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How Michel Gondry earned his music-video Stripes

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Meg White, Jack White, ...
Gondry: Jeff Vespa/WireImage.com; White Stripes: Ewan Spencer

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry got his start making videos, and his work with the White Stripes has been exemplary. Now he holds the honor of (most likely) being the first person ever to inspire a song on a massive summer rock album: Gondry sent the band a video treatment that became ”I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” a song off the Stripes’ upcoming album, Icky Thump (out June 19). Going all the way back to 2002’s first ”block”-headed clip for ”Fell In Love With A Girl,” we talk to the insanely creative Frenchman about his Striped past.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So you’ve done four videos with the White Stripes, and your upcoming fifth has inspired a song on Icky Thump. It’s for ”I’m Slowly Turning Into You?”
MICHEL GONDRY: Yeah, it’s interesting. At the time we did the videos for ”Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” and ”Hardest Button to Button,” my girlfriend was the stylist. She helped me with the videos. And she was a little — not frustrated, but a little disappointed that she couldn’t really style the band, because they come with their own clothes. She said she was not doing the cool stuff. And I said to myself, Okay, I’m gonna find a way to shoot a video for them that makes her have to dress them. So I got this idea to do human morphing between Meg and Jack by using intermediate people. The first person would be exactly like Meg. And the next person would be 10 percent like Jack and 90 percent like Meg. Then the tenth person would be 50 percent like Jack and 50 percent like Meg, and then at the end they look much more like Jack, and then we end up with Jack. So you would see Meg turning into Jack. So then Meg has to wear white pants and Jack wears red pants, which is often the case — but in the middle, the pants have to be pink. She would have to make all those tones, and it would give her a much more important job. So I was having this idea to make my girlfriend happy.

That’s nice of you.
In the meantime, she left me.

Oh no!
And I gave the idea to Jack, and that gave him the idea to write the song.

That turned out to be a very sad story.
[Laughs] Yes, despite everything I could do for my girlfriend, she still left me.

I think this is the first time where something like this has happened — an artist as high-profile as Jack White has written a song based on a video treatment.
Yes, it’s very flattering.

NEXT PAGE: Gondry on ”Hardest Button to Button”: ”We had to find 32 Ludwig drum kits.”

Let’s go backwards from there. Before ”I’m Slowly Turning Into You,” you made ”The Hardest Button to Button.” [Playing above.] That one got reproduced on The Simpsons.
Yeah, it’s interesting — it seems that it belongs to ”culture” now. That’s quite flattering. I get a little frustrated ’cause I’m not asked [permission to use the concept], but on the other hand, I’m happy that it was reproduced this way.

Where did the idea come from?
Sometimes I use my ignorance of the English language. Until lately, I didn’t understand the meaning of the song, and I was thinking about buttons on the amplifier. In French we say ”buttons” for ”dials.” And I was imagining all these amplifiers for some reason. The White Stripes are one of the only bands I like to feature playing their instruments, because it’s so artistic the way they use them to articulate the rock. Rock music is completely obsolete for me now — it has no meaning as a rebellion. The meaning has completely vanished because it’s an establishment. So people who make something new out of it impress me, and I think the White Stripes are one of the few who do this. They take the concept of rock ‘n’ roll and make it something avant-garde.

The red and black and white — I like the idea that they’re out there with this concept they started 10 years ago, and they stick to it. It’s very charming, and it’s genuine. So they’re the only people I don’t mind to see performing. And since performance has been done many times, I try to find different ways to show it. And so this one — it’s like each hit on the drum is engraved into space and time. So the time follows the beat, and the drum remains where it was at the time it was played. I guess that’s how I get the concept. But it was funny, because we had to find 32 Ludwig drum kits.

Did you really? You didn’t just move one each time?
No, there is no special effect. We had 32 amplifiers and 32 drum kits. Which was the fun part of the video. It would be really uninteresting to do it in post-production.

I think everyone assumed it was special effects. I had no idea.
No, we had a crew of people moving the drums and the amplifier and the microphone. Basically, we’d construct a row of the 32 drum kits, and we’d shoot the part of the song that attached to the segment, first with the [drum kit] line completed. Then we’d peel off the last layer of drums, and Meg would move backwards one kit, and as they were removing the drum kits, they were building up the next setup, 200 yards away. So we’d finish with this one, and the next would be ready to shoot on.

