Michel Gondry’s Home Movie Factory comes to Montreal

We spoke to the influential French director about his free DIY film production workshop.

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Michel Gondry on location at the Montreal chapter of his Home Movie Factory.

The homespun, DIY aesthetic has always been present in director Michel Gondry’s work, from his early music videos for the White Stripes, Kanye West or the Foo Fighters to his films (especially Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep). For the last few years, Gondry has been bringing that aesthetic to the people – and Montrealers can participate in Gondry’s Home Movie Factory from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15. The Montreal installation of the travelling factory is a Canadian premiere, brought to you in part by Chromatic and the City of Montreal’s 375th anniversary festivities.

In an unassuming loft space in Ville-Émard sits everything you need to make a movie – or at least, a certain kind of movie. “I don’t even like to say it’s cinema,” says Gondry. “It’s a funny and creative activity.”

The experience – which is free – requires a group of 8 to 15 participants (you will be matched randomly if your group is too small) to book one of the daily three-hour periods in order to go through the entire process of making a short film. The three-hour production period eventually produces a DVD that is shown to the group in a screening room on the premises.

The adventure begins with the conception of the film’s idea, which Gondry says is best defined by picking a genre and title before thinking of the story. “It seems like an absurd way of working,” says Gondry, “but what it does is allow people to let loose right at the beginning. If we started with a story without picking a genre, the participants could be intimidated or embarrassed because it’s too vague, or too difficult to imagine.

“This is my favourite part of the process,” he continues. “This is the part where people really start letting go of themselves and start getting into it. It’s also the part where we hear the first bursts of laughter; people lose their inhibitions and start fully participating without feeling self-conscious.”

Once the film is “written” (or sketched out), the group moves on to the conception room. This is where the sets are picked out, where the roles are cast (everyone should, in theory, appear in at least one scene), where the (charmingly rudimentary) title cards are created and where the costumes are picked out. Upon our visit to the factory, the costumes consisted of a wide array of choices (Montreal police outfits, prisoner outfits), but Gondry is quick to admit that the more unique a costume is, the more likely it is to feature in every single movie.

Repetition of themes and storylines is something that Gondry is very much trying to avoid. “The costumes often have a very big influence on the story, which is both good and bad,” says Gondry. “For example, if the costumes offer a giant bunny costume, pretty much all the movies will incorporate a giant bunny. The movies might start looking alike because of that, and it’s possible that we replace the bunny with something else to avoid too much repetition!”

Once the costumes are picked, the team is handed a camera and put to work shooting the film. There is no editing in the Home Movie Factory – each take is the only take you get, and any “editing” you may choose to do happens in the camera. The factory provides 15 different sets for filming purposes, including a café, an antique shop, a cabaret, a train, a car (both of these are outfitted with neat rear-projection mechanisms, the footage from which was filmed in Montreal) and a doctor’s office. These have changed constantly over the different incarnations of the factory.

“I always keep the most neutral sets,” says Gondry. “Houses, cafés, and so on – places that are very generic and will not have a huge influence on story ideas. This allows a bigger range and bigger variety of films. In each city we suggest a list of potential sets, but my collaborators in each city decide on and build part of the sets based on where they live and what they feel.”

Again, these are fairly rudimentary – more handcrafted than photorealistic, though Gondry does point out that they have been conceived with the fourth wall in mind. (In other words, if the sets look completely like sets, it’s going to have to be on purpose.) Roles are handed out democratically, as is the handling of the camera. The idea is not only to demystify the creation process for amateurs, but for everyone to get a pass at what interests them and work together in a fair and weighted manner.

“When my son was 10 or 12, he’d make movies with his friends using my video camera,” says Gondry. “They never fought about who got to be the lead actor – they fought about who got to hold the camera. I kept that in mind when designing this – I wanted to decentralize the cameraperson’s role as much as possible. It’s really not, in this case, a director’s role. It actually works the opposite way of the traditional filmmaking system.”

The participants have about an hour-and-a-half to make the film. Once the film is finished and getting transferred onto DVD for the broadcast, the participants are encouraged to design the cover for their film, which will then sit in the Be Kind Rewind-inspired “Video Club” for the duration of the factory’s run. ■

Michel Gondry’s Home Movie Factory runs from Sept. 1 to Oct. 15 at Complexe Dompark (5524 St-Patrick), free. Michel Gondry is also giving a masterclass at the Cinémathèque québécoise (355 de Maisonneuve E.) on Sept. 1 at 4 p.m.