The kernel for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind came from a hypothetical question that Michel Gondry's friend, artist Pierre Bismuth, proposed over dinner: What if you received a card in the mail that stated you had been erased from someone's memory and that you should no longer attempt to contact that person? Gondry was immediately intrigued and started thinking about how to explore this question visually. By this time, he was a fan of Charlie Kaufman's work, having read the original screenplay for Being John Malkovich. He knew he wanted to make a film with Kaufman, and Bismuth's idea seemed like the perfect opportunity. "'[Kaufman's] writing inspires me," says Gondry. After pitching the idea to the screenwriter, Gondry said, 'Soon, I had a completely different idea of how I should do Eternal Sunshine. It became about memories. How we are our memories, and how our memories affect our lives. Losing them - before you die - is tragic.'" (JimCarreyOnline.com).
The screenplay for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind took Charlie Kaufman three years to complete. In the meantime, Gondry was intrigued by Human Nature, another one of Kaufman's original screenplays, and decided that it would be his directorial debut. The writer and director engaged in a constant creative dialogue, and it soon became clear that their individual styles complemented each other. Producer Steve Golin (who also produced Being John Malkovich) describes Michel Gondry as "truly gifted at visualizing," and calls Kaufman "the most imaginative writer that I've had the opportunity to work with." Anthony Bregman (who produced Human Nature and Eternal Sunshine) says that both artists "like to box themselves into parameters and then play within what they've boxed themselves into."
The title, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, comes from the poem From Eloisa to Abelard by Alexander Pope, which is about a tragic love affair. The major challenge at the heart of telling a love story in reverse is that the emotions have to feel real and the breakup still has to be tragic enough to hook in the audience. To this end, Kaufman made sure to keep the story realistic and true, so that the film did not rely only on its unusual structure. The result was an inventive tragi-comedy, a mind-bending love story the likes of which Hollywood had never seen before.
While he was working on Eternal Sunshine, Kaufman was getting recognition for Adaptation., Being John Malkovich, and Human Nature. The industry was paying attention, and then, Jim Carrey got a hold of an early draft of Eternal Sunshine. At this point, Carrey was best known for his broad comedic turns in films like Bruce Almighty (2003), How The Grinch Stole Christmas (2000), Dumb and Dumber (1994), and Ace Ventura: Pet Detective (1994), but the character of reserved Joel Barish "hit a nerve" with the actor. Meanwhile, Gondry had been courting Kate Winslet for the role of erratic Clementine. Winslet was equally passionate, citing Clementine as "entirely different from anything [she'd] ever done." Kaufman's script and the prospect of working with Gondry also proved to be an attractive combination for Mark Ruffalo and Elijah Wood, who took on smaller roles than they were generally playing at the time. Similarly, Kirsten Dunst read the script in 2001 and knew right away that she wanted to be part of the film.
Dunst describes shooting the film (which took place in and around New York City from January 13th - April 3rd, 2003): "There were no egos on set. We moved at a fast pace, which I loved... it was so refreshing to be in a movie like this; it's good for the acting and it keeps you in the moment." Gondry both embraced improvisation and encouraged it in his actors. He would keep the camera moving and just let the actors play out a scene until they felt comfortable. Many of Gondry's ideas would evolve on the set and his actors loved the fact that their director gave them so much freedom. Additionally, even though the film has a science-fiction element, Gondry's style of shooting is very raw and stripped down, almost like a documentary. Therefore, there are very few visual effects in Eternal Sunshine. He did not want the film to look "slick" or "high-tech," which would make the whole world of the film much more relatable and accessible for audiences.
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind opened on March 19, 2004. It earned over $70 Million worldwide (having been made on a $20 million budget). Kate Winslet was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress, and Charlie Kaufman, Michel Gondry, and Pierre Bismuth won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay. Critics gave the film overwhelmingly positive reviews and it has often been cited as one of the best films of the decade. A.O Scott of the The New York Times called Eternal Sunshine "cerebral, formally and conceptually complicated, dense with literary allusions and as unabashedly romantic as any movie you'll ever see." In a decade when sequels and gimmicks started flooding the world's multiplex screens, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is a rare gem; an original and sparkling exploration of human connection that will surely continue to inspire audiences for years to come.