French filmmaker Michel Gondry is best known for his collaborations with screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, including their Oscar-winning film “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind,” which may have made him a strange choice to create a cinematic diary known as “Dave Chappelle’s Block Party.” Recently, the director sat down to speak about a wide variety of topics, including the power of cinema as a positive influence in people’s lives.
Kara Warner: How did you meet Dave?
Michel Gondry: I met him awhile ago. We got to know each other six months before we decided [to do anything]. So we had a lot of time for me to find out why he wanted to do it. He’s got a mission.
KW: You’ve directed a lot of different types of music videos. What attracted you to hip-hop?
MG: It’s the pop music of now. It’s modern music that’s pushed limits and instruments. I did some hip-hop videos and I try to do more. It’s a system that’s not necessarily open to… Hip hop videos are shot the way I like to use them. I mean, I don’t use music videos but I am making them for the people. Basically hip-hop use video to defend a strong image of the artist. I think I’m doing that but I like to use the video to do something more than that. There are a few artists who do use them for that… I’ve not been asked so much to do those videos. I remember I did project for Missy Elliott and Kelis and sometimes when I’m not part of the entourage it goes to someone else at the last second.
KW: The film isn’t just a concert film, it’s sort of about different ideas of community in that you go to Dave’s hometown and the community in Bed Sty. Is that something you planned or did that just happen?
MG: No I think it was important that we talk about communities and this type of music. In a way I was flattered that I was asked to do that, but for me, being an outsider, I didn’t think I could have a lot of view on that. But the positive thing about that is I think it protected, I don’t like a documentary that has a lot of views that are stronger than what you actually experienced making the documentary. I think you have to find your truth as you go along. Not to say that I was distant, but the fact that I didn’t know this community so well protected me from trying anything being too directive. What I knew, as I said before, I wanted to try and distant myself, but I wanted to listen to people to see what they have to say. It’s why it’s gone in a lot of different directions and people talk about prisoner and talk about they should not blame it on the white people and this contradiction… everybody has their own voice and overall I think we get a positive message because that’s what Dave wanted to do, he wanted to leave people on a positive note.
KW: Were any of the artists unwilling to open up backstage?
MG: They get so used to protecting themselves from film and tv, some of them, we needed time before they become more themselves. Whoever you shoot, you need an average of 20 minutes of shooting the person before they forget they’re on camera. It’s a process I learned whenever I interview a singer, it’s the simple things. They are not they are shy and need time to open up and to be confident. I know they are all commercially too confident, but they need 20 minutes… I always try to shoot people at a really equal level.
KW: Can you talk about the line-up of the artists in the film? Particularly the reunion of The Fugees?
MG: The reunion, as Dave says, we were supposed to have Lauryn Hill, which was great. She suggested to put the Fugees back together at the last minute.
KW: She suggested it? How did that change the movie?
MG: I don’t know because the movie was always with them. I didn’t have a pre-conceived make of the film so it was great to have that. It was a danger to have the concept and the theme with The Fugees. I wanted to have them interviewed by Dave backstage. We waited a long time because Lauryn Hill was busy and I said to my crew to be patient, I think it’s going to pay off. I just wanted to have five minutes. Because of Dave she opened up, and actually talked for much longer than that. But it was important for me to have those five minutes with her in the editing to feel it’s part of the same concert/concept.
KW: Do you see this movie as a departure for you (from your recent, more mainstream work)?
MG: It is a departure. When I did “The Sense of Sleep” it was the first time I wrote a screenplay and was in control of what I was saying, it was a departure because obviously I didn’t have any visual [vision] to rely on and I would ask to, in a way to give voice to people I’m not sure I know very well. So it’s always scary because I got chosen to deal with that and I think this makes me more open-minded to suggestion, to find my own truth, the same way Dave chooses between his sketch comedy and jazz music always have to in a place where you don’t know what the next word will be or the next note will be for me it’s the same, I don’t know what the next move will be. And it’s a place that keeps your mind very aware and I think it’s a good place to be.
KW: Are you going to add more performances to the DVD?
MG: There is a lot of extra, it was an eight-hour concert.
KW: How much will we see on the DVD?
MG: Ah, hours? It’s going to be a very good DVD, lots of extras.
KW: Will there also be a live soundtrack?
MG: Yes. The record is being put together. One of my inputs early on, initially people suggested I just shoot the concert, and I wanted. even if it was just the concert, I wanted to have it on the big screen because the idea is that you sit in a dark room with a lot of people and you watch this very good image because it’s shot on film and the sound is great and you feel you’re in the concert and you would not get that at home. People initially wanted to just make the DVD I wanted to make movie. The paradox is that you had to take it from the concert to another level, to give people a voice, to follow Dave around, a sort of narrative and then we got to go to Ohio and have the little story of Dave giving out his ticket like Willy Wonka and we met all these character that become part of the story like the marching band and the people in the barber shop, the old people who live next to the stage, the guy, the two kids in the dormitory and all these people become heroes. The waiter in Junior’s restaurant is really amazing we get this peak of the response at each screening I’ve done was after his performance.
KW: What were the challenges in making this film?
MG: Yes. It was very important to me because I wanted constant taping. The concert I shot on video so you setup a mechanism to capture everything, whether the camera is fixed, or it’s operated from a long distance or on a crane or a dolly, there is a lot of heavy mechanics involved that’s different and you have a lot of ammunition to make fast editing but the danger of it is in overcutting or overload with fancy angles and by watching the concert I think it made an impact on me. I realize that the concept was there for the audience and I wanted to translate that. The idea to shoot the concert at the same time. I didn’t want it to appear that the cameras were there before the concert. When you watch it you don’t feel it was done for the camera. After watching it I realized the camera work was very little, but in a good way. I remember watching Janis Joplin and there was one camera and that’s it. Someone would cut to her and then the crowd and that was it. You might think that is a poor way to shoot but in a way it makes the camera invisible and gives the work to the artist. You see this amazing woman giving this amazing performance. You just have the opportunity to feel that and that’s what I tried to achieve. We had nine cameras the day of shooting, but I was ready to shoot it with two cameras. I wanted them to follow the most interesting moments without getting crazy.
