The Influence

The theatricality of Michel Gondry’s classic film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind inspired award-winning director Ian Michael to portray love in all its glory and mess. By Kate Holden.

Ian Michael

A man and a woman resting in a bed that sits on a snow-covered beach
Kate Winslet and Jim Carrey in a scene from Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and actor, director and writer Ian Michael (below).
Credit: Cinematic / Alamy (above), Daniel James Grant (below)

Ian Michael is an award-winning actor, director and writer, and a Noongar man from Western Australia. He has worked with companies such as Black Swan State Theatre Company, Ilbijerri, the Malthouse and Melbourne Theatre Company and as assistant director to Kip Williams on The Picture of Dorian Gray (2020-23) and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (2022). Now, as part of the 2022 Richard Wherrett Fellowship at Sydney Theatre Company, he is making his main-stage debut as director with the winner of the 2022 Olivier Award for Best Revival in the West End, Constellations by Nick Payne. It runs until September 2 at the Wharf 1 Theatre in Sydney.

Michael wanted to talk about the close influence of Michel Gondry’s 2004 film Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, co-written by Charlie Kaufman and starring Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet. It features Carrey as Joel, who in the wake of a painful break-up elects to have his relevant memories erased by a new technology.

Constellations has quite a parallel with Eternal Sunshine. Tell me about the film and the show and how they’ve come together for you?

At STC, as part of my fellowship, I was offered a slot to direct a play this year. I knew straightaway it should be Constellations. I’d read it four years ago and fell so deeply in love with it. Then there’s one note that Nick Payne’s written: “A change in formatting, from normal to bold, for instance, indicates a change in universe.” So from that script note I was like, “I think this is definitely up my alley”, and I got really excited about it. And I started thinking about entry points into the tone and the feeling I wanted to make with this production: when you think of romantic comedy or love stories you think about The Notebook or Romeo and Juliet, but I wanted to go left of field. I remember googling “love stories told in strange ways” or something, and of course Eternal Sunshine was at the very top of the list.

The first time I watched the film was seven or eight years ago, and I was still processing a pretty rough break-up of my own, but my experience of it was that I didn’t want the memories to be taken away. It felt a bit too real for me at the time. Now I watched it immediately and thought, that’s exactly where I want to enter this play. The play already has a very rom-com vibe, but in its form and structure it’s not conventional. So I wanted to focus on love and humanity and choice, but in a way that was complex, and showed love in its full messiness and its glories and its heartbreaks. I’ve watched Eternal Sunshine probably four or five times in the past seven or eight weeks. Joel and Clementine are so flawed but in deeply human ways, in the same way that Marianne and Roland are in the play.

The film presents a very explicit metaphor of repetitively trying again and restaging scenarios: rehearsing a play must be the same.

Yeah! And I think Charlie Kaufman and Michel Gondry have done such a beautiful job. I love that Michel Gondry had theatre experience, and the way they’ve made the effects in that film, kind of lo-fi, or handcrafted. It feels so theatrical in its transitions. Literally, the theatre lights that go down, and the little trapdoors that have been made – it feels alive, every single moment. I love that the film has been made in this deeply human way, literally with people’s hands.

Gondry and Kaufman’s filmmaking is so charming and mischievous. There’s a spry energy, a bit crazed, even dangerous.

Yes, going with your instincts visually and just taking whatever you see in your mind and putting it out there. It feels playful, and not just in the joy and excitement, but also when you go too far and it starts to get dark and scary as well. That’s exciting to see.

And the love story: that’s the biggest thing I wanted for Constellations, to offer the audience a love story that was really complicated but also so glorious in its love and its spark, its warmth and lightness. Something that I love about the film is that wanting to hold on to memory, and the sense when memories start to slip away and what that means for us as people. In the film the memories are literally erased from them, but in Constellations they have to live those fragments of memory and time over and over again. Sunshine’s been the most incredible reference to use, on how to tell stories that feel so human, and the normality of day-to-day life, but in a nonlinear way.

Can you describe the play?

It’s by the British playwright Nick Payne. He wrote it around the time he met a woman who became his wife, at the same time as his father was passing away. So he wrote this play about Marianne, who’s a quantum physicist, and Roland, who’s a beekeeper. They meet at a barbecue and essentially you see 50 fragments of their relationship and lives together play out. In the way Sunshine has beautiful fragments that are spliced and repeated, it’s very similar with the play. There are fragments that are three lines long and others that are five pages long. You see them meet, and in between their breakups, their first date, all of that. It’ll start and then it’ll stop and then it’ll reset. So it does a circular rendition but each time it repeats, something has shifted.

I’ve heard there are really only two love stories: “hello” and “goodbye”. Here in both film and play, it’s the two together. And they’re fables about how imperfect people relate to the imperfection of love: do you burn it down or pursue it to the end?

Those ideas of love and loss and those big human emotions have a huge presence in the play. You see the characters at the “hello” and then you see the “goodbye” pretty quickly. So constantly you’re in this tension for the inevitability of it ending. It rings so true to life, when life goes on and we want to hold on to memory or time, those thoughts, the could-have, would-have, should-haves, the “maybe I was meant to be somewhere else” that we have in life. In the rehearsal room every time we ran the play in its entirety there were a lot of tears. But also lots of big laughs.

The absolute beauty of the film is that we enter it and we’re pushed and pulled and thrown around but at the same time I feel it’s such an affirming film, in all its glories and heartbreaks and tragedies. There are so many beautiful quotes in it. They’re on the beach at the end of the film and Clementine says, “This is it, Joel. It’s going to be gone soon.” He says, “What do we do?” And she says, “Enjoy it.”

Moments flowing past: this is your debut with STC, a big moment for you. Are you tempted to clutch at it?

I’m trying not to think of the pressure! It’s a reminder, a little bolt of energy again. It’s been such a wonderful experience to make this play with this group of artists, it has felt like so much life has passed in the last five weeks. The biggest thing we spoke about in week one, it connects to Sunshine: Cat Văn-Davies said, “With everything you knew would happen, would you make the same choices? And would you believe that it was all worth it?” And we said, “Yes.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on August 12, 2023 as "Ian Michael".

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