Fans of Michel Gondry’s weirder movies and videos (i.e., all of them) might not know what to make of the filmmaker’s latest effort, The We and the I (in theaters today). At least on the surface, it doesn’t share much creative DNA with past Gondry classics like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep. The We and the I follows a group of New York teenagers, played by real New York teenagers, as they ride home from school on a city bus through the South Bronx. It’s compelling stuff, but also a little confusing. Is this really the same guy who once made a Björk video about a man-eating Teddy bear?
I called Gondry recently to have him explain himself. We talked about time travel, genuine weirdness, inventing as a vocation, and whether teenagers in 2013 want to “Bust a Move.”
When somebody first told me the title of your new movie, The We and the I, I thought they said The Wee in the Eye. Meaning wee as in urine.
And eye like the eye we use to see?
Yeah. Have you gotten that confusion a lot?
No, you’re the first one to mention that. The Wee in the Eye? You have a very perverse imagination.
But given your resumé, it isn’t a huge stretch. Not that you’ve done urine fetish movies. But, you know, a few months ago you released an animated short about a mouse who opens a hair salon and gets murdered.
[Laughs.] Oh, yes, yes. I see what you mean.
People expect a certain weirdness from you. If I heard Spielberg was doing a movie called The Wee in the Eye, I’d be like, “Whaaaaat?” But Michel Gondry’s The Wee in the Eye? I’d be like, “Oh, that should be good.”
I suppose that’s a good thing. People have expectations.
Those expectations aren’t necessarily fulfilled in The We and the I.
That’s true, yes. People have pointed that out to me. But many of them understand that I was going for something else with this movie. I think they appreciate that I’m trying something different. Some people who’d seen the movie told me they thought there was symbolism in the beginning, when the small bus is crushed by the big bus. They thought it was an expression of departure. The small bus is my usual style, and the big bus is the reality I’m going to focus on this time.
Was that symbolism intentional? Do you mean it to be interpreted that way?
I can’t remember. I don’t think so. I think it was just something funny I threw in.
So, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a small bus is just a small bus?
That’s right, yes. And a cigar is a cigar. The idea was something I’d had for a long time. I originally wanted to do it with a train. I wanted a small train to be crushed under the wheels of a big train. It’s a type of thing that I like to do.
Comedy is one of those things that can’t be forced. Sometimes just trying too hard to be funny can make something less funny. Is the same rule true with weirdness? Can you be genuinely weird if you’re actively trying to be weird?
I don’t think so. It’s a very difficult question to answer. You don’t want to be too self-aware of who you are or what you’re doing. It’s only something that can be appreciated after the fact, not in the process of doing it. If you just decide, “Okay, I’m going to do something weird,” that would be shallow, I think. You don’t do something weird because it’s weird. You do something weird because that’s your experience. You can’t make a movie about romance without having been in love. And you can’t make a movie that’s genuinely weird unless you’ve experienced truly weird things in your life.
I guess that means your life has been pretty goddamn weird.
It does. I think anything in a movie that doesn’t come from a real place is kind of hollow. Like, when we were shooting The We and the I, there were times we had to use a handheld camera. Not because we wanted to, but because we were on a moving bus filled with teenagers, and that was the only way we could shoot it. And it ended up looking sort of shaky.
And that wasn’t your intention?
No, but I liked the look of it. That’s a lot different than those movies or TV shows that shake the camera on purpose to get the same effect. They’re not doing it because it’s what happened during the production. They’re trying to create a certain false style, fabricating tension where none exists. And I think audiences recognize that. They can sense disingenuousness.
There was a rumor on the Internet a few years ago that The We and the I was originally going to be about teenagers who discovered a time-travel machine. Was that ever true?
No. That was a completely different project. I think a journalist got mixed up. We were working on something else.
The Master of Space and Time adaptation?
Yes, right, that one. With Ellen Page. But I put it aside to work on this film instead. But then I read that article about The We and the I being about time travel, and I thought, Hmm, that’s not a bad idea.
You considered it?
It crossed my mind. I thought it might be interesting to take the same kids from the South Bronx and put them into the time-travel story.
That would’ve been amazing. I can’t think of a better concept for a movie than Ellen Page on a time-travel bus full of black and Latino teenagers.
It’s like the punch line to a Louis C.K. joke.
Sometimes mistakes inspire things like that. Confusion can lead to great ideas.
What if you had access to a time machine? Where would you go?