KW: Did Dave give you a reason for doing the project?
MG: His reason was that he was at his time of his career when he had a stronger power and he wanted to use that in a positive way for people he liked. All the musicians he knew before – some of them have become major artists and some not, but he wanted them all to have the same amount of voice. Basically he liked them because they use their music to give a message and its not only about the goal of success. You could see this brotherhood, this friendship they share when you see him putting on the rehearsal and I think that’s what’s important and interested me in this project. I’ve been asked many times to do concerts but I didn’t have interest until I found this project.
KW: In other documentaries, they take care to put wording to introduce certain aspects, why aren’t there that many in this film [to introduce the artists]r
MG: We tried as much as possible to have an introduction, but we wanted to feel like in a movie, like you don’t want to be told where you are. We tried to find another way to say it. To introduce each artist would have affected the flow. Like with The Roots, that was one of my suggestions because I wanted to have a backing band like in Motown, for all the artists, you have more of a sense of a community and the fact that they give up on all their separate habits to be a part of this. I convinced them all to play with the same musicians. You have as many introductions as possible, but I wanted to keep it organic.
KW: What was it like working with Dave? Is he, as he says in the film, a musician trapped in a comedian’s body?
MG: I’m not sure I would put it in those words, but I think there is a strong resemblance to what he does on stage to music. It’s similar in the way that he has a very specific flow that makes him unique. Generally comedians are all about action, reaction, action, reaction. They make a joke, they need the laugh, next joke, they need to laugh. Dave is much more organic. He is more connected to the audience. He doesn’t have to fill up the whole act with jokes and stories. He can stay silent for awhile then he’s gonna reach… he’s like a good basketball player. When he gets the ball he’s going to look for the opportunity. When he’s on stage you can see how he’s pacing and moving with the time and suddenly bursts into explosions of energy. Which is similar to that of a musician… or a solo that’s going in a crazy direction. It’s not a formula that applies to every step of the way, it’s a melody that’s unique at each step.
KW: When is “The Science of Sleep” coming out?
MG: “The Science of Sleep” to be released in August or September.
KW: I spoke with Jim Carey in December and he said he’d had dinner with you. Is there a project on the horizon?
MG: Nothing definite, but we’d definitely like to work together again.
KW: Any ideas what you’re doing after “The Science of Sleep” is released?
MG: I wrote a story I’d like to film.
KW: How does writing change directing?
MG: Same way when I shot Block Party, I went there with no idea of what would happen. Therefore I was very open to what could happen and there is some any happy accidents that happen when you switch it on – especially when you have Dave – and there is this magic that can happen, so knowing that, when I write I give some space for this magic to happen. So writing myself, it makes it more receptive to what happens that gives life to a film.
KW: Was Dave’s struggle, or whatever he was going through, evident while filming?
MG: Each change he was willing to make was to make it positive. He wanted to give a positive message overall. So it was for the best. I think he enjoyed a freedom, he used it for humanitarian purposes. Of course we put him in front because he was the catalyst, but he never wanted to be on his own, he always wanted to be surrounded.
We didn’t change any of the performances. They were amazing… I read reviews of the concert – the guy couldn’t stop saying how thankful he was to Dave.
KW: Words of support for Dave?
MG: He has a lot of time to express himself. He’s very supportive of what we’re doing. To me he is a, natural and generous guy. I have no opinion, especially when I have the chance to sit down with him, I don’t want to bother him with what millions of people are bothering him with.
KW: Still work with Charlier
MG: I’d like to work with him in the future?
KW: Your next film is Master of Space of Time, right?
KW: Are you still going to do music videos and commercials?
MG: I’d like to. It’s the same way, it makes sense to me to have the collaborative thing, it’s wonderful. Music is a medium that moves faster than film so it’s a good way to keep in touch with what’s out there.
KW: Will there be more on the [Block Party] DVD?
MG: Much more. There is 100 hours of film. We’re going to try and do something on the political prisoners, I know it means a lot to people so I think it’s important to explore that on the DVD. It’s controversial, as people say. It would be hard to do justice to the problem, but I want to address it. One of my favorite movies ever “A Thin Blue Line” it gives you a sense that objectivity is very hard to achieve it needs research and patience. People always get upset with truth or when you do something on accident, you have to explore it. Everything was done on film. I wanted it to hit the big screen and I knew these people were the key to that, more so than the concert.
KW: Can you talk more about the soundtrack?
MG: I didn’t have much control on soundtrack. The artists were concerned, not having their musicians or studios that it wouldn’t sound the same, so I had to say to them to remember the best concert they can recall and they were full of mistakes. It’s not about making the same sound on the album, maybe it’ll be fun for five minutes for the audience, but when it’s on a record, why would you listen to the same thing? I pushed them to play on a smaller stage and I knew if it was more crowded they would react and be more happier together. I think the album will reflect that and it will be a great opportunity to listen to these artists, because music is so well-produced now, it’s good for them to know these guys can perform on stage. Even Kanye West, who knows it’s about the production, he moved the crowd, he started the concert in the rain and he fought like a lion to get people to see that he’s a good performer and I think you’re going to get that in the album.
KW: How about Erykah Badu jumping into the crowd. Was that unscripted?
MG: Completely. I was in no control of those things. It was eight hours of craziness.
“Dave Chappelle’s Block Party” opens in select markets on March 3.