Our favorite eccentric Frenchman, Michel Gondry, is on a roll of late. He’s debuted two stunningly gorgeous trailers for his new movie, Mood Indigo, which opens in France this month. The footage is already compelling enough to make us wish we knew French — and had read the 1947 book, L’écume des jours, on which the movie is based. (It’s about an inventor of olfactory instruments whose wife develops a sickness that can only be cured by surrounding her with fresh flowers. So Gondry-esque!) In the meantime, he has the wonderful The We and the I, which follows a group of high-school students from the Bronx — bullies, nerds, outcasts — along the final MTA bus ride home at the end of the school year. Relationships are formed and ruptured, tall tales get illustrated in handmade fantasy sequences, and a feisty old lady who’s stuck in the back of the bus with the bullies gets fake-jizzed on with a vanilla pudding cup. Vulture caught up with the highly Gallic Gondry at the Soho Grand hotel before the movie’s premiere at BAM and talked studio movies, underwater weddings, and what’s next for his endearing cast of nonactor kids from the Bronx.
You found the kids in The We and the I at a Bronx after-school program called the Point. What were you doing there?
We tried different schools in Manhattan, and none of them responded. They were all very concerned about safety and rules. So I heard about the Point through a friend of mine, and we went there and it was exactly what we were looking for. And what they were looking for, because it’s an after-school program, so their goal is to provide activities to kids. I suggested that we do a screening of my movie, Be Kind Rewind, and then we do a question-and-answer. And then the group of kids came and I suggested, “Okay, I have this project, I’d like to do it with you. Everyone that wants to sign up, sign up.” And we didn’t select anyone. We just took in everybody who came the first day, basically.
How did you end up writing it?
I had a written story, about 25 pages. Then we had a group of kids, and we started this workshop. In talking with them, we asked them about stories — coming-of-age stories. They couldn’t be too detailed about their sexual life because they were a little younger, especially at the time, but [we asked] everything about their life. And we realized that they had a lot in common with the characters I had previously written. So it’s how the process happened: We found congruencies between some of the members of this group and some of the characters in the story. It was not a casting where we tried one guy to do one part and another guy to do another part, or let’s say two guys for the same part and take the best. It’s sort of in an organic way everybody fit into the characters. And there were some who were more prominent than others, because they were closer to the character we needed than others.
So you wrote 25 pages — what was the gist of what was in those 25 pages?
Oh, it was sort of a small screenplay with maybe ten kids in a bus, and one had lost his father and was very quiet at the beginning. And then one was very shallow and loud. I mean, it was the main characters that you find in the movie; it’s an interaction and an arc of a story that I had thought of for a long time. I knew that I couldn’t write all the texture or the dialogue and all the background stories for each character — they had to come from many different persons to be real or to feel complete. So I used this as a base and then everybody who was cast started to tell their own stories. I hired two screenwriters [Jeffrey Grimshaw and Paul Proch] and we interviewed [the kids], recorded their stories, and [the screenwriters] incorporated the story to the grid that I had written.
Teresa’s a really interesting character, the girl who dropped out and gets on the bus wearing a blonde wig. What was the idea for her?
Well, my idea in the beginning was this sort of relationship you find in every class, where there is a bunch of kids who sort of exploit or molest — I mean, not in the sexual way, of course — one girl who is not the prettiest girl in the group but is the girl who they always stick to. You always think, Why is she staying with them? They’re just pushing her around, basically. And the fact is the other boys of the class probably ignore her. And the other girls of the class are even meaner to her. So we find this girl that was exactly this character and we took a lot of her story, like her depression and the fact that she dropped out of school, and most of what’s said in the story. And this girl, at the end, it was too much for her. She didn’t want to be part of it — and I just saw her yesterday and she’s really happy. And her best friend is Teresa [Lynn, who acts in the movie] and she took over her role, so they could work together in a way so that she could get the detail. Most of the character played their own part, but Teresa specifically played the part of her best friend.
You said you’d been thinking about this story of kids on a bus for a long time. What was the inspiration?
Like many times, you go to a bus or a subway and you see 50 kids jumping in and you say, “Oh, why is it my train?” or “Why is it my bus?” and you just can’t read your book anymore. It’s so loud. But this one time, it was a long journey and I paid attention to what was said, and I was sort of surprised that the group really changed as the group was slimming down. I remember the two last pupils behind me started to talk about their own family and it was a much deeper conversation than in the beginning. And I thought, That’s an arc of a story in itself.
