‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’: An Unforgettable and Heartbreaking Exploration of Love, Human Beings and the Nature of Memory

Having heard his friend complain about her boyfriend for what seemed to be a hundredth time, French artist Pierre Bismuth asked her if she would erase him from her memory if such an option was at her disposal. He soon passed this idea to his friend and filmmaker Michel Gondry, who liked the sound of it and discussed it with Charlie Kaufman, with whom he worked on Human Nature. From a simple discussion in a cafe, therefore, sprung out a film that many believe to be one of the very finest produced in this century. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a heartbreaking yet beautiful, insightful and above all hopeful movie about love, memory and loss, is literally unlike anything we’ve seen before or since. If you remember 2004 and the time this film was released, you might have been misled by the ill-conceived promotional campaign into believing this was a romantic comedy, a happy love story with two exquisite actors, performing in an unexpected collaboration. Gondry knew the promotion was deluding and even harmful to his film, because he sensed that what he had in his hands was a unique gem of a film, whose concept, range of emotion and depth far surpassed what people sought and found in traditional romantic comedies. Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind, a phrase taken from Alexander Pope’s poem ‘Eloisa to Abelard,’ is a masterfully conducted exploration of love, human beings and the nature of memory.

Written by Kaufman, based on Bismuth’s idea and with Gondry’s input, the film is a stylistically impressive result of the cooperation of one of the most intriguing screenwriters in the world and a filmmaker with a distinct visual style and sense of storytelling. A complex narrative structured in a non-chronological order features unforgettable main characters, but it’s also accompanied by nicely developed support from the characters of Mark Ruffalo, Tom Wilkinson, Kirsten Dunst and Elijah Wood. But the chemistry and realism that Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey manage to produce is astonishing. It is safe to say that, with Eternal Sunshine, Carrey successfully escaped the confinement of silly comedies such as Ace Ventura or The Cable Guy, as the comedian’s performance proved the depth and range of his dramatic capabilities. Winslet, on the other hand, enthusiastically grabbed the chance to portray the charming Clementine, simply because female characters of such colorfulness and complexity can be rarely found in cinema and she wanted something different from the work she’d done up to that point. Two talented actors with everything to prove, a tragic love story shaped brilliantly by Kaufman and Gondry’s skillful, manipulative and out-of-the-box direction in which he put his experience of shooting music videos into feature film practice. The recipe for the most significant dramedy of the period.

Director of photography Ellen Kuras is to blame for the distinct visual style of the picture, just as Jon Brion’s remarkable score sets the tone and enhances the surreal atmosphere of this gorgeous hybrid of film genres. A solid box office success at the time of its release and the Academy Award champion in the Best Original Screenplay category, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a film you cannot cut out of your heart once you let it in.

A monumentally important screenplay. Dear every screenwriter/filmmaker, read Charlie Kaufman’s screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 
Michel Gondry & Charlie Kaufman on the challenges of working together, dealing with audience and studio expectations, and taking revenge on the guy responsible for Human Nature‘s awful DVD cover art. Courtesy of A.V. Club.

Eternal Sunshine is your second collaboration. How do you feel your sensibilities complement each other?
Gondry: I think we share a common negativity. Once, I was talking to Björk, and she said to me, “You’re the most pessimistic person, but at least you’re funny.” And I think that’s something you could say about Charlie, as well.

The script for Human Nature was written before Michel came on to direct it. How was the writing process different this time around?
Kaufman: We developed the story together to pitch as an idea and sell it to a studio. That’s it, right there. Then we sold it and I went off and eventually wrote it.

Was it difficult to get studios to buy the concept?
CK: It was amazingly and surprisingly easy. I kinda didn’t expect it to happen. I’d never pitched anything before, and I was just trying to go through the motions. I never compromised on what I was trying to get, yet there was actually a bidding war. We put it out there, and within a few days, we had several good offers. All on a five-minute pitch that I didn’t expect much from.

