Eternal Sunshine was directed by Michel Gondry, a French writer and director who got his start in the music video industry. Being the drummer for a rock group called Oui Oui, he made some animated music videos like this one, and after catching the eye of other artists, he started directing music videos for them, too. His clients include some big names like Radiohead and Daft Punk.
As you can tell from these videos, Gondry has a very particular (translation: really weird) artistic style, and much of this directorial aesthetic can be seen in Eternal Sunshine. We don't want to go into too much detail here, but Gondry's manipulation of perspective (especially seen in the Radiohead video) is used a lot in Joel's younger memories. Also in the Radiohead video, you can see Gondry's use of extensive panning to seamlessly transition the viewer's focus while keeping one seemingly continuous shot.
Eventually, Gondry made his way from music videos to directing features films. Now, Gondry's an indie director. His one foray into big-time Hollywood directing was with the superhero parody movie The Green Hornet, which he co-wrote with Seth Rogen.
When given full directorial control, Gondry has directed some well-received indie flicks like The Science of Sleep, as well as some documentary-esque films like Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, an illustrated conversation with famous linguist Noam Chomsky (yes, apparently if you're smart enough you can be a linguist and be famous). It turns out Gondry is also a talented animator. What can't this man do?
So, the story goes that French conceptual artist Pierre Bismuth was tired of his friend always complaining about her boyfriend, so he asked her if she would erase him from her memory if she could. She responded that she would, and this got Bismuth thinking about what the consequences of such a drastic action would be if it were possible (source).
Pierre mentioned this idea to a friend, Michel Gondry, who was also captivated by the idea. Gondry then got in touch with writer and director Charlie Kaufman, who started to bring the story to life. Kaufman got his start in comedy, writing for National Lampoon magazine before transitioning to television and eventually the big screen. (His debut was Spike Jonze's acclaimed Being John Malkovich, a movie similar to Eternal Sunshine in its strange perspective and the whole entering-the-mind thing.)
Kaufman's first collaboration with Gondry, the film's director, was a film called Adaptation, which was actually about Kaufman and his fictional (although accredited) twin brother trying to understand the book that the movie is supposed to be an adaptation of.
Anyway, yeah, Kaufman is a little weird (and we haven't even mentioned his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York), but he totally won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for Eternal Sunshine—so weird can definitely be good.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind was produced by This is That corporation. Founded by Ted Hope, Diana Victor, and Anne Carey, This is That Productions has been big in the indie scene since the early 2000s. Eternal Sunshine fits right in with all of the other happy, upbeat movies they've produced—you know, movies like 21 Grams (about a tragic car accident) or The Savages (about the dementia and death of a father).
Anthony Bregman was one producer for the film. Have you ever wondered what exactly a producer does on a film? Well, wonder no more; let Bregman himself explain the profession to you in all its glory. Bregman is known for movies like The Ice Storm and as well as more recent movies, like Foxcatcher, which you totally won't recognize Steve Carell in.
We've also got producer Steve Grolin in the mix to spice things up. His production company, Anonymous Content, has produced a number of thing the names of which we can't disclose. Okay, they're not actually that anonymous; in fact, Grolin's worked with a number of big-time directors like David Fincher and Spike Jonze, and he was even nominated for an Academy Award for producing Alejandro González Iñárritu's Babel.
Kauffman may have written a very tight, dense script filled with character and wit, but that doesn't mean everything you see and hear was just a recitation of it. As a director, Gondry valued giving actors the freedom to improvise. This sometimes happened in specific locations, like when Gondry heard people talking about elephants walking through New York City and grabbed the crew to get some impromptu filming done.
There's also that scene on the snowy beach—which wasn't supposed to be snowy at all. But instead of waiting for the snow to melt, Gondry took advantage of it and let Carrey and Winslet do some improvising of their own.
But spontaneity also permeated the planned scenes. Gondry would have two cameras going, shooting the actors from different angles, and he would just keep rolling through an entire scene, or he would shoot a scene many times in a row if the actors wanted to try different things. The cameras would simply follow them, and they were free to move around a scene, without any specific places where they had to stand… unless there were, but we'll get to that in a moment.
Gondry used this freedom to create a naturalistic feeling in the film, a sense that we're witnessing a documentary of sorts, a simple filming of real people in real-life, despite all of the science fiction and narrative oddities built into the film.
