Michel Gondry has directed famous movie stars (Jim Carrey and Kate Winslet in “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and musicians (the White Stripes, Kanye West). His latest film — his first since “The Green Hornet” — boasts no one you’ve heard of. “The We and the I,” out now, is the result of a four-year process with teens from an after-school arts program in the Bronx. Two years were spent in workshops pounding a narrative together, and the result is a raucous comedy about high schoolers on one seriously long bus ride home.
Though you’d made several films in NYC before, the genesis for this film did not come from here.
I was in Paris on a bus, and about twenty kids jumped on. It was chaos. The conversations drifted from something very aggressive to something more personal, and eventually there were only two kids left.
The actual shooting was so delayed that, by the time it began, some of the cast were no longer in high school. Was that strange for them?
Some of the cast were embarrassed to play the story they had experienced two yeas ago. The workshop lasted two years, so they’d grown and changed. Every time the film was delayed, we were worried they were going to grow out of the story. One of the kids, one of the bullies, had become much taller. He had to drop out.
Given the length of the workshop, it seems like the film is really bigger than just the film itself.
For me, the workshop was equal to the film. I told them I didn’t know if we would ever get to shoot it, but we would still have a great experience together. We were all committed to the project. I remember the day before shooting began, one of the producers teared up. It was the beginning of the end of our time together.
How do you tend to interact with your actors?
One thing I’m trying to achieve when I make a movie is to make sure I live amongst [my cast]. I like exchange. I like shooting people like we are one family, the way I used to shoot my brother with my dad’s camera. I like to reproduce this feeling. Sometimes filmmaking can become a sort of ritual. My idea is to try and break people of rituals, to get them to behave in a certain loose way.
What are some of your tricks for getting actors to loosen up?
We had a secret story for each of them. I would let the camera roll and let the actors talk about their exes, about what happened. Then with them in that frame of mind, I would ask them to say their lines, with the same tone of voice, the same emotion. I practiced [working with actors] over the years. I like to ask them weird questions. Like with the kids, I would ask them — this is a joke — “Who do you prefer: your dad or your mom?” It would loosen them up and get the right emotion.
Do you do tricks like that with big actors, too?
Yeah. [On “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind] I would ask Jim Carrey to say Kate Winslet’s lines, and then have her say his. It would help them remember the lines.
How did you gain these kids’ trust?
Sometimes it helps to be a foreigner. It helped in many situations, the fact that I was coming from another country. People would not rely on stereotypes. In general, I get curious with people. I don’t try to talk too much. It’s like when you meet someone and you’re just having dinner with them. You listen to what they have to say. It’s very obnoxious, people who speak more than they listen. When you apply this as a director, if you don’t talk constantly, and you listen, then people give you more trust.