This was a bus ride or train ride you took in New York?
It’s a bus in Paris. I mean, the story would work in every place, I think.
You’re very good at capturing the feel of New York. You did it in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And you have a house in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. So is this your home, or do you consider Paris your home?
It’s half. I mean, I’m supposed to be in New York, so I say “New York” because of a little taxes problem. [Laughs.] But it’s half and half because I just finished a film in France. But I don’t think it really matters because New York is a place where people come. It’s consistently newcomers, so the outside perspective of New York is nearly maybe better than the one when you’re living.
The dialogue of the kids seems very accurate — urban teen accurate, not that I can really judge. Were they inventing their own dialogue?
Well, for one thing, they were quoting themselves because we recorded the story and then put them back in the screenplay. And even then, they could really improvise if they felt some word was not feeling right for them. I let them do whatever they wanted and then sometimes, I asked them to stick more to the story. I mean, it’s something I do with actors, too. The story of the expensive pants, it comes from my son and his friend.
The two bullies, Michael and Jonathan, they fight over pants that he borrows from his friend and he did not give it back. It’s very futile. They were embarrassed to talk about that, the actors, the kids. I insisted to keep that. Because it led to a more philosophical issue about keeping your word or lying. It’s a conversation I had remembered from my son and his best friend, where my son was maybe not keeping his word and his friend was more of a liar. And they were really confronting each other of what is worse, to lie or to not keep your word. Personally, I think it’s worse maybe to not keep your word than to lie. But it could be a philosophical issue you could debate.
How old is your son now?
So this was when he was a teenager?
Yeah. He was about their age. He was probably 17 at the time.
So you’ve been in Paris finishing up a new film. It just finished wrapping?
I have to go back to do some touches, but it’s nearly finished.
It came from a book, right?
Oh, you’re talking about Mood Indigo? Yeah, it’s a very famous French book [L’écume des jours]. It’s a book that everybody reads when they are teenagers.
So it must be a huge deal in France that you’re adapting it. Is it kind of like doing a Hunger Games or Twilight movie or something like that — all eyes are on you and how you’ll interpret it?
Yeah, but it’s more like a Kerouac comparison. It’s from the fifties. Actually, ’47. And this book has grown to be very iconic, very important in adolescence, growing up. It’s a read for when you sort of transform. And it works for every generation; it’s working for the kids.
So you read it when you were an adolescent?
And it stuck with you all this time. What was so interesting about it to you?
Well, somebody asked me if I wanted to adapt this book into a movie, and I had those images that were already in my mind from the memory of reading this book for the first time. And then when I started to be a director, I would have flashbacks from this book, so I always had all these ideas of how to illustrate it, in a way, without thinking I was even the director. So when I was asked to direct it, it felt it really made sense.
It’s not intimidating given that this is the book that everyone reads?
Yeah, very intimidating. Very stressful. I mean, I don’t want to be too negative because it’s still great and I’m happy that I’ve done it, but it’s a lot of responsibility. I must say, I hope the movie’s good, because I love this book. So you know how it goes. I mean, it’s considered a masterpiece, the book, so the comparison would be hard.
I should read it. What was the hardest part about it for you in terms of getting the story right or the visuals?
Well, it’s a love story with the girl who gets a sickness, and the sickness is illustrated by a flower that grows in her lung, and it’s a very dark matter but it’s illustrated with vivid poetry in a way. A thing that I really like is that all the objects of the house are sort of … she’s scared things are changing and everything is shrinking as the sickness takes over. That was something that really struck my imagination reading the book. It’s very challenging to illustrate it visually. Most directors will say, “Oh, you can’t illustrate that. It’s an abstract image.” But I really wanted to be sort of literal about it. So we built an apartment that was shrinking little by little.
How did you make it shrink little by little?
We moved the walls, we rebuilt the walls, we put the ceiling lower — every day we have to shoot in order, and we will change the space a little bit every day.
I’ve seen the trailer, which is gorgeous.
The wedding, is it actually taking place in water?
No, it’s something … because in French, the title is L’écume des jours, the foam of the days. You have this very underwater feeling overall. So it’s a technique I had done for The Science of Sleep, where Stéphane, the main character, was swimming into the air, or his dreams. So I decided to fill up a tank with water and project an image behind. So I reused this technique. It’s sort of my — not a signature — but it’s something I have not seen done by anybody else, so I thought, Okay, I’ll do it again. Except here, it’s a context of reality, so it shows that they are … in the story, nothing is happening. It’s just an image of the feeling of being really immersed into their love. Something I don’t really want to explain, but it’s a feeling — it’s how they feel. Very close to each other and separate from the others.