The use of natural lighting also contributed to this documentary feeling, whether we're talking about the use of sunlight coming in through a window or the use of other hidden practical lighting, as cinematographer Ellen Kuras talks about here. But this natural feeling changes when we get deeper into Joel's mind during the memory sequences. Especially when Joel and Clem are on the run, we get a heightened, more dramatized use of lighting.
One instance of this is the spotlight, which is representative of Joel's consciousness. At first, it seems as if that Joel's memories are massive, spanning as much space as reality. But as they are erased, Joel's awareness is confined to a small focal point surrounded by a dark void. This is most apparent in the scene where Clem is lying on the floor and is suddenly sucked away from him into the blackness.
And while we continue talking about the naturalism in Gondry's directing, let's not forget about some of the crazy blocking (which basically means "actors moving around," for all you non-theater geeks out there). In the scene during which Joel is chasing Clem in his apartment, Clem goes into the bathroom, and when Joel follows her in there, she has disappeared. Joel walks back to the kitchen, where he finds Clem continuing to pack up her things. Then the camera pans to the door, and Clem is somehow outside already, shutting the door behind her, leaving Joel behind.
Clem's constant disappearing and reappearing is meant to represent the erasure of this memory from Joel's mind, but it wasn't done with any clever editing. It really is all one continuous shot, just as it looks. Gondry used trapdoors to allow Kate Winslet to move quickly between set locations that appear far apart; and with the focus on Joel's perspective, the viewer can't see any of this movement.
There's also a kind of naturalism in the lack of special effects. Apart from a few scenes—for example, the scenes in which a car falls or a house crumbles—there is very little use of CGI. Even the scenes during which Joel is very small and sitting under the table or bathing in the sink are the result of optical tricks like forced perspective.
Eternal Sunshine's soundtrack was composed primarily by Jon Brion: composer, producer, singer, songwriter, musician, and all aroud quintuple threat of the musical world.
Brion was in various bands like The Bats, played solo gigs, and even co-produced Kanye's Late Registration (check out this article for more info on how Brion's score for Eternal Sunshine impacted rap music and the music industry as a whole).
In terms of his film career, Brion has composed for Punch Drunk Love, I _ Huckabees, and Magnolia (which won him one of his two Original Soundtrack Grammys, along with Eternal Sunshine). Besides Brion, the soundtrack features songs from The Willowz, The Polyphonic Spree, Don Nelson, and a feature from Beck.
Speaking first of the un-original songs selected for the film, we can see a very unique motif connecting them all: sunshine. We're not talking about the sunny sound of the instrumentals; this is a lyrical connection, something which the primarily lyric-less genre of film soundtracks rarely use.
But if we listen to The Polyphonic Spree's "Section 2" and "Light and Day," Willowz "Something," and even the trailer song that didn't find its way into the film, Electric Light Orchestra's "Mr. Blue Sky," we can hear that each one of these songs has a bright sunny spin that isn't just contained to the uplifting instrumentals.
But let's not forget about what could be considered the film's emotional centerpiece, Beck's cover of the The Korgi's "Everybody's Got to Learn Sometime." It's another sunny song as Beck sings, "and I need your lovin' like the sunshine," but it's certainly not upbeat like the rest of the tracks.
In fact, the song is focused much more on the constant repetition of the title that speaks to listeners as a solemn reality check…and perhaps even an admonishment against the characters' choice of Lacuna over learning.
As a whole, Brion's score has much more in common with this Beck cover than the other happy tracks. The movie is about memory and loss and regret and the emotional mood of the score reflects this. Tracks like "Phone Call," and "Down the Drain," give us this feeling of an empty sadness meant to mirror Joel's journey through the destruction of parts of himself he holds dear.
But sometimes this destruction gets a little more intense. The film is part science fiction after all, and the eerie foreboding of something being not quite right is felt through tracks like "Main Title," and especially "A Dream Upon Waking," which we hear when Joel first begins to realize he's in his own mind as his memories are being erased.
It's moments like this where the usually subdued score comes to life, just as Joel's awareness and the urgency it brings compels him to fight against the dreariness and get back to those sunshiney moments.
Like every other good movie out there, Eternal Sunshine has a loyal fan base. And while these fans may not be showing up to conventions dressed in blue wigs and orange sweatshirts, there is one key factor in Eternal Sunshine on which it's fandom is built: romance. We mean, hey, this may not be your everyday, Nicholas Sparks-type romance, but Eternal Sunshine is totally about two people falling in love… twice.
So what does this mean for fans, exactly? Well, it means that there is plenty of fanfiction out there about relationships and memory erasure. It also means there's some fan art featuring our torn protagonists, like this, or this.