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Be Kind Rewind - Rewriting the Rules

Author: Michele Manelis
Thursday, 6 March 2008
Visionary director Michel Gondry began his career making music videos for the likes of Björk, Daft punk and the White Stripes before moving onto film. Following the success of Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party and The Science Of Sleep, Gondry this time teams up with Jack Black and Mos Def for the VHS ode Be Kind Rewind Michele Manelis spoke exclusively to Gondry about his latest opus.

I spent a lovely time watching a lot of your commercials and your music videos on YouTube, especially the one with the Rubric’s Cube on your nose. That one is fantastic. But what I see is when you have just the visuals and the music you are like a fish in the water. How is it for you when you have to tell a story through an hour and a half or two hours, and then use words- How does is complicate your work-
Well it’s difficult to say. The main difference to me is I don’t have the ability to appreciate my movies the way I can appreciate my videos because they are too big, just duration and effort and everything. So I can’t really see them as one piece because I just constantly am reminded of the moment I spent doing it for each scene. So it’s very hard to treat them as a whole. As for a video, I just see one video and say, okay this is rubbish, this is good, because they are just smaller so I think I have more distance. And it’s not subject to so many opinions. I can just finish it. I don’t have to ask other people’s opinion; I know what the value is. And as for a movie in the process you go to so many voices coming from right, left, above, below telling you what they feel, trying to help you, they make you lose your perspective. So that’s my main difference.

Now in terms of the capacity of the industry I hope I have it. I think it was what interested me into doing music videos. I thought it was a good medium to tell small stories even if they were not necessarily using words they still always have a thread, a continuity. I mean, none of my video you could watch 10 seconds and appreciate them. You have to watch them from the beginning to the ending because I never wanted to repeat myself. I always wanted to lead to something from the beginning to the end. So I always was into a sort of narration and I think I developed this quality and as well, hopefully I developed the quality of giving an access direct a familiar access of the artist to the audience. So either if it’s a singer or if it’s an actor I think my work was always participating to help the audience to communicate or to feel equal or feel acquainted or feel engaged into the persona I’m shooting. So basically making myself sort of invisible as an intermediary between the actor and the audience.

And I think it was always important to me because I hated all the commercial, especially the videos that were empowering the artist, like cultivating a mythology of the rock star, or whatever was in vogue. I have fought that, I hated that and I put all my heart into showing people in a different perspective, like horizontal. So I hope it’s there on film. And I think that even if the films are uneven, are not perfect – I’m still learning – I don’t betray my conviction and my belief when I’m doing them. I don’t ease into the easy way. I’m trying to empower myself by… I mean I have a lot of ethics that I think I respect when I do movies.

If you feel so safe making these videos, what is in the big videos, in the movies, that you like, that you expose yourself to-
Well you said it yourself, I don’t like to be safe because if you’re safe you don’t learn. I like to be in that job and I like when I shoot people to put them in danger, not physical danger, but danger of not doing what they know because I always think people are the best when they are stepping into a new territory because they don’t use the craft. They are learning in the process but there is something pure about producing as you’re learning. So that’s why I want to do film.

Of course there is more than that. There is the fact that people sitting together in a dark room watching a movie and I think a lot of people get inspired by what they see and they get inspired by videos too but the face of the screen gets smaller and smaller. Now it’s big like that literally because the only way you can watch videos is YouTube. So the difference is even bigger than it ever was.

And a movie can become a kind of icon. Like you are working with icons in this movie, you know like Ghostbusters, does it matter really what was in Ghostbusters- You say Ghostbusters and people are connecting with some kind of idea. Then if you have to explain a video it’s harder: ‘Oh remember that video that you saw years ago on television-’
I do that all the time. People ask me, how did you get the idea on this video- And I just remember because now I’m trained because I’ve been asked so many times this question, to remember what clicked in my head when I got this idea. Because I put a lot of effort I think in everything I do, but I remember the effort and I can tell exactly how the idea came to me. And as well because I take pride in being innovative, not copying, not imitating and sometimes I have to prove to people the process of how I got the idea, to justify that it was coming from me because they assume that a video director is somebody who takes images that exist already and recycles them, which I don’t do. So I remember, even if it’s far in the past, I remember the moment when the idea came to me.

In general, how do ideas come to you-
One simple thing I noticed is a lot of times I use this moment of sort of disbelief. When you see a shape, for instance, when you hear a word that you don’t understand. Your brain is used to seeing, let’s say this, I know it’s a bottle because you see water, obviously a shape. You have to see all the detail to understand what you’re looking at. But if you see that at a distance, you may look at something differently. Your brain is not going to connect directly to what it is so you’re going to scroll into many options before you find. Even you’re not going to find until you get next to it.

