Michel Gondry, the Oscar-winning director, writer, and producer whose works include Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep, spent the past three years on a passion project about Noam Chomsky. For Is the Man Who is Tall Happy? Gondry interviewed the linguist and political thinker (see David Samuels’ 2010 Q&A for more on Chomsky) four times over the course of six months, and then animated the entire conversation.
“Sometimes I would spend the whole weekend and go half of the night and sometimes it would just be two hours,” the French director explained in heavily accented, but nearly perfect English. “Sometimes I would start with one idea and I would get really excited. Just thinking about it I want to do it again.”
In anticipation of the film’s release today in select cities and on iTunes, I spoke to Gondry about his experience with Chomsky, the animation process, and learning how to recognize the difference between two identical trees.
When did you first learn about Noam Chomsky?
It was probably in 2006 or 2005, but it was pretty late and in a very broad way through his documentaries. Then I realized he was a scientist and he had left an important mark in science and that really impressed me. The fact that he had these very hardcore views on politics and very documented, precise activity in the same level of depth into his scientific work.
Was the first time you met him during filming?
No, I was at MIT for a residency and I went several times and asked if I could meet with him. I didn’t have much to say, but I was always very intrigued by what’s going on in the brain. I met different scientists who were working with mice on studying the brain and the memory and I saw him as somebody who could have an answer to what’s going on there.
Did you find an answer?
I got some answers on how language came to exist. The answer is that it’s more complicated than most people think it is. The way people think that a computer can mimic the brain is what he called “the Brute Force” approach. We are really far from a real understanding of the mechanism. That’s basically what he tried to convey to me most of the time. If I would come to him with saying I agree with some observation or some study, he would dismiss them a lot of the time.
And that didn’t push you away?
Well it could be a bit depressing, but it’s important that in science you find solid ground. He would always come back to Galileo because he feels that now we work from assumption that are not solid and do not have a solid ground, so we need to go back to the early stages of science to find a stronger basis. What was interesting is that one of the only contributions from me, my deduction he would respond to, was my most basic observation.
He posed to me the enigma of ‘Why do you think it’s a new tree when it’s been cut and it grows back, and technically genetically it’s the same tree because it’s a willow tree. You can grow it back from a branch so it’s not two genes that meet, it’s the same element.’ I came back six months later and I said, ‘OK, I am thinking of it and my answer is that I know it’s a different tree because I saw somebody came and cut it and then the tree grows back,’ and he said, ‘Yes you have a very good point.’
That was coming back to something very important. I was trying to find something more complicated, but that was something he could build on and then he started to explain again, six months later, what he explained before, but in a way I understood better. That’s the type of thing that’s important to him: That you start from something basic.
What was it like for you to spend so much time with him, really picking his brain?
It was very gratifying. I remember sending him an email that I felt enlightened when he talked to me about how a simple genetic mutation led to language and then was pushed out by a small group of people and then it spread around the entire population. This was really amazing to hear. It’s like you hear something from the person who invented it. It’s not like he invented it, but he explained it like he was the first.
Why use animation in a documentary film?
I used it because I thought I couldn’t translate literally everything he was talking about; some of his science was too complex for me to illustrate literally. I thought the abstraction was the most honest and correct way to match up to his level. I also find that the way my drawings were sort of organic and grow like celluloids on black cells or branches is very similar to his approach to language. Sometimes, because I couldn’t do everything abstract, I would stick to his words in a more literal way, but I felt it would be interesting to mix his very precise way of describing the world with my more abstract way.
How does the animation affect the viewer and their experience of the movie?
I think it helps put the focus on his words. He talks about the reclusivity of language and I think my animation, without me realizing it, was reclusive. A lot of time I tried to create loops, so I could reuse the same drawing. You zoom into a shape and then you have the same shape appearing smaller and growing back, and so on. That’s something that people can feel. It’s like when you put music in a scene. It doesn’t interfere with the discourse of the dialogue, but it sort of helps to define your emotion and make it stronger. I could be faithful to what he had to say and I could give context or texture to it.
What inspires you?
The way we transcribe the things that are inside ourselves onto the outside. I think animation is great for that. My dreams inspire me and when I find some interesting connection between real life and dreams—and nature, science, astrophysics, the sun, the size of the universe, the scale, when you compare a light year, the speed of light or the speed of sound—all of those things really inspire me.
That makes you and Noam Chomsky a good match.
Yes, I can appreciate him.