Michel Gondry isn’t known for taking on obvious, familiar material. But even by those standards, his latest movie, “The We & the I,” sounds like something entirely different: a freely improvised story about a group of public school students shot over the course of one day on a school bus. While it opens Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes Thursday night, Gondry has already launched another project, an adaptation of “Mood Indigo” starring Audrey Tatou that is currently filming in Paris. The director took a quick break from shooting to talk to Indiewire about the pleasant surprises of working with non-actors, his animated Noam Chomsky film and how he’s come a long way from his first Cannes, when he was denied entrance to his own film’s party.
“The We & the I” stars a group of black teenagers in the Bronx. What drew you to the setting?
Usually, these stories involve crime, drugs… they’re very dark in general. It could have worked anywhere. I had the idea for it about a more upper-class area in Paris, when I took the bus 20 years ago, and when the kids came out of school they were really shallow and aggressive. They would leave the bus one after the other, the group was getting smaller and the group would get more philosophical, personal.
And you wrote only a 24-page treatment?
I had the frame of the story imagined with four or five main characters. One has just left his father and the other one is a girl who is a little heavy, and she would get bullied all the time. It’s all something I experienced from memories. They exist everywhere, the bullies, the victims, the girl who needs a lot of attention. You have all the characters who are very stereotypical at the beginning, and as the story progresses, and there are fewer and fewer people on the bus, there is a shift, so the people who were ruling start to decompress and the groups attack themselves because they don’t have anyone else to bully. There’s an implosion amongst the groups as we progress in the story.
How did this project relate to your Be Kind Rewind Protocol?
Well, it’s not that it came out of the Be Kind Rewind protocol. It’s more that when I did the Be Kind Rewind Protocol project, I had this type of thinking in my head of how people are in a group — for instance when I did “Be Kind Rewind,” I wanted to hire a lot of nonprofessional extras, but it was not possible…
Because of union regulations?
The union, yes, you have to work with the union. So we pretended they were dancers, and I put 60 kids one afternoon in a gymnasium and I put them in groups and they were very efficient and disciplined. Everyone told me I wouldn’t get anything from them, but they were great. Kids from the block where we were shooting. When you give them responsibility in small groups, they can organize themselves and be positive. We got a lot of things done. This way of thinking relates directly to the story of “The We & the I.” We took a group of 40 kids, we never selected anyone and it was very natural. It was the 40 kids except those that dropped out because they didn’t want to follow the process to the end. By the nature of the story, some became more important but it was a very organic process. The ones who had a smaller part never felt like they were not important, and they were always in character and had to be themselves and it was great.
Were they familiar with your other films?
Not really. In the middle of doing the workshop I went off and did “The Green Hornet,” and I would go back once a month to touch base with them and rehearsals would carry on. I gave them all DVDs of “The Green Hornet.” It was funny because they were the type of audience that would like other movies I had done.
Did you have to make it clear to them that this project wouldn’t look anything like “The Green Hornet”?
It still looks much sleeker than anything they would have ever expected — they didn’t expect a fancy camera or that we would do a real movie. Originally, we were supposed to shoot on a small camera but money got more involved and we got more serious equipment, so when they saw the results, they really responded well to the film.
Are any of them coming to Cannes?
Eight are coming to Cannes.
What an incredible opportunity.
Yeah, and one of the guys who plays a good part in the film is playing in my new movie because he looks like a young Michael Jackson, and he stayed with us in my apartment [in Paris]. It’s a small part but it’s a good part.
Now that you’ve done a big studio movie with “The Green Hornet” and then this very low-budget project, which type of experience do you prefer?
I like both types of movies. I don’t want to choose between the two situations. I like popular cinema. I guess if I was Christopher Nolan or somebody like that whose movies always make billions of dollars, I’d have to choose between the two situations.
But the movie you’re working on now isn’t a studio project either.
Yeah, but I’m doing exactly the movie I want to do. It’s in between “The We & the I” and “The Green Hornet.”
And you’re making a movie about Noam Chomsky?
I did an interview with him, and I’m going to do an animated film.
You didn’t have the best time at Cannes with your first movie, “Human Nature,” which had its premiere in the main selection. Now you’re getting more comfortable on the Croisette. Has your opinion of the festival changed?
You know, it’s a contradiction, Cannes, a place where all year long it’s really right wing, conservative and “nouvelle riche” type of people. They’re the type of people who are very present. In the middle of that, once a year, you have this most intellectual event. It’s one of the most highly regarded film festivals on earth, and you see the contrast when you’re there between the photographers and the films. It’s hard for me to find a place there. I got more appreciated there over the years — and by France in general as well. The first year at Cannes, I couldn’t even get into my own party because I had the wrong shoes. And I couldn’t go back to my room because I didn’t have my key. Antonio Banderas and his wife were staying next door to my room so it was very heavily guarded. That was the type of experience I had.