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Director Michel Gondry on reuniting with Jim Carrey and making the leap to TV

We talked to Gondry about his new Showtime series Kidding and his second collaboration with Carrey following Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

Michel Gondry is taking the leap into TV with Showtime’s Kidding.
Desiree Navarro/Getty Images

It feels fitting that Jim Carrey and Michel Gondry’s second collaboration is just as strange — and just as earnest — as their first. Like 2004’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, the new TV series Kidding, which debuts this weekend on Showtime, relies on flourishes of the fantastical to navigate the all-too-real sensations of heartache and heartbreak, with Carrey’s expressive face serving as the primary canvas.

Created by Dave Holstein (Weeds), the show stars Carrey as Jeff Piccirillo, better known (and beloved) as the Mister Rogers-esque Mr. Pickles; the story follows the fallout in Mr. Pickles’s personal and professional lives as a tragedy throws his cheery world off its axis. As the season progresses, the line between Mr. Pickles’ Puppet Time and the real world shifts back and forth, and Gondry’s touch is visible throughout.

Gondry’s sensibilities are so distinct that they’ve been the subject of numerous parodies — for the most part, they double down on stop-motion animation, puppets, objects that swiftly become quite literally larger than life, and a certain twee-ness that’s nonetheless too wild to be compared to Wes Anderson. Kidding has them all.

Ahead of the show’s official series premiere (the first episode is now streaming early on YouTube), I spoke with Gondry, who directed six out of the first season’s 10 episodes, about working in TV, creative control, and superheroes.

The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

The show’s cast: Jim Carrey, Judy Greer, Catherine Keener, Cole Allen, and Frank Langella.
Jim Fiscus/Showtime

Karen Han

How did you get involved with this project?

Michel Gondry

I was asked. I think Jim wanted to work with me again, and I wanted to work with him again. We got, not attached, but exposed to Dave Holstein’s project, and we both envisioned what a great show it could be. For me, it was my first experience in television except for one episode of Flight of the Conchords, and Jim, of course, In Living Color.

We talked first on Skype, then we met, and we were both excited by all the possibilities that the show was offering: how his character would be complex, and how we could play with his acting and the duality between the happy Mr. Pickles and the tortured Jeff Piccirillo. I met Dave, and we immediately got along and started. It was very quick, very efficient.

Karen Han

Had you kept in touch with Jim between Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and this project?

Michel Gondry

Yes. I mean, we didn’t go out every weekend, but we had lunch and we’d meet a couple of times every year. I guess we can call that “keeping in touch.” [laughs] It’s the same ratio I see my mom.

Karen Han

As you mentioned, this is your first big TV project. Was it the story, or the opportunity to work with Jim again that drew you to the medium? How has your experience been working in the different form?

Michel Gondry

It was both. Really! Working with Jim — and I knew that Jim had gained respect for me, [because he gave an interview where he talked about directors], and I was the only director he mentioned. It makes you feel he cares for you. That made me want to work with him again — of course, along with the fact that he’s an amazing actor.

And the story, the concept; it was quite simple, in a way. You hear about an idea like that, and you think, “Oh, I should have thought of that, myself.” So it was really exciting, and I had the two first episodes to read. That was a quick decision.

As for the work itself, we had to shoot for six to eight months. I thought it would be exhausting, which it was, but it was a good exhaustion. Overall, everybody was really friendly, and we were happy to see each other in the morning to the point that I was dreading the weekend a little bit, because I was on my own in my house. I was doing the opposite of the normal worker: If I believed it was Friday and then it turned out it was Thursday, I’d say, “Oh, great! There’s Friday left!” It seems absurd. And then, when everything stopped in terms of shooting, I got very depressed. It happens in movies, but here it was times 10.

Karen Han

Were there any other significant differences between working on TV and film?

Michel Gondry

Yes. The main difference, to me, is that there’s no end. A film’s story has a beginning, middle, and end, and with everything you shoot, you know that you are moving toward the end. Every scene is weighted by the end. The end is in every element. For instance, we die, and every part of ourselves is charged by death, by the end of our life. A movie is like that.