What did you do with the drums when you were finished?
We couldn’t sell them, so we gave them to music schools.

NEXT PAGE: ”Denial Twist”: ”I think they had a good time [with Conan] — did they tell you they didn’t have a good time?”

Now, ”Denial Twist.” [Playing above.] That started with a Conan O’Brien doll?
They played one week two years ago on the Conan show, and the last day I had made this sculpture for them to give to Conan as a gift. Then we basically reenacted this event in the video. The idea was to make half of the stage compressed and half of the stage stretched, and in post-production we compensated the proportion to make the stage and the drum and instruments the right proportion. So the people — the White Stripes and Conan — would be stretched or compressed in an environment that seems unaffected.

Was that in some way inspired by the fact that they didn’t have a good time [on the show]?
I think they had a good time — did they tell you they didn’t have a good time?

No, but it’s a very creepy, uncomfortable world you created, and they seem like they’re sort of fleeing from things throughout that video.
I think shooting the video was the uncomfortable part for them. Because it was very technical. And I think there is this tension between them that I like to play with. That’s what makes their concept so great. Lots of bands play for the audience only, but they seem to play for themselves, which creates very strong tension, and I was maybe playing with that a little. And I think part of the reason I got the idea of the video is that I remember watching Public Enemy playing on Conan’s stage. And you see these guys, they are huge and they’re going to kill you, and Conan comes on stage when they finish playing — and he dwarfs them, because he’s so tall! He’s a giant! So when he comes next to the performer, he always makes you understand the stage is not so big, and he’s the big one in the story.

NEXT PAGE: ”Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground”: ”When it was time to [go to] bed, they were very careful that people would not get the wrong idea.”

”Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” is one of your more realistic videos with them. [Play the video above.]
Yes. The idea was, like, time and space stuff, I guess. Where in the same space, you see the cause revealed as you’re revealing the effect. You see people projected on the wall illustrating ruining the house. So if somebody jumps on the table or sprays paint on the wall, the image will affect the same space in exactly the same position. Once again I was playing with the relationship, or the tension, where he comes back and she has ruined the house and left. But it’s weird, because when it was time to [go to] bed, they were very careful that people would not get the wrong idea.

Right, because they’re brother and sister.
Yes. Of course.

NEXT PAGE: ”Fell In Love with a Girl”: ”We really shot every LEGO block on 16mm.”

And then I think you have to be credited for breaking the band out with ”Fell In Love with a Girl,” because I think that LEGO video had a lot to do with it. [Play the video above.]
It’s a good coincidence. When you look at my career, the two big moments were meeting with Björk, and meeting with the White Stripes. I think doing this job, you just need to get lucky to get involved with people who are going in the right direction, because I’m very influence-able. I’m sensitive to the people I work with, so I get a lot of their imprint. I got them at the same stage, when they were really breaking to a large audience, and they already had all their creativity and their energy, but they were really fresh for the audience. So with this video, I guess at some point they gave me a title of being sort of the third band member. Or maybe they said it to flatter me to get me to do another video for them or something. But I feel very much part of the band, and it was very nice to be part of that. And I think as much as I probably helped them, they helped me as well. Because I got attached to this sort of phenomenon they were creating.

So did you film them playing first and then reconstruct it with LEGOs?
We filmed them on video with a small crew, just me with a camera and maybe a makeup artist, and then we edited it. Then we printed it on paper, and my father did a little programming to pixelize the LEGO blocks, but we actually had to build all the bricks. I know the band still believes we did half of it on computer — but no. We really shot every LEGO block on16mm. We had to build everything. And it took forever. There were absolutely no digital effects involved.

Have you been able to touch a LEGO since then?
I have a very good relationship with LEGO blocks.

Oh good.
It was interesting, because LEGO the company refused to endorse the video or help us. We had to pay for every single box we used, because they thought the music of the White Stripes was not matching their image. And then [later] they asked the White Stripes to support their brand, but it was too late. The White Stripes were not into doing that anymore.

Giant corporations are frequently very stupid.
Yeah. But I have to say, I’m still pro-LEGO. I think it’s helped my creativity and my son’s creativity a great deal. I think it’s a good thing.