I like this state of things where you have to wrack your brain to figure out what things are. I force myself not to go close, but to stay at a distance and say, oh it could be this it could be that, it could be that. And all those shapes I imagine, I consider they are my creations because my brain constructed them in a way to insert my conscience at this moment. And it’s the same thing a lot of times I misunderstand something that people tell me and I think, oh that’s such a great idea. And I just realise, oh it was a complete misunderstanding. It’s not what he said. And then I’ll say, okay well then it’s my idea. It’s how I came to hear it. It’s like if you play a song and you play it in a way that is completely reverse and distorted then you hear a new melody. This is new. I heard, for instance, that people in Jamaica invented reggae music because they would hear rhythm and blues from Memphis with a very bad reception so they inverted the one and three, which is the regular beat to the back beat, which is two and four and they reversed it. So I like the misinterpretation and the effort the brain makes to recreate something that’s confusing.

So that’s one of the things. The other thing is associating two things that click into something new. From dreams I have a lot of ideas. I think the emotion in dreams is really pure and abstract and I like to reuse them into stories I want to tell. Like for instance, I dream of a thriller like some very dark feeling. I think this would be a great illustration for this moment in the story I want to tell. So I have a lot of sources of ideas.

What role does the sound play in the way you work this image- Because you have something very specific, you come from music originally. If you check there are so many great directors that are also musicians, it’s very interesting. Like Clint Eastwood or I don’t know if you are familiar with Alejandro Amenábar, the Spanish director who also composes his own music- And many directors told me that music and sound has a lot of impact.
I have to detach myself from this function when I become a director, especially when I was editing myself. I have this tendency to believe that it has to be on the beat. I mean it’s very trivial and very plain answer, but it’s a good example. And I have to learn to forget about the beat to loosen my editing. Of course it took me to work with other editors and myself, [to] forget about the beat, forget about the music. Then now when I write I use music a lot to get into some sort of mood that inspires me. Some type of music would give me a feeling of action, some type of music would give me a feeling of mystery, of nostalgia, of going back home, of being love. I use music for that but it doesn’t mean I’m going to use this music after in the film.

Let me go back to when you were 12 years old. What did you want to be- A musician-

I thought I would be either a painter or inventor. And I think I missed being a painter because I missed understanding modern art early enough. An inventor I missed doing stronger studies. I had concept of different things but to make them in practice I didn’t have the scientific background.

When I bought my first camera in 1985 or 6, which was a Bolex 16mm camera, and I did my first shot film, just an animation. It’s in DVD; it’s called Bolide [a music video for the song of the same name by Gondry’s first band, Oui Oui]. I realised that it was a combination of the best I could get from my brain. And I felt really okay that I could do that for the rest of my life and feel happy about it. So it’s interesting because I can refer to this moment when I have doubts of, what am I doing- Is it what I want to do- Because I know I want to use the biggest part of my brain possible and I know that when I move into doing that from being a musician or painter I expanded the capacity, the use of the surface of my cortex in a great way. I mean, probably it’s still a very little part of my brain I’m using, but I feel I’m using much more now than I did before I was a director.

Do you know that idea that we only use like 10 percent of our brain-


They found out it’s not true.
It’s not true-

It’s a good idea. It’s a very poetic idea, but we…
…we use much more.

We use all of it.
All right, but if you shut your brain in half you can still function very close to what you are.

If you could be a good inventor and a good musician and a good painter, what is the part when you are making a movie where you have to make a really big effort, because there are so many arts into making movies-
Well I’m not sure I understand exactly your question. Are you trying to tell me that telling stories is my big challenge- That’s what you believe-

No, no. This is a question for you, and I’m not suggesting anything. Like, I think that you are a genius on many levels. Where I stand in front of you, and now I say, Michel Gondry, and I look at your stuff and I go, Wow! But I am not you, so I don’t know what comes easy to you. Perhaps making a great image, to me I think, oh that must be easy for him and you break your head.

So just being very honest. When I do a video I have an idea, I have a feeling this idea is right, I have the solution to do it, and then I’m going to go into execution mode, and I’m going to ignore my fear. Because right after I have the doubts that come and these doubts are counteracting my productivity and the realization of this idea. And I know how to block it because I know now I’m in execution mode so I’m not letting my self-doubts of the variability of my idea and the quality my idea. Otherwise I would never do anything.

When I do movies this is such a bigger scale. Then it’s harder to block this feeling of doubt. When I write the story, when I prepare the film, when I shoot it it’s a little different because there’s so many contingency and so many physical difficulties to overcome. I don’t have time to doubt. I doubt but I’m already in the moment. Then when you’re back to the editing it’s back again, this doubt. So that’s my main challenge. It’s to keep doing what I have to do and blocking this feeling of doubt, this voice telling me this is useless, this is poor, this is failing. Not letting this voice stop me from continuing to do what I’m doing. That’s my big challenge.

About this stuff on YouTube that I found, how do you take it that people are making fun of you and creating fakes… have you seen those-
Yes, yes. It’s funny. I like that. I saw a kid trying to do a Rubic’s Cube with his nose. He was just rubbing his nose on the Rubic’s Cube; it was really cute. I do those things maybe for sort of looking for fame. I started to work with directors who were like hiding from the camera, but I didn’t feel the way they were hiding was from modesty. I think they were over-egotistic in fact. So they wanted to create a mystery and I didn’t like that. But I don’t judge them. I think I don’t like that for me.