A TV show is not like that. You have no idea what the storyline will be in two episodes. The actor can end up going in a completely different direction, if that makes sense. It’s different when you shoot a movie and you shoot the last scene, it’s such a stress. Lots of time it’s at the end of shooting — sometimes you prefer to get through it in the beginning, but you feel the heaviness of that, which you don’t have in a TV show.

I wouldn’t say it’s better or worse, but it’s the main difference. Also, you have one or two episodes to explore a character, and then you can go with them and follow their adventure. As for a movie, you have to mix the exposition and intertwine it with the story.

Karen Han

You serve as executive producer, and you directed six episodes; was it strange to hand off directing duties for the episodes you didn’t helm?

Michel Gondry

It was really interesting, because I had to talk to the directors and give them insights on how to direct each character and the style of shooting, and they were keeping the same crew, so it was funny to discover the stories that way. But I was quite jealous that I didn’t direct them. [laughs]

For instance, I wish I had directed episode four, that’s one of my favorites. But I don’t think I would have done a better job than Jake Schreier. There’s another episode that another director did much later that is so perfect that I was a bit jealous, and then I felt, “They should do all the episodes, because they’re much better directors than me.” So I have my own insecurities. But everything was different from what I am used to.

Karen Han

One of the show’s big themes is creative control — Jeff clashes with his producer over what to put in his show, as well as the direction it’s taking. From the sounds of it, you have a pretty healthy grip on being able to hand it off, but overall, is that a theme that struck a familiar chord with you?

Michel Gondry

Yes, it does, a bit, but Jeff’s choice is not the type of choice I would try to make. The show is more about the message he wants to convey to his audience and to the world, which is not exactly my problem.

But actually, in the shooting, we were reflecting this type of problem. It’s not really a problem, but a type of creative, cultural thing, where there is a type of acting and language — or attitude — that I don’t like to hear in movies. They were in parts of the story, and I resisted them. Some, I had to do, and some, I convinced Dave not to do them.

For instance, I hate swearing in movies. I keep swearing in real life, it’s nothing to do with morality, it’s just that I find it lazy. There was some swearing, and I tried to erase it as much as I could, and it was funny because, with Dave, we were down to a “fuck.” I said, “I don’t want to hear a ‘fuck’ in this episode!” And he said, “But the ‘fuck’ is necessary for the story!”

So it was arguments of this type. I like to be polite. And sex in movies — I mean, I’m not indifferent to sex, but sex in a movie makes me uncomfortable. Let’s say you’re watching a movie with your mother, and suddenly the girl gets naked and starts to pull the pants off of her boyfriend. It’s embarrassing! What do you say, how do you behave?

Karen Han

That definitely makes sense as to the overall mood of Kidding. I’m also curious how involved you were in creating the look of the show, both overall and in the world of Mr. Pickles.

Michel Gondry

I think that was one of my biggest involvements. I did a lot of drawings for it. For instance, the barrel, the waterfall, and the little house, that was Dave, but now, how to make them work, how to mix the little cartoons with the TV, and how to design the colors? Half of the puppets, I would say, I designed. You also have those little animations done with cut-out paper, which was all from my little room.

Even the sets — for instance, [for Kidding] I wanted things to be shot on location, and when you shoot the interior of locations, you don’t have space to put the big lights, so you have to manage with the space you have, and that creates a certain style which I like better. When I do interiors on stage, I always ask to have a solid ceiling so you can’t put in a big projector from above. So that’s one thing that’s a contribution from me.

Jim Carrey as Mr. Pickles, along with one of the many puppets on the show.
Erica Parise/Showtime

Karen Han

A lot of the show is very reminiscent of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Did you have much of a preexisting relationship to that show before working on this?

