Leos Carax And Michel Gondry, Tokyo !
French directors Leos Carax and Michel Gondry – both born in the early 1960s, during the first blush of the Nouvelle Vague – so far have had markedly different career paths. Carax, a boy from the Parisian suburbs, became a film critic and short film director before announcing himself as a major talent with his first two features, Boy Meets Girl (1984) and Bad Blood (1986). Carax’s distinctive visual style, outsider sensibility and preoccupation with modern romance was also on show in his third film, Lovers on the Bridge (1991), however the film took three years to shoot and was an infamous financial disaster. The failure of his eventual follow-up, the incest-themed Pola X, almost totally derailed Carax’s career, though he has remained a much-loved cult figure. While Carax has made four features since 1984, Gondry has made the same number of fiction films (plus a documentary, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party) since 2001. After building a reputation for himself as a highly inventive maker of pop promos, the Versailles-born Gondry came to Hollywood where he collaborated with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman on his first two films, Human Nature (2001) and the highly acclaimed Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Gondry, along with Kaufman and Pierre Bismuth, won a Best Original Screenplay for the latter, then wrote and directed the surreal, bittersweet romance The Science of Sleep (2006) and the offbeat, cinephilic comedy Be Kind Rewind (2008).
Now, these two visionary directors have come together, along with The Host‘s Bong Joon-Ho, to make Tokyo!, an anthology film conceptualized around the Japanese capital. While the recent trend in group films has been to have numerous directors each contributing tiny segments, fortunately here the directors are given the room for their stories to breathe and develop. In Gondry’s Interior Design, a young film director and his girlfriend move to Tokyo to allow him to pursue his career, while she is left to question the path her life should take. Carax’s Merde (which translates as “shit”) features a wild man-monster (Denis Levant) who emerges from the city’s sewers, and goes on the rampage with increasing violence. The concluding story, Bong’s Shaking Tokyo, is about a “hikikomori” (or social recluse) who finally leaves his house after 12 years following an encounter with an unusual pizza delivery girl. Like New York Stories, Tokyo!‘s great strength is that the city showcases the stories rather than vice versa, and each is a distinctive, standalone film. While both Gondry and Bong’s segments have a quiet melancholy mixed with fantastical elements, Carax’s contribution combines a primal energy with an unexpected emotional depth, unambiguously demonstrating that the former enfant terrible is far from a spent force.
Filmmaker talked to Carax and Gondry about the challenges of shooting in Tokyo, why Kurosawa makes Gondry suicidal, and Carax’s childhood love of Diana Rigg.
Filmmaker: What attracted you to this project? In your case, Leos, this is the first major film you’ve made in almost 10 years.
Carax: That’s it. I couldn’t make my films, so I said “Yes,” when it was proposed to make this film. It meant I had the chance to shoot something pretty soon, and that’s mostly why I said yes.
Gondry: I’ll try to find an original answer to this question… I liked Gabrielle’s comic book and I thought I’d like to make a [film about a] very horrible, creepy transformation into a chair. I’m not sure I went really far [enough]. It’s not so horrible. So that was the first thing. Then, the two other directors were people I respected. I’m not crazy about the project that the producers put together, the artificial excuse of “It’s a movie about this city,” but it was still a good opportunity that I took.
Filmmaker: Was there a grand unifying idea for the film beyond it being three stories set in Tokyo?
Gondry: I think if there is any connection, it came by coincidence.
Filmmaker: So were you in communication with each other about your projects at all?
Carax: No, none of us were.
Filmmaker: How many portmanteau or anthology films of this kind – from RoGoPag to New York Stories – had either of you seen? And what do you think of the format of that kind of film?
Carax: Um, I don’t see them. No, I didn’t think I saw those.
Gondry: I think you’re always thinking that you’re going to be better than the [previous anthology films]. At first it seems like, “Yeah, I will be different!”
Filmmaker: Both of you have made music videos and shorts on the one hand, and features on the other hand, but 30-40 minute films occupy an awkward, in between territory. What were the particular challenges of this format?
Carax: To me, none especially. I mean, writing something. When I write, I never know how long it’s going to be. People read it, they say it’s three hours long, some others say it’s an hour and a half, and I have no idea. So then this time, I knew it had to be very precise because I had to share the time. But apart from that… it’s a film.