And the studios were aware of the achronological structure and everything else?
CK: Yeah, they were aware that it was going to take place mostly in this guy’s brain, and that it would show their relationship basically backwards, from the end to the beginning. They knew all of that and still wanted to do it.

Both of you deal with abstraction, both visually and conceptually. In the various stages of pre-production and production, do you find it difficult to communicate these concepts to your collaborators, or to other people involved in the movie?
MG: Sometimes it can be hard, because we imagine scenes in a very detailed way, and if others don’t share our vision, then it’s not always easy to convey what we want.

To that end, do you feel your audiences are more sophisticated now in handling a certain level of disorientation?
CK: From my vantage point in writing a story, I can’t and don’t and have no interest in thinking about the level of sophistication of the audience. I can only think about what interests me, and maybe what I would want to see if I were watching the movie. To me, that’s the key to writing something that’s not pandering. I go about my business and try to do what I’m interested in doing in the best way I know how to do it. That’s my job.
MG: I come back to the idea of geometry. I think of a story like working with Lego blocks. If you replace one scene to fix one problem, then a second problem arises, because everything shifts out of place. You want just the right balance in the storytelling, and that’s what drives both of us. Before anyone sees the film, we need to achieve our own sense of fulfillment. If the movie is rejected, then it’s not very pleasant. But if we’re not satisfied, no one will like it.
CK: I think we both recognize the necessity of embracing the idea that what we’re working on may not be embraced, if that makes any sense. If we’re too concerned or at all concerned with questions like, “What are people going to think? Are they going to like us? Is it going to make a million dollars?” Wait, I guess a million dollars isn’t good. [Laughs.] “A million dollars? Oh no!”
MG: One million dollars?! Wow! [Laughs.]

Were you ever pressured to straighten out the timeline or do anything to make the film more traditionally accessible?
CK: There were discussions with the studio. We were back and forth with them over issues like, “When will you lose the audience?” or “If it’s too challenging and they’re too confused, are they gonna walk out? Or is that confusion going to excite them, and they’re going to want to figure it out?” We did test screenings and that sort of thing.

What was the test-screening process like?
CK: We had two or three of them, and a lot of it had to do with displacing the audience in time, and what they think of that. We learned some stuff and applied it in the editing, but it was important to us to keep that achronology.
MG: I think the purpose of test screenings is different for the studio and for the filmmaker. For the studio, I think they want to know whether the film works or not. For the filmmaker, they’re useful because we’re able to have a detached perspective on everything. Because we know where the story is going, and we know all the torture that we’ve been through to make the movie. We know each little moment, but it’s hard to see the work as a complete assembly, and to feel what the characters are feeling. We need other people to watch it with us and come at it from a fresh perspective.
CK: The sad thing about working on a movie is that you can never see the movie. I can never watch anything I’ve been involved in, because I know it, and I know what the making of it was like, and I know what’s been cut out and changed. I just know it.
MG: For Human Nature, the only time I really experienced the film is when I saw the French dubbed version. [Laughs.] The characters had different voices, so nothing was quite how I remembered it, and for once I could see it as a story. Whereas before, I wasn’t distanced from it enough.

The test-screening process seems inherently flawed, because people volunteer to see movies like Eternal Sunshine when they’re released in theaters. They’re not recruited.
MG: Yes, they bring in the people who are least interested in what you’re doing, just to have a worst-case scenario, I guess. It can be really depressing. People get angry. It was pretty nice this time, but sometimes people get angry because you try to do something different and they think it’s unfair. I think it’s that way when you’re shooting, too: People get upset when you’re using the streets, and they honk at you and yell at you. And then they’re happy to turn on the TV later and watch this sort of stuff.
CK: I think it’s New Yorkers you’re talking about. There can be an arrogance on the part of film crews and production assistants who are a little too “You can’t walk here!” People have every right to say, “Hey, this is my street!” So that reaction is understandable.

What was the extent of your involvement in Eternal Sunshine after the cameras rolled?
CK: I was very involved in editing the movie. After production started, I think that was my biggest sphere of influence. But even during the shoot, I would talk to Michel about the problems he was having, and I did some rewriting as we went along.

