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French director Michel Gondry may not have been the obvious choice to helm The Green Hornet because of his indie film interest and background, but his innovative visual style and unusual sensibility won over production execs at Columbia Pictures after Stephen Chow left the project. Last year, we were on the set in Culver City, California and talked to Gondry about why he decided to go so mainstream and about the direction he's taking the film in. Despite having an incredibly busy schedule the day we were visiting the set, Gondry talked to us a great length and made sure we didn't leave until we had everything we needed.
Q: You worked on this project years ago when it was at Universal, can you talk about that?
Michel Gondry: The first script that I got to work on when I moved to Hollywood. In fact I went here for a couple of years working. It was in '97 and it didn't work out. I worked on a draft of the script. It was a great idea but the studio did not support the idea. So I was happy to see it coming back and it has been in the hands of many directors in between. It was sort of doomed.
Q: Were you a fan of the TV series?
Gondry: Well, at the time I was really beginning so I was happy to have a project that was something good. What I liked was when I was asked again by Seth and Evan was that they bring back the spirit of the action comedy that I didn't see for a while now. There is a sleek and immenseness in the superhero movie that I am not really a big fan of. It's very much about the attitude and everything is as to be a like super posed. As the approach of Seth and Evan was much human and fun of course.
Q: What was your thought when you brought your idea of doing the action sequences split screen, with one going fast and one going slow, to the producers?
Gondry: I was trying to find a way to enhance the fight and use a technique that has not been used before. So basically we shoot at a higher rate. We shoot with one camera and then we separate and sometimes one guy is going faster and the other guy is going slower and then the guy who gets slower gets faster and etc. It's sort of like you buy a time from the future and then you have to reimburse it. So what it does is it really makes the transfer of energy when somebody hits somebody else so the guy who hits the next guy goes very fast and then the guy when he receives the hit he goes faster. It's like if I hit you... bam! (He demonstrates). First you're slow and I'm fast and then when I hit you I become slow and you become fast so I can give you my energy. I can transfer like electricity in some ways. And all that with the camera moving, which makes it quite hard to shoot but it is pretty spectacular.
Q: So where will we be seeing that in the movie?
Gondry: Oh, when Kato fights mostly. There is two, three sequences where you see that. Eventually Britt acquires this capacity.
Q: Were there any other inspirations for that stylistic approach to the action sequences?
Gondry: I wanted to make them hyper but not pretentious. So it's sort of a the feel is real and it's intense, sometime painful but at the same time the human elements remain prominent.
Q: Can you talk about bringing "Anvil" in for the opening scene and how that decision came about?
Gondry: I went to see the documentary about "Anvil" and I absolutely loved it. At the screening I was at, they were playing at the end and I want to make fun of heavy metal but the documentary was so touching. That guy was so touching and we had a club scene and I really thought it would be a perfect place for them.
Q: And then you blow them up...
Gondry: Yeah, they die in action basically. I think it's the hairy death that every heavy metal musician dreams of. They get burned while playing. The drums explode. Symbols melt and the guitar is striking a chord when the amplifier blows his head off.
Q: Can you talk about working with Christoph Waltz and what he brings to the role?
Gondry: Christoph really brought sort of a layer of humor that is very specific to him. So he's still mean but he has a lot of weakness and it makes a villain who is really interesting. He's charismatic but at the same time he goes through mid-life crisis so that is pretty relatable.
Q: Can you talk about some of the superheroes and superhero films and those conventions that you wanted to play with in this film?
Gondry: Well there is a world to create that's one thing. When we put in the real world and shoot it in L.A. on the realistic so there is no super power or costume. They create their own costume. But there is still a leap of faith to have like this guy can do so much that they do. Mostly through destruction I have to say.
Q: Was there a commentary that you wanted to make on those types of films?
Gondry: Honestly when I do a movie I don't do them in reaction or in commentary. I do a movie I'd really like to see, first of all. We are all a bunch of guys with different tastes working together on this movie, we manage to through our differences, get the best of all the world. Sometimes we disagree on the type of humor but we find a solution that is better than the first proposition. So that's something, I'm not sure if I'm answering the question?
Q: Has Jay Chou jumped in with any ideas about directing since he's shot music videos before?
