BLOCK PARTY DIRECTOR MICHEL GONDRY. PHOTO: HENNY GARFUNKEL/RETNA LTD.
Over the years, a number of pretenders have tried and failed to unseat Wild Style as the definitive hip-hop movie. Directed by Charlie Ahearn and released in 1982, the film starred real-life cult hero Lee Quinones as Zoro, a graffiti artist whose reputation has begun to spread past the ghetto and into the downtown art scene. As his legend grows, Zoro is forced to choose between retaining his creative and personal autonomy by staying underground or introducing his art and a palatable image of himself to the public. Wild Style was not made with anything approaching professional technique — the untrained actors are uncomfortable in front of the camera, the dialogue is too on-the-nose, the scene construction and editing rhythm are poorly executed — but Ahearn manages to convey what hip-hop embodied, even if he never tried to explain exactly what that was.
Twenty-five years and countless bad movies later, another film has finally captured the magic of Wild Style and updated it for the new millennium. It comes, strangely enough, from Michel Gondry, the French director whose previous work — including the masterful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and tons of visionary music videos — has displayed little affinity for African-American culture. Block Party, which takes place in the fall of 2004, follows comedian and cultural provocateur Dave Chappelle in his quest to throw a block party in the hip-hop holy land of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn. After rounding up a mixed group of locals from his hometown of Cleveland (including a complete marching band from a local black college), Chappelle hops on a chartered bus to New York. Once there, he assembles what is arguably the best collection of hip-hop talent ever experienced on one stage: Kanye West, Common, Mos Def, Dead Prez, Jill Scott, Erykah Badu, the Roots, Big Daddy Kane, Kool G Rap and, for the first time since 1997, the Fugees. The concert is, not surprisingly, sublime, but what sets Block Party apart is its spirit. At once Afro-centric and inclusive, Block Party — like Wild Style before it — reminds us that in the end, it’s really just about a crowd, a mic and a beat.
After premiering to a raucous reception at Toronto, Block Party was picked up by Focus’s Rogue Pictures division for a reported high-seven-figure deal. It hits theaters on March 3. Filmmaker spoke with Gondry the morning after that first screening.
DAVE CHAPPELLE TAKES THE STAGE IN BLOCK PARTY.
So how does Michel Gondry end up directing the David Chappelle film?
He called me and asked me to do it.
Did you know him at all beforehand?
No. I mean, I knew his work, and I think he knew some of my videos. And I think a lot of artists in the show knew my videos and wanted to work with me. And I wanted to work with them. So it was really like a good opportunity to have all those people at once.
How did you and Dave establish what the film was going to be like?
Well, I wanted to affect little outside his work. I don’t know much about hip-hop and rap, and I really didn’t want to be intrusive. I couldn’t pretend I would tell Dave what he had to say and what the movie would be about. I tried to be receptive to everything — and maybe help him to be more himself, which is my job in general when I direct things. I try to help people to just be themselves. And Dave is very natural anyway — he’s very relaxed and he’s not like a lot of comedians, because he works very well with silence. He doesn’t have to constantly feed off the space by telling funny jokes. So the first thing I did was to make sure the concert happened in Brooklyn — a place that really means something for the people who are there. I think it was my contribution, because people were coming up to me with ideas like shooting in Central Park. I didn’t see it this way — I wanted to access the more intimate side and see more of the joy. If we put all these guys together, I knew something would happen.
I didn’t know Brooklyn was your idea. Did you help plan the show itself?
Yes, it was part of my job. Normally, if you do a concert, you’re going to hire a company who puts together a concert. So then you want to shoot it, so you hire a company that will shoot it — everything is all super specialized. But I think if you want to do a movie it needs to go a bit beyond that. For instance, each artist would say, “My act will be this way, I want to have this and that, and I want to have my own musicians.” I convinced them to go with one band — like at the time of Stax or Motown, they had their home bands, like Booker T. and the MGs for Stax, who would play for all the artists for the whole evening. I wanted to have that, so we picked the Roots. And some of the artists had their own musicians, like Erykah Badu, but most of the time it’s the same band. It creates much more of a communicative atmosphere. I was really enthusiastic about that. I wanted it to sound right, and obviously on the day of shooting I wanted people to have a great time. And I was sensing Dave would go between each act and entertain people for half an hour when they are changing the set. Some of the best moments in the film come from that.
What was it like shooting in Ohio? There are some really magical moments in that sequence.
It was very quiet. We were expecting there to be tons of people when Dave was trying to interact with these people, but as soon as he walked in the street, magic happened. Even if he says all sorts of outrageous things on TV, people like Dave, and he likes Ohio because it’s mixed — it’s white and black — and there aren’t many places like that. People weren’t hassling him. He just went about doing his stuff. It was important for him to show how he can just walk into a place and interact with people in a very natural way.
What was the shoot like for the concert? How many crews did you have and how did you organize it?
