Selling ‘Be Kind Rewind’ with a slapdash of humor

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

In Oscar-winning writer-director Michel Gondry’s upcoming comedy “Be Kind Rewind,” Jack Black and Mos Def play accidental auteurs -- a couple of knock-around film novices who end up making movie magic with a minimum of resources: tin foil and cardboard, a junkyard back lot and an ancient camcorder chief among them.

Portraying, respectively, a well-intentioned video store clerk and his amped-up best friend, Def and Black must reshoot a trove of beloved movies -- reenacting and playing all the key roles in “RoboCop,” “When We Were Kings,” “Driving Miss Daisy,” “Rush Hour 2" and “Ghostbusters,” among others -- after Black’s bumbling character accidentally erases the store’s entire inventory of VHS tapes. They call their charmingly slapdash recreations “Sweded” movies (as in Sweden) to persuade the store’s skeptical customers to keep renting. “It’s a faraway, expensive country,” Black explains to one patron.

It’s precisely the sort of so-naive-it’s-ingenious conflict resolution that prevails in Gondry’s filmic universe -- a place where reality is just a poor substitute for surreality. Now, leading to “Be Kind’s” Jan. 25 theatrical release, marketers for its distributor, New Line, are giving the film a promotional push that involves Sweding the Internet, the Sundance Film Festival and one of New York’s hippest art galleries. As well, it may even result in a number of famous directors’ giving reciprocal Sweding treatment to “Be Kind Rewind.”

But a clarification about Sweding first.

“I wanted a name that meant nothing,” Paris native Gondry said in Clouseau-esque Franglais about the invention of the verb. “I had in mind, like, the suede shoes -- a fake velvet. A sort of ultra-suede? But I always get the word wrong because I’m French.”

In the “Be Kind” characters’ reductive reasoning, it’s more straightforward to reshoot all the films from scratch than to stock the store with new videotapes. With necessity as the mother of their lo-fi invention, the characters use pipe cleaners to stand in for ectoplasmic tractor beams in the Sweded version of “Ghostbusters.” Spray-painted cardboard cutouts substitute for animated wildlife in the Sweded “Lion King.” And cheese pizza is meant to evoke pooling blood -- the aftermath of a drive-by shooting in the Sweded version of “Boyz N the Hood.”

Aaron Sugarman, New Line Cinema’s senior vice president for interactive marketing, said the promotional aesthetic was designed to fit the film’s broader theme of individual expression via humble means in the Information Age.

“Everyone’s taken by this idea of taking these great movies you love and remaking them into your own thing. It’s what half the stuff on YouTube is,” Sugarman said. “So we wanted to inspire people to do their own Sweding, to tell them what Sweding is and give them the tools to make their own Sweded pieces. We wanted people to be inspired. Because you can Swede a movie, a Web page, a bicycle -- you can take Sweding and extend it to almost anything in life.”

Toward that end, the operating idea behind is that Black’s character has also accidentally “erased the Internet” and visitors to the site are responsible for creating a Sweded replacement. Google has been crudely reborn as “Goolge.” MySpace has undergone a primitive makeover to become MyFace (a social networking site for the “Be Kind” characters). Another section of the site allows visitors to Swede photos of themselves onto VHS movie covers from New Line films, including “The Wedding Singer,” “Blade” and “Freddy vs. Jason.” (You can also see clips of some of the movies Sweded in “Be Kind.”)

As well, “Easter eggs” -- hidden features computer programmers plant on some Web pages, intending them as inside jokes or personal asides -- abound on Taking visitors to nearly 20 ancillary websites, they include Sweded dancing cats, Sweded news and weather pages and a Sweded “arcade” that allows visitors to play the proto video game Pong. A PDF download instructs visitors on how to Swede other sites. There are plans for a channel on YouTube dedicated to fan-generated Sweded films.

Most of “Be Kind” takes place in and around a Passaic, N.J., video store (owned by Danny Glover’s retirement-age character) that’s rapidly losing market share to a nearby Blockbuster franchise. To hear Gondry explain it, he hopes the film -- and particularly that subplot -- will engender a critical dialogue about consumer culture. As such, the writer-director said he will allow marketers to go only so far with their promotions.

“I want to make sure we’re not contradicting ourselves by doing too heavy marketing,” Gondry said. “Blockbuster wanted a partnership -- advertising in common, television commercials. But my movie is about an indie video store defending itself against a larger corporation! I said no because using our movie to promote Blockbuster and vice versa would be shooting ourselves in the foot.”

He added: “Now I hope our movie will be in their shop.”

A more natural place to raise awareness for the film is the Sundance Film Festival, which opens Jan. 17 in Park City, Utah. There, Gondry said he plans to perform music from the “Be Kind” soundtrack, backed by Mos Def and Jean-Michel Bernard, who wrote the film’s score. New Line is also planning on creating a “Sweding suite” in a house near Main Street (mostly likely done up to look like the video store from the movie) where people can stop by and participate in Sweding, such as inserting themselves into photos from the film.

And on Jan. 24, one day before “Be Kind” hits theaters, Gondry will also bring Sweding to downtown New York’s hippest art gallery, SoHo’s Deitch Projects. There, for the better part of a month, he will set up a temporary Sweding movie studio.

“Groups of people walk in and will have access to a workshop,” Gondry explained. “There is a very simple protocol: You shoot in camera, edit while you shoot -- which means you stop the camera when you want to go to the next scene, you don’t edit. Story lines last five to 10 minutes. And most of the exhibition will be a mini back lot with 15 little sets.”

“In two hours, you can walk in, create a story, shoot a movie, watch it in the screening movie. Then you leave and take a copy.”

Deitch Projects head Jeffrey Deitch arranged a gallery exhibition in conjunction with Gondry’s last film, 2006’s “The Science of Sleep,” and explained the director’s appeal in art circles.

“One of the reasons there’s interest in the art world is this handmade quality to what he does,” Deitch said. “Even though some of his films are big studio films, there isn’t a sense that it’s all manufactured studio product.

“People love taking modest material and turning it into art. It connects with a strong new trend where anyone can make a movie in their bedroom and backyard and put it on YouTube and take on the whole world.”

Over the last few weeks, in a fittingly meta-narrative marketing twist, New Line has beenreaching out to some of the directors whose movies are Sweded in “Be Kind Rewind” -- Robert Zemeckis, Brett Ratner and Ivan Reitman among them -- offering them the chance to Swede Gondry’s film.

“I can’t tell you what will or won’t come to pass,” Sugarman said. “But we think it’s as much fun for Ivan Reitman to play with ‘Be Kind Rewind’ as it is for us to play with ‘Ghostbusters.’ A lot of people in the film industry have a great sense of humor about this stuff.”

For his part, Gondry is proud to help subvert the very studio machinery that enables him to make his movies -- especially if that means empowering the people who go see them.

“When you Swede, you create the product you are going to consume for your own pleasure,” he said. “Of course I’m doing movies for a studio. Of course I’m part of the system. But I’m using the space given to me to express a different perspective -- people can create their own entertainment.”