Gondry: He has some ideas you know but he is pretty quiet. A pretty quiet guy but has a quality of coolness. So if he has one word to say he always says it the coolest way. So we always laugh because we say what should I say to him or don't say anything, he's going to be cool anyways.
Q: This is a very mainstream film compared to your other films...
Gondry: I hope so.
Q: Do you feel any pressure with the fanboy base surrounding this and how are you dealing with that?
Gondry: You mean the fan of The Green Hornet? Well, we want to make the best film ever, of course. But like I don't think we need or owe a response to the criteria that some people want us to respond to because it's a different form of this material… The Green Hornet was a radio show and then it was a TV show in the '40s shot on film and then it was a TV show in the '60s with Bruce Lee and then there have been some comic books but in terms of comic books they are all over the place. Sometimes Kato was a girl and sometimes it's just about Kato. So it's not like there is an amazing... and the main thing, that could be seen as a burden is the heaviest thing to carry is the legend, which is what makes the TV show so memorable. It was the first role in America for Bruce Lee, of course for what he became there is a weight to carry but Jay was very clear that he would never try to emulate Bruce Lee. So that was very important. We wanted the fight to be awesome. To be the right level of violence and credibility. But other than that its set to work out but I think he plays very well as this super hero I would say because he is very human but you feel the steaks and you feel that his life is in danger. And it's all based on this reason he has to his father who raised him in his shadow and all his motivation is sort of upside down in comparison to an archetype super hero movie where it's a revenge or somebody killed your father and this one is the other way around though. He goes out and acts as a bad guy because he does what his father would have hated for him to do and then later he realizes that that was bad and there is post redemption for his father.
Q: Besides Green Hornet obviously, do you have a favorite superhero or superhero movie?
Gondry: I can't answer that. Because my favorite superhero movie everybody hates it.
Q: We're all guessing now so you should just tell us.
Gondry: No, you have to guess I'm not telling you.
Q: Is it "The Spirit"? "Judge Dredd"?
Gondry: Oh no.
Q: "Batman Forever"?
Gondry: No, I like the first "Superman," the original "Superman"; they were un-compared at the time. The audience of superhero movies is demanding to have something much more serious. And so it was quite awesome to see him flying - the technique was rudimentary.
Q: Neal Mortiz said that you talked about directing "I Know What You Did Last Summer" way back when and you were attached to "Green Hornet" a long time ago, but you are known for doing such different types of films, so has it just been opportunity that led you to make those films first or are you opening your horizons to different genres now?
Gondry: It's complicated to answer because what I make or have made is not deliberate, it's a combination of desire, opportunity and then accident so it's a combination of all that. There is a reason I did two movies where I was very successful but my tastes are broader than people expect.
Q: What do you like as a film viewer?
Gondry: When I came to Los Angeles to do movies my favorite movies was "Back to the Future" or "Groundhog Da" and I thought these movies were very smart but not trying to have an attitude that I don't like in a lot of too serious movies.
Q: So tell us about the superhero film that you are really embarrassed of loving? Is it "Supergirl"?
Gondry: It's "Superman III." It was with Richard Pryor.
Q: Does Cameron Diaz get to get in on the butt-kicking action?
Gondry: Not in this one because she doesn't know in this one about their identity so she is not in the action sequence but she is sort of the brain of the operation. Because she is a crime specialist and she is obsessed with this TV show as well. Basically because they want to pose as criminal they ask her how criminal becomes famous. She makes a suggestion and then they execute it. Britt asks what would be the next move of the Green Hornet and she does not know that they are the Green Hornet. She says, "Oh I guess they are going to attack some big guy, on his own turf and then they go and do it." She gets more and more confidant into this role because basically she's always right and it helps her execute her plan.
Q: Does Britt Reid ever exploit that he is a newsman for anything as the Green Hornet?
Gondry: Yeah, well he exaggerates the news and he pushes them to report all this stuff. He wants to be on the front page, yes. Not everyday but as much as possible.
Q: This is the first movie you've done with a 2nd Unit, how has that been for you adjusting to that?
Gondry: It's great because you don't do anything and you look at the dailies and they're awesome. So it's good. We use some previz or some technique of storyboard but the crew that is doing 2nd unit is really excellent. They certainly know how to blow up a car or find a creative way to take out bad guys.
Q: Have you found any way to blow up a car that we haven't seen before?
