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.
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.