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Charlie Kaufman & Michel Gondry - Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind
It's an unfortunate fact that most everyone, at some point, will have a bad relationship. The film Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind poses the question: What if you could have the memory of this bad relationship erased? Would you do it? If so, what kind of impact would erasing memories have on you? Smart, funny, and engaging, this latest outing by enigmatic Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and accomplished Music Video Director Michel Gondry is an absolute treat. Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind is one of those rare films that, after watching it, you'll want to run back and watch it again and again.

We had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind Screenwriter Charlie Kaufman and Director Michel Gondry about the film. Their tag-team approach to the interview gave some great insight into how this unique pair works together and how they created such a complex, fascinating and entertaining film.

In addition to reading this interview you can also listen to the complete audio version.

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind is really a genre-defying movie. It's not exactly sci-fi, it's not quite drama, and it's not really a romantic comedy. How do you get a movie like this made that doesn't fit neatly into a genre box?

Not Your Everyday Love Story

Charlie Kaufman: I don't know. We sold it several years ago as a pitch. We sold it to somebody who I think we both trusted and liked, a guy named Steve Golin who at the time ran Propaganda. He got the idea and was going to let the movie be made the way it should be. There were a lot of people interested in the story, so it wasn't a particularly hard sell as an idea.

Michel Gondry: Maybe I could just add, I believe the way it was pitched could allow people to believe that it was science fiction.

CK: What I remember hearing a lot was, "Oh, it's a new way of telling a love story, a new version of that."

MG: They could have a very different way of visualizing the film. Very technical, very spectacular or more character driven.

The way I describe it is, you've seen "When Harry Met Sally;" this is "When Harry Forgets Sally".

Maybe one of the things that seems to keep it from being classed as sci-fi is that you set the story in a place that feels a lot like the present. What went into deciding when and where to place this film?

CK: I think Michel and I were in agreement from the beginning that the science fiction aspect of it should be really played down, and it should be as realistic a company and as mundane as possible. It was more interesting and would focus the story on the relationship and that aspect of it rather than the technological aspect of it, which I don't think was real interesting to us.

Was there influence at all by films that preceded it to deal with memory, like Christopher Nolan's Memento or Paul Verhoven's Total Recall?

CK: No, in fact we pitched this idea several years before Chris Nolan came out with his movie. I was delayed writing it because I had to write the movie that became Adaptation first. And then I was producing Human Nature, which Michel was directing. Plus it was very hard to write for me. There was a moment when suddenly people started talking about this movie Memento when I totally freaked out. I thought "Oh I can't do this anymore", and I called Michel and said "I am not doing it", then we called Steve Golin and said "we're not doing it". Steve Golin was very angry and said "You are doing it!" So we did it. I wasn't influenced by Memento except in that way. I have never seen Total Recall but I've read a lot of Philip K. Dick stories and books, and I don't think that was a direct influence on this, but I certainly like his work.

You've done a wonderful job of maintaining a great intimate story about two people in a movie that fractures into memory and time. When writing Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, how did you make sure that the story being fractured was maintained? Did you write the story of those people first and then figure out how it all fits together, or did it get assembled as you wrote it?

CK: It gets assembled in some form as I write it. I don't write the separate stories. I have some idea about where different stories might be going, where the Mary and Stan story might be going from scene to scene. But I don't write piecemeal like that because it might end up being a clinical thing when it's done. I turn in the script and Michel and the producers have suggestions about things, and the script gets changed. Then the movie gets shot, and in editing a lot of stuff gets moved around and refined even more to create different tone and either more complexity or less complexity as need be in different places.

How much shuffling was done in post production? The word on the street was that this got pushed back to March because of the intense complexity of post production.

MG: It's funny, that's not the first time we've heard that. The process for editing was long, but I don't think it delayed the film.

CK:I kind of feel like we edited it longer because we were given more time, because they moved it. I don't think we were told it wasn't ready. They originally called us and said we had to get it done by November, so we rushed to get it done by then. Then they didn't release it. It ended up being a good thing. I think having more time was a good thing for us.

A Parallel to Adaptation?
There were definite moments where the character of Joel Barish in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind reminded me of the character of Charlie Kaufman in Adaptation. What parallels do you see between the two characters?

CK: I wrote both guys and to a certain extent had no choice but to draw on my own life experience and my own personality when I create characters, so I am sure there are similarities. I think anytime you write anything it's going to be autobiographical because you wrote it. It doesn't matter what you do. I am sure there are similarities, but it's a different character and the film is different, and the actor is obviously different which I think does a lot to bring a character to life.

It's a pretty amazing choice to have a very extroverted, exuberant, comedic actor play a role of a very restrained, introspective and introverted character. How did the process happen with Jim Carrey getting selected for the film and what kind of effect did that have once you joined the project?

MG: When we learned that Jim was interested in doing the film we got excited by it. It was interesting that he was so removed from what we saw, or what I read in the script, it was challenging. I liked the fact that he doesn't have the coolness of most of Hollywood actors, which was very interesting for me. All this energy that he needs to spend in most of his roles he had to keep inside and maybe that gave him some added intensity. I tried to keep him off balance as much as I could. Sometimes I would roll the camera at the wrong time, I would give him the wrong order at the last minute to create some panic, which I do in general with extras because otherwise they become like robots. So I think by putting him off balance made him forget about what he should do to be the character, and he just became the character.

