Here’s a Masters course in the aesthetics of film from Michel Gondry. I asked him about some of his flashier visual tricks in The Green Hornet and he not only explained the entire process, but gave examples from his earlier film or music video work. Kato-vision shows us how the Hornet’s sidekick sees his enemies in a fight. Britt Reid’s (Seth Rogen) early party days are presented as a fast motion romp through the Reid garage. When Britt and Kato (Jay Chou) have a disagreement, they battle through the Reid mansion with everything from the plasma TV to a foosball table.
The part you’ll really want to read is when Gondry tells the truth about Stephen Chow. Chow was the first choice to play Kato and to direct the movie. And spoilers follow because Gondry gets extremely specific.
Q: What was your idea about varying the speed, not just in Kato-vision but in the beginning when Britt’s taking his girl through the garage?
MG: Well, it’s something that I like to play with. The idea of the scene in the garage, if the camera goes very slowly in a very steady way, it becomes a reality. This motion is real because it seems like normal. But then the character in this environment is going way too fast so there is a contradiction that is interesting for the audience. I always work like that. I did a shot for Eternal Sunshine that we couldn’t use because it was too early in the movie and it would unsettle the audience if we took a train and we moved it four miles per hour, like super slow because we owned the train at this moment. I asked the little boy who was playing the younger Jim Carrey and was dressed as Superman, he would run as fast as he could but by doing that he would not go more than four miles per hour because he’s a kid. But then we shot super slow so when we projected, the train was going full speed and then the little boy was following. This idea that you take a train that weighs hundreds of tons and you can control it like it was a piece of paper, then the rest of the world seemed to follow. You think that the world is bound by the heaviness of the train. That’s how I see special effects all the time. It’s a way to unsettle the audience, something that’s not supposed to happen at this speed and then you change the speed, but the camera is moving at the speed that’s a contradiction. It’s confusing what I’m saying right now so I think you’re going to have a hard time to convince your reader that I’m making sense.
Q: Actually, that illuminates a lot. I wasn’t thinking of how slow the camera was moving while they were sped up.
MG: Okay, I think that’s why the scene works. If the camera was not moving or it was moving like crazy, then you have nothing special happen but if you combine two elements that are in contradiction, the heaviness of the camera makes you feel the camera is just going at the normal speed. Then you don’t understand why they’re going so fast. That’s the trick I think.
Q: Is Kato-vision even more impressionistic?
MG: Yeah, there is that thing you can argue it’s a sort of tradition of the theory of relativity. The perception of the motion is relative if you’re moving with the object or watching the object move. It’s all about that, so it’s kind of close but it’s helpful as one way to describe it, but it’s kind of abstract. There is some sort of philosophy behind that. His fight is so violent that there is an impact in the audience perception of the environment. It multiplies, it stretches, the time stretches, the time compresses. The differences with what’s been done is it’s speed changing within the same frame at a different ratio while the camera is moving at a constant speed. It’s a lot of parameters that we tried to meld together.
Q: You’re French, you had a Chinese actor and a German actor (Christoph Waltz). Did anyone understand each other on the set?
MG: Well, when you can’t understand each other in the words, on the surface, then you have to have a deep understanding I would say that you develop. There has to be another layer and I think it just paid off. We were not sure it would work but I think at the end it paid off. It’s true that it was not the easiest film in terms of communication.
Q: What was the unspoken understanding?
MG: It could be many layers. To me it’s very, very funny when I see Jay acting like he understands Seth in the scene. I knew he doesn’t understand him and he’s just acting like that, like very cool. He has no idea so that’s another example of this sort of friendship of understanding that goes beyond the understanding of the world. Whenever I would talk with Seth and we were shooting Jay, I was saying to Seth, “What should I tell him? What should he do?” He would say, “Don’t say anything. He’s going to do something cool anyways.” That’s one example and I could find more if we had more time. I’m not just saying that to make it cool sometimes. It’s really true. I had this experience on many occasions because I’ve been working most of the time in countries where I didn’t really understand the language. When I started to do videos in America, I didn’t understand the lyrics of the song. I did this video for Foo Fighters, my first video in America, and I understood 10% of the lyrics. So I took this 10% of the words and recreated my own story by bridging all these words to tell the story. The little bridge in between the words had nothing to do with the other words in the lyrics, but when I showed the story to Dave Groll, it’s crazy, he goes, “That’s exactly what I meant when I wrote the song but it was not written.” So it looks like it’s a sixth sense but it’s just a common understanding from the tip of the iceberg.
Q: When you came on, were you still developing it with Stephen Chow as Kato?
MG: Yeah. I think he had another movie in mind and he was not really willing to go our way and we had to part.
Q: Was he still trying to be the director?
MG: Yeah, I don’t know what he was trying to do. To tell you the truth, it was very confusing. I had headaches trying to convince him because I liked him very much and I thought he would have been a great Kato. He would ask me questions like, “Why my character? Why should I do this movie? What’s good in my character?” I was giving him a million reasons and then he’d say, “But why?” So at the end I just realized he didn’t want to understand any reason. He just wanted to ask why all the time.
Q: He wanted to know why he should play the character?
MG: What was special about his character, I don’t know. Every single thing we suggested, I suggested or we suggested, would not be enough for him. Then when he would come up with an idea, it was completely ludicrous most of the time, completely undoable in terms of production, in terms of what the studio expected from us and all sorts of things.
Q: So his version could have been even crazier than the Michel Gondry version?
MG: Well, maybe or maybe not. I don’t know. I’m big fan of his work so I was disappointed. The thing is when they asked me to direct the film the first time, all I knew Stephen Chow was attached to play Kato. I said, “Why don’t you ask him to direct the film? He would do a better job.” They said, “We tried but it didn’t work out.”
Q: What was your discussion about the tone of the movie?
MG: The thing we all agreed upon was we didn’t want to make a spoof. We knew it had to have an element of comedy but we didn’t want to be a Seth Rogen funny movie. It was about friendship so it’s character driven, although there is a lot of solid action. We wanted the action to feel real. We wanted Christoph Waltz to be scary but we wanted him to be funny at the same time. So the conversation was about how much funny can it be before we lose the audience in terms of feeling the danger.
Q: Now that you’ve done a big action movie, would you do another one?
MG: Yeah, starting with the sequel maybe. If the character intrigues me, yes. I think I’m always going to be careful about picking stories about people that interest me. Otherwise, if I don’t feel connected to the actor I’m shooting, it’s just going to be dead I think.
Q: What was the biggest challenge of the climactic finale in the Daily Sentinel building?
MG: We wanted the character to still be there while so many things were happening. When we were shooting, I didn’t feel they were talking enough between them or doing enough character stuff. I didn’t know exactly. I was not sure. Seth was telling me, “Don’t worry, we’re going to add stuff after and it’s going to work.” I was like, “But you should write them down.” He said, “No, no, we don’t want to write them down.” That was a challenge for them. A lot is done in editing to pick the right moment.
The Green Hornet hits theaters Friday.