Moment of Truth: Michel Gondry Opens Up About His Thorn-y Doc Debut
Welcome back to Moment of Truth, Movieline's weekly spotlight on the best in nonfiction cinema. This week we hear from Oscar-winner Michel Gondry, whose documentary Thorn in the Heart _opens Friday in limited release.-
Michel Gondry is known to make warm, densely tricky and unfailingly personal films; one can even imagine him subverting the superhero genre with his forthcoming big-budget adaptation of The Green Hornet. But what might Gondry do with a documentary? His new film Thorn in the Heart delivers the answer, training his camera on his own family -- his aunt Suzette in particular, whose decades of success as an educator are starkly contrasted against the more haunting pitfalls and woes of matrimony and motherhood. It's an unsparing yet sensitive approach for the first-time docmaker, whose most probing inquiries are woven into animation and vintage home movies until a typically handmade Gondrian tapestry results. In the same candid spirit in which he dismissed Lady Gaga to Movieline a few weeks ago, Gondry he shared his take on nonfiction, grilling one's own family and the thrill of confronting failure.
So what inspired you to make a documentary about your family?
It's funny. My son called Suzette a "notebook" who had to record her stories. She had so many stories. I thought it would be difficult to talk about your own family, but as well, I thought there were some questions I could use to clarify them. Initially I wanted her to show me who and where she had taught. Most of the schools were closed or destroyed; it was really going to the past. But when her son came into the picture -- it took five years to shoot it -- it became more intense. I saw how successful she had been in her professional life, but how difficult her life as a mother had been. It was like she had sacrificed one for the other. Or maybe she was just not lucky with her son. Nobody is to be blamed. It's just difficult.
But you embrace the difficulties, particularly as an interviewer. How comfortable were you with that as the story developed?
That's my job. You know, when I started to do films with actors, I was very shy. When I was doing casting, for instance, and you have to give direction to the actor, it was terrifying for me. But I don't know. I'm always aware of physical danger -- I don't want to lose my life or get hurt. I'm very scared. Even if I were drunk, I would never confront someone. I would always avoid physical confrontation. As much as I avoid taking risks [there], artistically or professionally I always want to go to a place where films are risky. I think it's just what makes me tick. The possibility of failing. This is a conversation I had with Charlie [Kaufman]: Without the possibility of failing, there would be no way to do anything that is interesting. And I always work with this idea because I'm excited about trying something -- whether it's something technical or an invention of some machine. If you know that the machine is going to work in the first place, then it's not very challenging. But if everybody else thinks it's not going to work, and you make it work? That's great.
So it's the same thing with this. Talking to Suzette about death for instance: it's embarrassing. You wouldn't normally bring the subject up, but of course the camera offers a sort of protection and an excuse. I had to go to those places. Suzette started to control the camera too much, and I had to find ways to break that. That's why we had that long interview in the morning when she talked about the passing of her husband. In the morning she was still not very awake, and she would be less controlling.
You also take chances with nonfiction itself by embracing the artifice of the documentary. You cue entrances, you reenact scenes. What part of this movie was you just wanting to put your own stamp on documentaries?
It's not something I'm aware of, really. In this instance, I just wanted to bring some humor to it. When you see a documentary, and someone is passing through a door, and you catch them before and after they've passed the door, you know it's reenacted. You don't have two cameras in this type of documentary. You know that. So I think it's better to show at least once or twice that there is a bit of artificiality. But also to show that Suzette was staging herself. She was taking control. She was creating this conversation behind the door, talking about her memories and stuff. It was part of her personality -- part of her cleverness -- that she is putting herself as an actress in a way. There's a front; she's presenting herself. So I wanted to show that so I could break it. I needed to see the real her who was behind that. Otherwise it would have been not-so-engaging.
I think that's why in the beginning, I think that the set-ups area little contrived. Because we decided to shoot on film, and it was a little crew, and she decided to address the audience. There is this [monologue] scene in the grass in the beginning -- which is where we started -- and I wanted to break away from that. This is one of the first ways I had to sort of demystify that. I don't think it's my trademark or anything. I think it's been done. It's been used many times, but I think it was showing who Suzette is.
What about the sequence of the schoolkids with "disappearing costumes"? Where did that come from?
I think I just wanted to make the kids happy. And myself, too. It's an idea I always thought of using. It's very, very simple -- the trick of using a blue screen to be invisible. And I knew the kids would be excited. Really, that's the only school where Suzette didn't teach, but we just needed to see some kids or some pupils. We were seeing all these houses and all of these pupils who were older; some them look even older than her. She started so young and so long ago. So we needed to see the present a little bit. It became some work for them: They had to write questions, and of course Suzette had super-long answers. It's impossible for them to write it down.
Of course I had plenty before, and I didn't know how it would go. But they were excited. I actually made a DVD for each of them of the disappearing costume. I knew they'd enjoy that more than they did just talking. Then, when we edited the film, it felt like a nice break. We learned so much heavy stuff. After that sequence where [Suzette] talks about her son by the river, and she cries, it's so heavy. So after that there's a sequence where she visits a school, and there's soft music, and she sees her old pupils and they did a recitation together. It's much lighter. I needed a breathing moment.