You grew up in Versailles—what did you make of the palace when you were a kid?
I used to go very often to the gardens. Every week, because I loved the gardens. I think it gave me a sense of geometry I like to use in my work. I would only go inside the castle when my cousins were visiting, which was once a year. I don't like the things related to the king—it would gross me out, all these gaudy murals, and the places where he slept and the royalty stuff. Even the paintings would scare me, repulse me. The chapel, I didn't like any of it. But the gardens were amazing. There was an old square in the middle of the park that you could never access—an ancient forest. It was mysterious and dark, a spot that was sort of wild. It was very intriguing and exciting to me when I was a kid. In 2000, there was a huge storm in France and they lost 10,000 trees in the park that they had to replant, but I guess it's going to be back to normal in 50 years, maybe.
Hearing you describe it, I picture Bjork's "Human Nature."
Yes, only this was more organized. I like nature better.
The Green Hornet was the first script you worked on when you came to Hollywood in 1997. How has the story changed—or how has the way you see the story changed?
It's a completely different movie. If I had directed it then, it would have be inventive and a little bit absurd. But the characters are much more involved and intriguing and deep in this version. It's really about the relationship between a sidekick and his superior when they are friends, and all that comes with.
The character of Kato has evolved so much since he was created in the '40s.
It's true. Initially, he was Japanese. But then after the war with Japan, he was changed to Filipino. Then he was Chinese, or from Hong Kong, when he was Bruce Lee. The past was a racist time, we have to admit. We've all evolved to be less racist. At the time, there was a lot of condescension towards an Asian character. Of course, we had to change that. And now, they're treated as equals-if not the other way around because Kato is in fact much more capable than Britt. Britt is energy. He reminds me of my brother, who had a band when he was a kid. This guy, his best friend, was the bass player. He was a terrible musician and they ended up firing him. But when he was gone, the band collapsed because they failed to realize that this guy was so enthusiastic that he was holding the band together. I think of Britt this way. He's not very capable, but he has such a positive energy that he's the one who drives the story, and drives Kato and gets the best out of Kato. So I think it's a very touching dynamic because I always think of this event in my childhood with this bass player who got fired. I always think of these guys, sort of incompetent, but they have a quality that is very hard to finger. But they are the engine. They bring the dynamic and the joy.
The hype man, like they call it in hip-hop.
Exactly. But with less attitude.
The Green Hornet is a good guy pretending to be evil. How do you explore that line between right and wrong?
I think it's a different approach to the superhero function. They pose as gangsters and outside, people think he's doing bad when inside he's helping people. The villain is pretty interesting, but his character is based on his lack of confidence, which is a new take on villains—he's not a typical, crazy mean guy. But he sees a new generation that makes him look obsolete. It's different than good and evil. We want to explore these ideas in a new way that hasn't been done in hundreds of superhero movies.
Did you consider any other villains from the Green Hornet's lore before you decided on Christoph Waltz's Chudnofsky?
I remember when I worked on the film 13 years ago, the villain was a guy coming from Asia who had this superpower. It was really a different story. I think Seth and Evan wanted to have a villain with a mid-life crisis, which I think is pretty funny. He does bad stuff-he's a real bad guy-but he's having an identity crisis.
What is Kato-vision?
The fight, before it occurs, he sees it in slow motion. It's like a video game where he picks all of the weapons and the people, and then when this is done, time resumes and he can jump on people. There is a time relationship between him and his opponents where sometimes he moves faster, they move slower. They move at different speeds in the same frame. It's pretty striking what he does.
I heard that when Seth Rogen pitched you to the studio to direct, you spent two days at home and made a short film to visually explain the style you were imagining.
It was very successful in convincing the studio. We used this camera called the Phantom that shot 1000 times per second-the type of camera isn't new. What's new is to have that camera moving in space and have people moving at different speeds. It gives it new dimension. The actors move normally, we do it by changing the ratio of the speed of the film. The difficulty is the camera is moving, so they should not move into the same place. It's quite complicated; it's a long process. But it looks really nice.
What people might not know about you is that you invented bullet time for a commercial before the Wachowski Brothers made it famous in The Matrix.
I was frustrated that they would use so much. It's part of the film language now to stop time and go around a thing. It's true, I did it for a Smirnoff commercial in 1994. But that's life.
And here for a big action film, you tried to keep the blue screen and the special effects to a minimum. Talk about the challenges—and the fun-of that.
We did a lot of the fights practically. We didn't want to have everything done in a computer because we wanted it to feel engaged with the story. We wanted to recreate the movies of the '80s where you really feel engaged in the action. There is only the minimum CGI we had to use.
The Swamp Thing is scary because you know the actress is really getting chased, even if it's just a guy in a funny suit.
I think if I had to do a movie with a creature, I would do a combination. I did a movie called Tokyo where I transformed a girl into a chair. But how to move the chair? Her head was attached to the chair. I think it's kind of creepy. You need digital technology to finalize it, but at the base of the image, you want practical effects.
And on top of it, you decided to convert the film into 3D.
