Oscar-winning director Michel Gondry has an affinity for cliché characters. There’s the sensitive, artsy girl-next-door with the hot friend in his The Science of Sleep. Note the hair-dyed bohemian and the quack doctor in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Yet Gondry has a knack for emotional development, moving his heroes beyond first impressions and into the complexity of genuine human thought and feeling.
So when you see Jack Black in Gondry’s latest flick playing a paranoid, annoying creep, who almost looks like he’s got Down syndrome, grin and bear it because the cliché fades. In Be Kind Rewind, Black plays Jerry, the loser best friend who harasses sane and sanitary Mike (Mos Def) who works in a video store. After Jerry accidentally erases the tapes, the two decide to remake popular movies against the dingy set of their New Jersey neighborhood.
A girl interrupts the pair’s Harold-and-Kumar style camaraderie. Alma (Melonie Diaz) is the adorable, no-nonsense female recruited to perform women’s roles in the remakes. Her gold Baby Phat earrings and uncertain dynamic with Def ease the action into its pivotal emotional point: The neighborhood lines up to shell out for the duo’s increasingly popular tapes, but it might not be enough to save the store from being demolished and relocated. The trio’s productions become an instrument of community, knitting bonds between neighbors who share the urge to see people like themselves on their TVs.
The film is chock full of Gondry’s characteristic whimsical apparatuses: creations built from junkyard parts serve as sets or special effects for the comedic movie retellings. But the more whimsical creation is Gondry’s stylized, cheery community; it’s barely believable. The ultimate result of the three heroes’ battle for brotherhood just barely propels Gondry’s cliché, merry neighborhood into genuineness.
Overall rating: A-
NBN spoke with Gondry about his new film. Caution: spoilers ahead!
NBN: How did you choose Melonie Diaz to play Alma?
Gondry: I needed somebody who would feel real, who would have the right energy and spontaneity to match with the odd couple created by Jack and Mos. It was a very difficult gap to fill. I saw her in Raising Victor Vargas and she was brilliant, so real. And she’s pretty, but she doesn’t look like a Hollywood star.
NBN: Why do you leave some of the film’s emotional issues unresolved, like the tension between Mike and Alma, and between Mike and his surrogate father?
Gondry: We had the resolution with Alma and Mike where they were kissing, but we found it inappropriate, so we cut it out. I think I cannot really solve the whole situation — I think it comes together at the end because the city came to watch the film, and they all gathered together. I wanted that to be the main message.
NBN: It seemed that the endings of Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine seemed unhappy — and then you think about it and you realize it was happy. In this film, I felt like it was the exact opposite because the ending shot is so joyful. Then, you realize that, in fact, the movie store and this little group of people are about to be ejected from the community.
Gondry: I like the way you interpret it. I think a lot of people believe the building will be saved, but, in fact, I like your interpretation better because it is more about the fact that they get together. If you feel they’re going to be ejected and you’re sad about it, I achieved my goal since you realize that they have some pressures. In this film, because this is not reality, it is more important that you as a person think you’re going to miss them because you feel for them. I like to feel emotionally resolved but not factually or intellectually because it keeps it open to discussion but you feel you’ve reached the end of the story when you end the film.
NBN: What film would you make or what props would you use if there were no budget constraints — if you could do the most expensive thing in the world?
Gondry: I’d like to do a science fiction movie and really change the world around the characters completely. But my brain always tries to find solutions to make it inexpensive! I’d like to do a science fiction movie, and I’d like to use an airport as a city because they look like the city will look in the future where everything is recreated for a function and is collected together in a specific way. So stopping an airport from functioning for a couple days and redressing it as a city would be a lot of fun to do.
NBN: Your films ride the line between drama and comedy. Do you think it’s dangerous for people to take themselves too seriously?
Gondry: Well, yeah. I think humor is very important. It’s a great value or tool to express deep feelings and it’s sort of like being naked in a way. It’s so nice I think… I don’t like cynicism and I think I see my nature as unpretentious. If I don’t have humor it can become really ridiculous. I think you need a bit of humor in general — in every situation.
NBN: How do your own emotional states inspire or affect your films?
Gondry: A lot. Maybe not so much in this one, but in general, the emotion is just like when you hear music, and you feel you’re in a special place. I wake up from a sudden dream, like I did this morning, and if I were writing a scene, I would have the direction. It would give me a background, a direction to write it in a certain mood, so I am very attentive to my own emotions, and I use them when I create a story.
