Michel Gondry Talks Animating Noam Chomsky With ‘Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?’

When it comes to French filmmaker Michel Gondry, the wonder of his work lies in the fact there’s always something different hiding up his sleeve—or rather, tucked in one of the many fascinating pockets of his brain. As the visually imaginative and emotionally-charged creative force behind films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, he’s also given us countless short films, music videos, and documentaries that highlight the myriad facets of his world.

Whether he’s crafting romantically painful surrealist masterpieces, Hollywood studio pictures, or independent collaborations, Gondry’s oeuvre always veers towards the unexpected and searches into the artistic unknown. Last year, when I sat down with him and the cast of his film The We and the I,  he told me that, “I like popular movies, I think they don’t have to be big, and small movies don’t have to be independent for sort of elite.” And with his latest endeavor, we see another side to the acclaimed director through his incredible talent and affinity for animation.

With Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? Gondry creates an innovative documentary about the philosopher, linguist, and anti-war activist Noam Chomsky. Through a series of interviews and conversations, the film brings us into the Chomsky’s ideals and theories, while revealing the life and work of the “father of modern linguistics”— shedding light on the mysteries of language and its emergance. But rather than give us a straight portrait, Gondry brings us on a ride through his mind as well, with beautifully unique hand drawn animations and illustrations that allow us to understand Chomsky’s vision in a brilliant new way.

And before the film’s premiere last weekend, I got the chance to reunite with Gondry to discuss where he and his subject intersect, the healing process of the making the film, and the direct approach of animation.

For all the different projects and kinds of films, how did this come to you. For all the different kinds of films and all the projects that you are a part of, how did this film come to you? 
Well, I didn’t have a preconceived idea, and when I met Noam for the first time I didn’t know I would do this, it just came later. But I was always interested in science and scientific explanation and graphics, and I thought that this would be the perfect match with Noam Chomsky. So after visiting him, maybe four times, I suggested we do an abstract animation—More his scientific work than his political work.

So was it working with Noam or the idea of exploring animated film that first sparked your interest?
I got the idea before I met him to do something scientific with my abstract style of animation. I had done a little film with a friend of mine who is a physicisit. He told me how fire works and I did the illustration, so I had that in mind. But when I made the Chomsky, I didn’t think of doing anything it just came later. But I always wanted to do something between animation and scientific approach.

Watching the film is an interesting experience in itself, being so captured and engaged in the drawings but also listening intently to Noam speak. It’s using a muscle in your brain to connect to both the visual and intellectual element of the film. 
Yeah, and when I started using this technique, it was for video a few years before. I remember listening on tape toThe Stranger by Camus—and the length of the book was probably five or six hours on tape—and I was corresponding to the one shot I did of a growing drawing. And when I was watching the result of the animation, I remembered the book in fast-forward, like full speed, like all the chapters were attached to the shape of the drawing. It was just an abstract shape that grew line after line, and I thought it was there was something going on on an abstract level with the perception. And I thought that if I took Noam’s voice and played it while I was drawing, I could have some connection that is sort of unconscious.

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When you were interviewing him did you already start drawing or have ideas formulating while that was going on? Sometimes I got some ideas and images, but most of the time it came after. When I was interviewing him I was really trying to keep up in his thinking and trying to intervene and do my job as an interviewer. And the first image I had was a tree—and of course a tree is a tree, so I started with that and did the first sort of test and it was very satisfying to watch.

Did he know right away that you’d be animating the film? 
Yeah because I showed him an animation I had done for the singer, Cody ChesnuTT. So he sort had a vague idea, but he does a lot of interviews, so when he saw the first half an hour he was really intrigued. I believe it’s the first time his scientific work has been illustrated with graphics and I think he was sensitive to that.

And you were working on this a lot while editing The Green Hornet?
Yeah, from the end of Green Hornet to like six months ago—which was also while finishing my previous movie Mood Indigo. So I was working on it on and off all the time in LA and probably a bit in New York and Paris.

Did you find that this was a nice creative exercise away from the other work you were doing and something refreshing to work on? 
Oh yeah, it was a complete relief and getaway from the other jobs. I couldn’t wait sometimes to get back home—even if I had already done a twevle hour day of shooting or editing, I would still spend three or four hours on this. It was a brain resting; it was really a great relief.

