Writer-director Michel Gondry's Be Kind Rewind follows two small-town friends, Jerry (Jack Black) and Mike (Mos Def) as disaster at a VHS-only video rental store forces them to try to replace the wiped tapes ... by re-shooting the films they once contained. When their ultra-low-budget, ultra-high-spirit remakes of films like Ghostbusters, King Kong and The Lion King become hits with customers (who are told the tapes are Swedish imports), Jerry and Mike's absurd yet logical attempt to save the store becomes an unexpected starting point for their own artistic journey -- and a celebration of movie making and movie watching. Gondry brings Jerry and Mike's collaborations to life with the mix of big-idea film making and intimate wonder he's demonstrated in all his work, including Human Nature, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The Science of Sleep and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Be Kind Rewind will premiere at the 2008 Sundance Film Festival; Gondry spoke with Cinematical about everything from the joy of creation, racism in film and popular culture, and how Sundance feels different from other film festivals: " (At Sundance) ... I felt encouraged to continue; in Cannes, I felt really like people were asking me to stop doing my job."
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Cinematical: I guess the first, and easiest question is where did the idea behind Be Kind Rewind come from for you?
Michel Gondry: It comes from a utopia I had -- do you say 'having a utopia?' -- a belief I have that people can create their own entertainment. I always wanted to create this community that would come and tell their own story, shoot it -- and watch them. The idea is to not have one entity who creates the work, the project, and another entity who consumes it; the idea is people create their own work, like somebody cultivating his garden.
Cinematical: And in the film, we see the characters go from imitation to actual creation; that was always part of the idea?
Michel Gondry: Yes; it's very important to me that they go through this journey; I don't want to advocate imitation; I want to encourage creation. In this case, they start with imitation because their goal is not being creative; they don't realize they're being creative until they become successful and they are forced to be creative. And actually Alma (Melonie Diaz), who's sort of the smarter, the smartest guy of the band -- she's a girl -- tells them that they are much more creative than what they think they are. And then they realize that they don't have to copy movies; they can create their own. And I think it's very important that people not just make their own entertainment, but that they create it, that they really invent the story.
Cinematical: I was sort of taken by comparing Be Kind Rewind to The Science of Sleep, which was very well received, very stunning film visually -- but a lot of viewers, critics and audience members felt that it was a bit airy on a narrative level, that it didn't really have a plot engine to it; was part of Be Kind Rewind's "We have to save the store ..." plot because of that, to give something to move the movie forward?
MG: Ehhhhh, it's not my favorite part of the film, the fact that they have to save the building; in fact, at the end, you don't even know if they save it or not; what's important is that everybody can recognize they fought, and they brought the city together. I think that's more important than the building. Even if the building goes (away), they're going to find another space. But it's true; in fact, it was an idea from my producer, this idea that the building had to be demolished. I was not really in favor ... but if it can help the plot move forward and then the film is more accessible, then fine, I don't mind.
Cinematical: I was very curious about how you chose the films to "Swede" (Jerry, Mike and Alma's term for the re-shot, re-invented films the store rents); was the engine for that affection or admiration? Was it "Oh, this'll be funny to 'Swede,' or ...
MG: It was more affection; it's more effective, as well, when the movies are more iconic, when everybody remembers them. They cannot be too modern, because they aren't in VHS anymore; the store has to be in VHS in order to be erased for the story. But there is not much nostalgia about (the films chosen) -- although you could find a parallel between, for instance, Ghostbusters and Be Kind Rewind in the way that it's about a business that gets started and it's kind of very '80s; I like this idea that three losers start a business, and it becomes huge, and it's absurd. I always loved that; it's a very good comedy principle. But except from that, I didn't mean to "tribute" movies ... it's not about that; it's about people creating their own entertainment.
Cinematical: Was it tricky getting the permissions to do the "Sweded" versions of the films?
MG: It was tricky to get permission to use the box's artwork; that's what's protected. The film, you can copy the story, it's not forbidden; you can make any spoof of any movie you want. But we had to see the boxes because they make reference to them; sometimes, they shoot the movie only based on what they see on the box. So, every time we had to show the box, that was the difficult part.
Cinematical: On a lighter note, why Sweden?
MG: Completely random.
Cinematical: It's very interesting the film's playing Sundance this year, because in many ways it's about the joy of creation. Do you feel like that's a nice happy accident, that this movie about the joy of making movies wound up at a film festival that we still, correctly or not, think of a beginner's or experimental or avant-garde festival?
MG: Yeah, I think it's a good place for this movie to be; I'm still a beginner anyway, so I feel it's completely justified.
Cinematical: Do you remember what it was like when you had Human Nature, your first full-length feature, here at Sundance?