Gondry: It was more like an opportunity for me because I really wanted to do Gabrielle’s comic and turn the story into a movie. I didn’t think it would work as a full movie, so half an hour was very convenient for that.
Filmmaker: Was the adaptation of Gabrielle’s comic a project you’d anyway been trying to find a way to make?
Gondry: Yup. We tried to write it as a play, and then I tried to hire some film writer to make it as a movie, but they took it too much apart and I didn’t want to ruin it.
Filmmaker: Was Merde something that you wrote especially for this project, or did you already have the idea?
Carax: The idea came to me when it was proposed to make the film. It was not about Japan. I’d had this image of somebody coming out of the sewers and killing everyone before, but when the proposal came I decided, “Not only is he going to be a total monster, he’s going to be a foreigner in a city on an island in Japan,” so that made it stronger. Then I adapted it, and I started to write it for Tokyo and Japan.
Filmmaker: How much time had either of you spent in Japan prior to your involvement with this film?
Carax: I’ve been there for the promotion of my films, but I can’t say I know it. I’ve been to restaurants and hotels, but I don’t know the city.
Gondry: We had a good amount of time for preparation and I’d been there many times before. I have a different feeling about Tokyo in the way that I am now liking the place and the people. Initially, I had a problem. I remember my first encounter there when I tried to shoot a commercial and it was impossible. And then promoting films there seemed so scheduled and rigid and people would freak out if I would do something different for one minute. I thought, “That’s not a way of living.” But then, after I went there many times, I got took over by the courtesy and the respect, and even the protocol and tradition seduced me at the end. When I went there to shoot with Gabrielle, I was liking the place, though it’s a bit scary with the tremors.
Filmmaker: It seems like your two segments of the film are really about an alien perspective of Tokyo, with both stories being about people who try to engage with the city in unusual ways. Did you look at this as an outsider’s interpretation of Tokyo?
Carax: I would not say it was so much about being in Tokyo as being a foreigner in any place in the world. It’s talking about being a foreigner. In an absurd way, the most foreign person possible. I think as we were three foreigners making this film, of course in each film, there’s a theme of being a foreigner: even if the main actor or the character is Japanese, they’re a foreigner in their own country.
Gondry: Honestly, I tried to shoot it as if I [were Japanese]. It was part of the challenge – I had to make a Japanese movie. So I guess it’s from a different perspective. The story was coming from Gabrielle was set in New York, but when we decided to [transpose it to] Japan, we said, “OK, let’s pretend we’re making a Japanese film.” So it’s not like in a formal way where I put the camera very low. I just tried to get real feelings from people in the city when I started to shoot in it. I was very aware that we were the only non-Japanese people on the shoot, and that we had no choice but to embrace the whole experience.
Filmmaker: What were the problems or particularities of shooting in Tokyo that as you experienced them?
Carax: Well, apart from the fact that you’re not even allowed to shoot in Tokyo, it’s was mostly the relationship with the people, with the crew. For me, it was difficult because, like, two thirds of the crew I just couldn’t understand what they were about, while the other third was wonderful. But, that was bad luck or something. It’s still a mystery to me [why it was like that]. I don’t know. It would be too long a story [to try and explain].
Gondry: It was pretty scary at some points because I realized that all information had to go through one person: our translator. If she mistranslated or changed things, everything could be wrong. But she did mistranslate sometimes when I was insulting some people – she was speaking in very courteous language. More dangerous was that we found out that the translation of the screenplay had eroded all the little “mountains” of our story. We’d lost the subtleties, but also all the stuff that was out of the box a little bit if it was considered inappropriate to Japanese culture: a little kiss or an expression or jokes that they don’t use in Japan. So I had to do very detailed work with Gabrielle to bring that back. We wanted to be specific to the story.
Filmmaker: In Merde, the main character engages very physically with the city and its residents, and there’s violent manifestations of that. Did that have an impact on how you viewed Tokyo when you were filming there?
