Michel Gondry’s Production Designer on Building Transparent Limousines and Pianos That Make Cocktails

Slate’s design blog.
July 17 2014 9:03 AM

Production Designer Stéphane Rozenbaum on Building Sets for Michel Gondry’s New Film    

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In a scene from Mood Indigo by Michel Gondry, Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and Colin (Romain Duris) float through Paris in a cloud of new love.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

Writer-director Michel Gondry’s films are defined by their always inventive, often childlike and surreal production designs. His latest film, Mood Indigo, is no exception. Starring popular French film duo Romain Duris as Colin and Audrey Tautou as Chloé, the movie is a spirited but tragic love story based on the classic 1947 French novel L′Écume des Jours by Boris Vian, who died in 1959. It opens Friday in New York and Los Angeles.

Production designer Stéphane Rozenbaum won a 2014 César Award (the French equivalent of an Oscar) for his work on Mood Indigo. He previously worked with Gondry on The Science of Sleep and spoke to me by phone from the set of Gondry’s next film about creating the show-stealing designs for Mood Indigo. Rozenbaum also shared several personal photos that he took on the set during film production.

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Designer Stéphane Rozenbaum receiving the best production design César Award for Mood Indigo in February.

Photo by Dominique Charriau/Getty Images

Rozenbaum had already established a comfortable working rapport with Gondry, but the challenges of designing sets for an adaptation meant that he was charged with translating the creative vision of both Gondry and Vian and designing a visual vocabulary for a widely read novel that had already been art-directed in the minds of generations of readers.

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“Finding the aesthetic of the film was a pretty delicate matter because a lot of people have read the book,” Rozenbaum said. “What’s more, Michel read it for the first time when he was 15 or 16, and it made a real impression on him, so we have been very faithful to the novel.”

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An interior of Colin's apartment that includes a Métro car and seating.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

Rozenbaum started his design process by reading Vian’s novel, then Gondry’s script. He visited Vian’s former Paris apartment to get a sense of the man—who was also an engineer, musician, singer, and jazz specialist—and found a riot of objects, books, and things he had made or built himself. The result is a mashup of layered, decades-spanning visual references—albeit with a distinctly '70s flavor inspired by Gondry's childhood—that lends a timelessness to the story, which Gondry said in the film's production notes takes place sometime between 1947, when the novel was published, and 2013, when the film was released in France.

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An interior of Colin's apartment.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

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A scale model built by Rozenbaum.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

But the apartment itself was a vibrant hive of quirky objects, multiple colors, and otherworldly details, like this tantalizing platter of decorative food:

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Rozenbaum built models of appetizing yet inedible food from textiles.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

Like all the dishes in the movie, it is elaborately prepared but breaks out into animated vaudeville every time one of the characters attempts to actually devour it.

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Michel Gondry might give his characters cake, but he's not about to let them eat it, too.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

One of the most whimsical and ingenious pieces of set decoration was the pianococktail, a musical instrument that concocts mixed drinks according to the morsel of music being played on it and the feeling imparted by the player.

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The pianococktail, a piano that mixes drinks.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

Rozenbaum said it took three months to build the pianococktail from an old upright that he took apart and put back together to turn it into the world's most magic bartender. Rozenbaum assembled the parts then built a remote control station to operate it—no small feat, as seen in this clip of the pianococktail in action:

In the film, the colorful, fantastical apartment functions as a metaphor for Chloé’s body, which is ravaged and diminished by illness. Rozenbaum and his crew built the apartment on the roof of the headquarters of French newspaper Libération to capture the omnipresent Paris skyline outside its windows. They later built the apartment in a film studio only to tear it slowly to bits as Chloé’s illness deteriorated and the walls around Colin and Chloé drew ever closer. 

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The filmmakers built part of the set on a rooftop to take full advantage of the authentic Parisian view.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

But before all that darkness descended on our happy couple, they floated about Paris in a cloudmobile made from a metal frame and covered in polystyrene and Plexiglas, as seen at the top and below:

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Michel Gondry contemplates the cloudmobile.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

And they rode off on their honeymoon in one of the movie’s most memorable props: a transparent limousine. “In the book Vian described the seats covered in white fur, like a cocoon, like a jewelry box,” Rozenbaum said. “But transparent, to counterbalance what would come after.”

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The transparent limousine.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

Vian was a lover not only of jazz but of many things American, like the Cadillac, so Rozenbaum tracked down an '80s Caddy that they carved up and hollowed out, replacing as much of the body as possible with Plexiglas.

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The limousine from another angle.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

Then Peugeot became a financial partner in producing the film, so Rozenbaum had to transform the Cadillac into a Peugeot by adding the brand’s iconic lion logo and hood ornament.

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The designer turned an old Cadillac into a fantastical see-through limousine.

Courtesy of Stéphane Rozenbaum

“I didn’t want to make it a Peugeot,” Rozenbaum added with refreshingly undiplomatic French candor.

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Chloé (Audrey Tautou) and Colin (Romain Duris) on their honeymoon.

Courtesy of Drafthouse Films

Check out the movie trailer below:

Kristin Hohenadel's writing on design has appeared in publications including the New York Times, Fast Company, Vogue, Elle Decor, Lonny, and Apartment Therapy.