Director's Cut: Michel Gondry on Animating Noam Chomsky in 'Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?'

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Michel Gondry's new film, “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” could have been really simple. It's an interview film. He sat down with noted linguist, philosopher, scholar and dissident Noam Chomsky and shot the breeze. Since Chomsky has a tendency to say some enlightening things all he really needed to do was run the camera.

Of course, there's no shortage of yapping Chomsky clips out there, and Gondry was well aware that in order to make his film a vitally singular piece of work he would have to mix things up a bit. So the irrepressibly creative director of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" decided to take the audio from the conversations and set his imagination loose, creating hand-drawn and often surreal animation as a visual accompaniment. Sometimes the imagery is a one-to-one representation, other times it becomes abstract expressionism.

It also doesn't hurt that the conversations don't always go as Gondry planned. Chomsky is nothing if not unpredictable in his response to heavy questions about scientific principles or his own biography. Moreover, Gondry's incredibly thick Gallic accent is a minefield of confusion. Is this some master plan of Gondry's to ensure this seemingly simple task – two men connecting on unknowable ideas – is shown to be fundamentally impossible?

I wondered this as I struggled through my own conversation with Gondry. It took me time to realize that “ack-TEE-viz-om” was “activism” and “Cap-hunt-uz” was “carpenters.” Moreover, it wasn't until I transcribed the discussion that I realizes how frequently Gondry answered my questions in confusing ways. Is he some mad genius making an end-run to shed light on the problems of communication? Or is he just a surrealist goofball who makes really cool drawings?

We may never know, of course, and that mystery is at the heart of what makes “Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?” such a valuable experience.

Some of Gondry's tortured grammar is left intact in this edited transcript. Trust me, it's just better that way.

FILM.COM: Hi, Michel, it's great to talk to you. But you've been talking all day today!

MICHEL GONDRY: Yes, but it is a good subject.

This is a movie all about talking, and here you are talking about it.

I know it is very meta-- um, how do you call that thing? Meta. . .something.

When you were making a movie all about talking, was it ever in the back of your head that “some day the reckoning will come” and you'll be stuck talking about it?

[After a pause, clearly not understanding my admittedly silly question.] Yes, but the work itself has to be up to the level of being asked questions I could not answer. I was very nervous when I started the movie, if I would be capable of answering the questions.

I'm never going to get to interview Noam Chomsky, but I might ask some difficult or philosophical questions as a proxy to –

I know! Sometimes people use words I don't even know in interviews. It can be embarrassing. But I am always honest and ask people to use a more simple word when I don't know.

Honesty is a big part of your film, one of the best parts, actually. Your conversation with Chomsky sometimes doesn't go the way you expect it to go and you leave the dead ends in. You think you are leading him somewhere and he basically says 'eh, I'm not interested in going there.'

It was objective to show it. Plus, it gives some entertainment to show I'm a little bit lost, or I feel stupid – the struggle can be funny. But it also shows he has an ideal mind – he sees where the conversation should go and he follows it. To see the struggle for me to keep him on my track is interesting to watch.

How many interviews did you have with him?

Four. Two times, with six months apart. Four times, forty-five minutes, basically. We had half of the complete time in the movie, basically.

Before you met with him, did you have something of a “pre-interview,” to discuss what you would discuss?

Yes, I met him four or five times before in informal ways. Just because I am an admirer.

What I'm asking, though, is did he know in advance that 'today we'll discuss learning' or 'today we'll discuss how the mind interprets certain principles'? Or was it free-form?

I had written a few questions on a piece of paper, because I was very anxious. Then I got the idea to go with the first memory of his life, as this would be personal, and can leap to language acquisition. I thought this could make a parallel between memory and language. I had this in my mind, but it was obviously leading to a free-form in his mind. That was the idea.

At what point did he know you would be animating the film, from the first meeting?

Yes. No, not the first meeting. But when I got the idea to do the documentary.

Did he have any input into how the animation would look?

He let me do whatever I wanted, but I showed him something similar I did for a video, and I explained how this could demonstrate his concepts in a more accurate way than in a narrative way. And he agreed.

Which video?

Yes, the video I did for Cody Chestnutt that I did for my documentary of “Dave Chappelle's Block Party.” You can find it on YouTube.

You can find everything on YouTube!

I know. Not everything, though. Some things I have done are lost.

Would you prefer it on YouTube, even if you aren't being paid?

On YouTube is better, better than being lost. I am not getting the money anyway. I get the money up front. If there is no money up front then I never get it. Or it is so little that it – one time I received a check for one dollar and fifty-five. Or, no, it was just for fifty-five. For fifty-five cents. So I framed it and put it in my office.

Who's fault is that? That you aren't getting any money after it is done?

It is not my fault. It is the system. On the paper it seems like you would make some money, but when they reduce the expenses from the payment. . .the expense you can not see . . . these expenses are always superior to your gains.

What would Noam Chomsky have to say about the struggle of a hard working director?