Do you feel, at this stage, that you have to have a certain amount of control over how your scripts are treated? Is it possible for you to sell a script without caring where it goes?
CK: No. At least it’s not possible for me to do it willingly. It can happen, and it has, but it’s not my favorite scenario.
MG: You don’t think that sometimes, for curiosity’s sake, you could give a script to someone and just see how it turns out?
CK: No. I spend an enormous amount of time and effort on these things. It’s important to me.
MG: But isn’t there, like, a director you worship so much that you don’t want to interfere? Sometimes, I hand a project to the editor and let him work on his own for a little bit.
CK: Yeah, but that’s a controlled situation. You can let an editor work for two weeks, and then you come in and say “No.” You’re talking about something else for me. You’re saying, “Give it over, and then see the movie when it’s done.”
MG: Yes. I think it would be interesting.
CK: It might be interesting, but the difference between a movie and a play is that the production you end up with is the production. If a movie that I spent all this time on turns out to be crap, it’s never going to be made again.
MG: It’s very challenging, because Charlie always wants to have an explanation when you’re working with him. Sometimes, I just have a feeling that an idea is going to work, but Charlie wants to know why. It was good for me to think more deeply about why I liked one idea over another. There are a lot of whys when you’re talking to Charlie. Why? Why? Why? But it’s often very helpful. If there’s something that Charlie doesn’t like, he can get extremely particular about why it’s not working. I like having someone around who can articulate precisely what’s wrong, because through this process, you can find the best solution.

Was your working relationship on this film similar to Human Nature, or were there differences?
CK: It’s a different movie, and it’s got different issues within it, so I think that always changes what we’re talking about. But I see a continuity. We’re still the same people.
MG: As I do more movies, I hope Human Nature will find its place in the overall context of what I’m doing. When I did ‘The Work Of Director Michel Gondry’ and put all the videos and commercials together, they feel happy with each other. I think, one day, it will be the same with Human Nature. I feel good about it, but the opposition to it wears down on you.

Your videos employ a lot of effects techniques—some that are state-of-the-art, and some that are as old as cinema itself. Could you talk about the effects on Eternal Sunshine?
MG: I had a lot of conversations with Charlie about how things would look once we’re inside [Jim Carrey’s] brain and his memory is decaying. First of all, I wanted the memories to feel really vivid and real, which is why I decided to work with [director of photography] Ellen Kuras. Charlie had a very poetic way of putting this decaying memory into words, and I had to find something that would affect me the same way. It was hard, because the effects process takes a lot of time to choreograph, quite apart from the other aspects of production that you have to pay attention to. We decided early on that each time you see an effect in this movie, it has to give you a visceral response. You have to feel it.

What about the music for the film? Why did you choose Jon Brion?
MG: I find that his melodies are very original. And he has this thing he shares with Charlie and me: We’re all a little unbalanced, a little unsatisfied with the world. He’s very skilled, and he understood our way of looking at things, so when we thought a part of the score needed work, he knew how to fix it. And very few people can work this way, because they think they’re being mistreated. Because Jon respected Charlie and me, he could work like that, but he doesn’t like others telling him what to do. He would not listen to the producer, for example, just the writer and the director. His music is populist, but it’s also specific and original. I think his music ties the film together well.

