Michel Gondry started his career making handmade fantasies for popular performers: As an in-demand video director, he worked with everyone from Björk to The White Stripes to Beck to The Rolling Stones. He made the move to features in 2001 with the underrated, barely released Human Nature, scripted by Charlie Kaufman. They collaborated again, to wider acclaim, on 2004's Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, which won a Best Original Screenplay Oscar for their script with Pierre Bismuth. In 2006, two very different Gondry films offered further proof that his sensibility could work at feature-length: the dreamy, melancholy romantic fantasy The Science Of Sleep and the exuberant concert film Dave Chappelle's Block Party.
Chappelle was originally attached to Gondry's latest film, Be Kind Rewind, but he stepped away from the project. Like Block Party, it settles mostly on a single city block. There, Danny Glover runs a video/thrift store/Fats Waller museum, which the city is threatening to close. While Glover is away, the store's all-VHS film collection is accidentally erased, leaving manager Mos Def and local character Jack Black to keep the store afloat by remaking all the films with themselves as the stars. When The A.V. Club spoke to Gondry during a Chicago stop, he made it clear that he thought self-produced entertainment would be a fine idea.
The A.V. Club: This film largely takes place in a video store. Do you have a history with video-store culture?
Michel Gondry: No, not at all. In fact, it's more about… Of course it talks about that, but I don't want to get into a specific relationship. I have a video store next to my apartment in Paris, and they still have most of their videos on VHS. A lot of people think Be Kind Rewind is set in the past because they just wipe this reality out of their head, but it is true that there are a lot of movies that don't exist on DVD. But I'm not like a big movie buff. I like more the idea of… It's not a mere video store, it's a sort of a thrift store. In fact, he just collects his videos from the garbage. That's how Danny Glover's character made his collection. But it's more about the life of a little town, and its different communities.
AVC: Was this inspired by directing Dave Chappelle's Block Party?
MG: Yeah, completely. I had this concept for years, this kid who would remake these movies. It sort of fuses this idea I've had for years, believing that people could create their own entertainment and they would enjoy it better, because they are in it. And the film would not have to be technically achieved, because it's like watching a home movie. You don't watch it for the technique, you watch because it's reminiscing on good moments you spent with your friends. It reflects you. It belongs to you. So I was thinking people could, instead of spending their money to go and see a blockbuster, make their own movies. Collect the money and make a new one every week. I thought it would be nice to create a world that makes this construct possible.
And the thing about Dave Chappelle, Chappelle was intrigued, interested in this project for a while, and he mentioned a couple of films that we did remake: Driving Miss Daisy, Rush Hour 2, that was his idea… Boyz N The Hood as well. Which made me feel legitimate talking about some issues. I would be a little shy bringing up racial issues. But having worked with him and having him on my side made me feel, "Okay, I could talk about that. It's fine." I met Mos Def through him. I started to be more socially interested, and [interested] in using film to be a little more aware of the world. It's the first time I'm talking about something outside of the brain.
AVC: There's a line there about people becoming "stockholders of their own happiness," and it seems like ultimately people in this world will get that from making their own entertainment. At the same time, it's at least partially about people forming emotional connections to big Hollywood blockbusters. Is that just a stepping-stone for these characters to making their own film?
MG: Yes, you're right, I'm not judging the films. People make these connections through a film, or because they know them. But the fact that they erase them and have to start from scratch, I think that's an important point. A lot of kids, when they have a camera, have tended to do remakes of existing films. You have a lot of kids that make Star Wars. And I think that's creativity, but not as much creativity as starting from scratch.
It's important in the story that there's a parallel between what's happening in the film and what happened in the past with rent parties, which were very real. Fats Waller became the great musician he was through those parties. When someone could not afford the rent for one month, they'd make a party. You'd bring a dollar, and there would be a piano contest all night long. People making their own entertainment, that's exactly what it is.
AVC: When you were doing your versions of films, did you have to resist making them too inventive, or something these characters couldn't realistically create?