Carax: I don’t think that much comes from Tokyo… Of course, on a project, everything starts to feed the project, but the idea that this character would be at all foreign was there before I went to to Tokyo. But I had a very strong reaction against a lot of things, like probably the crew or producers or people in the streets would call the police all the time when we were shooting. At the same time, I liked being there. The fact that the first time you experience shooting with a foreign crew – be sure that what you’re saying and what they’re saying is being translated well. Everything was shot so fast and we worked such long hours that it was like between a dream and a nightmare, but it gave the whole thing a [particular energy]. I mean, I didn’t see any dailies, I just shot. I knew if I started watching dailies, I’d stop and redo everything.
Filmmaker: How did you shoot the street scenes? The ones at the start are all about people’s confused reactions, so did you use extras?
Carax: There were a few extras among the real people.
Filmmaker: And there being so many non-extras was presumably why people were calling the police when Denis Lavant was on the rampage.
Gondry: It’s true, it’s pretty disgusting. I sort of erased that from my head that they would just constantly call the police. What’s it called – délation? It’s not something bad in American culture, because they always write “If you see something, say something.”
Carax: It’s denouncing.
Gondry: It’s denouncing, but it’s worse than denouncing. Basically, you defer to a power that you accept without any personal judgment, so the power tells you, “You’re a good person if you report on your neighbor.” So you just put your ethics above that, but I think you should put your ethics before the power. They should consider the power more suspicious.
Filmmaker: You’ve called the lead character in Merde “a sort of Godzilla who attacks the inhabitants of great cities, but a racist, fundamentalist Godzilla.” Are you a fan of the Godzilla movies? And what influence did they, and Japanese cinema in general, have on your film?
Carax: I actually knew nothing about Godzilla, but, of course, I knew what he looked like. When I had the idea, I watched the first Godzilla, which was quite bad, but I took the music. The idea was not to make a Godzilla film, just a monster film. The monster film is a genre, but my monster is still a man – a little man. He’s closer to Charlie Chaplin’s tramp than to Godzilla.
Gondry: I was not trying to make [my film] Japanese in terms of Japanese culture or cinema, but just Japanese in terms of now in Japan. Because I was shooting Japanese actors and they were speaking Japanese and we were in a Japanese location, we tried to make the story work for Japan. Of course, I love Ozu or Kurosawa, but I’m not fascinated by Japanese filmmaking. I like Kurosawa because you have this guy who made films when he was 80 years old. When I saw Ran, I just wanted to kill myself. It was so impressive. I don’t know how in the world you can direct 200 horses and guys when you are 76 years old. I think I would have a heart attack.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Carax: Well, I have no job. I regret that I’m not a filmmaker, I regret that I’m not making films. I regret that I’m not a composer or a singer or a musician, but that’s not a job really.
Gondry: With me, the way I see things is that I could do a more boring job, but it would get me less money. I just feel a lot of privilege to be able to play and get paid for it.
Filmmaker: Is Hollywood going in the right direction?
Carax: Absolutely. But I have no idea what direction Hollywood is going in.
Gondry: I don’t feel in a position to judge the industry. I’m trying to fit in Hollywood, working in the system and having my freedom. To me, it’s not really going in the right direction because they get very successful with movies that don’t have much substance most of the time. So financially they’re going in a very good direction for themselves, but in terms of what they bring to the audiences, I’m not so sure.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Gondry: Le Voyage en Ballon by Albert Lamorisse, the guy who did The Red Balloon. This guy did movies, he was a helicopter pilot and he invented a system to shoot from his helicopter. He actually died in a helicopter crash. It was the first film I saw because it was screened at school. They put a tent in the schoolyard and they screened it there. I was fascinated. It wasn’t very well directed, it was just about a granddad and his grandson journey as they travel across France in a big balloon. It’s amazing.
Carax: No, I don’t remember. I remember the first actress I was in love with, from The Avengers. What’s her name?
Gondry: Not Diana Ross. Katherine Ross?
Filmmaker: Diana Rigg.
Gondry: Diana Rigg! Katherine Ross, she was very pretty too. Diana Ross, Katherine Ross, Diana Rigg.
Carax: I watched The Avengers whenever it was on TV. I cried when they announced that they would change the actress playing Emma Peel, and then it was another girl.
Gondry: For me, the first actress I fell in love with was Shirley MacLaine in The Apartment. And I think I had a crush on Mary Poppins, but that’s more childish.