I said I’m somebody shy. I was very shy in the beginning – I’m less now through my work and I thought I want people to know that it’s me doing what I’m doing for several reasons. One reason was, my mother always told me that if you’re an artist you’re just channelling, you’re just an execution for God, or whatever. I resented this idea because I say you have to get the reward of what you’re creating to stimulate your creativity. And it sounds like an ego thing, but to me it’s just healthy stuff. You did a drawing. If people like your drawing that’s your doing. It’s not somebody else’s doing. You did it and you deserve to get credited for it. So I have this statement to start with.

Then there are different ways to finance your film. Either you ask for a famous actor to be in your movie, or either you’re the famous person and then you don’t have to ask anyone. Basically you are the one who is financing the film because people know who you are. So I decided after my two first movies, where it was very difficult to make my way through the other persons who are making the film – either the actor, the writer – that very little was back to me. I decided, okay I’m going to demand my name is on the poster. I’m going to put myself up front because I think this way I can make a movie on them. Of course I’m going to face criticism much more because I’m exposed, but I’m doing a film, it’s my movie and that’s my ticket to being independent. It goes through exposing myself. So I’m doing all this work, and that’s why I’m doing those YouTube scenes, those things that seem completely silly. And it’s just fun. I spend literally three minutes to do those things. Other people spend more time to help me to put them together. But I do the scenes and it’s funny because sometimes I think, oh you would not see Peter Jackson doing that because he simply has no time to do it. And maybe it’s true and he’s much more successful than I am.

It’s funny, I only watched the Rubic’s Cube video because somebody criticised how you did it. And they posted – you see it in the back – that…
Yes, yes I know it’s funny. This guy got a lot of feedback criticising. But I got two million hits on my nose doing the Rubic’s Cube, which is pretty amazing. But I mean I do that because I kind of like the way it’s stupid; it’s just funny. I don’t have much explanation why I’m doing that to be honest.

I think it’s great. You should keep doing that. About one of the ads that you did for Hewlett-Packard, did you work yourself on the computer creating effects-

No, I think one day I decided that okay, I should not ignore the computer technology and that was in 1989. It was pretty early on. And it was a self-aware decision to say I cannot just ignore that because it’s going to become so big. I have to be part of it. I never really operated the machine myself, to be honest. From the beginning I always have somebody operating with me. But I always have a perspective on how to use the machine in different ways. I think that’s when effects are interesting, is when you use the machine the wrong way. I remember this interview of David Bowie talking about when he would receive all his brand new keyboard in the ’70s, he would say the most fun was to use them in the wrong way to get the sound they are not supposed to deliver. And I feel the same way with the computer, the special effects machines.

You mentioned that after Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind you decided to go this other way, to be more independent and to create your own stuff. What would have been the other way- I mean, what can people offer you after that-

Well a lot of studio movies, but I just don’t see what corresponds to me in the story and the characters. They like me but they select me for the wrong reason. So they think for instance that I’m cool, so if they get something a little weak I’m going to compensate with my vision, my coolness to bring it to a sort of trend level. But I don’t think I’m cool at all. Before I started doing music videos I was considered being totally un-cool. And when I did Human Nature I was completely un-cool. And I’m kind of happy about that, that I never went from the place of being cool. I’ve always been rejected from the trendy discothèque in France; always I have to go to the tacky one because I would not get let in the trendy ones.

How difficult is it to handle so much success that you had with that movie-

So many women! No. I don’t feel I have so much success and you know, comparing to Peter Jackson, he has one million times my box office. And I think I’m very much overrated in terms of my success, which is maybe the work I’m going trying to get people to believe I am successful. And the handling part is just a doubt to ignore, the difficult part to handle.

And about language, have you seen The Diving Bell and the Butterfly-
No. It’s my teacher who did Sounds of Sleep who did this movie.

You have to watch it.
Yes, I’m going to see it.

But the thing is, I wonder why you went to your own language in The Science of Sleep and then why…-
I was not. It’s mostly English, The Sounds of Sleep.

But it had some French parts.
Very, very little – like 20 per cent.

Okay, then let me rephrase the question, why don’t you do movies in French-
In France-

In French.
I think I have a little safety layer by using a foreign language. I have more freedom because I have the excuse of being naïve. Same thing with interviews, it’s a little easier for me to do an interview in English because you’re going to translate my bad phrasing into something better. If we speak in French it’s going to sound corny sometimes.

A little bit of that. I train myself to speak a little better than I used to. I’m okay, I speak decently, but I certainly would like to speak better, and using a foreign language gives me an excuse. American people have this huge complex, they don’t speak French for some reason. I’m not saying they have to but they will never blame me for speaking poor English.

I say that because in the case of The Diving Bell, that movie was going to be in English and they made it in French and it made a huge difference.

Well the writer was French.

Yes, but I see it’s a good excuse why you don’t.
Well it helped me and as well I didn’t feel welcome to do a movie in France in the first place.

Not at all. And I’m still struggling. I mean I’m gaining over the intellectual side of the reviews, little by little, movie after movie, slowly. But I had a huge opposition at the beginning as coming from the pop culture. Very, very big resistance, which I didn’t have in America.

WHAT: Be Kind Rewind
WHEN: In cinemas 20 March