MG: Well, a little bit, but I pretty much indulged myself. There are a couple of scenes involving cars and big photocopies… Even to do the black and white: The camera we built that you see in the film was a VHS camera with the strings. [Black and Def make a camera that simulates scratched-up film stock. —ed.] That's the camera we used to do all the Fats Waller scenes, but it's pretty unrealistic that somebody would do that. It ended up being heavier than the film camera.
But I kind of like the idea of taking a concept and going all the way with it, even if it's not completely plausible. It's something that I like about making movies. You have a concept that maybe would not work in real life, but you can make it work in the world you're creating.
AVC: Eternal Sunshine is at least partly concerned with who controls a personal past, and how we interpret it. Is it fair to say that this explores some of the same themes on a cultural level?
MG: Maybe, but I was not really aware of it. Some people make connections between things getting erased in each film, but that's just one action that's similar. To me, it's really about people creating their own entertainment. It's more about people coming out of their home and doing something together. That was what important.
Of course, it is a comment on the idea that people fabricate what you are supposed to like, and to spend your spare time [caring about]. I find it particularly shocking that people work all week long, and then on the weekend they give their money to another big corporation. I remember reading an interview with Walt Disney, and he said how he got the idea to create Disney World. He saw his grandson playing in the sand in a little park, and he assumed he was bored. And he said he could provide him a better alternative. But what you get is, you go in this park and you spend time to queue, you have a little bit of entertainment, and then basically they try to get your money. And I truly believe his grandson was having a great time when he was playing with the sand.
When I was young, I would stay in my backyard and I would create roads and tunnels and systems. My uncle had a sawmill, and we had all sorts of pieces of wood, and we'd create a city. I truly believe that kids enjoy the box better than the car or the toy that's inside. So many times during Christmas, watching a kid, or even myself… There is excitement toward your toy, but then you put the toy on the side and something is created with the package. It's a very American thing that everything has to be a business. Americans think… I like America, or I would not be here. There are great qualities to this country. But this sense that everything has to be a business is sometimes overwhelming.
AVC: Are you heartened at all by YouTube? That would seem to connect with some of the themes of this film.
MG: A little bit. I think the tools were always available, for decades and decades, to make your own film and be creative. I don't think [people had] to wait for YouTube to do this type of small project. YouTube, I think it's great. And actually, I'm going to do something for them. They're going to give me a camera and I'm going to shoot Sundance. And I do post my stupid little things, my solving a Rubik's with my nose, or whatever. But it's very vain. Because I know if I do something smart, I'm going to have a lot of hits. And I have this idiotic satisfaction. And I think there's a bit of that in YouTube. You share, true, but it's centralized, and it's already sort of controlled. I'm more for something that's not a centralized medium. Like doing your own film and screening it yourself. You cannot control people doing that.
AVC: People use the word "whimsical" a lot to describe your work. The last time you talked to us, you spoke of the negativity you shared with Charlie Kaufman. Do you find those sensibilities in conflict in your work?
MG: No, I am not as pessimistic as Charlie. We have this pessimism we share. I wanted to make a feel-good comedy. But not really like Frank Capra. More like the Italians, like Vittorio De Sica, the more socialist [filmmakers]. Some of the American comedies are very conservative. They feel good. And they're great. But if you look at what's being said, it's really very, very conservative. [De Sica's] Miracle In Milan is a great film about this community of homeless people that create their own system. And there is an angel that comes to help them. At heart, it's really about the people. It's not about the bank or some corporation. It's really about the people.
AVC: This is your second film entirely from your own screenplay. Could you go back to collaborating with another writer?
MG: Yeah, I'm going to work with Dan Clowes. After Charlie Kaufman, it's hard to fill up the gap. It's hard to find somebody who… A lot of writers, I can clearly see the desire of succeeding before the desire of expressing themselves. Sometimes people get upset when you want to be different. You were talking about "whimsical," which is a nice word. But sometimes they use the word "quirky" in the pejorative sense. I get frustrated, because they feel like I'm doing whatever I want, and there is no ground, and I don't really care. They feel it's cynical. But I don't think I have any cynicism in me. And if I had some at some point… I hate cynicism. I wipe it from me. I don't like cynical people. I don't like cynical movies. Cynicism is very easy. You don't have to justify it. You don't have to fight for it.