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The TNR Q&A: Michel Gondry

The eccentric director of 'Be Kind Rewind' on pornography, cheesy 80s movies, and the secret to happiness.

French filmmaker Michel Gondry, a veteran of both music videos and commercials, has long been admired for his innovative creative vision. Today, he is best known for the bittersweet romance Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), which he followed up in 2006 with the surreal The Science of Sleep. Gondry’s latest outing, Be Kind Rewind, which is being released this weekend in the U.S., finds the modern-day fabulist in lighter comedic territory. Two video store employees in New Jersey (played by Jack Black and Mos Def) accidentally erase their entire inventory; their solution--shooting home-video remakes of the films (a process known in the film as "sweding")--turns them into local celebrities. A.J. Goldmann caught up with Gondry at the Berlin Film Festival, where Be Kind Rewind had its international premiere out of competition on February 16, to discuss pornography, cheesy 80s movies, and the secret to happiness.

In Be Kind Rewind, Jack Black and Mos Def remake films like Rush Hour 2, Boyz N the Hood, and The Lion King. Why did you choose these particular films?

I didn’t want this to be a movie about a film lover or specialist of film, which is why we’ve chosen very sort-of universal themes. Like, Ghostbusters or RoboCop are movies everyone knows. I wanted to say that this movie belongs to these people from this area.

I read that you didn’t allow Jack Black and Mos Def to go back and re-watch the films they were sweding? Why was this?

Especially with American actors or filmmakers, they like to imitate because they think that acting is in the way you can reproduce somebody else’s attitude or look. I don’t think it’s creative and I don’t like acting that is taken from somebody existing. It’s funny because when we did Driving Miss Daisy, Jack Black had never seen that film, so the way he played the old lady had nothing to do with the way she acts in the film. But I think it’s more fun, because the more removed the films are from reality, the more creative they are in a sense.

Were you ever tempted to make a more intellectual version of the movie, with the actors sweding Bergman and Tarkovsky films?

I was thinking they would do a parody of a French movie, so they would shoot in black and white and speak like dont que je, dont que je and put subtitles on a piece of glass in English to pretend it’s a French movie. We thought, too, "Why don’t they do the porno movies as well?" But then it would have lost a little bit of its innocence.

In your previous work, you’ve started from a personal premise. For instance, you’ve said that the dream sequences in Science of Sleep were based on dreams you had actually dreamed. Does Be Kind, Rewind have a personal origin as well?

It’s a personal utopia that I have had for a long time that people could gather and reuse an empty theater to shoot anything, anywhere they want, and then watch it together, and then collect a little bit of money to pay for the next movie. And each week it would be a new movie. Just any random story that people from the area want to do. It’s like a home movie, but it’s a town movie.

The prevalence of VHS and many of the films that are remade during the course of the film give the film a 1980s feel. Was this your intention all along?

The films we had to show had to be erased at the beginning. I wanted, for instance, to remake Peter Jackson’s version of King Kong. We were not allowed to show it on a VHS box because the movie does not exist on video and the distributor didn’t want us to print it as an existing VHS. So that pushed us back in the past. There’s also a little parallel between Ghostbusters [one of the sweded films] and Be Kind Rewind, in the sense that it’s a little bit '80s--it’s the story of three losers who create a business that’s completely absurd, but all end up to be stars of the city against every expectation. It’s a bit about the American dream, to a certain extent. But I don’t want to defend the American dream too much. Some people compare Be Kind Rewind to Frank Capra, which is flattering to a certain extent. But I also think Frank Capra is very conservative about capitalism and I would rather be compared to Vittoria De Sica. Of course, I’m not there yet.

How is it to be presenting a comedy at a festival where so many of the entries are about violence and murder?

It’s true that the dark movies are more praised by critics and journalists, so you see them more in the festival. So when you see a comedy, it brightens a little bit after 20 sad movies in a row. But that’s maybe the situation I’m trying to occupy, which is in between. If you see my movie among all the American blockbusters, it is going to feel very dark and obscure. If I put my movie in the middle of a festival that talks about drugs and what you depicted, it’s going to feel like a big, happy comedy. It’s a problem that I had when I did Human Nature--maybe this movie is not as interesting as my other movies, but I went to Cannes and the movie was completely dismissed by the critics because it’s like a broad comedy. So, I was in between everything. But I think that I persisted in this way.

Do you think humanity lost something with the transition from VHS to DVD?

I don’t think I have such a philosophical approach to VHS. I think that the technology of the DVD is better. That said, there is an old video store near to me with lots of VHS that you can never find on DVDs. You’re going to find it in the video store that carries a lot of VHS. So there is still a reality. OK, people can call me nostalgic, but I think that a good movie stays good for the rest of eternity. So if the only way is to watch it is on VHS, then you need to watch them on VHS.

Even if you’re not necessarily endorsing outmoded technology in Be Kind Rewind, the film does endorse a type of recycling tendency.

It’s true as well. And it’s against convention. People always make you believe that society can only function if people buy cars, society can only function if people spend more money. It’s wrong, because eventually the earth can’t take it anymore. We have to figure out something different. We need to have less production and more service.

Do you consider yourself political then?

I am political. But I am a little shy to develop my ideas because I am afraid that somebody will tell me, “Well you’re an idiot, what can you tell me about politics.”

In the movie, you manage to present a very strong community of people coming together to make a film. Is this your political vision?

Happiness doesn’t lie in buying products. Happiness lies in interacting with people. It’s like that dream you have: You find a treasure and then you realize you’re sleeping and you are waking up and you squeeze it and you say, “OK, maybe some is going to come with me.” And you wake up and everything is gone. When you die, that’s what’s going to happen. And the only thing that is going to be left at the last minute is the interaction of individual to individual.

There’s a quote attributed to Francis Ford Coppola that film will never be a proper art form until a camera is as cheap as pen and paper.

I agree. Nowadays everyone can buy a camera. If you can buy a car, you can buy 10 cameras. So I think we are there already.

A.J. Goldmann writes about culture from Berlin and New York. His articles have appeared in such publications as The New York Times, The Wall St. Journal and the International Herald Tribune.

By A.J. Goldmann