The Reeler


January 22, 2008

Cool to Be Kind

Reeler Interview: Michel Gondry on returning to Sundance, getting to know N.J. and the glory of doing it yourself

Doing it for their art: Jack Black and Mos Def in Be Kind Rewind (Photo: New Line Cinema)

The peripatetic Michel Gondry may or may not officially be what you'd call a New York filmmaker, but his latest feature, Be Kind Rewind, is inarguably a New York film. Or perhaps "metro New York" film is more like it; shot almost entirely on location in Passaic, N.J., Rewind features Jack Black as Jerry, a man whose body is magnetized through a freak power plant accident and subsequently erases all the VHS tapes at his buddy Mike's (Mos Def) video store. A customer's request for Ghostbusters results in the duo remaking the '80s classic with more appreciation for than loyalty to the original, but their interpretation is a hit.

Commissioned to "swede" homemade versions of other selections, Mike and Jerry become both local heroes and artistic leaders for an entire town. "I thought this was the perfect background," Gondry told The Reeler in an interview Monday from the Sundance Film Festival. He said he settled on Passaic after discovering the city's power plant during a visit to his auto mechanic. "I walked around and I saw all the locations, and it's a lot of communities who live well together there. There seemed to be a good dynamism -- Polish, African-Americans, Hispanics -- and I thought it would be perfect to represent sort of a general America without being specific. We included a lot of people from Passaic, and that was my favorite part."

THE REELER: So your world premiere was Sunday -- how did it go?

MICHEL GONDRY: It was intimidating, but I think it went well. We got a lot of love and some emotion at the end, I guess. And then afterward Jean-Michele Bernard -- the film's composer -- Mos Def and I played some songs and opened for Patti Smith. She has a movie here.

R: You opened for Patti Smith?

MG: We played a set of songs before her documentary [Patti Smith: Dream of Life]. It was a very nice moment.

R: I'm sorry I missed that. You premiered your writing-directing debut, The Science of Sleep, at Sundance as well. Is it coincidence, or is there something special for you about that festival and those audiences?

MG: It's a timing thing, mostly, but it's a very encouraging audience. It doesn't seem too elitist, and I really liked the fact that we played music. It's weird because you have this crowd of people from Los Angeles who aren't necessarily the people I would hang with, but in terms of what's connected to the festival it feels really energetic and positive.

R: Be Kind Rewind is, in a way, a valentine to the communal filmgoing experience. Are there any audiences or screenings you've been a part of that really reinforced the magic of seeing films in a theater with a crowd?

MG: Yes -- yesterday definitely felt like that. A lot of people came to me and said how they felt connected to the story. Of course, if they don't like it they won't talk to me, so I don't know, exactly. But what was great was that all the actors were here -- Danny Glover, Mos Def, Jack Black and Melonie Diaz were all here, and then Danny did a speech afterward for 10 minutes about little towns in America and communities and the work he'd like to do [there]. I like the fact that it personally engaged the audience; I think it's the first film I directed that goes outside the couple, or the brain. I was challenged working with Dave Chappelle on Block Party, and it gave me the confidence to talk about a subject like community and the belief that basically people can create their own entertainment -- to stimulate people to be more creative and take life into their own hands

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R: There is something cathartic about do-it-yourself, by-any-means-necessary filmmaking. Still, a lot of purists contend that digital video, online exhibition and other new media compromise that cinematic experience.

MG: But it doesn't matter if the cinematic experience is compromised. It's more important that everybody can express themselves than that a few elite do the greatest work. This could die tomorrow, and it wouldn't be important for society. It would be much more positive if everybody made movies. Even if the movies are crap, it's not the point. The point is that people would be active and creative and connected through making film. This is much more important than making good or bad movies. I don't care, honestly, if there are no good films made anymore. There are enough good movies made in the past that we'll never get to see anyway.

R: Jim Carrey and Jack Black are some of contemporary film's more notable loose cannons. You've directed both, and I found it interesting to imagine the creative liberties each clearly took under your direction.

Be Kind Rewind director Michel Gondry at his film's Sundance premiere (Photo: WireImage)

MG: I don't like to compare them. They're different individuals; you could only talk about them separately. They're both great for different reasons, and for similar reasons too. I liked Jack's engagement with his character: He blindly believes he's a great actor doing great movies, and he's in complete denial about the amateurish quality of his work. His heart is 100 percent professional. It's a great quality, and he has that as an actor as well. Sometimes comedians have this insecurity with, "Will I make the audience laugh or not?" But he's pretty much relaxed with that. He makes some of my work easier in parts where I would have had to give him confidence. And he didn't have a problem just being in the background or not being super-active. He has no ego problem, so that makes things easier.

R: Be Kind Rewind was financed and is being distributed by New Line Cinema. A good portion of the films "sweded" include New Line titles: Rush Hour 2, Boogie Nights, The Lord of the Rings and others. A lot of New Line video boxes are on display in the store as well. Apart from rights issues, what kind of control did you have over those selections?

MG: We had all the control. There was just one film we couldn't reenact, but all the films we wanted, we had them. The difficult part was the right to show the artwork; that's what the legal department had to work around, and that's why you see more New Line movies in the background. In terms of the films we chose, it's pure coincidence that there are more New Line than those that aren't. The only one we wanted that we couldn't have was Back to the Future, because they're doing a musical of it and they didn't want us to use it. So we replaced it with Ghostbusters, which was great. We got all the others we wanted to do, even The Lion King. The problem is not remaking the film but remaking the film based the [cover] artwork.

R: "They" wouldn't let you use Back to the Future? Who's "they"?

MG: Some combination of Robert Zemeckis and Steven Spielberg. It was going against some project they're doing -- a musical. They didn't let us do it. So we did Ghostbusters. It had to be some kind of iconic film, and it's a genre film I like very much. It was a favorite film of my ex-girlfriend, and I was trying to get her back by remaking it. It didn't work out.

R: Gosh. I'm sorry about that.

MG: Oh. No problem.

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