Arguably the top cinema fantasist working today, Michel Gondry is known for his handmade head-trips: Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (which he cowrote, and for which he shares a Best Screenplay Oscar), The Science of Sleep (which he also wrote). Gondry also has to his credit a large number of groundbreaking music videos, commercials, and short films, and for good measure, he directed the concert documentary Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Now, Gondry has written and directed Be Kind Rewind, a loopy buddy comedy starring Jack Black and Mos Def as neighborhood losers who—through bizarre circumstances--find themselves obliged cheaply to remake popular films with a VHS camcorder, a process Black's character dubs "Sweding." Gondry talked to me about this larky but heartfelt entertainment at San Francisco's St. Regis Hotel.
Groucho: The film put me in mind of '80s cult movies. Like Repo Man or Tapeheads.
Michel Gondry: I don't know those movies.
G: There's something about your films that really gets into your head in a way that makes you feel like you're a little bit crazy when you're watching 'em.
MG: (Laughs heartily.) I'm sorry!
G: No, in a good way! In a good way.
MG: No, I like to hear that. It's good. No, there is something a little '80s in the film. In a sense of, and you find that in Ghostbusters, the sense that those three friends are complete losers. And they make a business that becomes very successful against all expectation. I like that. I like that because it's about friendship, it's about—in this movie it's about community. And it's about you have a dream and you make it work. And it's not—. (Pause.) I don't like movies when they take one example and make it so specific you believe that it could happen to you. And I'm not saying that in this film. And I think a lot of American movies work like that. They want to make you feel it could be you too. They like somebody who won the lottery and has a great life. But ultimately those movies are very conservative, because they make you just wait for the dream to come true, as my film, I think, is telling people, "Whoever you are, pick your life in your hand—make your own entertainment and bring back the community together." That's my message. And it's a different one.
G: There's a line in the film about becoming stockholders of your own happiness—
MG: Oh yeah, and I'm glad you noticed that, because nobody ever talks about it, and it was very important to me.
G: That seems to be sort of the philosophy of the film, and it's almost a political statement, it seems, about the way people do live and the way people should live.
MG: Yeah, exactly! Make your own entertainment, and you're gonna—. Keep your money for yourself. Be creative and meet friends. And have a better life. And it's a movie—it's not as big as a big blockbuster special-effects movie. You're going to enjoy it at least as much because you own it. And when you watch a movie you own, it's different. And in the end, when you see all those kids watching the film, it was really projected to them, this Fats Waller story. We shot it before the shooting and during, and then we edited it. And then when we shot the scenes that it was discovered, and all those kids in the room, in the cast, were involved in the shooting, and they watched themselves. And you can see the enjoyment in their eyes. Because they were—it's not only looking at yourself, because it sounds like narcissistic—but it's more of about appreciating something you've done. It's like cooking your own meal versus going to a restaurant, basically. And that's what I'm proposing—When I talk about the film, it doesn't matter if it's good or bad, in the sense of I'm talking about I believe that people should do their own film. And even if people don't like the film, I think that this idea is good, and I should say it to people. So it's good, and for the first time I am doing a movie that's not about my own life. And it's good because I'm talking about something that I believe. And I can go and fight for it without being ashamed—Talking about the community and the little town, it was something new for me, and makes the outside world function, exist. I'm not saying it's really completely there; it's an imaginary world, but it's a little stepping outside of my usual parameter, which is something that I'm challenging myself to do—
G: You've talked about how the best part of your job and most exciting part of your job is going from inspiration to realization.
G: What idea did you have that you found most invigorating in executing in this film?
MG: This idea, I think, really, to recreate these films. It sounds so stupid, and impossible. To me, it's down to—do you know Tex Avery?
MG: There is a story where the guy's trying to escape the jail, and he digs a hole (makes furious digging sound effect) and he digs so far that he ends up to be—it's always the same joke in Tex Avery, and it's great—he ends up to be in the—apartment of, uh, the chairman of the jail. And he ends up in the TV, so the only thing he can find to not get caught as being the guy who escaped jail, it's to recreate all the programs: as [the wife] changes the channels, he changes disguise. And it's so absurd but then they make it happen, because of the magic of being—Tex Avery could make a joke in four frames, which is—six frames is a quarter of a second—and you could literally see a guy baking a cake in six frames, and you can pause and go frame, frame, frame and you see (makes whooshing cartoon sound effects). It's so crazy, and I really like that. I don't know what was the question, but yeah, that was what was exciting. While this was exciting on some of the systems they make, like for instance, the idea—I had for years this idea to recreate a film from the past, you would just take pictures of the cars and put them everywhere. It's very expensive to rent. And you could achieve two things: one thing, you create your own car from the past, and then you hide the modern car, which is the only thing that really changes over the years, because the street stays the same, especially in America. There are buildings that change, but if you change the cars, you've done most of the work. So that was exciting for me, this idea. Or the idea that they would cut faces [out] in negative [and wear them as masks], put them on the film then shoot negative to pretend it's night, but their faces achieve positive, and yet negative. I was very excited by that.
G: The most showy practical effect in the film is the tracking shot that strings the different—
G: Sweded shots together. Now are there hidden seams in that or is that all one take?
MG: Well, in fact, it's all—it's one take, but there was a reason one, because it was too long, we cut a couple of stages. Yeah—
G: Obviously you would give a little boost to a film if it was a New Line film, if New Line owned it, but how did you choose which films would be Sweded?
MG: We picked films that everybody would remember, mostly. And some were picked by Dave Chappelle, because I talked to him about the project. Especially the ones like Rush Hour, Driving Miss Daisy, Boyz in the Hood. Of course, he suggested those. And it was great. He helped me with that.
G: Was it purposeful to make up Danny Glover like—he looked to me like Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy.
MG: No, that was—he wanted to have the wig. It was a big thing. From the beginning, I said, "No, I want all the characters to be who they are. I don't want them to wear wigs," and he wanted to wear this wig, so I let him have it, because I wanted him to be in the film—
G: I think we have to wrap it up. Thank you very much.
MG: Thank you! It was nice talking to you.
[For Groucho's review of Be Kind Rewind, click here.]