Michel Gondry Breaks Down The BE KIND REWIND PROTOCOL For Mr. Beaks!
Published at: Nov. 25, 2008, 12:19 p.m. CST by mrbeaks
Michel Gondry has a utopian vision, and you're a part of it. In short, he sees a future in which communities will come together to create cinema. But here's the thing: it doesn't matter if the finished product is good or bad; it just matters you make it.
Hence the title of Gondry's manifesto: YOU'LL LIKE THIS MOVIE BECAUSE YOU'RE IN IT: THE BE KIND REWIND PROTOCOL. It's a thin, seventy-nine-page tome in which the director of ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND a) works through the convoluted thought process that inspired this peculiar project, and b) lays down the rules so that you and your neighbors can try it for yourself. Don't have a DV camera? Not to worry: you can write to Gondry via his website, and, if he thinks you're serious about following the protocol, he just might lend you one to carry it out.
How to convince him you're serious? Easy. Tell him the movie won't end up on the web. Assure him you won't sell it. Stress that you will not accept any corporate money to complete the project. Then maybe you'll get your camera.
In other words, this is not "Michel Gondry's Film School in a Book". He's not looking to create a new movement of independent filmmakers; mostly, he's trying to liberate people from the studio system. Though there are various, semi-contradictory aims stated in the book, Gondry believes that people can derive as much enjoyment from the production and viewing of a fifteen-minute amateur film as they can from passing over $11 to watch a movie lazily slapped together by uninspired industry drones. In a way, he's advocating for the 21st century version of community theater: the process is to be as much fun as the performance, and the performance is to have a finite reach. It is for your friends and neighbors, not for some stranger mindlessly searching for Katy Perry videos on YouTube.
To ensure that the protocol is not used as a gateway to Hollywood, Gondry has imposed a time limit on the inception and production of the video. The participants are to execute a series of tasks, each more difficult than the last, which will result in the completion of a short film. To discourage preciousness, Gondry repeatedly insists that "imperfection is your ally"; again, the purpose of the protocol is that you finish it. Whether your friends' films are better than yours shouldn't matter; after all, you're all amateurs.
As with all utopian visions, there are myriad ways for the protocol to fail. But Gondry is pressing on with it. He'll soon take the gallery version of the project to Brazil (after debuting it to mixed reviews in New York City last February - though it was probably better received than the professional feature film, BE KIND REWIND, that partially inspired it), and then to other cities around the world. From there... well, that's up to you. Need a little more information? Perhaps my freewheeling phone conversation with Gondry from last week will get you interested. Or maybe it'll just add to the confusion. It wouldn't be Gondry if both sensations weren't being induced concurrently.
Mr. Beaks: In the book, you said that this project grew out of your experience filming DAVE CHAPPELLE'S BLOCK PARTY, which is where you learned about the "vibe" and community.
Michel Gondry: As I said in the book, I don't have a sense of belonging that some people have [who] belong to communities. When I was asked to direct the documentary, it was about community in some ways, and that was something I'd never really given too much thought to. Initially, my first reaction to communities was a sense of exclusion more than belonging. But then as I grew older, I started to understand why people would turn to communities. It can be quite comforting, especially when you have difficulties in your life. So I was glad to do that. It really opened my eyes. I'm not saying that the documentary went very deep into the meaning of communities, but it was enough for me to spark an idea.
Beaks: So often when communities get together to do something artistic or creative, they usually do theater. They do some really old play. But this is something new. That said, you're also kind of encouraging people to avoid new techniques like CG. There's still something very handmade about this approach.
Gondry: Sometimes, I think technology is not a necessity to be creative. You can be creative with very little. On the other hand, it's more exciting to shoot the movie and watch it after. It's very encouraging. It's different than putting a play together. It's much lighter in a way. You have to go through much more embarrassment to be in front of a roomful of people. The principle of this protocol is to really wipe out any possibility of embarrassment, and to make it comfortable. When I did it myself with my group at the end [after the Deitch show], I enjoyed every step of it more. It was really fun to go through the process.
Beaks: And it's a process that, with the time limitations, is obviously not for people who are trying to be professional filmmakers. It's an activity, not a gateway to Hollywood.
Gondry: Exactly. And it's very important to keep reinforcing this statement because I certainly don't want to pretend that I have any key to professional filmmaking. I have the knowhow to do it myself, but it would be very presumptuous to say this is my advice. It's really an activity. It happened to be on video because it's a territory I know very well. But the most important thing is that, when people do an activity together, there is something left after. Even though we didn't give the DVD to everyone - we gave one DVD to the group for them to keep in touch and keep the relationship they had created. Most of the groups were composed of, like, four friends and four other individuals, so a lot of connections were created. It was very encouraging to see that.
Beaks: When you first started doing this project, did you get a sense that there were people participating only because they wanted to get close to you?
