Michel Gondry is often told to grow up.
The French director has heard it plenty in the years since his Oscar-winning second feature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, which starred Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet as a broken-up couple who scrub their minds of all memories of each other. Some point to a juvenile preoccupation with romantic love, which can sometimes veer toward obsession. (Gondry wrote his third film, The Science of Sleep, with an ex-girlfriend in mind and curated an art installation from brazenly bizarre artifacts of past relationships, including a necklace crafted from bits of his own fingernails. “When people want to criticize me, they call me puerile,” he said at the time.)
Others’ patience wears thin at the whimsicality of his films’ handcrafted fantasies—a dream visualizer made of egg cartons, boxes, and a shower curtain, for instance; a buzzing cityscape made of paper towel rolls; a piano that mixes different cocktails with each note; a flying car shaped like a cloud—purposefully childlike in their renderings of adult fears, anxieties, and heartbreak. A caricature emerged of a middle-aged man stuck in Neverland: “Michel Gondry Entertained for Days By New Cardboard Box,” The Onion legendarily jabbed.
Yet Gondry has remained unabashed in prizing earnestness, emotion, and inventiveness in his work. It’s what makes him a startlingly natural fit to direct Kidding, the new Showtime series about a Mr. Rogers-like children’s TV host named Jeff Pickles whose fiercely-guarded (if somewhat off-putting) innocence—and the lucrative show-business empire it sustains—threaten to crumble after the death of his teenage son. Gondry executive produces and directs six of the first season’s ten episodes, reuniting with his Eternal Sunshine lead Jim Carrey. And though Weeds alum Dave Holstein created the series, for Gondry, it represents something personal. “This seems to be written for me, I admit,” he says.
It takes only the first scene in the pilot to announce a Gondrian touch of magic-realism: Pickles leads a Conan audience in a children’s sing-a-long, his impenetrable naiveté and blunt pageboy haircut alternately uncomfortable and endearing. On the set of his show, Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time, Jeff is surrounded by handmade felt friends like Uke-Larry the singing ukulele and a melancholy French baguette named Ennui Le Triste. Glitter falls from clouds hung on strings. A tiny paper barrel transports a tiny Jeff cutout safely over a waterfall. It’s a haven of feeling and imagination where Jeff thrives; outside the bubble, he’s a foreigner painfully out of place.
Gondry designed the show-within-a-show’s brightly-colored set (and half its puppets) to contrast with the cynicism outside Jeff’s world—manifesting existential questions of his own along the way. At 55, almost three decades into a career of turning feelings into images, Gondry is still told to grow up. Jeff Pickles, he imagines, can relate.
“That’s one of the reasons I wanted to do [the show],” Gondry tells The Daily Beast. “I could identify to Jeff Pickles. Especially in the very peculiar way he has to conduct his ethics and beliefs, and how they are very far from what should be in the ‘real’ world. There is a conflict of two worlds: the world he has in his heart and his mind, and then the world of reality from which he is confronted. And I could totally identify to that.”
If negotiating between one’s own creative vision and the world that receives it gets easier with age, then for Gondry, that process “seems to be going a little bit slower,” he says, though he has at least grown more decisive of late: “It seems that by experience we know where to go a little quicker,” he muses. “And by experience, [we know to] try to keep what makes us different, not normalize ourselves. So I think I could use what I had in me to do it between the show-in-the-show and the real world with this character, who seems not to fit.”
Gondry and Carrey plotted to collaborate again for years until Skyping excitedly to discuss the prospect of Kidding. “We exchanged a lot of ideas, probably most of them didn’t last, but we saw it as a ground on which we could really play and still have some depth,” Gondry says. Carrey, meanwhile, calls the director the “linchpin” in his decision to accept the role. “He’s a mad scientist,” the actor told Jimmy Kimmel last week. “He just sits back and looks at something and goes, OK, what if it’s upside-down? Would it make a difference?”
Though critics now routinely list their 2004 film Eternal Sunshine among the best of the 21st century, Gondry has confessed that it can “feel like a burden” to have each new effort compared to his masterpiece. “I mean, Eternal Sunshine is my second movie,” he says now. “So it’s a little bit difficult that people, when they meet me, they refer to Eternal Sunshine that I did quite early. And I feel, OK, I will never live up to that.”
Yet Kidding naturally invites comparison. In the episodes he helms, Gondry coaxes performances from Carrey more gently heartbreaking than any seen from the actor in 14 years. It seems to make Gondry nervous. “First, it was my second movie,” he repeats, “and then, the thing grew after it was out. It was not a big explosion when it came out. And also I had done more than 100 videos before… ” He mumbles for a moment, then offers, “Maybe it’s better to have one success than no success at all.”
“But we’ll see with Kidding,” he says. “This is my chance.”
It’s true that Gondry has yet to replicate his first Oscar-winning success, though his career since Eternal Sunshine betrays little more than a desire to simply pursue curiosity. He roamed from a manifesto on the nature of dreams (2006’s The Science of Sleep) to a playful tribute to low-tech movie-making in 2008’s Be Kind Rewind. He wrangled the Hollywood superhero machine in 2011 with The Green Hornet, promptly swore off the genre for good (“I don’t think this type of movie needs me,” he says now, adding, “I didn’t like this type of comic books anyway”), then turned to a simpler, improvised tale of a bus full of Bronx teenagers in The We and the I.