Yes, we chose early on to do 3D. The studio met us and said we had to shoot in 2D, so we thought okay, forget it, nevermind. But then they changed their minds. We're doing a conversion, but we're doing it carefully. On top of it, the way it was shot—and my style of shooting, the way I put the camera, that I don't over-edit or choose to artificially enhance the energy—works very well for 3D. We're really paying a lot of attention to getting the optimum 3D and I think it's really going to be looking good. I just saw a scene today at the funeral where you're looking down at a statue of Britt's father and Seth is sitting in front of it. It really looks as if it's going deep into the screening room—you're really looking down on Seth. Sometimes the smoke from the screen goes into the theater and stays in the theater like real smoke. And when we use the Kato-vision, there is this outline that comes from the room past the screen. There is perspective where we use light to infinity. We use the lines in a strong way. Everything that we're using, we're doing very elegant.
Are you open to doing a sequel? Is there any talk of it?
Of course. It's a complex process because everybody needs to agree, but everybody is being nice. I think the good thing when you're doing a movie is when people don't like something, they tell you right away. I don't like this feeling that people are pretending to like it to not upset you-there's no such thing. It's like a bunch of dogs barking at the same time. Out of that comes good ideas. I'd be excited to work more on the Green Hornet and make some crazy stories.
Are there other directions you'd like to take the story after this one?
Yes, because once you have established the character, then you can have more fun with more villains, more gadgets, more gadgets on the car, the craziest stuff we could see in the world. There's lots of stuff in it—I think it would be fun to play with.
People don't know the Green Hornet as well as they do Superman or Batman, but there's a lot of depth to him.
When you see all these angry people saying we're not doing the right thing, it's weird because I never heard people talk about him before. I always thought I was the only one who cared about the Green Hornet. I guess there are more people. There is an interesting quote from Prince, because Seth met Prince once, and he said he always preferred the Green Hornet over Batman because he was a fancy man—Batman was too serious. So it's a different approach. We'll see how people respond to it.
You're not thought of as a comedy director, but here are your recent leading men: Dave Chappelle, Jack Black, Jim Carrey, Seth Rogen.
I like comedy. I always liked comedy. I don't like stupid comedy. I have to say that French humor is very close to broad American humor. If it was not for the difference of language, French comedy would be very successful in America. But of course, they have to be re-shot because people will never read subtitles. In a way, I like American-language humor better because it can be more refined. There are great movie with Jean-Paul Belmondo, a comedian who became an action hero in France. He's pretty old now, but he was awesome. He did a lot of movies with humor and great action. Seth reminds me of him.
In your book, You'll Like This Film Because You're In It, there's this idea that people are most creative when they're bound by a lot of rules. Why is that true?
Yeah. It's a comfort zone that allows you to be creative. Unless you're somebody who it's your job to be creative, you don't think you have much to say. My argument is that to the contrary, people are not aware of their creativity. Their creativity interests me because it's going to reveal stuff that I don't know about them, but also it's going to be really surprising. They just need a comfort zone. If you ask them right away to tell a story, they will be too shy to come up with a story. So the idea is to start with the simplest question. I just developed it because I wanted to work with random people because I always felt that I had this privilege of being a director that was sort of given to me, and maybe I created, but a lot of people could be great film directors and great artists, and they just have no idea—no opportunity. For them to be creative, I just had to give them enough rules to feel limited so they'd feel comfortable. It's like when you write a poem in rhyme, you use words that you would never use in normal language. You have to fit the rhyme. And this contrivance, this restriction, allows you to be more free in your choice of words. I applied that and it worked very well.
When 2010 hit and critics wrote up their Best-of-the-Decade lists, your Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was at the top of dozens of them. How did you react?
It's very nice. It's nice. The movie had a good response at the time—it was not a huge box office, but it was pretty great for a $20 million dollar movie. But I remember at the time, for some reason I never interacted with Oscar season. We always put my movie out in March when it's really too early. But still now that a lot of people could identify to the problem we were talking about, it was very nice to see that the movie grew and became higher in the rankings. I remember in 2010 reading those lists, it was very overwhelming.
It must be one of the greatest goals of movie-making: to strike such a nerve that people still remember your movie years later.
Yeah, it's good. But now the next stage is doing something that would get people to forget about this movie. Sometimes they think too much of it.
People who love that movie feel like it's their movie more than it's yours.
It's true. That happens sometimes.
Do you keep up with the new crop of music video directors?
When I look at YouTube, it's amazing. I see stuff I've never seen. There's a guy called Pez who does amazing animation. He animates food and objects to create a crazy world—it's very entertaining. There is a short called Muto that is Portuguese and he paints on the walls and animates this monster that moves. Moving graffiti. It's one of the most fascinating things I have seen in years.
Are there any other classic TV shows you would like to turn into a movie?
I remember when my son was a kid, he was watching this half-shark, half-human—I think they called him Street Shark. I always wanted to make that into a film. They were swimming into the concrete and eating concrete. Very surreal. I would like to work on a more personal story on my next project just to alternate, but why not in the future?