Michel Gondry

No, I think I’d seen him a couple of times. When we started to work, we watched a preview of the recent documentary, and I immediately said to everyone — and especially to Jim — to stop, to not watch, and stop thinking and talking about Mister Rogers. I don’t like acting that is mimicking, and I have tons of examples that I won’t give. I know that Hollywood and the Oscars, they love that, but for me, it’s a mask.

For instance, the film Ray, I have a really hard time with it. You know it’s not [Ray Charles], and yet there’s somebody who looks so much like him. It disturbed me, and it stopped me from believing the story, because I want to see the documentary on Ray Charles. So I didn’t want Jim to mimic Mister Rogers, I wanted him to be Jeff Pickles and Jim Carrey mixed up.

And I knew that the place he was at this moment, with a lot of difficulty he’d crossed, he had all the texture we needed to create the character, and it would be much more interesting than to mimic Mister Rogers. I think Jim Carrey is somebody that interests me more than Mister Rogers, so I wanted to use Jim Carrey. I didn’t want to use Mister Rogers.

Karen Han

I also wanted to ask your opinion on broader film culture; in an interview with the Guardian after directing Green Hornet, you called fan culture “fascistic,” and I was wondering if you had any further thoughts on that given the way the culture has progressed, with fandom seeming to have more influence on the creative process.

Michel Gondry

I have to be careful with this type of sentence, because I remember one paper put my words as if I’d said that people who don’t like my movie are fascists. I have to be careful, because it’s a very heavy word.

My point was that the concept and the imagery of superheroes in film and comic books had something that reminded me of the fascists, meaning that one person is going to solve all the problems. All the rest of the people trust him, and give him — or her — their trust, and there’s this sort of ideal that somebody will come and save everybody instead of [there being an] organization that creates political force and manifestation.

I think that first superhero type leads nowhere. It’s just a fantasy, and it’s not to be taken so seriously, but it is. That’s the problem. I mean, if you look at Mussolini, he looks like a superhero. He has the panties and the cape. That’s how I compared them. I think most of the characters created in the 30s were the creation of totalitarianism in their native countries, so there is a relationship that I am not a big fan of.

And also, I was at Comic-Con [that year], and to me, it’s not a celebration of creativity, because each individual, instead of coming with their own superhero, they all come as Batman, they all come as Superman, and they’re just mimicking. It’s nothing to do with creativity. It’s worshipping, and it’s not something I like at all.

Karen Han

This is a bit of an aside, but I’m curious if you’ve seen Incredibles 2, because it gets at some of the same points.

Michel Gondry

Oh, yes, I saw it because my brother brought his kids here. I was tired — I mean, I liked it. I remember liking the first one, and I liked it, and it’s true, they comment on that, but I fell asleep. I had to get out of the theater and eat a pretzel and drink a Coke to stay awake, because my neck was hurting trying to hold my head up.

My problem with all these movies that were started by Pixar — and I’m a huge fan of Toy Story, all three of them, they’re just amazing, and when I saw the first one, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing — all the expressions are the same. Each character is doubtful, surprised, irritated, happy, pissed off, and it’s all exactly the same expression with the eyes. It creates a form of acting that is similar for all the characters, and that bugs me a lot.

Karen Han

I also wanted to ask whether you’ve seen Sorry to Bother You, as there’s a joke about you in the film [in the form of a short stop-motion film directed by “Michel Dongry”], and director Boots Riley has spoken about it in interviews.

Michel Gondry

Yeah. I liked it, yeah. He asked if he could use my name, but I told him that if he wrote [into the movie] a movie directed by Michel Gondry, it should be directed by me. I should do the animation. I was willing to do it for free, but then he said that the director who did the animation would be upset, which I understand. So I said, no, I’d prefer not. But maybe I should have not cared. I had the feeling they were mocking my style a bit, but that’s paranoia.

Anyway, I think it’s funny. The film is great. There’s probably 10 people in the audience, at most, who understand the joke. But I’m glad. The guy told me he was a fan, and I’m glad that a guy like this director is a fan of mine, and is doing great work now.