NEW YORK — Embark on a trip to the Tribeca office of Michel Gondry, inarguably one of the most wildly imaginative filmmakers working today, and you might conjure up visions of an “Alice in Wonderland”-inspired lair. Perhaps there would be a series of artisans creating an oversize shoe made of nothing but CD covers or something similarly and deliciously absurd. Really, though, it’s just an office with desks and workers, like any other.
Still, at the center of it all is the inspired and slightly eccentric madman himself. The 44-year-old French director welcomed MTV into his lair after screening for us the finished print of his latest film, “Be Kind Rewind” (set for release January 2008), a work many are calling his most mainstream yet (see “Jack Black Playing Muhammad Ali? Hit ‘Rewind’ And You’ll See” ). That’s not too difficult a label to affix after previous work like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” wherein Jim Carrey has his memories erased in the middle of the night by a stoned Mark Ruffalo, or “The Science of Sleep,” a very personal trip of a flick most memorable for a scene in which star Gael Garcia Bernal runs around with giant hands.
“Be Kind Rewind” is accessible, though, if for no other reason than the comforting comic presence of Jack Black, in a role that fits him to a T. Here, the “School of Rock” star is Jerry, a childlike doofus who becomes magnetized and mistakenly erases all the VHS tapes at the video store his friend Mike (a winning Mos Def) has been charged with minding while the boss (Danny Glover) is away. The three leads are rounded out by newcomer Melonie Diaz in a role that was offered to past Gondry collaborator Kirsten Dunst early on (see “What’s Jack Black’s Role In Michel Gondry’s Next Film? Pick One …” ).
What happens next is what makes the film both high-concept and, well, Gondry-ish. Jerry and Mike decide that the only way to keep Be Kind Rewind (the store shares the name of the film) going is to re-create movies on their own, in a decidedly low-rent style. Montages of hilariously demented versions of everything from “Ghostbusters” to “The Lion King” ensue. The director summed it up thusly: “It’s about two guys trying to cover their mistake in the most absurd way, and in the process [they] get overwhelmed. It’s a typical story. By mistake someone becomes a hero.” Yes, it doesn’t take a subscription to Variety to figure out that their hare-brain scheme works better than anticipated.
Without a doubt, the re-created movies will be the most talked-about aspect of “Be Kind,” and it’s the element that is most characteristic of Gondry’s work. “I like to make things with garbage,” he said without a note of embarrassment. All five of his films have possessed a made-from-scratch aesthetic that can’t be mistaken for any other filmmaker’s. Here, his two protagonists use much of that can-do Gondry attitude to save the day.
Finding the right films to re-create was not without its challenges. Gondry admits that he was unable to gain permission to film his versions of “Back to the Future” or “Superman” (though he says if you look carefully, you’ll see a flying man in the background at one point). Many of the films Jerry and Mike re-create are classics from the ’80s, an era for which Gondry clearly has affection. He lit up at the suggestion that the film itself recalls the era: “There is a sense of enterprise in this that is very much like an ’80s film.”
It’s not just the plot that harkens back two decades. “Ghostbusters” star Sigourney Weaver has an extended cameo in the film. It’s an appearance that Gondry relished. “She came on the set, and we had shot already the re-enactment of ‘Ghostbusters.’ We showed it to her and she was very moved by it,” he said with pride.
Gondry cites two ideas that inspired “Be Kind Rewind.” One came from his realization that the old practice of remaking films and creating sequels on smaller budgets back in the 1960s wasn’t always so bad. “After the first ‘Planet of the Apes,’ they all got cheaper, but sometimes they became more interesting. I thought, ‘Let’s take that process and push it even more,” he said.
The other source of inspiration for the film goes all the way back to Gondry’s home country. He recalls, “When I was in Paris in the 1980s, I was living in 18th arrondissement, which was the one with the most theaters. And they all got shut down. And I thought, ‘One day I’m going to revive one of these theaters and create a community among the neighbors. We would shoot anything we want and finance it ourselves.’ ”
“Be Kind Rewind” is set in Passaic, New Jersey (“Passaic” sounds poetic in Gondry’s heavy accent). While not exactly a mecca for filmmaking, Passaic represented exactly the kind of melting-pot town Gondry felt was perfect for a flick all about community. Of course, even the way Gondry found the setting was uniquely random: “We decided to shoot there because my mechanic, who plays one of the mechanics in the movie, works there. I went to visit him once, and I saw this body shop/ junkyard next to this freeway. It was this little town that was very friendly with Polish, Dominican and African Americans.”
Passaic, Gondry explained, is a long way off from the “white suburb in France” where he grew up, a place he says “had no sense of community at all.” After working on “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party,” Gondry said he began to understand what community can mean. “Be Kind Rewind” is a continuation of that.
In the end, the true heart of “Be Kind Rewind” lies in Mos Def’s Mike, a good-natured worker for his mentor at the store. Mike idolizes jazz musician Fats Waller, whose story has been passed on to him by Glover and figures prominently in the final act of the story. For Gondry, who himself grew up idolizing greats like Waller and Duke Ellington, the link to jazz is clear. His filmmaking is all about the balance between structure and improvisation on the set. Gondry calls Waller a “punk,” and it’s clear he could put himself in the same category.
Of course, he’s been a punk who’s had some big-name collaborators on his side, from Björk to Charlie Kaufman. “Eternal Sunshine,” one of the most acclaimed films of the last decade, has clearly been a tough act to follow for Gondry as the specter of Kaufman (who penned that memorable script as well as Gondry’s first under-appreciated effort, “Human Nature”) looms large for the Frenchman. “Be Kind Rewind” represents just the second film Gondry has directed from a script of his own. (Read all about Gondry’s upcoming work with Steven Seagal’s daughter on the movie “Tokyo.”)
Gondry summed up the arc of his career: “The first film I did with Charlie was not appreciated, and the next was overwhelmingly appreciated. Then the first one I wrote myself [‘The Science of Sleep’] was a little less appreciated. The main [challenge] for a director is just to be able to make another movie.”
Surely that adoration for “Eternal Sunshine” gives him confidence. “If this movie is not trashed by people, I will start to feel confident,” he said with a smile.
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