Interview: Michel Gondry
Michel Gondry's new film, The We and the I, had its U.S. premiere at Film Comment Selects. Film Comment's Violet Lucca picked Gondry's brain over the finer points of making le cinema de bus.
You’ve said that this film reflects your own high-school commute home. Why did you choose to set The We and the I in the Bronx?
We shot in the Bronx because I was (and still am) living in New York. We could not find any school in Manhattan that wanted to be part of this project so we eventually found this after-school center, The Point, where people were [open to] this type of project. The initial purpose of the film was not to explore any specific community or way of life but more to look into how kids or people change in the context of others. This is something I had observed in my high school and everywhere else. In a way, the bus is more important than the location. I have always been more interested in finding what people from different locations have in common than their differences. That being said, once I decided to shoot in the Bronx, I had to look into the way they live, what they have to go through, and so on.
How did you prepare for the shoot? Were there any films or books in particular that you sought out or revisited?
I didn’t read any specific book although I had read books about people’s behavior in society, and many novels treat that subject. It’s more my personal observation. I remember having a conversation about the technical aspect of shooting a film in a bus with Robert De Niro at the Cannes film festival. He directed one before, and he told me how he was driving the bus and directing at the same time. He had video screens on the dashboard and had to be aware of the lighting attached to his bus to maneuver it!
The We and the I doesn’t feel like most ensemble or improvised films. Was there anything that you consciously tried to avoid doing during shooting, to steer clear of the clichés of either “genre?”
[In] most films—or any occasion you let a group of adolescents, or even adults, act more or less randomly for a movie—the dynamic will bring them to confrontations and clichés because it’s the easiest to pull off in improvisation. We had a very solid story/structure on this project to lead them. We spent two years recording and writing their own stories, and with the writers, Paul Proch and Jeff Grimshaw, we shaped all this material into the initial story. In improvisation situations, people have the tendency to mirror what they see in film or television more than what they live, maybe because of the embarrassment they would experience in revealing themselves.
Despite how brand-conscious teenagers can be and the ubiquity of cell phones in the film, there’s a notable absence of corporations or a sense of the commercial. Was the choice to use hip hop tracks from the Eighties also related to this decision?
The tracks are more from the early Nineties, like Young MC. To me he reflects an era where hip-hop videos were sort of based more on innocence and life experience than on a “fantasy” life like most of the more recent style of hip-hop videos. I thought it was closer to the spirit of the film I wanted to make.
Deitch Projects installation
You’re very committed to working with nonprofessionals, as evidenced by your Be Kind Rewind show at Deitch and your subsequent manifesto “YOU’LL LIKE THIS MOVIE BECAUSE YOU’RE IN IT.” What have been some of the difficulties of working with non-actors? Did you find the process different working with teenagers (en masse) as opposed to adults in things like My New New York Diary or Dave Chappelle’s Block Party?
Honestly, I don’t feel major differences, because no matter what, I always feel overwhelmed at some point. Things take their own way, and I just watch them for a while, before I can find my marks and regain a bit of control and direction. In all the cases you’re mentioning there is always a grid, a structure that leads the actors or participants from one emotional place to another and not keep going in circles. Even in the Deitch experience, the home movie factories, the groups that make their own films have to do it from a blueprint that they elaborate together. I think adolescents and adults have a lot of similarities, especially next to a camera.
What part of the process do you think was the hardest for your actors?
I remember that Michael and Theresa [two of the students] were old friends, and Theresa had no romantic feelings for Michael. Quite the opposite—she couldn’t take him seriously and would rather slap his pretty face than cry next to him. So I kept asking to tell me about her recent breakup to bring her to the right emotional place. Many times, also, they had great immediate and instinctive reactions to a situation that was new, but when we had to shoot it several times, it faded away. They couldn’t fake the surprise. For instance, when Theresa shows up for the first time in the bus with her new hair, all the kids had seen her like that for a good week so I had no reaction at all. We had to trick them and make poor Theresa wear a ridiculous orange curly wig to get them to react again.
You see many different aspects of these teenagers’ personalities, depending on who they’re interacting with, and as the groups grow smaller and smaller. How much of that was scripted, and how much of it was from the actors’ lives or experiences? (I’m thinking specifically of the gay couple.)
The exciting part for me in this project was that I had written quite precisely all the emotional arcs for the five main characters before I met anyone. And we found in our group kids that went through the same stories in their own experience. I guess it comes back to what I was saying earlier: everyone everywhere has things in common. The gay couple story came from the group. Their story happened exactly like that in real life, two years earlier. They were so embarrassed and self-conscious to reenact it that I suggested that they switch roles. This worked for half of the shooting, until Brandon couldn’t take it anymore: he was more the victim in their story, and seeing his ex-boyfriend portray him as a joke was torturing him. So they had this huge argument in a corner of the bus while we were shooting another scene. I immediately turned both cameras towards them and asked them if they could carry on with their argument, but in their correct seats (they were at the wrong place). This was really embarrassing for me to ask… So they continued to argue, ignoring the cameras and the crew until it put them both to tears. Then Brandon ran out of the bus. I had a great scene but they were acting their own parts now and it couldn’t fit to the story. So I stopped the bus for 30 minutes and wrote to change the story. I decided that, in the story, they would exchange roles to experience each other’s perspective.
Who came up with the cutaway fantasy shots that aren’t set on the bus? (Such as the Donald Trump club scene.) How did you film those?
The kids were constantly using their smart phone during rehearsal. It’s really part of their life, like I guess anyone. So I thought we should use these machines as tools to shoot their experience outside of the bus. The difference of texture from the “professional” camera we used on the bus with the ones from the phone’s cameras was perfect for creating a “flashback” effect.
With the increasing ease of digital filmmaking and self-distribution because of the Internet and apps like Vine, a lot more amateurs are out there telling their stories. What do you see your role as the director being when working with amateurs?
I don’t know, really. I can only [talk about] my role as a motivator for people to start and finish their project. And try to be different. I don’t have many truths or secrets to share. Once a young guy working on our crew showed me a short film he just had finished. He asked me to be really honest and give him advice. I was not very excited by what I saw and the only thing I could come up with to tell him was: find what makes you a different person from anybody else and make your film about it. It must have been a decent bit of advice since he won a prize with his next film.