Gondry: It's possible. But if you want to be a filmmaker, this will not help. The process is completely different; it's democratic, while making a [feature] film is much more like a dictatorship. It's the opposite, in a way. I don't think it would hurt anyone who wanted to be a filmmaker - and I'm sure that some of them had that in mind. But we also had kids who had no agenda; they came with their parents, and they really enjoyed it more than the people who had other ambitions. In fact, it was more liberating to not be a professional.
It's like, for instance, I do drawings. When people ask me to sign the book, I do their portrait. For me, it's very relaxing and fun to do because I'm not supposed to be good at drawing. If I was a professional cartoonist, my capacity would be judged [differently]. So I make a portrait of everybody, and everybody is happy. I think it's the same for the people who came to the gallery.
I'm going to go next week to Brazil to do the same exhibition, and then I'm going to Paris. And this summer I'm going to do it more in a free way, the way I did it at the end of the book when it was just in the real location - which is the way it was conceived initially. I'm going to continue from there, and hopefully people will do it on their own.
Beaks: I think it's amazing that you said people could send you a proposal, and if you review it and see that they are serious about doing the project the correct way, you'll loan them a digital video camera.
Gondry: Yeah, it's a little risky. (Laughs) I don't know what it's going to lead to. It sounds like a donation, but I'm not really doing donation. It's not that I don't believe in it; I just find that a lot of time it's used as an excuse for people who do nearly criminal business. I feel that by not doing that, you have to watch what you are doing, and make sure it's correct. It's probably more profitable for the world to run a very bad business and create pollution with your industry, and then to make a donation to feel better about yourself.
So, anyway, I generally don't do donations. But it would be my contribution. If this takes off, I would have to buy 1,000 cameras. This would be a disaster for my bank account, but it would be very good for the protocol. I'm not asking for people to write the story or anything. I want to make sure it's not some guy who wants a camera for free; it's got to be a group that wants to do the protocol.
Beaks: When you did the protocol yourself at the end, free of the constraints of the gallery, you said it was much more fulfilling. Do you regret allowing critics to write about the show?
Gondry: Well... yes. I was not signing the films. But the fact is, by being in the gallery, that's what people would write about. I had great reviews, too. I emphasized the bad reviews in the book to make my point, but I had some great ones - of course, they came from outside of the hardcore art world. You're never welcome when you go from one medium to another. It is to be expected. It's true that it would have been maybe more appropriate to not be in a gallery, but... [Jeffrey] Deitch gave me great support. In fact, one of the most famous artists in America came to see my show, and he said it was amazing. That's better than a good review.
Beaks: One of the Protocol's aims is to wean people off of Hollywood movies, and the marketing apparatus that drives it. But when you're asking the participants to choose genres and titles first, many of them are reacting to pop culture; they're parodying that which you're trying to get them to break with.
Gondry: Yes, it's a paradox. But I do that because it's the easiest way to get them engaged. It's true that it led to a lot of genre film, but... I think if people would come several times, as some did, they would start to become more personal in their choice of a subject. But in the first place, you need to find a way to get people engaged. And I'm not discouraged. I think it works very well: you start with the most simple task, and you finish with the most complicated. That keeps people going.
Beaks: So you think, then, that as people do this multiple times, they will be able to personalize their film?
Gondry: I think they would. Some people came several times and participated in several groups. Actually, there was this guy Kenny [Page] who played the priest in BE KIND REWIND. He took it so seriously that he did a full feature film with his friend in New Jersey. I watched it, and it's genius. It's like... when you watch STAR WARS: you start with the whole story written on the screen or you're lost. He did a movie using that to an extreme. It was a new genre that was invented, that described each scene with a title card. And then there are flashbacks and dream moments that he just copied from other movies. It's fully amazing. I don't know how to respond to it. I don't know if I now want to ask him to be a little more tough on himself technically, or if I just want to encourage him. I'm a little torn. As a director, maybe I'm not doing him so good. He's doing it realer.
Beaks: The more that you ask him to be tough on himself, the more you'll drive him towards perfection. And that's the enemy of what it is that you're doing.
Gondry: But at this stage... from the beginning, he wanted to be a director and an actor. I tried to discourage him as much as I could, but after a while, I cannot. He wants it so strongly.
Beaks: That's good. Perhaps you've discovered an artist.
Gondry: I know. That's good. It's just... I don't want to give illusion to people... that delusion that you're part of a dream, and it disappears. But the fact that he was able to do this with a friend and get it all organized is amazing. So I think it's positive.
Beaks: But if there is failure, that informs your art. And, obviously, it's a part of life, so that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Gondry: It's just important for me to set the parameter that it's not a guide to Hollywood or independent filmmaking. It's really an activity. I think people should find a way to things outside of the corporate system. I know it sounds cliched to say this, but we should look at where we put our money and what we encourage, and see what we can do without participating to in consumerism.