To what extent are you participating in the way this film is being marketed? The trailer is unconventional and seems close to the movie’s spirit, but the TV commercials are a different story.
CK: For the trailer, there’s no one saying, “In a world where…” We got that guy cut out. He was in one version, but now we just have title cards that say certain things that the studio people thought needed explaining. They’ve shown us the trailer at different stages, and they take our criticism, but they’re very selective in what advice they take from us. Same thing with the posters. In a way, the poster is a variation on an idea that Michel had.
MG: We’re happy with the poster now, though it took some time to work out the right design concept. A lot of times, people say, “But nobody will judge a film based on the poster.” I get so offended when I hear that. I’m like, “If you don’t care about what goes on the poster, then let us do it, because we do.” To me, the poster for Human Nature is hideous. The guy who decided to do this image, especially for the DVD, I made him promise to apologize to me after the video came out and didn’t rent well. Because he promised me it would be a success.
CK: [Sarcastically.] And it turned out to be the number-one video in the country.
MG: That’s true. [Laughs.] This guy, I insulted him on the phone. We had worked on this film for four years. I wanted to go and paint his house.
CK: You wanted to paint his house?
MG: Yeah, like paint big X’s on his house. He put a fake naked Patricia Arquette on the cover to attract guys who probably wouldn’t like the film, because he thought it would rent more. We had been working for four years on this project we cherished, and he arrived for two weeks and destroyed everything. Now I can’t even give this film to a friend, because I’m ashamed to hold this horrible cover. And I hate this guy. If I see him someplace now, I will kick his balls off. I really viscerally hate his guts. Talking to him on the phone was so hard, because he’d give you a little hope that you have some kind of control over how it turned out. Then, as soon as it turned out that you’re not in agreement, it was like, “It was nice talking to you, but I’m going to do it my way anyway.” So basically the only option you have is to agree with him. Forget it.

It’s hard to watch Human Nature without also thinking of François Truffaut’s The Wild Child and Werner Herzog’s The Enigma Of Kaspar Hauser. How does Human Nature jibe with those films, and how does it play against them?
MG: The Wild Child is a pure lie. I saw the commentary on the case, which we examined when we worked on Human Nature, and Truffaut is a liar. Because the real wild child never learned to talk, and as soon as people who were funding the research on him discovered that he would not go further, he was sent back to his family and he had a miserable life. The movie should have talked about that in a more interesting way.
CK: This is something I want to talk about for a second, because when people criticize Human Nature, it’s usually over what they see as this simplistic idea that nature is better than civilization. In actuality, that has nothing to do with what the movie’s about. In fact, the movie was mocking that simplistic idea. The movie is a parody of that stupid notion.
MG: We have a hard time talking about this movie, because it was not about something so simple as nature vs. civilization. To me, it’s about what your real interest is when you’re doing something that’s supposedly to be nice to someone.

It ends up being about sex, right? That seems to be the underlying motivation behind virtually all of the characters’ actions in the movie.
CK: It’s about sex, but it’s also about people being hurtful and lonely and trying to find a place for themselves. They want to find a connection with other people, and they’re not finding it.

MICHEL GONDRY: “I BELIEVE IN UTOPIA”

“On Eternal Sunshine, at the end when Jim Carrey walks in the house and the ocean is taking over, we built the corner of the house and we put it on the side of the beach and we waited for the tide to be high, too. We hired a special team to put the set like two feet in the water. They had gear and stuff and then at the last minute they refused because they said it was too dangerous. So we were screwed, we had to do it ourselves—the actors, the producer, everybody—so I called them pussies I think. Then I got told off by the chief of the union, who came to sort of try to humiliate me in front of my crew because we fired those guys. I had my satisfaction!” —Michel Gondry: I believe in Utopia

 

THE ART OF FRAMING

Ellen Kuras, an ex-sociology student turned cinematographer while working on a documentary, handled with perfection the multiple moods, from present time to flash backs, to dreams, to nightmares, to erased memories, making them all blend into one coherent story. Needless to say, production designer Dan Leigh and editor Valdis Oskarsdottir (and their teams) are equally key contributors, but Kuras managed to give life to the camera in a rarely seen way so that what we see is what the characters feel, with all the changes and variations that implies. —The Art of Framing: Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind

“BY MORNING, YOU’LL BE GONE”

A talk between Gondry and Carrey in which we can see rehearsals, their hardest day on set, when Carrey went off-road with no brakes, how their characters perceived each memory, how they came across the transportation of the circus and incorporated it in the film, and more. Perhaps the most interesting aspect is seeing how the wealth of inventive practical effects were deployed, something explored further in a visual effects reel. Also including a conversation with Gondry and Winslet about her casting and the shoot. —Leonard Pearce, The Film Stage

 
The VFX Effects in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind video shows how VFX should ideally always be used: as a powerful tool to better tell a story.

