For his latest film, The We and the I, Michel Gondry cast a group of high schoolers from the Bronx with no prior acting experience. The French director—who’s worked with actors like Jim Carrey, Kate Winslet, Jack Black and Gael García Bernal—says the idea of filming a group of kids from a tough urban neighborhood was refreshing. Almost the whole movie is shot on a bus as it moves through the city on the last day of school. But Gondry, who made a name for himself with imaginative camera tricks in his music videos and films, occasionally resorted to other kinds of tricks to get the performances he wanted from his actors.
In one scene, a girl named Teresa walks onto the bus in a blonde wig, only to be mocked by her classmates. But her co-stars had already seen Teresa Lynn, the actress playing Teresa, in the wig the previous week. To capture their reactions, Gondry filmed a take where she stepped on the bus wearing a crazy, curly orange wig.
“I had to find ways to develop surprises,” he says. “But because we shot in order, they were more and more haunted by their own characters. That made it easier.”
Keeping the same cast on the bus for the whole movie also had its advantages. “When you shoot a regular movie,” he says, “you always have these background people who perhaps have no energy. In this case, everywhere we put the camera we have 30 or 40 kids that were in character. It’s like having 30 actors on set.”
The idea for the film started with Gondry thinking back to his own schooling. “It started with my own experience in school where at times my friends would change their personality whether they were one-on-one or in big groups. I wanted to figure out why they were different persons. For me, it was important to be myself.”
As someone who was naturally drawn to the outcasts and kids who maybe weren’t part of his same middle-class upbringing, he was attracted to a story about kids not having the easiest time. But he didn’t want their situation to overshadow the characters. “In high school, I was always friends with more outcasts or kids from different backgrounds,” he says. “Maybe I got interested in the stories of kids who are not having the easiest life. But I wanted to avoid clichés. I wanted to look more at what we all have in common than the differences.
“By trying to find what we have in common, I kind of avoid exaggeration,” he continues. “I think the story of these kids is quite universal.”
Gondry tried to find kids in Brooklyn and Manhattan before settling on an after-school program in the Bronx. “We found this after-school project and they welcomed us,” he says. “They had an artistic background, teaching photography and such. They were certainly not a bunch of privileged kids, which brings me back to sort of my friends who had a more difficult life.”
One group of siblings particularly stands out in the film. The Carrasco family (Lady Chen, Konchen, Chenkon and Jacob) play a sister and three brothers on the bus. Their mother invited Gondry to film a scene in their house that would later be passed around the bus through the kids’ phones. During the credits, Gondry shares a letter from their mother.
“They were such a nice, sweet family,” Gondry says. “The idea for the buttered floor came from them, so we went to their place to re-enact or recreate it. The day before we went to shoot, she sent us this very sweet letter welcoming us to the house and warning us that there was not a sofa for us to sit on. I wanted to show the kindness of people who aren’t living life at the easiest.”