Michel Gondry enters my office and I ask if he would like something to drink: coffee, tea or water? He says, "hot chocolate." Wanting to please him but also not knowing if my office kitchen has the requested winter beverage, I momentarily panic, then see the appropriate button on the drink machine next to the ice maker. It delivers a shot of foamy brown liquid, followed by hot water. I deliver a sad coffee cup full of the stuff to the filmmaker of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" and "The Green Hornet," and he accepts it without hesitation. It's a moment of uncertainty, and a challenge of sorts, but why would I expect a divo moment from Gondry, who has just spent three years collaborating with Bronx high school students while filming his latest movie, "The We and the I"?
The French filmmaker enlisted kids from the Point, a community center in the South Bronx. For 20 days in the dead heat of a New York summer, Gondry and his crew filmed the students, elongating dramatic moments occurring during a packed bus ride home on the last day of school.
During the interview, Gondry explains how unusual it is to start out with 32 characters, saying, "Every person has one story even if it's small."
In the beginning of the film, a toy bus rolls around the giant streets amid traffic, slowly making its way across the city. I ask him about these moments when he exaggerates form (Gael Garcia Bernal's enormous hands in "The Science of Sleep," or absurdities in "Eternal Sunshine" ). "This is a shield I would carry around me because a straightforward story would look naïve," he says. However, "The We and the I" is not a magical realist tale, so he knew he had to squash the toy bus sequence. "This is why the bus is crushed," Gondry explains. "It's not the story I'm telling."
Despite a storyline concentrating on the terrible things high school kids do to each other (from enacting psychological and physical pain to simply terrorizing a bus full of people with their presence), Gondry includes a short fantasy scenario involving, as he says, "a little pimp." The awkward adolescent describes a wild night at a VIP club with Donald Trump to a pair of skeptical girls, his tale becoming more and more unbelievable with each breath. It's a moment of levity for which Gondry is known amid a beginning that is hard to watch because of its casual brutality, as the bullies in the back of the bus pick on vulnerable students near the front. But as the movie unfolds, he says, "the energy shifts from outside confrontation to inside the individual."
The director explains, "I've seen bullying with my experience and with my son," but he didn't want the movie to only be about high school hazing. As characters exit the bus, the film moves away from bullying and pares down to a love story as the last two students exit the bus. It is here that Gondry is in top form, navigating the terrain of the heart.
Before we finished the interview, I asked about his advice to young filmmakers. He mentioned what his family friend told him when he was barely in the double digits: "Don't draw from paper; draw from reality." In other words, he says, "Try to find out what makes you different and do that."
That's solid advice at any age.
See a clip from "The We and the I" below, and let us know your thoughts in the comments.