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Open YouTube video

Unlike the frequent depressing statistics on female directors or cinematographers, editing is one creative role in cinema where women have traditionally held their own. Valdis Oskarsdottir discuss what it was like editing Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Courtesy of Indiewire (watch video of the panel here).

How did you become an editor?
I got a job as an editing assistant. And came on the next job as assistant, and the next job as assistant. And one day it occurred to me—I will always be assistant. I will never ever be an editor myself. And then I was working with an editor who said “I think you should apply to the Danish film school, because then you can play around for four years and learn”. And I thought “Yeah, that’s great. I can see a single mother with two kids at the film school.” And then I saw this film Amadeus, and I saw this great composer and then this guy—what was his name? Salieri. And then I thought to myself, “I am never ever going to be like this Salieri.” And I applied for the Danish film school and I got it.

As editor, how do you relate to the director of a film and his/her vision?
All this stuff about getting into their head—I think that’s bullshit. You can’t do that—you can’t get into anyone’s head. A director might say, ‘What about that shot where he’s sitting and you can see that he’s thinking, and then he stands up and he’s very disturbed.’ And you look at the shot and there’s just some guy standing up and walking across a room. All you can do is watch the footage, watch the characters, and after a while, you know these characters better than your family—and you spend more time with them than your family. So you get totally into the story and into the character’s head, and you can say ‘that’s not how the character would behave’ or ‘he would never say anything like that.’

Do directors ever interfere with your process?
When I was working with Søren Kragh-Jacobsen on Mifune’s Last Song, he sat in the editing room from 9 in the morning to 6 at night; always sitting there, in the corner, telling me what to do. And by doing that, your editor stops thinking, and begins to just press buttons. If you do that as a director, why are you hiring an editor? It’s much cheaper to get someone who is good at pushing buttons on a computer.

How does a film’s screenplay relate to your work?
Usually when I read scripts, I read them as a story. And if the story is good, as it was with Eternal Sunshine, I forget about the script and when I get in the editing room, it’s what I get into the computer that counts. Usually, I don’t read the script again.

How did you respond to the initial footage of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind?
I loved it. I got everything that I needed and more, so I was very happy with the material and that doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes it was amazing what Michel had done—the effects that he could do with the camera. It was very exciting.

What was it like working with Michel Gondry?
He is French, I am Icelandic; we are both stubborn and so it was full of arguments. When it comes to editing, I am really, really stubborn—and if the directors don’t suggest something brilliant, I don’t listen to them. Michel can be very sweet and nice, funny, creative—and then he can be a pain in the ass. But I think that I can be a pain in the ass too—probably more of a pain in the ass than Michel.

What was your dynamic in the editing room?
He isn’t the most patient man I know. He couldn’t sit still. Sometimes he’d sit on the sofa in the editing room behind my back and talk—I couldn’t hear him because I was working, and he’d get really pissed if I wouldn’t answer him. Sometimes when he was talking I’d stop and turn around and miss what he’d said, and he’d say to the producer ‘I hate it. She doesn’t answer me and then she rolls her eyes.’ And I was like, ‘How can he see that? He’s behind me!’ It took a while to explain to him that when I was working, I couldn’t hear him.

Would you work with him again?
No, I don’t think so. And I don’t think he’d ever want to work with me. —Valdis Oskarsdottir, and the ‘Invisible Art’ of Editing

ETERNAL SUNSETS OF THE KAUFMAN MIND

On the 30th of September 2011, in front of a sell-out theatre at the BFI in London, Charlie Kaufman delivered the final lecture in BAFTA’s 2011 Screenwriters’ Lecture Series.

Director/Editor Eliot Rausch extracted five minutes from Kaufman’s speech, and cut over a video titled What I have to Offer.

Charlie Kaufman’s world is an enthralling panorama of malaise, despair and humanity. A video essay by Leigh Singer.

Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Production still photographer: David Lee © Focus Features.

 
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