[long pause] He appreciated the hard work and the artistic aspect and the dedication.

I was just making a little joke.

Yeah.

But Chomsky is known to many people more as a political activist than a philosopher and scientist. For the most part you stick with his science and philosophy other than his politics. Did you figure “enough people talk about his politics, I want to focus on this?”

Yes. And as much as I respect with his political views and I agree with him – I feel somewhat overwhelmed by his activism, because I don't feel I am doing much to make the world a better place – but I thought if I could illustrate his scientific work I could make him more accessible and could get people to listen more to what he had to say. And I thought I had more capacities to illustrate his scientific work, particularly using abstract animation. And I like very much the scientific work, how people try to explain the history of evolution and the perception of the world. You know, brain. And consciousness. It captivates me.

The “tricks of the mind” is something that appears in a lot of your films.

Yes, this is what led me to try to meet with him. His work and writing about creativity, as well. The democratic conscience of creativity – this is in tune with what I believe, something I wanted to dig into.

Were there ever times when he was saying some far-out things when you wanted to say “aw, come on, stop pulling my leg!” For example, he says he hasn't thought about death since he was fifteen. He says “eh, it's something that happens.” Were you tempted to say “now you're just saying that”?

No, because I know some people are like that. For me, my death scares me to death. But others talk about their death in a simple way and don't get anguished. But I think he is honest enough that he would say if he was scared. For instance, he talks about his wife – he will not talk about the passing of his wife. He is very honest that he is not over it. I understand why he would lie about the feeling of his own death, but not about his wife, so I don't think he is pulling my leg.

But – in another occasion I find he was. . . he had the orientation of the discussion thought out before he finished the answer. For instance, when we talked about creativity, I thought he wanted to talk about smoking pot right at the beginning. If you saw how it unfolds, he's talking about how inspiration comes to everybody – kids, scientists and even carpenters. And when he talks about carpenters he has in mind right away about how they couldn't solve the problem, then they go off and smoke pot, and they find the resolution. And he uses this way to express his views.

But I don't think that he is smoking pot! And I don't think it is a good thing to do that. But, this was him driving the conversation.

A moment I found gratifying, and it relates to him driving the conversation – you bring up astrology. And clearly you want him to come down and dismiss astrology. But he's too polite, he says “well, it's a common belief,” but astrology drives me crazy, also. When I hear people talking about Mercury being in retrograde I just wanna. . .

Yeah. . .but I try to follow Professor Chomsky's example. I don't engage anymore in this conversation. Sure, I could say, how is it that people who are born on the same day have the same psychology, regardless of the year? And I would argue what difference it makes when you are in the womb and when you are just out? The skin of the mother is influenced by the arrangement of the planets? But there is too much gap about what I know . . . I don't even know the sign of my son. I used to engage more, but I know it is important for some people.

What Chomsky says is interesting. He says it is an essential human trait to believe, or to strive to believe, in something – whether astrology or religion or whatever. He says it is stranger not to believe in something.

Some argue that you live longer as believer than non-believer. It may be programmed, it helps you survive better? But my understanding of his point of view is that many people who are oppressed have strong belief. He doesn't want to dismiss them for that.

The social aspect of a faith . . .

Take a group that is always oppressed, like in Kurdistan, oppressed by countries on all sides. They are religious people and he doesn't want to mock them.

So let me try to get in your head a little bit. Let me try to understand what makes you tick. Ummmm, you are here in New York right now – what are you doing later?

Well I live here part of the year. After it is too hot and before it is too cold. I enjoy the energy of the street. Next I am finishing a rap album with a friend Paul Barman, our band is called Beer.

Bear? Or beer, like the drink?

Yeah.

Not that I'm stalking you, but where do you hang out?

I go to the diner next to my home in Brooklyn. I like Washington Square Park. I like. . .I remember taking my son in school on Upper East Side, there was a nice coffee shop there I used to go. Central Park, of course, and in the street, all the places, you can find, like, plastic clowns good for creativity.

People don't bother you on the street, do they?

Yeah, it depends. If I go to the movie next to the dormitory of NYU on 3rd Avenue I get asked some times. But people who recognize me are people who watch making of on DVDs, but since there are not much DVDs around I think they are going to . . .uh. . .not know my face anymore.

Okay, we gotta go. But congrats on the movie, I loved it and – oh, crap – we didn't even talk about the animation.

Yeah.

Are your hands still hurting? Are you never going to draw again? That was all hand-drawn.

No, I will draw again, but my eyesight is. . . I just turned 50 and it is going with age. But my eyesight was poorly a lot during the process. But I can't blame it all on the drawing, I just have to put some glasses on.

If you do another animation project would you consider computers and not hand-drawn, since you conquered hand-drawn with this?

No, no, I would do it by hand. Always, I think, always by hand.

"Is The Man Who Is Tall Happy?" opens in theaters on November 22nd and will be available on iTunes on November 25th.