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Sundance Q&A: Michel Gondry

The ”Be Kind Rewind” director talks about the unusual concept behind his movie, shooting in Jersey, and more

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Jack Black, Michel Gondry
Amy Sancetta/AP

This afternoon marks the Sundance premiere of Be Kind Rewind, the latest from French director Michel Gondry, and having seen it at an early screening in L.A., I can report that this fantasy — opening Feb. 22 at a theater near you — bears all the hallmarks of previous Gondry features like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: sweet-natured characters, romantic concepts, excessive gadgetry, and visual tricks simultaneously lo-fi and wondrous. Starring Jack Black, Mos Def, Danny Glover, Mia Farrow, and official Sundance 2008 Overachiever Melonie Diaz (who has four films at this year’s fest), it might be Gondry’s most mainstream movie yet…but I might just be basing that on Jack Black’s presence. Because, let’s be honest, the movie’s pretty bizarre.

Set in Passaic, New Jersey (and featuring many members of the local community), Be Kind is the story of Jerry (Black) and Mike (Mos Def), friends of the weirdest order. Mike works at the decrepit local video store, and after a series of events far too kooky to relate here involving a grappling hook and a power plant, Jerry becomes magnetic, and manages to erase every tape in the joint. To save the store, the two guys team up with Alma, a neighboring dry cleaner (Diaz), and start reshooting the movies themselves, in a process they call ”Sweding.” (Take a minute to visit the movie’s website, where Sweding is explained, sort of, by Black, and also where you can watch clips of Sweded movies such as Ghostsbusters and Rush Hour 2).

Here, Gondry explains the origins of Sweding, how this movie ended up in Passaic, and his primary focus as a director…which might not be what you think.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: So how did you come up with ”Sweding” as the term for the process of reshooting these movies?
MICHEL GONDRY: We wanted a word that meant nothing. It’s not even from the country. I thought of Ultrasuede, this texture that is an imitation of suede. It’s a nice sort of velvety, artificial texture. It fit — how do you say ”fit” in the past?

I think ”fit” still works. Or ”fitted.”
[Laughs] Oh, okay. It ”fitted” the meaning of what they were doing. And I think when Jack sort of improvised, he mentioned the country, and so it became ”Sweded” like the country. In the beginning, we had the word ”pimped” — ”pimp” the video — but we decided it would sound very dated.

Do you think it would be possible to Swede Be Kind Rewind? I hear you’ve sort of done it on the website.
Yeah, I did the trailer. But if some director were interested, I would love to see their version.

Would you do a Web contest or something, where people could send submissions?
I would do something on the Web, but not a contest, because I think the idea of Sweding is against contests. It’s interesting, because in London, they want me to judge — they have done a competition of Sweding things, and they picked the six best and they want me to judge them. And the whole idea of Sweding is not to be judged. So there is no competition. I know it’s fascinating for people to think they’re gonna be the best, but the idea is really not that. The idea is just participating. So I’m going to elect the six things together. I don’t want to encourage competition.

I think that’s nice. And one thing I did like is the sweetness that runs through the movie. These characters could be construed as sort of stupid, but they’re so sweetly sincere —
That’s like me. I’m stupid, but I’m sincere.

But they’re very smart with what they do. Tell me who these people are.
First of all, I went to Passaic because the mechanic who’s worked on my different projects worked there. And I went to meet this sort of place, this junkyard with a power plant next to it. And my mechanic actually is in the film. And he’s such a genius at making things out of garbage. I always ask him to make — like one time I did a video for the Willowz, and the story was a homeless guy who collects garbage, and made a car that runs and can go all over the place. And it’s a dream I always had to construct my own car. So I went there, I saw where he was working, and got my idea how Jack would be magnetized. So when I looked around, all the location was perfect. The community was great. It was like some Polish, some African-American, and some Hispanic. It was very balanced. It seems to be good-spirited. And we asked a lot of people to participate in the shooting. We didn’t want to intrude and not give them anything to do. So I really had to find a way to include them in the film.

And so all those kids that help with the Sweding are from the neighborhood?
Yes, yes.

Do you think if you took your three lead characters and plopped them down in, like, Cleveland, they could survive? Or do they need that bizarre Passaic community to fit in?
In some ways, they’re a good representation of America, so I think they’d survive. It’s not a very easy background, where they are. Passaic is a nice town, but, I mean, it’s not much [to look at] in the film — I’m not bashing the city — so I think they really create a sense of community. So if they’re capable of creating that here, they’d be capable of creating it in another place. In the beginning, their goal is not to get people together, but I think they become aware of it, especially Alma, and she gets them to be motivated to continue doing things. They become aware of it after a while.

[The furniture store where our interview is taking place is being overrun by large men setting up for a future party.]

I think we’re being kicked out of here, so last question: This movie is equal parts technical wizardry and tricks, and small, sentimental moments. Do you enjoy more doing all the gadgets and putting things together, or working with the actors on character work, and getting those real moments?
I like working with the actors on the character, and finding a way to get these relationships on a very familiar level. Meaning, like, I always want to imagine that the person I’m shooting is part of my family, like my cousin, my brother, my aunt. It’s important for me to establish this relationship, because I think ultimately, no matter how good or bad the filming, I think for me the most important thing is that people feel they are not looking up or down at the character, they’re looking at an equal level. So that’s my main focus when I’m shooting. Even though I really enjoy doing all the little gadgets, they can be good motivation, but my primary goal has always been to establish that relationship, and it always has been, even when I was doing animation. I want to use the medium to encourage people to be closer to each other, to be creating. But not to be portraying myself as the big director, a hero.

You’d be okay with that a little.
Well, if I can find a nice girlfriend through this process, it’s okay.