It’s not so surprising that Michel Gondry, who studied at art school and cut his movie-making teeth making videos and commercials, should place a strong emphasis on design in his films. But in The Science of Sleep (La Science des Rêves), his follow-up to the Oscar-winning The Eternal Sunshine of The Spotless Mind, it goes further than that. The story is driven by how next-door neighbours Stéphane (Mexican superstar Gael Garcia Bernal) and Stéphanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg) connect emotionally through a shared love of creativity.
Take the Paris apartment of Stéphanie, which is crammed full of playful objects, such as a typewriter and telephone made of felt. For Gondry, this wasn’t merely a set that would help the audience understand the character who lives there. ‘In reality, that’s the reason Stéphane is in love with her, because she’s surrounded by the universe she’s created,’ he says.
No pressure, then, for the production designer charged with creating this highly seductive environment.
Stéphane Rosenbaum went to art school with Gondry, and had worked with him on early pop videos such as Massive Attack’s Protection, but hadn’t spoken to him in ten years when the call came through inviting him to climb aboard The Science of Sleep. He knows he wasn’t the director’s first choice. ‘Initially, the person who Stéphanie’s character is based on was supposed to do the art direction,’ reveals Gondry, who has a knack for spilling emotional details in response to even the most basic questions about his work. ‘But we couldn’t work together at this point. I had too much feeling for her, and that would scare her away.’
Luckily, inveterate magpie Rosenbaum had in his basement all the objects that matched Gondry’s vision. ‘Michel came in my home, and it was like in a shop,’ recalls the designer. ‘He said, “Oh, I want that, and that, and that.” I had all the objects she had in the apartment – the little puppets, everything on the shelves, the sofa, the little objects and pictures.’
Unusually for a feature film, there are two credited production designers on The Science of Sleep. Rosenbaum created most of the settings that take place in the real world. Fellow Frenchman Pierre Pell – another collaborator from Gondry’s past, on videos for Radiohead and Kylie Minogue – was responsible for illuminating the film’s rich dream life. The designer pair’s work on the picture recently scooped them a special European Film Award for Artistic Contribution.
In the highly autobiographical The Science of Sleep, filmed partially in the apartment building where a young Gondry fell in love with his neighbour, Stéphane has problems discerning the boundary between his dreams and wakeful life. The portal between one state of consciousness and the other is the vividly imagined ‘Stéphane TV’, whose studio set design is a riot of Blue Peter-like low-tech materials, such as egg boxes as wall sound-proofing. The dream sequences themselves are also resolutely lo-fi – cars made of cardboard, a ski lift operated by strings of wool.
‘It was important,’ says Gondry, speaking from the New York office of his production company Partizan, ‘that wherever we go in Stéphane’s head, we end up in a place that he made himself. With Pierre and me, we have the same clumsiness in terms of execution. He built the whole city, which is still-animated under water. The whole Moon exploding. It’s never too fancy. There is a feeling that it’s going to collapse, which I felt was important for this film.’
The animated sequences were created in Gondry’s house in the mountains, with a ten-man crew spending two months there before principal photography on the live-action segment, and, in fact, before the story was fully completed. ‘I had to work around the dreams, rather than the other way round,’ says the director. ‘It made the film more interesting, and also contributed to the good vibe on set. “Oh look what we did in my country house animating toilet paper rolls! We did a city and everything is moving!”.’
Gondry acknowledges the strong theme of childhood in his work, and also confesses, ‘I don’t see myself as a changed person from when I was six, which may be a problem.’ His old friend Rosenbaum agrees. ‘When I see him, I see a kind of child part of him. Sometimes he acts like a child, too. It’s really funny, the two personalities he has in him. Sometimes he can be really rude,’ he says. Maybe so, but it’s the director’s ability to access the vivid images of his childhood imagination that has helped fuel his adult creativity, which has been expressed in award-winning videos for the likes of Björk, Beck and The White Stripes.
Despite his unusual focus on aesthetic considerations, Gondry insists the visual elements are there to serve the narrative and emotional life of his films. ‘I am doing movies that are emotionally, I think, compelling. They are not intellectual or dry; they are pretty broad in the way people can connect to them.’
He also protests that his art school background has not made him a creative tyrant on-set. ‘Production designers are my favourite people,’ he says. ‘They are always the first ones to walk on set and the last ones to leave. And I give them more freedom than you might think. I tell them, “OK, I trust your taste, go for it”. I don’t want to be controlling every step of the way, because that’s not how it’s going to look the best. The best is to give them energy and inspiration and the confidence in themselves to use the best of their ideas. I don’t think I’m a control freak.’
The Science of Sleep opens in the UK on 16 February