An Interview with Leos Carax, Michel Gondry and Gabrielle Bell

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Tokyo! Stories:
A Conversation with Leos Carax, Michel Gondry, and Gabrielle Bell
By Leo Goldsmith

When last we saw Leos Carax, in a one-minute short he made for the 2006 Viennale titled My Last Minute, the director sullenly lit a cigarette, typed the phrase "Tonight I stop smoking" on his laptop, and shot himself in the head. Undoubtedly, there are those who would find such an ending unsurprising or even fitting—that is, if they remember Carax at all. But there are still others who hope that his brief, but brilliant career will keep smoking, drawing on the enormous well of talent that produced his first two beautiful, energetic films (Boy Meets Girl, Mauvais Sang), his alternately grotesque and euphoric (and famously over-budget) masterpiece The Lovers on the Bridge, and his relentlessly grim and self-regarding last feature, Pola X

While it's an unlikely venue, Tokyo! offers an addendum to the story of Carax, if not (yet) a resurrection. Reteaming with longtime collaborator and leading man Denis Lavant for the first time in fifteen years, Carax has contributed a new short called “Merde” to an omnibus film that also features entries by Bong Joon-ho and Michel Gondry. The names of these two directors are perhaps rather sexier than Carax's these days—Bong had a hit with 2006’s The Host, and this Gondry his first major short film after making the jump from music videos to features (the next of which is purported to be The Green Hornet, written by and starring Seth Rogen). Tokyo! is nonetheless the rare anthology film that satisfies in each of its three parts, allowing its directors to put forth their own idiosyncratic takes on the city of the film's title—from playful to corrosive to romantic. 

Bong, hard at work on his next feature, was not available for interviews, but Carax and Gondry were, and I sat down with the two Frenchmen—and with comic-book author Gabrielle Bell, Gondry's collaborator on his film (and ex-girlfriend)—to discuss the pleasures and perils of working together, filming in Tokyo, and why Americans are harder to hate than Japanese. 

Reverse Shot: Michel, this is the first time you've collaborated on a script since working with Charlie Kaufman on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. What was it like collaborating with Gabrielle for “Interior Design”?

Michel Gondry: Collaboration . . . that's like when you send the Jewish to the Germans. You don't think of that?

Leos Carax: Maybe they don't have that word in English.

Gondry: In French, “collaboration” is very similar to what the French did during World War II.

RS: Like collaborating with the enemy.

Gondry: Or maybe it's because I associate Gabrielle with Nazi characters! No, it was a very good collaboration. It was her materials; we wrote the screenplay together from her short story “Cecil and Jordan in New York.” And we went to Japan together and we would decide together what we liked. She's very opinionated.

Gabrielle Bell: Michel was very good about listening to my opinions.

Gondry: No, I don't mind. As long as I can take credit as well, I don't mind. [Laughs] And as long as the idea's in a good direction. When somebody gives you an idea because it appeals to the right audience or some kind of crap, then I don't like the idea.

RS: But as the original comic is set in New York, was it hard to translate the story to Japan?

Bell: Well, the aspects of the story that we were focusing on seemed almost more appropriate to Tokyo than to New York. Like, in a practical sense, the small apartments. The story is set in New York, and there are four of them living in this tiny studio apartment. In Tokyo the apartments are even smaller.

RS: Leos, what was your experience shooting in Tokyo? Especially, shooting that long opening tracking shot.

Carax: Shooting . . . shooting myself, maybe. Yeah, my experience was less positive than Michel's. Maybe I wasn't as lucky with the crew I got. The producers proposed this movie called Tokyo!, shot in Tokyo, but of course you're not allowed to shoot in Tokyo. No one told me this before.

Gondry: Yeah, I had the same problems, too. Funny. It seemed impossible at first, because the authorities don't give you an official permit. It's interesting with Japanese people: they always work in the gray. So, you ask: “Can we shoot?” And they don't tell you yes or no. It's a very weird condition. It's kind of official, but at the same time you don't want to get caught. You have a permit, but if somebody arrives, then you have to go. I sort of like that, because you have to go very fast. We did have had a big difficulty, because we had to show our actress Ayako Fujitani running in the street naked. But in fact, she was never naked. We had to paint her breasts and have a bikini or whatever you call it—underwear. That was a big scandàle.