Kate Winslet, who is also remarkable in the film, was cast against type as well. How important was the chemistry between her and Carrey when casting the role of Clementine?

CK: I think were just trying to find the best Clementine.

MG: In a way she gave us a guarantee that we'd do a movie that was not only about two big stars. Although she is very special, she has a quality of being a ruler that is somehow hard to find in very big famous actresses. It was a guarantee that the movie would be about Clementine and Joel, and not about Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey.

Kate Winslet, Michel Gondry and Charlie Kaufman
One of the things about this film and other films you guys have done is that it often challenges the viewer to not sit back and let it come to you, but to put pieces together, to follow along, to be an active participant in putting the story together mentally. Is there ever a concern that you might go down a rabbit hole that would lose the audience? How do you know when you are making a film like this, know where the threshold is of where you can go?

CK: I'm not sure that you do. You kind of do what feels right for the story and what feels exciting to you and then you see. Then you experiment. We showed it to people who weren't familiar with it during different stages with the story to gauge their reaction to different things. I don't think we're ever afraid of confusing people or losing people. We'd hope that they would enjoy the process of figuring things out. The idea that you're not always handing things to people was always part of the game plan.

MG: We're not trying to outsmart them or show it's complex or show the smartness of the film. As a director, I like to do a film that feels like the horizon and therefore you don't want know exactly where you're going. You want to get surprises and confusion, in a way you want to know what's happening and then you get excited about it, and not in the way where this movie is not right or you want to try to figure it out.

Michel, you've dealt a lot in your video work with patterns and repetitions and such. Were there themes that you explored in this film, in a greater context that you've been visiting in some of your video work?

MG: Yeah, the premise of the film allowed me to go into that. I think the goal was to find a way to use this kind of work with pattern but in an invisible way, just in a way that would help the story and the character. I think this quality existed in all Charlie's scripts, the geometrical aspect. It's not jumping in your face, but when I read this script, I have a very good satisfaction, because it's satisfied my need for geometry and complex organization of character.

A film geek question: I was told that the setting for the Lacuna Inc. was the 11th Avenue building that you used for Being John Malcovich. Is that something that kind of happened or was it intentional?

CK: In the script I stuck it in the same building. But in the movie it's not anywhere near it. It's not even the same style of building, and I don't think it appears in the movie. But I did that for fun, for myself.

Was there a sense of connection between some of the things you dealt with in Malcovich and this film? Do you see the films being connected in anyway?

CK: There was the element of being in someone's head, a subjective experience and that sort of thing I guess. There's some, not supernatural, but fantastic situations in both movies, and other than that I don't know; that's maybe for critics to speculate about.

Now is there anything we can look forward to that didn't make the film for when it comes to DVD? As far as deleted storylines, commentaries...

CK: I certainly haven't had any conversations with anybody about the DVD. I don't know if Michel has.

MG: I don't know yet. The film is what it is now. I'm not sure we want to make it different. Maybe some extras... We're just focusing on the big screen now.

The reason why I asked is this is one of those movies that after watching it, I immediately thought 'I want to see this again'. This is a movie that would be perfect for DVD where you can go back and see it over and over again.

On The Beach - Memory and Dream Collide

CK: I think it's really designed to be seen more than once, because there is information that you don't have at the beginning of the movie that doesn't completely allow you to understand certain themes. You can understand them as Joel and Clementine. For example, you don't know the whole context when they meet each other on the train. It seems interesting to me any way in theory to be able to see that scene again once you know that.

MG:: It would be interesting, actually. I remember when I was young the movies played in loop, and sometimes I'd go in at the middle of a film and leave when I'd recognize a part I'd seen before - 'OK I've finished the film,' in a kind of arbitrary way. Maybe we should do a screening for this film in loop and people could come anytime they want and leave any time they want.

What's next for you guys? What projects are you working on next?

CK: I'm just writing something new, it's very early stages.

MG: I've done some videos lately and I wrote a story all by myself and want to try to direct it, put it into production.

Many directors seem to use music videos as a proving ground and then move on after doing feature work. What do music videos give to feature film directors while they aren't making feature films?

MG: I always like to experiment. Very often I have an idea somewhere like when I'm in the shower that fits perfectly for a music video. To me I think music video is the perfect medium to do kinetic or geometrical research and I use them for that. I think that I do the job for the song as well by doing that, so I'd never stop doing those.

Charlie, is there any word or talk of an Adaptation Special Edition DVD?

CK: I know they're working on it, but I am not really sure when. It's definitely going to be out and there's cool stuff on it but I can't tell you exactly when.

Do you think you'll ever reunite with your brother to do another screenplay?

CK: Uh, probably not. I think that's been done.

Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind opens nationally Friday March 19th

Listen to the complete audio version of this interview

- Geoffrey Kleinman

Buy the Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind DVD


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