Beyond a shared sense of whimsy and the use of inventive gizmos, it's hard at first to pinpoint a thematic through-line connecting the varied works of filmmaker Michel Gondry; this is a guy who has veered from the techno-surreal romance of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind to big budget superhero flick The Green Hornet to The We and the I, a story that takes place on a school bus in the Bronx.
But when you sit and listen to him, it becomes clear, even before he spells it out explicitly, that everything the French filmmaker does is informed by his identity as an outsider, especially in America.
"I think you want to make characters sympathetic, meaning that you want them to have feelings that audiences can understand," Gondry, 50, told BuzzFeed in a still-thick French accent. "But at the same time, it's complex because... I don't like movies where people are so characterized, especially American movies, where you see people get married and having a job, living a very American life. It's hard for me to relate to them. So when I direct them or illustrate them, I try to find outcasts that you can relate to."
His new film Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? is constructed of the stitched-together highlights of several conversations with famed linguist Noam Chomsky, which Gondry completely animated by hand alone, using informal cartoons and surreal doodles to depict the often-complex concepts that the professor discussed.
As the two discuss the nature of communication and delve into the long history of human cognition, Gondry sometimes misunderstands or flatly admits confusion at the complicated epistemology that seems so obvious coming from the 85-year-old philosopher; despite the risk of embarrassment, these on-screen stumbles, Gondry said, were kept in "to make the audience comfortable," which also provides the film with that sometimes-elusive relatable protagonist.
"I don't assume that the audience is sophisticated or not sophisticated," he explained, "because I'm not sure I'm smarter than them. I'm probably less smart than most people."
This is a point he makes again and again, reinforcing a notion that seems quite difficult to believe, given his 20 years of critical acclaim and the Oscar that he won for the Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind screenplay. Maybe Gondry is just still hurting from the one real hiccup of his career: 2011's comic book adaptation flop, The Green Hornet.
The movie, which starred Seth Rogen as the titular hero, a slacker-turned-powerless crimefighter, was a critical and box office bomb. Interference from Columbia, the studio that released the film, somewhat famously prevented Gondry and Rogen, who co-wrote the film with Evan Goldberg, from fully realizing the quirky (but not sci-fi) world that they had envisioned.
"I have an issue with the way superhero movies are done, especially now, because they feel very superior or very pretentious," Gondry said. "I like more the era when Tim Burton was doing the superhero. It was more whimsical and magical."
One of the great lessons of the film — which Gondry says, "I don't dismiss" — was that he "should come up with the concept [himself] and not jump on a concept that already existed," he said with a laugh, adding that he was dismayed by some of the reaction — especially stateside — to the character of Kato, Green Hornet's sidekick played by Jay Chou.
"The idea that the Chinese guy was more sophisticated than the American guy was sort of controversial in a way. Some of the fans were upset about that," Gondry said, lamenting that some of the feedback he read was racist in nature. "We portrayed the superhero as somebody a little bit stupid. But I don't overlook him, because I see myself as being stupid, as well."
And there again is insistence at his own stupidity, a silly proposition but one to which he clings quite tightly almost three years since the movie proved a rare disappointment. Perhaps that's what keeps him going, that drive to prove himself and connect, which Gondry exhibited even as a child in France, when he was an aspiring inventor who thought up ideas like hand crank-powered radio and air brakes for cars through his drawings. Of course, he later found out they had already been invented and implemented, but the dye was cast.
Both Gondry's music videos — especially the groundbreaking works he has made with Bjork over the past 20 years — and films like 2006's The Science of Sleep have made extensive use of his enthusiasm for handcrafted and cartoonish props plucked straight from a dream world; Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy? follows that tradition of inventiveness.
Gondry has been an original in just about everything he's done, and an outcast to whom many can relate.