Eternal Struggle of the Creative Mind

Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman on the challenge of delivering your best ideas

by David Haviland

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind
Michel Gondry directed his first Charlie Kaufman screenplay three years ago after a spectacular career directing award-winning promos for Bjork, Daft Punk, and Levi's. That film, Human Nature, was a well-received flop, but the director and writer clearly find each other stimulating to work with.

Gondry laughs, "He [Kaufman] gets on my nerves because I have to justify my ideas, but at the end of the day it makes me smarter, as I have to dig very deep to find why I want to do something. You can really count on him to tell you if he likes it or not without any compromise at all which is a very rare quality."

Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind is the second collaboration between Gondry and Kaufman, and cements their reputation as two of the world's most exciting and innovative filmmakers. In the film, Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet play a couple who have their memories of each other scientifically erased after a painful break-up.

Eternal Sunshine contains elements of science fiction, but Gondry explains that this was merely a device to tell a particular type of story: "It's about a girlfriend who says to you 'I love you' then one day she decides 'no, I don't like you any more' - how is it possible? That's mind-erasing right there, and it exists consciously. It happened to me while I was editing the film, and I lost my mind trying to figure out when this happened and why she didn't say anything to me."

Gondry is surprisingly intense, spending much of the interview railing against the media, studios, and even the filmgoing public. The response to Eternal Sunshine has been overwhelmingly positive, but it's clear that any criticism still stings: "You have to live with everybody criticising you, every single person in the street comes up with a comment, and they are not embarrassed at all to say they hate it, and I find it kind of mean! I always tell my friends, 'Consider me as a child; if you had a child you would not say to him, 'You are tiny and weak and not very pretty!' When you do a movie you're just out there..."

However Gondry saves most of his vitriol for the studios, from their resistance to creative innovation to basic incompetence. He refuses to divulge his ideas for the Eternal Sunshine DVD, for example, in the certainty that the studio will fail to deliver: "On Human Nature I had a great idea - I wanted to use all the takes for the scenes when the main character gets zapped and make the audience feel that they were zapping him with the remote control. I asked for that six months ahead, and one week before the DVD was out they proposed me a copy for approval, without my idea, and with Robert Forster's name misspelt. They're like 'Oh, we don't correct spelling if it's not one of the two main characters' and I'm like, 'Just explain why the fuck you give it to me for approval then!'"

A couple of days later I met Charlie Kaufman at the same London hotel. Kaufman is a rare famous screenwriter, following the success of his intricate, complex scripts for Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. So how did he come up with the idea for Eternal Sunshine?

"Michel's friend Pierre Bismuth had an idea about a card that tells you you've been erased from someone's memory, and Michel came to me with that. Michel and I worked out a story and pitched it around LA and sold it, and then I wrote it."

After the tortuous process of adapting Susan Orlean's The Orchid Thief, which became the self-reflexive Adaptation, Kaufman relished the freedom of working from a simple concept: "There really wasn't anything, there was no story attached to it. I've adapted entire books before so there's a lot more information than there was starting out with this."

Adaptation presented a comic depressing picture of the writer's superfluous presence on a movie set, yet Kaufman explains that this was more of a gag than an accurate reflection: "To be honest my role in both movies I did with Spike (Jonze) and both movies I did with Michel was very different from that, they're both really good collaborators and I was involved in all aspects of the movie. I do have a kind of feeling that nobody likes me on-set, so that was the joke of that scene, but I wasn't cut out of those movies at all."

Eternal Sunshine is a romance, and comes closer to being a genre film than Kaufman's previous features, but he is adamant that he had no intention of making a romantic comedy: "This movie was actually my addressing that - that lie of romantic comedy. I don't even consider this movie a romantic movie; it was a movie to me about a relationship, and a very dysfunctional one. The fact that it's perceived as romantic I think is great but it came honestly, it wasn't what we were trying to do."

He describes his next project as a 'scary' film, on which he will again work with Being John Malkovich director Spike Jonze, but Kaufman is adamant that he's not moving into genre film-making: "I'm writing a scary movie now, but I have no interest in writing a genre horror movie. It says in the press that I'm writing a horror movie, and I keep making sure that that's not what I'm doing. I'm looking for what's really scary, not what's scary in movies, and it's a struggle; but it's a struggle that I choose."

He also has plans to direct, although will say little about the project at the moment, beyond that it will make him a "very public failure", so he remains committed to writing, despite his very public struggles with writer's block and unsympathetic directors.

Kaufman says he was most disappointed with Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, which George Clooney directed from a Kaufman script, as his input was rejected: "George Clooney took the project in a different direction than I'd intended, and that he didn't include me in the process is irksome, so of the three directors that I've been involved with I'd say that the other two are preferable, because they have their opinions and sometimes they'll win, but at least I'll be there in discussions."

Finally, I asked what he would do in Joel's position, could he ever consider having the memories of a painful break-up removed? He laughs, "No, no, my emotional trauma and my humiliation is my livelihood, I wouldn't have anything to write about if I started erasing that stuff."

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