An animated conversation with the linguist Noam Chomsky, Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, bowed to favorable reviews in 2013. Then came Gondry’s wildly fantastical romantic opus, the Audrey Tautou-starring Mood Indigo, which polarized critics with its unbridled visual whimsy. “I let myself go,” Gondry says now of his fanciful adaptation of one of France’s greatest novels. “I wanted to open all my senses.”
The film and its reception took a toll on Gondry, who watched gloomily as American distributors cut out hefty chunks for its stateside debut. “It was complicated,” Gondry says. “I wanted to find my own way to illustrate it. Some people liked it and some didn’t.”
His next film, Microbe and Gasoline, helped the director hit the reset button with a charmingly small-budget coming-of-age story about two best friends’ summer misadventures in the French countryside. It saw only a limited release in the U.S., nearly a year after it debuted in France, but Gondry recalls his last film fondly. “I was really, really pleased—I am very pleased with the result,” he says. “It was not a big movie, it didn’t have a lot of distribution, but it was a film I have done that I appreciate.”
That was in 2015. Since then, apart from Kidding, Gondry has returned exclusively to his first loves: short films and music videos. (The singer Björk discovered Gondry’s videos for his old band, Oui Oui, in the early ’90s and enlisted him to direct for her. He played drums at the time and aimed to sound like Kool & the Gang, but “we played more like bullfrogs meet Talking Heads,” Gondry joked.)
He’s still prickly about directors who’ve taken cinematic techniques he pioneered, even in the spirit of homage—though for the record, he takes no issue with The Matrix immortalizing the “bullet-time” effect he pulled off in a 1995 Rolling Stones video and a Smirnoff ad the next year. “You know, sometimes people say everything that exists is a copy, but I think that’s bullshit,” Gondry says. “It’s just an excuse to be lazy and copy the work of others.”
“What’s difficult is to work hard, obtain a result that’s coming from your head in the limitation of conditions like money or time or all sort of things, and then it gets exposed in a very minimalistic way but enough so some other director can take the same idea, do something big, and have a much greater exposure,” he laments. “And then at the end of the day the audience doesn’t even know where it came from.”
He’s against the idea of an Eternal Sunshine TV show, too, though news surfaced in late 2016 that a producer on the original film planned to “remake” it for the small screen. “I mean, I’m flattered in some ways,” Gondry says. “But I fear a bit the result. To have a new story every week? I don’t know. I don’t see it.” There was talk of adapting the film as a Broadway musical, he says, though that idea seems to have sputtered, too.
For now, Gondry is settling into the “new adventure” of directing television, a shift he never predicted. (“I don’t want to be distracted from doing movies,” he told Indiewire two years ago when asked if he’d ever consider TV.) Even now, he admits, his TV palette is a bit spotty: he never got through Mad Men or Game of Thrones, but he’s a “huge fan” of 30 Rock and cult sketch-comedy shows like Monty Python and the Flying Circus and Mr. Show.
Still, Carrey’s involvement, a high-concept premise, and logistics all worked in Kidding’s favor. “It was something that was ready to go, so I didn’t have to wait six months not knowing if it would happen or not,” he laughs. “That was a great advantage.”
Holstein manages most decision-making on set, though his and Carrey’s sensibilities impact much of the show. Gondry was adamant that Carrey not resemble Mr. Rogers too closely, for instance, despite several plot points that deliberately mirror the late TV host’s life. “I warned everybody and I begged everybody to stop thinking of him, especially Jim,” Gondry says. “I didn’t want him to get affected by the mono-rhythm and demeanor of Mr. Rogers because I know that Jim had everything we needed within himself.” He dislikes biographical performances of real-life figures; they’re “like a mask.”
There are details of the gig Gondry has yet to figure out—like, say, who’s watching this thing. “I don’t know how it works. I don’t even know if they have something to calculate the box office with streaming,” he says, flabbergastingly. But onscreen at least, he’s found a way to leave his mark.
“As a director, you have to find all the nuances to imprint your personality and make it yours,” he explains. “One of the things I brought the most is I really wanted—I mean, everybody wanted, but I made sure that the characters existed for a reason, that they were not just here to make us laugh.”
“For TV, people have a tendency to feel the need to make jokes work and I was sort of critical with them,” he adds. “I tried to fight a bit so we don’t see you’re watching television necessarily, but just a story.”
Gondry fought to keep Jeff Pickles grounded in real emotion, he says, in spite of the character’s cartoonish naiveté. It’s easy to point and laugh at a grown man who thinks like a child, for whom the realities of adulthood seem too much to bear. But a point comes in the show’s first season when viewers will be tempted to dismiss Pickles as delusional, broken, a “lunatic.” And they’d be wrong.
As Gondry says, “Maybe he knows reality better than the serious people.”