Is it a big deal in terms of anticipation for the movie to have Audrey Tautou as the star? She’s one of the most famous women in France.
Yes, but it’s like no different than to work with Kate Winslet. I mean, once people are working, they are just working. She’s very sweet, and we’re very good friends. I like her. I like how she is kind of fragile and very strong at the same time.
You have some great lo-fi fantasy scenes in The We and the I. What did the kids think about the sorts of scenes where you had them dealing with special effects? Like when one guy mentions religion and then all of a sudden they’re wandering through a papier-mâché Hell.
Oh, I love that one. Yeah, yeah, it’s funny for them. One of our favorite parts of the shoot was to do the reenactment of the story of Sam. You know, the sort of fake-cool kid, who always pretends to have great parties. So we reenacted his lies, basically, when we re-created this party.
I loved that.
Actually, I could make a whole movie about this kid. He’s so funny. He’s ridiculous.
That was the actual kid, who made up those stories?
Yeah. He was like that. He was totally out of his mind. He’s just acting totally cool and he pretends to be so knowledgeable, and he’s exactly like that.
Was the bus driver, Mia Lobo, an actual bus driver?
Yes. We could not have anyone but an MTA official driver to drive the bus.
How did you end up picking her?
Well, we remember we had two people from MTA showing up and willing to do it, and I liked her the best. I cannot say it was a casting. She was so amazing, and she had to wake up at four in the morning, then at five, she would pick up the bus at the terminal, and then drive all the way to the Bronx, and then do a whole day of shooting. Then when everybody would go home, she would have to go drive back the bus to the terminal and then go home.
That poor old lady who’s stuck in the back with the bullies at the beginning and gets fake-ejaculated on with pudding …
She’s my neighbor. She’s really sweet.
Your neighbor in …
Have the kids seen the movie yet? What’s their reaction?
Yeah, of course. We did a screening yesterday.
What’s next for them? Do some of them want to be actors?
Half of them are still at school, the other half have some job, and they all would like to become actors and some are starting to shoot their own movies. So they are all excited by the process, but of course they know the reality. It’s not, like, something you can decide to do the next day and it’s gonna happen.
It must be gratifying for you in a lot of ways.
Yeah, but sometimes I feel guilty, as well [laughs], because they have expectations and say, “Yeah, I want to be an actor.” I don’t know if it’s gonna happen. I mean, the chances are very slim if you want to be an actor. I’ve already used Alex [Raul Barrios] in my movie Mood Indigo. He played Jesus. Alex, one of the kids who stays the longest. He played in Mood Indigo a small part.
You’ve done this and you were doing some small animated shorts and Mood Indigo. Are you not doing commercial work anymore?
I might do some. I try to do one or two per year just to even out my finances.
What I meant by commercial work is big studio stuff.
Oh, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yes, I would like to, but it’s just to find the right material and something where I could really express more of myself.
Do you think there’s room for idiosyncratic directors in big-studio Hollywood?
Yeah, I think so. If you look, like, at Christopher Nolan, for instance. So when he did Inception, that was really his own concept and it was a big film.
What did you think of Argo?
I thought the movie was very entertaining and very thrilling. I’m not sure it’s a … I mean, I think that the stereotype of the Arab being the bad guys in the story, it’s like in the fifties where USSR was the sort of typical villain. I mean, it’s a story that happened. But it doesn’t really help what’s going on in the Middle East. But I thought the movie was very well done.
Yeah, I was just very curious what you thought of the Oscar fare, because some might say that the conventional Hollywood films won out.
Oh, I don’t have opinion about Oscar. If I get one, I take it, but that’s all. [Laughs.]
Are you influenced by Spike Lee, because it does have a feel reminiscent of his earlier work, especially the look of it.
Yeah, of course. I remember when I was preparing Block Party I saw him and then I think my brother had met him before, and he sort of gave me his approval, his moral support. Because I felt really maybe I was stealing the job of an African-American director in doing that. So I always have this guilt with me. But it was nice that he seemed very nice — I don’t know him except I just saw him this one time and he said, “It’s good you’re doing Block Party.” So, yeah, his movies, they’re great, and it’s a compliment to be compared to him.