Michel Gondry has always been a filmmaker with a very distinct vision. Whether he’s crafting romantically painful surrealist masterpieces like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind or "swede" films like Be Kind Rewind or big Hollywood titles like The Green Hornet, he manages to stay true to his artistic mores and uphold the importance of what film is truly about. "I like popular movies, I think they don’t have to be big and small movies don’t have to be independent for sort of elite," says Gondry, whose latest effort, the high school drama The We and the I shows us fresh side to the director.
The film is a collaboration that took place over four years between Gondry and a Bronx-based community and arts center called The Point, which fosters a creative and supportive atmosphere for youth to explore their passions and work to build something together. The We and the I stars a host of kids who saw The Point as their home base growing up and through a series of workshops with Gondry—spanning multiple years— they have crafted the story of a group of high schoolers riding the bus home on their last day of school. What emerges is something unique, powerful, and genuine that speaks to how we change ourselves in relation to those around us seen through a coming of age tale.
A few weeks ago, I got the chance to sit down with Gondry, Kelly who works ofr The Point, and his inspiring and intelligent young cast to talk about how they all came together, the experience of exposing their real emotions on camera, and how the The We and the I has changed them all.
Can you guys tell me a little bit about The Point?
Kelly: So basically we’re a community development corporation, and we’re all about arts and culture and community development. We have after school programs, we do a lot of environmental work in the neighborhood of Hunt’s Point, and our biggest gift is our facility. We have a theater, a dance studio, and then tons of programs—everything from circus to visual arts to black and white photography. We’re a place where community and creativity connect. We were happy that this project came to us.
Michael: I’ve been at The Point for four years and I must say it helped me be the person I am. They heavily got me more involved in my community and helped me see more issues I had never seen before. It also helped me network and gave me the connections I need. Even though I’m not currently going to The Point, I’m still involved. If I ever need assitence, I know I can rely on them because they’re like my family, even when you leave there you’re still family. They make you feel loved and welcome, and they’re there to provide you with all the resources you need to keep going ahead in life.
Big T: I think if you go to The Point for a full week, you’re going to feel like you’re at home.
Michel, how did you become involved with The Point and had you been working on creating a story like this for a while?
Michel Gondry: I had this concept in mind for years and I thought it was time for me to do it. I had written the story over a small script, like 25 pages and I was living in New York and wanted to do it in New York and I tried other schools but they were very afraid of trying anything; they seemed to struggle so much with safety and didn’t want to take extra work. So we finally found The Point and that was completely obvious immediately. And that was great, so I showed my movie Be Kind Rewind and we just talked about it and did some workshops and everybody signed on. And we didn’t have a casting process, that’s something that I’m really—not exactly proud but happy about—the concept, and the first 35 or 40 people to sign onto the project would be on the bus. And then in this certain people in the group would be more or less prominent as the story unfolds. And this process happened over the months and years, and I think there are people on the bus who have barely any lines but they didn’t feel excluded. So this is very much in the spirit of The Point—it’s not about competition, it’s about participation.
So how long were you workshopping for the film for?
Laidychen: Like four years almost.
Well that’s really interesting because you’re at a time in your life when you’re changing so much, so keep doing this as you change really allows for a lot of issues to be explored—for all of you.
MG: Some of the stories that are in the movie are based on stories that happened to them right at the beginning, especially for Brandon. That was really tough for them to reenact because they had grown up and felt a little silly. And so sometimes I let things go and sometimes it’s really good in the story and I have to put them in front of themselves. But the story between Louis and Brandon, that was one of the best surprises I ever had in shooting because they were playing each other’s part.
Brandon: Yeah, it kinda got switched up because at first it was me playing his role of being the cheater and something went on on the bus when we were like on a break. The cameras were off and we were just sitting there and Michel had seen Louis coming to me and saying all this stuff and he came with the camera and wanted us to talk about what like what we were talking about and we didn’t want to and then it finally came out, and when it came out it became really emotional because it was a real moment, it wasn’t scripted. So that’s where you get the tears from, and then he did ask me if I was comfortable with that moment actually being in the movie. I was okay with it because people are going to see this and somebody’s going to relate to it in some type of way.
MG: It’s interesting because when Brandon has this moment, everybody broke in tears in the bus, expect me because I was focusing on capturing the moment.
Did you have the narrative arc for the film planned out?
MG: Yeah. I had the story on like 25 pages with maybe between five and ten characters and then I met The Point and all of the kids and we did a lot interviews. I had screenwriters Jeff and Paul working on the interviews and writing the screenplay and then after that we tried to tailor that story to match the grid I had written. But then while shooting they could improvise too. So it’s all of those layers combined.
