Perhaps once regarded as a quirky, whimsical visualist known for his eye-popping music videos (Bjork, Beck, White Stripes) and his often pop-surrealist indie films ("Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind," "The Science of Sleep"), French filmmaker Michel Gondry has really challenged the boilerplate concept of who he is as an artist in recent years. He's taken on a tentpole super-hero film ("The Green Hornet" starring Seth Rogen), made a stylistically unadorned and deeply personal, yet unsentimental documentary about his aunt ("The Thorn In The Side") and another superficially quirky mainstream comedy that's actually quite a sincere tribute to the joys of community ("Be Kind Rewind").
Community, fraternity and a sense of belonging are themes that go as far back as 2005's "Dave Chappelle's Block Party" (in of itself a communal event) and these social motifs are definitely present in his latest effort, "The We & The I," which recently premiered in Cannes under the Directors' Fortnight sidebar section.
A heartfelt and comical story of the final bus ride home for a group of young high school students and graduates, as the kids in "The We & the I" depart on the school bus for the last time, we get to learn about them as they step into the world – their love, their conflicts, their despair and their hope. Playlist contributor Simon Abrams recently sat down with Gondry in Cannes to discuss his latest effort, the inspiration for shooting the film in the Bronx, taking on what may seem to be "an atypical Michel Gondry film," and how the production of "The Green Hornet" almost derailed this project.
As a lifelong New Yorker, what part of the Bronx did you shoot in? And what is the BX66 bus line?
It doesn't exist in real life. We went all over the South Bronx for the twenty days we shot. So it's a very complicated journey that we never took, because most of what's in the film was shot over a two mile stretch. It's where the kids [in the film] live as well. I followed a couple kids when they were going off the bus; just by coincidence it was just a block away from where they were actually living, so we were very real in this regard. But we just had the bus, everything was inside. We didn't have anything around us, just life. We had no control over it, so that was what we decided on.
Your Bronx doesn't have any of the classic landmarks. The Bronx Zoo, etc. It's focused on the interior of the bus.
Well, we actually went to Yankee Stadium, we went nearby the zoo, I mean typically you're just focusing on what the kids do. But there's more interesting things to shoot than the Bronx landmarks. It's very full of life, and there's this shot where a guy is selling tires, the guy made a very colorful and lively sculpture from trash. I liked the way people express themselves by simple means. If you shoot in Paris and you go to the 6th arrondissement [which has a bohemian and intellectual reputation], it doesn't really look very good, it doesn't say much.
If you go more in the suburbs, or other parts of Paris, then you have much more expressivity on the world, so I was looking at that but I think the Bronx has a lot of variety in their landscapes. There's a lot of big parks, and a big center with all of the shops you would expect, and then you go through that, there is this big industrial market. And I realized that's one of the problems with the Bronx, they have all of these fruits and vegetable markets which drive tons of big trucks and pollution, [and these kids and this community] don't even benefit from this market. It's like the infrastucture of many countries, where things are organized to help people who are not around but who are in control. People who won't live where they put their shit.
Why specifically the Bronx?
I didn't set out to do the Bronx itself. It didn't necessarily matter. I mean it was a good scene, it was the birth place of rap, it's very prominent for the best of rap music, and I like these types of communities. But in fact we tried any public school in New York, and they all rejected us. So in the beginning, we set up to do six months of shooting in a Bronx school that accepted us, but in the middle I had to do "The Green Hornet" so we had to take two years off. They had matured, I was concerned they had passed the age of the stories they were supposed to tell, but the age was fine.
One of the buses has a poster for "Megalomania" on the side of it, an animated project you were once going to make with your son.
Yeah, my son drew it. It's a project we started with ["Ghost World" author] Dan Clowes. You need material to show [on the side of the buses], but you need the rights as well, I would not choose "Spider Man," for example. I have no interest. So I might as well have something I like, so on the side of the bus is this project, and in my own movie I could advertise for my future movies.
You were on the commentary track of Criterion's recent "Being John Malkovich" DVD release and you mentioned Catherine Keener a lot.
That's true, [laughs] because I was unguarded, I didn't know what to say so I'm just going to be myself.
Some seem to believe you were supposed to direct that film before Spike Jonze because of your appearance on the DVD.
No, I was not going to do it at all. What happened was, [Spike and I] were both looking for a movie and he found this one. I didn't like any scripts I had read. One day I saw a video for the Foo Fighters where the ceiling was very low and Spike came to me and said it's funny the movie I'm working some of the seating is down low as well. So I had to read the screenplay and I felt that this screenplay was very funny and entertaining to read which never happened to me before. I always had boring scripts to read. So I was anxious when I was on the commentary track, but I tried to make it funny. I guess I'm sincere but would never express those feelings because it's very childlike and immature but especially in America where people always want to show that they are strong and positive. So I guess that it must be surprising to hear somebody moaning as much as I did.
There's a scene in "The We and the I" where the kids are playing Truth or Dare. Do they still play that?
Yeah. The kids actually found out a story in the film about two of the boys through the truth or dare game. Maybe it's a game that they wouldn't play now, they're older. But two years ago, yeah. They still do it, they totally still do it.
How much feedback did you get from the kids with the script and situations in the film? Did they say no, "we wouldn't do it that way?"
All of the time, in fact most of what they do in the film is stuff they have done in real life. I'd say I concentrated a lot of action I could do over a year into one bus journey. But everything was done from interviewing these kids in their world. Let's say for instance the scene with the water [push-up] bra. That's something that they fought a little bit because it didn't really exist for them. If anything it's not the most shocking part of the story. It came from a story from a friend I have with daughters. One was 16 years old and she looked very womanly and he was very worried. He knew they were wearing this push-up bra — it's like a little cushion they put in the bra with water to make your boobs look bigger. He said to me,"I don't care because I know as long as she's wearing it she's not going to get undressed in front of a boy." So that was a funny contradiction to put in the story. That's the only story line I sort of forced into the film but all of the other stories were coming from them.
The use of YouTube, like the butter video for instance, I see a lot of news about that kind of viral video. How did you approach or research that kind of phenomenon?
I don't have to research it, it's every day in their world. I watch YouTube all of the time, there's amazing stuff on YouTube that makes you think, what am I doing? They have little clips there that are more powerful then any full movie because they reach everyone. There is a lot of trash on it as well, but sometimes you get a jewel. I didn't do research because YouTube is part of how they were. When we saw them they were constantly on their phone watching video clips, to a point it would be hard to get them to focus to work. So we had to ask them to put their phones aside. They get all of the news in their life through text messages. I thought it was interesting to see the bus has a small model of full society where communication goes on many layers from voice to voice, to text message or video message.