Film & TV

Michel Gondry on the World’s First Animated Noam Chomsky Documentary

Film & TV

Michel Gondry on the World’s First Animated Noam Chomsky Documentary


Michel Gondry sits alone in a room at the IFC offices in New York, sketching an image of a pawn on a stack of index cards. Outside of his door awaits a collection of film critic media types and important people in interesting scarves discussing how awesome he is. His door creaks open, and the crowd starts shouting “Michel! Michel!” like they’re hailing a French Maître D’ at an expensive restaurant. It’s interesting to witness, considering he just wrapped up a documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, tracing the mental process of nouveau philosopher Noam Chomsky. Meanwhile, Gondry himself has bevies of people hoping to someday decode his beautiful mind. The French director-slash-screenwriter is known for having a healthy catalogue of movies and music videos that straddles the line between overt and abstract. From having Bjork as one of his visual muses to having directed one of the greatest mind-fuck films of all time (Eternal Sunshine Of the Spotless Mind), Michel Gondry is a jack of all frames.

In Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?, he speaks with Chomsky on the inner workings of the human (and at times non-human) mind and even manages to get Chomsky to speak about his personal life. The film is 95% animation, 5% real, but only when the camera is pointed at Chomsky. Shot on the clickity-clackity Bolex camera, the film combines Gondry’s intense inquisitiveness on human behavior with his clear love of doodling. We took in some face time with Gondry to discuss the process of the documentary, philosophically bumping heads with Chomsky, and where this new direction in film might take him.

In the film, you mention that at some point, you had just started renting DVDs or buying DVDs on Noam Chomsky. What brought on that curiosity?
Sometimes I’d just rent DVDs for no specific reason. I’d know just the title and his face maybe, but I was ignorant. I didn’t know who he was, and you read a few comments on the back of the DVD and there you go. Then I’m watching, and I saw him and it was mostly about his activism. They were made with that as the subject of the documentaries, so I was really compelled by his analysis of the media, his critiques on foreign policy, and his commitment to oppressed communities. Then I realized very soon after what he had contributed in science and linguistics. His approach, a sort of biological approach of linguistics, resonated with me a lot. His specific point of view is that language didn’t come from a long succession of little steps, but more in one mutation, which is something I’ve always liked.

In the film, you mention that the process of film lets you manipulate the subject in a way, and you were saying that animation leaves it subject to a lot of interpretation. However, when Noam is speaking, you keep it as him. You didn’t make it an animation of him. Was that intentional?
I just wanted the people to know I met him, you know? It’s very basic, and I think it’s nice to see him smiling or thinking at times. But what I did is I had the same camera that I used for the animation.

Why animation?
That was my starting point. I had interviewed a physicist on the phenomenon of fire. I explained how fire works, and it was like five minutes. I did some abstract animation to help the understanding. I felt that was something I wanted to do on a bigger scale, because to me, Noam was one of the greatest artists alive. I found it was perfect.

You state more than once in the film how you really wanted to do this in time for Noam to be alive to still see it, and then we learn in the film that he had this strange obsession with death. In the beginning he had this big fear of it, and then it was something that he started to come to terms with. Was he aware that you were trying to make sure that he was still alive for this process?
No, but I found no refrain to mention it because he had no issues with his death. So that’s why I talk openly about it. This is very immature, but I did it. If he watches what I’ve done, I’ve been doing that for three years just thinking of him all this time, and I want him to watch it! It’s like what I’d do with a video for Bjork. I want her to watch it and tell me how she feels about the video. It’s like an infant or a young kid who wants to have his parents give him their approval. I mean, not everybody functions like that, but I have to admit I am a bit like that.

So in between the first part of the filming and then the final part of the filming, you also did The Green Hornet. How did your perception change for directing while having these conversations with Noam on perception and how we read things and view things?
Well sometimes you feel bad, because you’re doing a story with guns and explosions, but I think that when nothing else, a lot of Hollywood movies have a very conservative underlying purpose, and I don’t think I had that. But I felt a little inconsistent maybe, but my brain was really working. I had this theory that I tried to get through him, but he was not accepting. He’s like, “Okay, you have this theory, but then you have to do your homework and prove it to them and find a way to prove it,” which I couldn’t do.

Your body of work is so diverse. How do you switch gears?
I think I’m very curious of people and territories I don’t know. So I meet with Bjork, and I had done videos to start with on my own, with mixed animation and live action, so she responded to this work. So I meet with her and I get really excited, so there we go. We did seven or eight videos together! I met Dave Chapelle, and I have always liked Black music, whether Jazz or Rhythm & Blues. I was very captivated by that. So I meet Dave Chapelle, and he wants to do this concert with all these bands. Then I realized there is a sense of community there, and sometimes I was the only white person in the room and I sort of tried to understand, and I go full gear in this direction. Then of course I meet Noam Chomsky, and I go in that direction. Then I go to Hollywood, and I meet the people and they want me to do big movies, so I go there. I think it’s about curiosity and diversified interest.

Is there another subject that you have your eye on to do this type of animated film with?
Yes. As I said, I started with the father of a good friend of mine who’s a physicist to illustrate a very basic phenomenon like water or fire or air, and this kind of element that you can dig deeply into, if you go to the molecular level. And for instance, I always watched and read about Richard Feynman, which I talk about in the middle of the film. I always liked his way to express and illustrate complex phenomena with simple words. It’s very democratic, and he mentions that anyone can understand, so that was something I was interested in. But I think the difference with Noam is he has this complex understanding of science, but at the same time, his activism and his politics are as strong. Most scientists I can see or hear or read, when they step into the political or general views of the world, they become very vague, if not generic. So he’s a unique person in my perception, in the sense that he has both sides of the equal levels of depth.

Like you.
Well I don’t think I can speak as deeply as he does.