From director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), The We and The I is an indie drama that looks at the lives of a group of teenagers in the Bronx who ride the same bus route, and how their relationships change and evolve on the last day of school. Among farewells to friends and excitement about the upcoming vacation, there are laughs, love and heartbreak.
During this recent exclusive phone interview with Collider, filmmaker Michel Gondry talked about how the idea for this project was inspired by his own experiences, finding a school that was willing to work with the production, the process of finding the characters, and presenting who these teenagers were in a non-judgmental way. He also talked about wanting to explore new ideas for film, what made him want to tell the story of Mood Indigo (L’écume Des Jours), about a woman who suffers from an unusual illness caused by a flower growing in her lungs, and why he wanted to work with French star Audrey Tautou. Check out what he had to say after the jump.
Collider: How did The We and The I come about, and where did the idea for it start?
MICHEL GONDRY: Well, it was an idea I had in the back of my head for a long time. I had some friends, but I was not in any groups. I was only thinking about girls, most of the time, at that age. But, to see my friends changing their personalities and becoming different when they were with groups, it intrigued me. I always remembered a bunch of guys hanging out with one girl that they would sort of exploit, but would sometimes have nice interaction with her. It was that hate-love relationship that you can have with a group of boys and one girl. That intrigued me, and I found that on many different occasions. I thought it was interesting to build a story around that.
Were you surprised that you couldn’t find a school in New York that was willing to work with you on this, and then were you also relieved to find out about The Point and that you could work with them?
GONDRY: Yes, I was surprised because I thought, “Well, this is a great project for kids. Who would not be in a movie with your friends and get paid, like a summer job, and do something you can be proud of?” On the other hand, I know how institutions are. They are barely equipped to survive to do the duties they have to do, so they don’t want to think outside of their duties. And they were very concerned with safety. So, I wasn’t completely surprised. But, I was very happy to meet all of the people at The Point. It was great to end up doing it in South Bronx. I didn’t know very much about the place, but to get to know a place like the Bronx, it helped me to really portray the life of the city.
Was it important to you to not judge who any of these kids were, but rather just show who they are as individuals?
GONDRY: Yes, and it was for a very simple reason. They were actually really nice kids, and they were all very motivated and really strong-hearted. Even if I asked some of them to be less deep at some points, I would not push it too hard because I didn’t want them to feel bad when they saw the film. To me, it was important to not overdo it. As well, I don’t like movies that are too manipulative. A lot of movies thrive on really pushing your buttons and making you hate the villain, and I didn’t want to do that. You can like somebody, and then have them do something that you don’t like. That balances out your emotions.
Were you surprised about how much of the material you gathered from interviewing the students actually coincided with the outline that you had written before ever meeting them, or did that reinforce the fact that people really are the same everywhere?
GONDRY: Well, both, actually. At first, I was surprised because I had really written something precise. I wrote that one guy had lost his father, which made him a loner, but gave him more strength, and we had a character in this group who had been through that. And there was a girl who had been rejected, and she had some issues with her appearance. There are stereotypes, but not cliches. They’re issues that we can encounter everywhere, at any time, yet they still are specific. They’re not specific with geography, but they’re specific from one individual to another. I was surprised that we had so much common ground because we didn’t cast. We took all of the teenagers who wanted to be a part of this project. I don’t like to put people in a competition to defeat the other. They do their best when they can all stay together and be themselves without thinking they’re going to be rejected. With this group of 35 kids, it was decided that everybody would be in the film. And then, we gradually found out who would play what part. That was the only selection that happened. It was not a selection based on competition or rejection. It was a selection based on who is closer to the character. That’s a spirt that I like. I don’t like those shows where people get eliminated every week, and then they have to get meaner to survive. I had to be careful to make sure we could really understand each other. I didn’t want to walk in and be too direct. I’m direct with my technicians, but with the actors, I wanted to try to be very flexible.
One of the most heartbreaking and emotional storylines in the film is with the young gay couple. How much of that relationship actually came from those kids, and how much of that was a story you guided them to tell?
GONDRY: They were telling their own story, like most of the kids. Luis and Brandon were together when we started the workshop, and they told me about their history and how the one that he might be bisexual. It was their story and they were kind of embarrassed to tell it. To make them feel more free, I suggested that they reverse their roles, and that Luis play Brandon and Brandon play Luis. In fact, Luis was amazing in the film, but I thought he was very camera-shy and I didn’t know if he could achieve playing his part, so he played the other part. We decided to shoot it like that, but in the middle of the shooting, when we were shooting a scene, we heard an argument on the other side of the bus. They were having the argument that Brandon thought Luis was portraying him in a very shallow way and he couldn’t stand it because he had been through hell with the break-up. Brandon couldn’t take seeing Luis taking it so lightly, during the context of the shooting, and it was unbearable. So, I turned the camera back to them and asked them to continue their argument. They were so engrossed in the moment that they forgot about the camera, and when you see them break into tears, it was absolutely not acting. It was really what happened between them. I was a little challenged and embarrassed by that because they’re old friends and they were brought to tears. Everybody broke into tears except me because I was really focused and had to get the shot. So, they had this huge argument and Brandon ran out of the bus. I just stepped outside for 20 minutes and made some notes, and then decided that it would just be part of the story that they would act out each other’s parts to see how the other one was feeling. But, when you see them arguing, it was real. It was amazing how easily they forgot about the camera.
The films that you do are all so vastly different from each other. Is it important to you to build a legacy of films that are so unique and different?
GONDRY: Yeah, I think so. I want to explore new ideas and put myself in a place where I can finish a project that is more unusual or that doesn’t seem doable.
GONDRY: Well, it’s a book (by Boris Vian) that every teenager reads in France, like a Kerouac, and everybody has their own experience with this particular book. So, when I got asked to direct a movie based on the book, I already had a lot of ideas for how I wanted to translate the writing into images because I had remembered it so well. I had grown up with this book and had been influenced by the writer. So, I had a strange feeling that I could do something really personal and truthful to the book, at the same time.
What was it about Audrey Tautou that made you want to tell the story with her as your leading lady?
GONDRY: I’m always excited to work with actors. I always find her extremely touching in the movies she acts in. There’s just something that I like about her that’s hard to describe. She could play healthy and sick, at the same time. I got very lucky because I got to work with two of my favorite actresses in France, Charlotte Lebon and her. They are both amazing actresses.
The We and The I is now playing in New York, and opens in theaters in Los Angeles on March 22nd.