And had you guys been familiar with Michel’s work before?
Raymond: His last work I’d seen was Be Kind Rewind and I really started liking him because it was a community thing that you create your character and be in the movie and I thought that was amazing. So then we did this movie and worked with the people that worked on the Be Kind Rewind production team and it was like wow, that’s so much fun.
Meghan: I was a fan of Eternal Sunshine and I kind of witnessed the elements of surrealism and putting that stuff on camera and getting to see it played out in real life. It was so cool to work with him and see that process and getting that sort of dreamlike sequence of events in film.
Michel, you were working on other films while wokshopping this. Did that effect the process at all?
MG: Yeah, that’s why the process too so long. I went to do The Green Hornet.
How was it working on something like that and then coming back here and doing something so intimate?
MG: Very exciting. I remember being so exhausted because every minute we had in the bus could be a minute we could use for shooting. There were some technical aspects to deal with but most of the time I was having to focus on the story and that was one of the hardest shoots. But for this reason, when we shot about three weeks,
And how did you guys find spending three weeks on a crowded bus?
Were you getting claustrophobic or sick of each other?
Brandon: When we had mics on the AC couldn’t go on and then we’d have to fake that we weren’t hot so it was like, okay, smile—
Meghan: It was a ton of fun but me and Laidy had this thing where we got motion sickness a lot because the bus was constantly moving, so I now know a thousand different ways to prevent motion sickness. We really learned the definition of “a long day."
Laidychen: I found myself sleeping most of the time in the bus just to try to mellow out a bit so when I would have to be focused I was awake but it was so fun. I would do it again in a heartbeat.
Meghan: It’s one thing to shoot an ordinary film but the circumstances were just so interesting because our set was moving all the time so as we ran into little incidents here and there they were coming up with solutions and we were just observing, and I feel like I soaked everything in like a sponge. It was a very cool learning experience.
And I’m sure this way of shooting and the amount of time together really bonded allof you.
Michael: In the workshops we were all divided and we had our cliques we were attached to and when they saw it on camera, they wanted to get us out of our comfort zone and put us with people we wouldn’t normally be with. But the bulk of it came from shooting on the bus all day and learning everybody’s story and where they came from and why they stand out or are closed off or won’t disclose certain things to people, and that kind of just brought us closer. And off the set we always got together and had a good time.
Meghan: We worked on the film for four years, so that was my entire high school career. And theres’ something about this group, we could be separated like ten years from now and you could be like, okay guys get together you’re going to do a sequel where you guys are on the train now and I feel like we would not miss a beat and talk to each other like we’ve been best friends. So getting to know someone over that long of a time really has a last impact on all of us.
Kelly: Also, Michel and everyone were so great about making this a sustainable process. They could have shot anywhere but they chose to use The Point as homebase. It was amazing for the community to see something so cool happen in their neighborhood.
In terms of the film’s flashbacks or cut away sequences, those are the only moments outside of the bus—why did you choose to give those a less polished, more handheld feel.
MG: Look, they all have their phones with them and they’re all on their phones right now and its been like that since the beginning. So this imagery and this look and thinking about the way that they use their smart phones, it’s part of everybody’s culture. So it was convenient because it would sort of give a specific look for scenes that are not in the bus, and so I could say the whole movie is in the bus and everything that’s not is shot with those small cameras or cell phones. I remember Michael got a text message—I think your Auntie passed away—and you got a text message while we were shooting a scene telling you. But that type of communication is something I didn’t experience growing up, of course, because I am from a different generation but it’s very important. And we were talking earlier about how the passing of their friend Elijah, the scene where the news comes through text message and how their life is shaped by information coming through those machines.
What I found really interesting and enjoyable was that the relationships between everyone, they weren’t specific to just this one community or group of kids, it all felt very universal.
Laidychen: It’s like when you see a group of rowdy kids on a bus and you’re just like ugh; everyone at first is just like yeah, I’ve been on a bus before, so what who wants to see a movie like this? And then in the middle you start stripping people down and you start seeing other sides and by the end reality starts hitting everybody, and in a sense they’re kind of growing up a little bit. And so they’re leaving that bus like wow, something just changed and I’m going to have to walk out of here and deal with it and I don’t have no one around me so you have to deal with a sense of being alone and growing up and being independent.
Big T: That movie’s too real, man. That last scene, the first time I saw it I cried because Elijah, he’s like my little brother so if you see that you’re going to feel bad and then knowing what that came from because I knew Glen personally too, he was really cool—I don’t want to cry now—but he was an awesome person and he got stabbed for no reason so, it was strong, it was real. It hurt a lot but it was perfect at the same time, you know? And that’s what I like about that last scene, I find it really significant to the movie.