Which is slightly odd because this is so much about thought and yet it was able to put you at ease. 
Yeah, but say I would do a little sketch like this or I knew I was supposed to go from this place to a place, I had to find the transition that would grow. It’s very specific, but I could decide anywhere I wanted and I could think about it in the car or on a lunch break. So when I come home, I already had a plan in mind of how it would go and I would be really exited to do it. This was sort of effortless—not always but most of it. I had a great feeling of freedom doing it.

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You and Noam both have a very interesting perception of the world and how we experience thought and feeling. Did you find there were similarities between the two of you that drew you to him? 
Well, there is some common territory. Of course I don’t see myself at the same level—trying to keep up in the conversation was very challenging—but I think that’s why I liked him as a figure. He has this scientific background and as a graphic artist, especially when I was in France, to have this connection with science was different because art is more in some ways connected to literature. Like in France when you want to go into high school, there are schools who have a specialization in graphic art and they really push you into literature. And literature is a great form of art, but for me it was a different type of psychology and type of student who would go in the literature branch. They were much more outspoken and dismissed science as something a little too complicated and not so useful . But I found this high school when I was 15 or 16 that was not necessarily for literature. So when I met Noam, even though he was coming from linguistics—you would assume it’s closer to literature—I find that his scientific world has something very geometric about it. And that was his approach to language, he found mathematical patterns and correspondence to the language, and he talked a lot of genetics, and subjects that really interested me. So we had that in common; although I don’t of course have as much knowledge as he has.

And with all this talk of linguistics, did the language barrier between the two of you ever come in the way? 
Yeah that was the irony of it. But it didn’t create a distance; it was actually the opposite in a way. He didn’t mind explaining a word to me because of my problem to translate, and sometimes it was very naive. I confused “yield” with “eel” and so it shows how my mind completely drifts away from the subject. So I was very honest and had to ask him about some words I didn’t understand so I could follow, because I was completely left behind. But he never rolled his eyes. He was patient, and if I had come from a more sophisticated linguistic or philosophical background, he would have been much more dismissive.

As an artist I’d imagine you think in a more abstract way in comparison to his more concrete ideas. Did you ever find that was a clash? 
No, that’s where I think I disagree with that. At school my main strength—although I didn’t go very far—was geometry. That was something I understood and responded very well to. Even if I did not listen in the classroom, the teacher would put me to the blackboard and ask me to solve a problem and I could do it—which was one of the branches we studied I figured it out and I was very interested in. So it was another connection with him, and I found symbols to represent the language because he would take the language and find ways to compare it to geometrical function. For instance, my animation. So I draw a shape and would make it grow and within that shape there is a similar shape and that grows again like a fractal. And this aspect I find very appropriate and find myself quite at home. And although I was not sure I understood everything, the abstract of the animation allowed me to keep working even if there was some concepts I was not sure I had fully understood.

In making this film, was there anything you really learned about yourself as an artist and filmmaker? And in working on so many different projects, is there a medium you’ve found yourself most drawn to?
Well my previous movie had some animation and people found it too invasive, too much coming from everywhere. And I thought maybe I didn’t believe in animation anymore. But it was really hard to feel this way because I am coming from animation and some of my biggest influences are animators or directors who worked in animation mostly. But doing this film with Noam and seeing the result of how it was coherent, made me feel good again about animation. So it was sort of a healing process.

You speak in the beginning of the film about how animation strips away the artifice of a documentary or a film because the audience knows what they’re seeing and it’s more direct. 
Yes, it’s a mirror image of the brain in a way and it’s the most direct representation of an idea. When you work with actors you have an idea in the beginning and then it’s completely turned, not necessarily in a bad way, but when you do animation it really reflects what you meant because there’s no in between. That’s something I always liked in animation—it’s like a jazz musician that plays a solo, the instrument is a elongation of the arm, which is a reflection of the brain. Like if I move my finger the way they move, it’s the muscle here and here but I have no perception of that, I just look at my finger and make them move. And when you have an instrument, then the instrument becomes the brain it and I think animation has this quality. So it extends from your body to connect your brain to the result.

 

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