Beaks: What you're encouraging also is that you simply share the film with your community; you don't turn around and post it to YouTube. This is an interesting distinction, because I think some people might read this and ask how the protocol is any different from regular old amateur noodling. But when you limit the reach, it's not entirely predicated on getting attention.
Gondry: It's very frustrating. I mean, I have my videos on YouTube, and I look at how many millions of hits I get. And it is in contradiction... of course, I have tons of contradictions.
It's really people doing an activity. And enjoying the work is really precious. It's why I taught my son not to play video games. Basically, I forced him not to play at home at least. To force him to finish his project. Whatever he does: a comic book, a film... he has to see his project to his end, because when he's finished he can reflect on it - which helps you to continue and do it again. That's why I put expectations as low as possible on the film, and also why I said perfection is the enemy; I wanted people to be able to reach the end of the project and take the benefit of it. I've been thinking a lot about why people should achieve their project regardless of whether it's successful or unsuccessful. Many times, people who are directors, or want to be directors, speak a lot; they don't want to start the project because they don't want to be judged. Everybody's a film critic in a way. Especially with the internet: you have opinions coming from everywhere. This can be very discouraging. You know you're going to be judged - or mocked, even. But you have to overcome that to get the fruit of the work.
Beaks: I don't imagine you personally would want to use the protocol to make a film yourself.
Gondry: No, no! I mean, we documented the whole thing. We have a film: in the workshop, we had a camera running all the time. So maybe I will do a [documentary] about the whole concept. We did a five-minute montage of the best stuff from the little films, and it's just hilarious. When you see people of all ages doing the most silly things... there is no editor. Once they find their story, they have to find a way to make it come across. So when they give birth to a baby - which happened a lot of times; we had a gynecologist there, so that led to a lot of births in the inspiration. So they made a baby out of a plate or a... [Beaks note: I swear to god he said "car part", but I'm not 100% sure]. And when you accept that a piece of paper can be a person, then you can do whatever you want.
Beaks: When people try the protocol out in, say, Ohio or Illinois, and you're not there to guide them, do you think they'll follow through? Do you think they'll experience it the way you'd like the process to be experienced?
Gondry: I have no idea how it's going to work. The one that we did on my street, it was very self-guided. I didn't do anything. I just discovered that someone should be there to follow the time because people have a tendency to fall into tangents or maybe get discouraged. But they shot in front of the street in front of the houses; some of it was amateurish, but there were some really fun moments. And when we watched it, everybody laughed at the right time. So I think in an ideal world, people would do it as a hobby, and maybe later they would learn to do it to express themselves or be political about it. Some of the kids who came from the Bronx had very hardcore stories: they had murder and rape and all sorts of things. There is no censorship.
Beaks: Wow. In that case, it's almost therapeutic.
Gondry: Yes. I found some people used it to help people to learn to communicate better. They used the protocol for people to hear them. That's a great use of it. I was thinking that I should send a copy [of the protocol] to each school. That could be a side project that could take off very well in schools.
Beaks: Well, have you been in contact with anyone who could help implement this in the education system?
Gondry: We got in touch with schools because we had various schools coming to the protocol. But the book has just been released. Maybe I should consider sending it to schools to see what they want to do. I have a project where I want to work with kids from a school; it's a story that all happens on a bus. But the board of education said No because kids don't take the bus; they think the story would be [unrealistic]. It's silly because we found that the community in the Bronx wants to do it. But we asked the Irving Washington School in New York, and the Board of Education didn't want us to do it with them. We wanted to do a workshop with students, and then conflate all of their ideas and dynamics into the [ride] back from school. It would be part documentary and part fiction. We'd want to run a workshop for one year or six months to get the kids to participate and find out what they want to say. But we got rejected because those kids don't take the school bus. It's sort of ironic. Schools are very afraid of changing things.
Beaks: You should try somewhere outside of New York.
Beaks: This seems like it's become a real passion for you. When are you going to get back to making a feature of your own?
Gondry: I have two or three projects that I'm working on. I'm waiting for one to go, and it's sort of nerve-wracking. But I'm more socially aware. I mean, I always was, but now I'm a little more articulate. So I'd like this to come across in the work. It's very hard for me to take on a screenplay written by somebody else. I really feel like I have a voice, and I want that voice to be heard; I don't want to execute someone else's idea.
Beaks: Is one of those projects still MASTER OF SPACE AND TIME?
Gondry: No, this is not happening. It has been stuck for years now. It's a great book, but I could not make it as a film. The things that I like in the book don't seem to satisfy what the producer expects from a science-fiction movie. It's very disappointing. The author, Rudy Rucker, is really a genius. He writes books about mathematics. That's why I like his stories. But that doesn't really reflect what the industry wants in terms of a movie.
YOU'LL LIKE THIS FILM BECAUSE YOU'RE IN IT: THE BE KIND REWIND PROTOCOL is available now. It's a fascinating read, and highly recommended.