NBN: Do you have final cut privilege?
Gondry: Well, I had it twice, and I didn’t have it twice. It didn’t make a lot of difference because, at the end of the day, you really make a film with other people, you don’t make your own film. A couple of different parts in this one, I said ‘I’m sorry I have the final cut and I’ll stick to it.’ And, of course, my producer would say, ‘Well, we don’t want to be against you just because we want to fight for the film.’ And they can make a lot of pressure, but, generally, my job is to find what’s good about outside suggestions and try to use them as much as possible to help the film. If I feel they’re against the film, I would tend to resist them. But like [with] Eternal Sunshine, I didn’t have the final cut, but I don’t think I would have changed anything if I’d had it. I don’t like the idea that people make their own version of the film years later, if there was a conflict. I think most of the time if you pick the right person, you make the same film, and you work with the same energy and the same direction.
NBN: Other filmmakers like Werner Herzog have said that hyperbole is a better way to tell the truth than telling the truth itself. Do you agree?
Gondry: It’s interesting, I thought of that when I read Maus by Art Spiegelman, the Holocaust story done as a comic book with all the characters wearing the face of animals. I thought that was a most vivid expression of Holocaust memory because of the distance that was created by the drawing. So I think that kind of reflects what Werner Herzog says.
When it is a movie, you know it’s going to be makeup, actors, [and] you know it is going to pretend that they’re starving when they are all people having a comfortable life in real life. So, I sort of agree. But you know every director has their own truth and they’re interesting to hear, but you have to find your own truth. I like to hear what people have to say, but I think as a director, as an artist, or as a person, you have to be able to reason, to contradict strong statements. Otherwise, only charismatic people would have their voices heard, [and] only charismatic people are not necessarily the most interesting people.
NBN: Do you have your eye on any actors for the future?
Gondry: For some reason I’ve been thinking of Vince Vaughn lately. I’ve always liked him since he did his first movie. Now he is slowly becoming a more and more important actor. He didn’t lose anything he had when he started. I want to work with him, Bill Murray, Steve Martin… funny people who have the dimension to be dramatic as well. I wanted to do a movie with Bjork, but she got burnt out with Last Frontiers. Last Frontiers, that’s a good way to put it for her. I think she would have been great — she was great in his movie but she really didn’t like the process.
NBN: Do you have any advice for aspiring filmmakers?
Gondry: Generally when I’m asked this question I give two pieces of advice. The first one is to finish your project and the second one is to start it. So it looks like a contradiction — you cannot finish it before you start it. But it is in terms of importance, not in terms of chronology. Of course you have to start your project, if you want to finish it! But starting is the second most difficult thing, the first most difficult thing is to finish it, because you have so much doubt once you start and so many reasons you give yourself to stop, that you really have to separate the inspirational mode from the executional mode.
A lot of people think you don’t have to make concessions, that you have to be really true to your art. But I think it’s important to make concessions. It’s one thing that I always quote from Spielberg, which obviously is totally reflected in Be Kind Rewind. It’s, “As a filmmaker you always have to take advantage of your limitations.” And that is one of the best pieces of advice I’ve heard.
NBN: What was the best movie that came out last year?
Gondry: I don’t have this type of judgment because I don’t look at them all. I remember watching Maria Full of Grace and really being impressed with it and loving it, and I saw Superbad and I really liked it.
How do you feel about doing these interviews?
Gondry: It’s exhausting. Most people come in and ask how I came up with this concept and I try to give a slightly different answer each time, because I don’t want to repeat the same sentence. I’m trying not to lie at the same time. So I dig a little deeper to find, ‘was there exactly this reason why I did this movie?’ or ‘was it this moment that made me do this film?’ So I try to dig deeper and find different answers. Ultimately that gives me ideas to do more films and understand maybe what I’m good at, what I’m a little weak at, and I try to get the best of it.
NBN: I might as well ask it then. How did you get your idea?
Gondry: I’ll try to find an answer that I didn’t give to anyone. I liked the idea that two guys, two people, make a big mistake. They’re trying to fix the problem in the most absurd way. In the process they become creative against all the odds, and successful against all the odds and against all logic. I wanted to talk a little bit about community, and talk about things I believe could work if people were given the chance.