A Big-Studio Release That's All About Home-Grown Cinema

With Be Kind Rewind, Michel Gondry hasn’t set his prodigious imagination and leanings towards fantasy aside. However, for the first time, he’s grounded one of his films in working-class reality, while still including conceits like a man whose magnetized presence erases VHS tapes. Set in a VHS-only store in New Jersey, it follows Mike (Mos Def) and Jerry (Jack Black), who begin remaking films – “sweding,” in the film’s terminology – like Ghostbusters and Rush Hour on tiny budgets, after Jerry accidentally destroys the store’s stock. Mostly shot in 35mm, it uses low-grade video to represent Mike and Jerry ¹s achievements. Perhaps the most surprising thing about it is the way it gradually evolves into a utopian celebration of DIY, community-based filmmaking, as Mike and Jerry turn from remakes to a film about jazz pianist Fats Waller. You’re not likely to see a studio release with a more irreverent attitude towards using copyrighted material as a springboard for original creativity.
F&V: Be Kind Rewind was shot in 35mm, but I was curious if you ever thought of shooting it all on video.
Michel Gondry: I’d like to make the sequel on video. When we shot the film about Fats Waller, we tried to recreate the ’30s with the capacity of someone living in New Jersey, without access to costume houses and trying to work with whatever’s available. Even though it’s shot on video today, I think there’s an energy that is closer to the era of Waller. What you’re saying is maybe that there’s a contradiction between how the film is executed and what it says, but for me, it was important that it was a celebration of broad comedy. The movies that people ask to be sweded are made for a wide audience. I’m not trying to say movies should be made this way or that way. My point is that if people make their own movies, they will enjoy them more. They will be proud of something they contributed to.

There are a number of films that have parallels to what your characters do, like a remake of Raiders of the Lost Ark made by teenagers in the ’80s. Have you seen them?
I’ve heard of Raiders of the Lost Ark: The Adaptation. After I sat down to write Be Kind Rewind, I was a little let down by hearing about it because it seemed too close to my ideas. There were two things that inspired me. One was an idea I had when I moved to Paris. I had a dream to gather people around and give them cameras. We would shoot a scene under certain limitations and then have a screening with the same people who made the film. People would contribute the price of a ticket, and the money would go to the next film’s budget. Each week, we’d have a new movie about the neighborhood. Then, years ago, when I watched the Planet of the Apes series, I noticed that all the sequels were smaller in budget, but in some ways, they were more daring than the original. The third one, Escape From the Planet of the Apes, was shot in Century City. It’s very futuristic, it’s very hardcore and politically incorrect. They had much less money. Now Hollywood has mastered making more and more expensive sequels. I wanted to go back in time and make a sequel that’s much cheaper than the original. Those two ideas led me to Be Kind Rewind.

Do you find it ironic to make a film for a major studio that celebrates independent filmmaking?
It’s a negative pick-up, not a film developed by a studio. It was completely developed on my own. At the same time, I’d like to reach a wide audience and inspire people to make films on their own. I’m using money from Hollywood to express something critical of the system. That’s the benefit and danger of democracy. You can use it to have your voice heard even if you say something against democracy. I don’t think I’m the bad guy in this story. It’s a very important question. You can find popular, big-budget films that still say something critical. Vittorio de Sica’s Miracle in Milan is a movie about poor people but made with a good amount of money. I’m not saying I’m a revolutionary, but I’m trying to use the system on my own terms. If I had made a concession in the story to please the studio or audience, it would be a contradiction worth complaining about.

Was it difficult to make the Ghostbusters remake look so amateurish? What kind of camera did you shoot it with?
We had a VHS camera that we found. The characters have to reload them constantly, so we needed this type of camera. A lot of the images of the films-within-the-films were really shot by the actors. It was not difficult. My actors were trying to act too much during the remakes. There’s a tendency for actors to overestimate their capacities. In a lot of movies when you see an actor trying to act bad or nonprofessional, he overacts. It makes it very unfunny. I kept telling my actors when we were doing the remakes, to be as good as they could be.

There’s a very complicated scene which shows a number of clips from Mike and Jerry’s films, all performed live, that looks like it was shot in one take. Was it? How were you able to do it?
There’s one little cut at the end, but all the rest is was one take. I had developed this technique on my music videos. It’s a complex system where the camera follows a specific route. It’s all planned in storyboards and drawings. At first, it seemed unachievable. The first take lasted 20 minutes because an actor appears in one scene, hides behind the camera, waits and has to appear in another scene later in the shot. At the end of the day, it took five minutes. Editing in camera allows you to get more energy from the crew. They understand how they can work better because they see the results immediately.

Do you feel nostalgic for analog technology?
A little bit, but I’m resisting it. What interests me is that technology filters down to poor people. If you go to a poor neighborhood, you will see cars from the ’80s. Reviewers have criticized me for showing an all-VHS store, but I think it’s possible that one might exist in a working-class neighborhood. I don’t like the idea that videotapes don’t exist anymore because they’re not being sold by corporations. You shouldn’t destroy your VCR because the quality of DVD is better. I like to look at what’s modern in history. That’s why I picked Fats Waller. His music hasn’t aged. It’s out of fashion, out of time. If you look at things that have dated, they’re trying to be a product of their time without being truly modern. If you look at the ’80s, you can see bands like Duran Duran and think, “Oh, the ’80s were horrible,” but that’s the wrong idea. At the same time, there were creative people like the Talking Heads. Their modernity remains forever.

Do you think Be Kind Rewind will inspire people to “swede” films on their own?
Probably. They’re already doing it. But I would prefer people not to copy films but to create their own stories. That’s much more interesting.

Apart from Dave Chappelle’s Block Party, all your films have strong fantasy elements. Do you see yourself making another documentary or a film closer to reality?
Gondry: Sure. I feel more comfortable with fantasy because it’s how my mind evolved. With Be Kind Rewind, the premise is fantastic, but there’s still a sense of the life of a community. I’d like to go further, explore places that aren’t talked about. I love Mike Leigh and Ken Loach and other directors of realistic films.