel Gondry has a new documentary entitled THE THORN IN THE HEART which centers around his Aunt Suzette and her relationship with her son as well as her career as a school teacher in the French countryside. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down with Michel and a few other journalists to talk about the film.

Check out what they had to say after the jump!

What was the reason you decided to make this film?

Michel Gondry: It was my son actually. In 2004 I guess, [Suzette] came to visit, and my son was about 11 at the time and she started to tell her stories and my son said "Dad, you have to make a film about Suzette." So I obeyed my son.

How did you go about getting all the home footage used  in the film? How did you find all the footage and pictures from the film?

MG: We are a very visual family.

[Aside: It was at this point when more journalists had placed their slender recording devices down on the table beside Michel.]

MG: Those microphone look like that sperm. I feel like an egg.

My father introduced to my cousin Super 8 technology and he was in to it. We have tons of footage from the 70s in my family that are mostly Super 8. I was doing a lot of photos and printing myself but none that you see in this film.

How did you decide how to shape the film?

MG: Well, initially I wanted to visit all the schools Suzette had taught in. There were eight schools and some of them were so tiny. Some of them were destroyed but most were transformed into habitation. Her history coincided with France when people left the country. In the '50s France moved from being agricultural to industrial and people were leaving the countryside. So she taught in very small classes with people from many different grades. So I thought I would follow this story and go chronologically but it took me a few years. [Suzette] didn’t want to talk about her problems with her son and so on. She knew I was interested and I asked her to come cook for us and the crew and I started to interrogate her about her son and my DP said if you want drama there you have it. You couldn’t keep them in the same frame when they started to be interviewed. That started to become the structure of the documentary.

How does your approach to filmmaking change when you’re doing a documentary as opposed to one of your feature films?

MG: I think it's very important without knowing your answers. I think some journalist said that in order to interview somebody you have to know the answer which I think is grotesque.

We don’t believe that!

MG: I think you have to come back with the opposite answer of what you’re expecting. Like in scientific research, if you want to have a certain outcome to your experiment that you have to be biased. So basically I prepare by not being prepared and being really courageous to ask the question. Like when Suzette said their where some things she didn’t like to do and I asked, "What is something you don’t like to do?" and she said, "Like, taking care of my son." This was devastating but when I’m editing I think of all these questions I should have asked.

Were there any questions you were afraid to ask or that you kept out of the film?

MG: There was a lot of dark stories, like in every family. During the documentary I feel better with the relationship with my Auntie. Some people don’t like her in the family because she’s quite hard right now and I think she’s much softer now. I wanted to show that…that’s why I made her cry…I know it’s terrible…but there were some who thought she was meaner than she was.

So where did the train come from that appears in the film?

MG: The train actually existed in the '60s and '70s. My cousin Jean-Yves had it when we were kids and it was part of me to go back to their house in the countryside and going and seeing the train but not actually being allowed to play with it. I asked him when he had his breakdown and we started the documentary I said "Why don’t  you make your train again and I will pay to get what you need for it." and that sort of helped me to overcome a little bit of depression because I paid so much attention to it. I made the mountain, I made the table, I did the grass and the trees and all the houses. It was very nice. It can be strange going back in the past and doing something you did before but in this situation it was really positive and we really enjoyed it.

Has your Aunt seen the documentary about her yet?

MG: Yes. She was very sad at first when she saw the title and that I had been using all this footage of when she was upset and she thought I was just focusing on the negative part. We showed it to the village and it went so well and it brought people back together and it was very nice. People appreciated that we talk about things very openly that most people wouldn’t talk about. Especially in this part of France. As much of a beautiful country it is, people are very enclosed and they don’t communicate very much.

Has your cousin seen it?

MG: Of course. As much that it is tough on him he enjoyed the attention.

What about your son?

MG: My son is going to see it tonight. My son doesn’t jump to see my work! He wants to be his own person.

[At this point, Michel revealed that his son was actually here with him now in another room and went to get him to say hello to us. He appears in THE THORN IN THE HEART as well. He is 19 now. Paul Gondry is currently working on the animated feature MEGALOMANIA starring Steve Buscemi.]

How long ago was the documentary shot because your son appears much younger in the film?

MG: We shot over five years not every day but for two years we shot a lot. It added some stress to the holidays.

Why did you want your Dad to make a film about Suzette?

Paul Gondry: I think she had a lot of interesting stories. She was like an old book in a positive way. You’d discover a new story everyday which was interesting.

Michel Gondry: Paul is a lot like me when I was his age. We like people’s stories. Most kids his age don’t have respect for the teacher but he respects people and history.

[A few minutes later Michel’s son Paul left the room. It was a treat to see the two of them together and a little bit of their dynamic as father and son.]

MG: I spend more time with her than with my Mum now and she probably enjoys spending time with me than with her son probably now. I think you don’t choose your parents and you don’t choose your children in a way. It’s nature that provides that.

Were their moments when you wanted to stop? There’s a point in the film where you apologize for being mean to her.

MG: Well, sometimes the director takes over. At the end of the day, the individual is more important that the film but if the film is not good then it’s not good for her. So I’m willing to go to those places. It’s like when I’m traveling in a small plane and I get scared but if I have the camera on I’m not scared. I was shooting a video for Bjork and I was hanging on the side of the helicopter and I’d be terrified but as soon as the film was rolling I was perfectly fine. So I think that the camera allows me to be different than how I would be without the camera. I thought it was important that she showed feelings.

What do you want people to take away from the film?

MG: What I hope is that people will not feel so bad about their own family. People don’t talk for years and they don’t make up and they die and it's horrible.

Was it difficult to restrain yourself from a technological standpoint? We’re used to Michel Gondry the innovative filmmaker.

[In the film there is a scene with schoolchildren where they became ‘invisible’ in one sequence as well as a couple of animation and stop motion sequences.]

MG: I did those for the people that were in the film. Like the "invisible costume" I wanted the kids to enjoy the magic of the special effect. We did a DVD and sent a copy to all of the kids that we sent before the documentary was finished. Suzette wanted me to do the animation because we did the animation for THE SCIENCE OF SLEEP in her house and she had a great time so I did it a little bit. And the train…it makes sense because I was influenced by his train growing up and the way I do animation and the way I do nature in the sort of animation part of my work. It’s very influenced by the train or by the nature itself.

What are you doing next?

MG: I’m finishing editing GREEN HORNET and a project with my son MEGALOMANIA. He’s really a special artist.

You once said BACK TO THE FUTURE was one of your favorite films. Will that be an influence on GREEN HORNET?

MG: A little bit maybe. More action though. It’s comedic too. It’s a bit of a cross between PINEAPPLE EXPRESS and BACK TO THE FUTURE, I don’t know. A little more violent maybe.

THE THORN IN THE HEART opens in limited release April 2nd from Oscilloscope Laboratories.

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