MG: Yeah, it was much nicer than Cannes, I can tell you, because I've been in both places for the same film. (Sundance) was much more friendly, and welcoming. Although, I know (Human Nature) was not really a big hit (at Sundance), but I felt encouraged to continue; in Cannes, I felt really like people were asking me to stop doing my job.
Cinematical: When you're at something like Sundance, do you get the chance to sneak out and actually see a movies?
MG: Yeah; generally, I see two other (movies), or something like that; it's great but ... I wish I could see all of them. It's just ... (Gestures at the lunch he's finished.) I have to eat while I'm talking to you, and (Sundance) is the same. It's not like I'm busy like a president, but I spend a lot of time talking about the film because I want people to know about it and go and see it, so combined with the time it takes to make a movie, (there's) not much time left. Especially when I go to a festival; it's very close to the opening, so I have other stuff to do, I can only stay two days. But we're going to play music (at Sundance) -- with Mos Def, and Jean-Michel Bernard, the composer of the film, so it's going to be good fun.
Cinematical: It's kind of simplistic, but you take on so many different roles in the making of this film; does making Be Kind Rewind just feel like a slightly larger version of making one of Mike and Jerry's efforts (in the film) where everyone does a little bit of everything?
MG: A little bit, yeah; all those techniques I wanted to use, and of course I couldn't use them in a traditional film, because some of them are so simplistic that you would not believe the world you're creating. So, it was a great opportunity to use all these ideas I constantly have. ...
Cinematical: Was it working on Dave Chappelle's Block Party that introduced you to Mos Def and made you go "I want to write for him?"
MG: Yeah -- well, I didn't write for him; I didn't have him in mind. I didn't have anyone in mind on the first draft; second draft, I think had him in mind. But definitely working with (Mos Def) and, as well, working with Dave Chappelle, made me want to do a movie more about community, about racial issues -- about more American elements; because I'm a foreigner, I would not dare do a story about that, but after Block Party, I felt much more engaged into this type of story.
Cinematical: And race really only comes up once in Be Kind Rewind, when you have to explain to Jack's Black's character Jerry that he cannot, in fact, play Fats Waller. ...
MG: There are a couple of other times; re-enacting the Fats Waller stuff, they talk about him being rejected from (boarding) the plane, and you see the black people sitting on the wing ... and I think another time we talk about the fingers (of people's hands, used as a mock piano keyboard for Jerry and Mike's Fats Waller biopic,) being black and white, but not too much. It's a delicate subject (race), but maybe by hanging with Dave a lot, I felt more comfortable bringing the subject up ...
Cinematical: ... And maybe in a more organic way, not saying, "Let us stop the film to have a heavy moment ..." but just putting it through (the film) it where it belongs ...
MG: Humor is great for talking about important subjects; I mean, if you look at the history of films, they were all paved by super-racist movies. I was talking (about D.W.) Griffith before; his movie (Birth of a Nation) is advocating the Klu Klux Clan; the first talking (picture) is The Jazz Singer, and it's a guy (in) blackface. Movies are really racist, and it's kind of amazing now how the biggest star is actually Will Smith; it's sort of a good revenge in a way. Pop culture has been invented by, I think, people coming from an African ancestry -- maybe not African ancestry, but in more recent centuries if you look at pop music -- or sports, one of the most prominent elements of pop culture -- and it's primarily performed by African-American or Black people. So it's sort of a good turnaround, how do you say?
MG: Reversal, that now the biggest star (is African-American), and there are more and more African-Americans that become big stars.
Cinematical: Looking through all of your films -- and even back to things like the stunning video for (Bjork's) "Bachelorette," which I'm a huge fan of -- storytelling seems to be a big element in your films, whether it's a magical book, or people telling their stories into the camera in Human Nature or people remembering the story of their lives in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ... do you feel like that's something that you're especially interested in, or does it feel more like it's impossible to tell a story without talking about the nature of storytelling?
MG: It's very intriguing to try to understand: What is a story? My girlfriend and I tried to put in words what a story is, and we wrote a list of our ten favorite stories, and trying to figure out what it is. Because people tell you what a story should be in the film industry, and it's very restrictive; I think a story can be a lot of different things. But it's interesting, what makes something be a story; to me there is something I like in storytelling -- you have an event, you have some characters and locations, you have an event that later is going to interfere with the storyline and change the course of it. And I like to visualize the story in geometric shapes, to understand and compare ... that's why it was great to work with Charlie Kaufman, because he has this geometrical sensibility as well; he likes to talk about story in a geometrical way.
Cinematical: And it's good to know the rules before you break them.
MG: Yeah, but I'm not talking about rules, necessarily; I'm trying to understand what it is that makes me feel I'm following a story. What fulfills my sense of "Oh, I heard a story, I lived a story." It's not something I want to learn, it's something I want to find out by myself.