The day of the show we had nine cameras. As I was saying before, for people who shoot specialized events, they will tell you that you have to put the camera like that or like this, and then you sync it in editing. I didn’t want to work this way. I didn’t want to have all the cameras facing forward. I wanted to have each camera be like a special unit that is doing its own documentary. I knew I could not communicate with all of the crews at once — we tried, but it didn’t work, so after a while I just gave up because I was completely overwhelmed. So before, I talked to the crews and said, “I want you to open your left eye while you frame with your right eye and look around and see what you are missing. You are going to use your brain. Each camera is his own guy with a microphone. Imagine that your camera is the only one to shoot the event.” So I think I gave them good direction, because in the film we are really in the moment. And I didn’t try to overshoot the performance and have quick editing with so many angles.
Did you shoot at all yourself?
No, I didn’t shoot anything. We shot everything on film, and it was a specific Super 16mm camera.
How did you pick the cinematographers, seeing that you gave them so much room to operate on their own?
Ellen Kuras — she’s great and we’d done Eternal Sunshine together. She was [the d.p.] and in charge of that. Her shooting is some of the best — her and her main cameraman, [who was the] guy who was always [shooting] from the perspective of the audience. Ellen was supervising all the cameramen. You don’t want to tell each one what they have to do each time, because if you do that, they stop thinking. So you just give them a lot of responsibility and try to inspire them and give them some guidance in the beginning and then you let them go, and you get so much more this way. It’s very good to just step back and give the seed — the right place, the right time — and then you see how things grow. And you just adapt. And then you have something more alive.
How did that experiment of having nine people do their own separate documentaries work out? What were the challenges and problems?
It was difficult sometimes during the editing. Sometimes I was like, “Ah, I can’t believe we don’t have this shot at this time!” But it’s a chance I was willing to take. I look at the best concert documentaries I’ve seen — the footage on the stage — and there aren’t so many cameras. And because of that, the shots last longer and you feel the performance more. It’s like reportage in a way. There is one camera, and it was there at the right time, and it was trying to capture something that was unique. And you feel more this way. I don’t regret my choice at all. I think that it worked out.
Before you were shooting, did you have a structure for the editing in your head already?
A little bit. I knew we had to get the concert, and to get Dave following people around. But a lot happens by accident. By coincidence, the first day we shot we saw Dave in Ohio with his marching band, and suddenly we thought maybe we could follow them in to start the concert.
What was the editing process like for you? Did it take a long time to cut?
Yeah. The process was so long. Basically, we edited first like we had two halves, and they were two hours each. One was from the beginning of the preparation to the beginning of the concert and the other was just the concert. But as soon as the concert was starting, we didn’t have any stories; it was just performance. And a lot of the people who were financing [the film], they said, “Okay, well, you can just do the concert,” but I didn’t care for that. I didn’t think it would have any meaning. I tried too hard to go [to Ohio] with a film camera with a small crew and do all this extra shooting — that was the most interesting way. So the concert starts right at the beginning, and then you see the preparation, the journey to the concert. And near the end, it’s all merging. And I think that’s how we maintain people’s attention.
The screening at Toronto was wild. What was that watching the film in front of that audience like for you?
It was generous. I’ve never had any experience that was that strong. It was a perfect merge between the audience at the screening and the audience at the show. They were together, they were responding the same way to the concert, which is really what I wanted to achieve.
Do you have any plans to go to Brooklyn and screen the film?
Yeah, we’ll go back to the school, and we’ll shoot it and put on the DVD. Because we promised them we would come back and see them again and show them the film.
Do you take as much of a sense of ownership and pride over a film like this as compared to a film like Eternal Sunshine?
Yeah. I do, even though it’s totally not my film. I went there, and I think I gave an opportunity for people to express themselves. I’m very proud of it.
Was confronting the concept of race ever an issue for you?
Yeah. I felt like the little French white guy. What do you have to say to these musicians? Who am I to tell them, “Okay, you should be like this”? So from the beginning I decided my job would really be listening to them. We’d do a great concert, we follow Dave around, and everybody says what they want to say, and we’ll use what they say to illustrate the film. I couldn’t come in with a precise idea, I couldn’t say, “Well, this will be against Bush or to save the neighborhood or whatever.” I just wanted things to happen and to be there to shoot it. And sometimes I feel a little guilty of being white and doing it. Maybe I took the job of an African-American director, I don’t know. But Dave asked me, so I would have been stupid to not do it. But sometimes I felt a little intimidated, and because I’m French, when they talk I don’t understand them most of the time. There is this joke Dave does with one of the concert tickets, and everybody at the screening laughed, and I still don’t know what he’s saying.
A lot of drama happened in Dave’s life after you finished the film when he abandoned his Comedy Central show. Was he involved at all in the editing? Has he seen this version?
Completely — we did it together. I really wanted to be truthful to his vision and his project.
What’s his opinion of the film? I think sometimes maybe he feels there’s so much of him in it that he feels a little awkward about it. But that’s normal because he reacts as an actor, and it’s always weird when he sees himself. But I think he’s proud.