Laidychen: That last scene, it’s relatable to everyone because most of us have lost someone really dear to us so, when they tell us to act it out we could put ourselves back into the place where we heard about the news and could easily feel the same emotion. And I feel like that’s the same when someone watches a movie, they put themselves in a moment.
Michel, did you find there’s a freedom in being able to make films like this while also being someone who makes work that’s totally different?
MG: The Green Hornet allowed me to reach out to a broader audience, which I enjoy. I get paid enough so I can go on and do projects for which I don’t get paid, so it’s a good balance. I like popular movies, I think they don’t have to be big and small movies don’t have to be independent for sort of elite, so it fits me very well. And in a way, when I left them for a bit and came back, I had a pride to give them the DVDs of The Green Hornet.
What did yo guys think the first time you saw the movie completed?
Brandon: I cringed because I see my face so big, but other than that, now that I’ve seen it a whole bunch of times it’s better.
Laidychen: It’s weird seeing yourself on a big screen but I pretend it’s not me and I pretend I don’t know anyone in the film. But it’s cool and it teaches me not to judge any film because there’s a lot of work to be put into one small scene, so I don’t underestimate any budget film; I give them all credit.
Meghan: You can’t watch yourself in a movie and be objective about it; you watch other movies and make other little criticisms here and there but instead of actually focusing on the movie, I remember more memories from shooting. So it was really fun to get ot do that and I watched the movie twice in its entirety and it’s cool to see something you worked on so hard, something we all worked on.
Did you have any idea how much attention the film would get or that it would going to these big festivals?
Brandon: No no, not at all but we stayed humble.
Michael: Even though we knew there was going to be a big premiere, we didn’t think that we would change. We did a movie, we’re proud of it, and we’re still going to be the same people at the end of the day. We’re not going to let the success get to our heads, we’ll still be the same people even after this is all over.
Laidychen: And nobody turns into a diva overnight.
Big T: But the same time, it’s still a big reality shock. I was on Instagram recently and somebody said one of my quotes from the movie and I was like no, that’s not real.
Kelly: From the vantage point of not being in the film directly but associated with it, I had to say during the making we were petrified because a huge part of it all is letting go completely. So we had no idea what to expect, but we had faith and respect for Michel as an artist. I was petrified because the Bronx and the South Bronx, in terms of film and media in general, it’s very rare that we get respected. I didn’t know what to feel; I was anxious. I watched the movie by myself first and at the end I was eleated; I was crying and jumping up and down in my room. I know this is a classic, it’s a classic, it’s like The Breakfast Club but real art. And I thought it was such a beautiful opportunity for people to really see the beauty and the genius of the South Bronx, the birthplace of hip hop, and so much out there that I was happy was represented well and that they will have something, and all the kids in the Bronx will have something to be proud of. No one’s slinging dope in it, and if you’re born and raised in the Bronx you know like, yeah it’s a part of the life but it’s not who we are. So I think this does that justice.
MG: It’s funny, my neighbor from Brooklyn plays the racist lady and she was kind of racist in the beginning, but more interestingly, for her living in Brooklyn, the Bronx was like a place you should never go. I find that from the Bronx, you guys are the same about Brooklyn.
Kids: Oh, we don’t go to Brooklyn.
MG: I remember Raymond, we had a scene where he’s waiting for Michael at the subway and he didn’t want us to frame the number of the train.
Raymond: Oh, it was the 7 train. I was like why you putting the 7 train on there, man? I’m from the Bronx we stick to the green numbers.
Do you find that you’re a different director when working in this sort of environment where it’s more immediate and with non-actors?
MG: Yes. I think I’m permeable in general; always when I go to do a film, I try to absorb everything I can outside and from people around me, I think it allows me to make a different film. But when I see how these people are so committed and artistic and how they really are when you here them talking about The Point or the Bronx, that’s something maybe I don’t encounter in so many places. I always try to see what people have in common in different cultures and locations and I think that’s probably one of the reasons why we didn’t thrive on stereotypes by going to the Bronx. I came with the story, and on the other hand, seeing this commitment to a place where you are living is a new experience. That’s something specific to this location and even more, gives me even more of this feeling of being proud to be part of this community. It’s not everywhere, from my background I don’t have any pride. My background is very middle and average and so I don’t feel the necessity to express belonging to this background. But I’ve learned in working and shooting documentaries, some communities need the sense of community because of the difficulty that they may encounter. I always thought that the idea of community was exclusive, but then when I started to observe I realized that they were a home and not closed to the outside world.