But when we shot on the soundstage there were no limitations on time. Which at first was great, especially after working in America, where the unions are very controlling—in Japan you don’t have this threat anymore. But then after a while I kept wondering, “Is somebody going to ask us to stop? Because I'm tired now.”

RS: Was it a relatively small crew?

Gondry: It was like a European crew, not terribly small. But what's funny is that they had this very small dolly. It's just ingenious—they have a dolly that can fit between two cars that are parked. In Japan, the equipment seems appropriate: in America, everything has to be big—like really, ridiculously big. There’s a big truck, and if you need to put the camera there, they have to put up a big scaffolding . . .

Carax: But the thing is, there's no police in Tokyo—you never see the police. But as soon as you start doing something you're not supposed to do, people call the police with their cell phones. Every time, really. They have a perfect system—they don't really need the police to be there. But both of the long shots in “Merde”—the first shot, and the shot with the grenades—we only had time to do them once and then disappear. And it's a mix of real people and actors.

RS: Speaking of disappearing, Leos, what have you been up to recently? Have you been in the sewers of Tokyo?

Carax: Yeah, in deep shit. [laughs] No, I work. I work alone. I haven't met the right people, I guess, to make more films.

RS: Michel, did you like working in a short format again, or would you have preferred to make this a feature?

Gondry: No, for me it was perfect, actually. You don't have much opportunity to do a 30-minute piece. If I wanted to do a short film, it would cost too much to produce; it would have to be longer. But I’ve wanted to do Gabrielle's piece for a long time, and I tried to develop it into a feature film, but it didn't work out. So, when I saw this opportunity, I was thinking that Tokyo would be an even stronger background for the story. I thought it was perfect.

Bell: Yeah, we did talk about making it a feature film at one point. I think Michel got really excited.

Gondry: But then she left me, so I didn't want to work with her again.

RS: What did you leave him for? Another film?

Gondry: Another director, maybe. No, she met a cartoonist. I'm sorry. I have mild Tourette's Syndrome.

RS: Your son Paul is a comic-book author too, right?

Gondry: Yeah, it's very tangled, because I met Gabrielle through my son.

Bell: I was dating his son first.

Gondry: You did not! No, she was teaching my son. But I am making a movie called Master of Time and Space with my son. Dan Clowes is writing the script, and Steve Buscemi is doing the main voice.

RS: Leos, you've worked with Denis Lavant since your first feature, Boy Meets Girl, in 1984. What was it like working with him again?

Carax: Well, I wrote “Merde” for him. I hadn't seen him or worked with him for 15 years, but I had this image of this creature coming out of the sewer. I don't think there are many actors of this generation that can portray such a creature. Maybe Lon Chaney or Peter Lorre or Chaplin, but not that many actors today—and Denis is one. So I'm lucky to have him.

RS: Was it hard for him to get into such a physical part, especially with essentially no dialogue?

Carax: I don't know Denis in real life; I don't know what goes on in his head at all. But I've known him since he was 20 years old, and I kind of know what he's able to do, and I kind of know how to drive him someplace. Of course, he's special in many ways, but one way is that he's both a dancer and a sculpture: he's good at physically moving, but he's also very solid. You can just put him on a chair and film him for twenty minutes.

RS: Did you originally imagine this character in the sewers of Tokyo?

Carax: Well, I suppose first I had this vision of this guy coming out of the sewer, a kind of absurd terrorist killing people for no reason, just hating people and hating anything people have to say. Then when they proposed the film Tokyo!, I thought, okay, I'll see what can happen there. But I don't think I know anything about Tokyo, Japan—I've been there, I had been there, but I had no real fascination for the city. I just used the fact that it's such a closed country, an island, so racist and conservative. I used that, and a few images from pop culture, like Godzilla. But there's not that much of Tokyo in the film.

RS: At the end of “Merde” there’s an announcement of a forthcoming sequel: Merde in USA. Will Merde hate Americans more than the Japanese?

Carax: Americans are hard to hate, because they're very diverse. You can't just say that they're disgusting because they live long and their eyes are shaped like the female sex. It's very different.