Gondry: I don't know? I hope so. I think you are going to see stuff that you have not seen before. Not necessarily in the explosions. The explosions are really, really awesome and there are some, quite a good amount of them. But there are other scenes that will surprise you.
Q: Do you like working with Vic Armstrong, who has so much history working on films like this?
Gondry: Yes, to tell you because he is all for doing things practically. We don't rely so much on blue screen. There is going to be some blue screen and some computer elements but at the minimum. We want the physicality to be fair and the violence and action to be serious. So we get this quality in the action sequences.
Q: Does it make you feel protective of this character now that you are directing it - is there a feeling that this version is yours?
Gondry: I don't want somebody to get my job. It's hard to tell; I guess I would feel weird if somebody else does it.
Q: Are you concerned about film critics who might call you directing a big-budget superhero film is selling out of your independent roots?
Gondry: That's too bad that they feel that way. It's harder to do a movie if I have to get their permission everywhere I go. I think the jobs that some of these guys do, they have their blogs. The best blog I read was "Seth Rogen is the worst actor ever and who ever hired him [and] Gondry should be fired!" It was awesome and I framed it. I mean what do you want me to say? Some people are against me making movies all together. You know it works like that. Some people don't believe in you to start with. When you start you are not that successful and that is a good place to start and then become more successful. But then they don't want to be proved wrong so they keep telling people that you are a terrible director even if other people are saying you are not.
Q: How much freedom do you have on this film to experiment?
Gondry: Oh, much more freedom then I was expecting in fact. It is interesting because Neal Moritz and I are so different. Sometimes I will propose an idea and Neal will say, "I don't get it but shoot it anyways." We shot some stuff that he wasn't sure about because to him it is too real but I think as everyone else looked at it, they thought it was cool. There is a sequence where Britt is trying to put all the pieces of the puzzle together to understand the situation and we shot it in away that was really funny and absurd. But you have the physical representation of his brain in action and you end up with the most absurd tab low, where his father is involved, how his father was killed and it is pretty surrealist and major. When we shot it everyone was like, oh that is my favorite shot. Of course if I had come to the first meeting I had and told them I was going to do this they would have never hired me but now that I'm here I can push for some of the things that are more exciting.
Q: Do you feel more freedom with this property because it isn't as widely known as Batman or Spider-Man?
Gondry: Yeah, I think it is a blank slate, not a complete blank slate but as I was saying before it has been through so many forms, the radio show and the comic books. Except for Bruce Lee/Kato, that is a bigger thing that we have to deal with. We went to many different directions to look for the car and in the end we decided to stick with the same car as before. With each time a new Batman or a new Spider-Man film comes around they want to reinvent it. The whole universe so it fits the time better. We thought that the biggest mistake we could make on this film is not use the same car. We said; let's take the car, which in itself is a cost because you never use the same vehicle.
Q: What kind of gadgets can we expect beyond the Black Beauty?
Gondry: Well it's going to be a surprise. There are things that I noticed in the comic book like flashlights and very emotional set up but I'm making a movie. There are times when they run around with masks but it is pretty organic. But I'm not being obsessed with the comic books. My brother when he was a kid collected… in France we had Marvel but I think it was called "Strange" and I didn't like that.
Q: What other genres or properties would you like to try?
Gondry: Science fiction I would like to try.
Q: John Schwartzman said he gave you "My Star is the Destination," would you like to team up with him on that?
Gondry: Why not? Yes it is an amazing book. I didn't go through it yet because I've been working hard but yes it's amazing. Sure I would like to do science fiction. I don't like fantasy. If it's the future, it's the future. I don't like the future mixed with the past, it creeps me out. I really don't like fantasy at all. I don't like vampire movies or zombie movies - there are two many rules and codes. To me they are very limited in what they do. I'm interested in why there are so many vampire movies?
Q: So you wouldn't go see "New Moon"?
Gondry: I didn't even know what it was until they were freaking out about the number it made. I'm really disconnected.
Q: You wouldn't do a "Lord of the Rings" type of movie?
Gondry: No. I like Peter Jackson but no. The mythology I was raised on as a kid and I've had my full of that bullsh*t. I don't buy mythology.
The Green Hornet opens in 3D, 2D and IMAX 3D theaters on January 14. You can watch the trailer using the player below.