You mean as part of a movie plot or — ?
In your real life. If you, Michel Gondry, found a time machine and could go anywhere, to any period in history, where would you take it?
I would travel back a few years ago and fix some screw-up I did.
A personal or professional screw-up?
In my personal life.
Can you be more specific?
I would come back and say yes to a girl. That’s all. Actually, I find the whole idea of traveling back in time to be profoundly depressing.
Really? Why so?
Because I know the future. Living in the past, it would feel weird to know what’s going to happen next. You couldn’t escape it. That future’s already in your head. You know it doesn’t get better.
You’d rather not know about the future?
The future is about hope. If you travel from the present to the past, you don’t have that hope anymore. You know how everything turns out.
There are no surprises.
No surprises, exactly! To me, that just sounds so… depressing.
What if you went further back? Like to the 16th, 17th century.
I would still know about the future.
Yeah, but it’s so far away from the modern era. You wouldn’t be like, “Oh, man, I wish we had some penicillin.” ‘Cause that shit’s half a millennium away.
But then I’d want to fix it. I’d be tempted to try and rewrite the future. And I don’t know the rules. Can you do that? Or do you just end up causing more damage in the long run?
Here’s the thing that’s always worried me about time travel: Once I get to the past, how do I make a living? How do I feed and clothe myself?
In the 17th century?
Yeah. If you took a time machine to the 17th century, it’s not like you can get a job on a movie set. How do you pay your bills?
Well, I think that really comes down to the circumstances in which you were born. It’s the privilege of the place that you came to the earth. During the 17th century, I think most of the population lived in the countryside and were farmers. So that’s probably what I’d end up doing too. The elites were even more privileged than they are now.
You couldn’t weasel your way in with the elites?
Not unless I was already one of them. It’s funny, it reminds me of when I was a kid, and my mother and family used to believe in reincarnation. Everybody had a story about how in a previous life they’d been part of a kingdom or been connected to a prince in Egypt or whatever. Everybody who believes in reincarnation has something fantastical in their past life. But that can’t possibly be true. The majority of people were living in poverty in the past. The odds against you being reincarnated from somebody of privilege is incredibly unlikely.
When you were young, you wanted to be an inventor, right?
Yeah. It was an aspiration.
Was it like when kids dream of being astronauts or Jedis? Or was it something you considered as a practical career?
It seemed practical at the time. I have quite a creative mind, I think, and inventing things seemed like a very exciting way to spend your days. But it goes back to what we were talking about before. When you think of being an inventor, you think about it in terms of the past, not the future.
You think about things that have already been invented?
Yeah. Like the airplane. It’s easy to imagine being the Wright brothers. Because we take planes for granted. These are things that have been around for 100 years. But to be an inventor in the present, you have to be a very accomplished scientist.
Imagination alone isn’t enough.
It’s not. So that’s why working in film is a very good place for me. I can use my imagination, but I don’t have to do math.
Was race ever a concern when making The We and the I? You’re a 49-year-old French guy making a movie about kids of color in the Bronx. Did you ever think, Maybe this isn’t the story I should be telling?
No, I don’t think I ever saw it that way.
You never asked yourself, What does an old white guy know about black teenagers?
It wasn’t about the color of their skin, or even their age. It’s about feeling like a stranger when you’re in a group of strangers. We’ve all had that experience. We’ve all arrived at a party and felt like everybody else knows each other and you’re the outsider. But if you stick around long enough, you realize that most people feel the same way you do.
That’s what this movie is about?
That’s exactly what it’s about. It’s how kids or people change in the context of others. Of course, that doesn’t mean making a movie with teenagers wasn’t difficult. I felt a little silly when I walked into this group. But I spent a lot of time with them and got to know them. And in the end, this movie wasn’t really about me. It was about their experiences and their reality.
But there were a few moments that didn’t seem in sync with the reality of a teenager in 2013. Like the song played during the opening credits, “Bust a Move.” Isn’t it from 1989?
Yes, of course. It’s an album by Young MC, who’s one of my favorite hip-hop artists. I know that Flea, the bass player in Red Hot Chili Peppers, was involved. It’s really very dynamic and raw.
But it’s not what kids are listening to anymore. If you went to the Bronx and got onto a bus filled with teenagers, I’m pretty sure you wouldn’t hear “Bust a Move.” Did that not matter?
It didn’t. I wasn’t thinking about whether the song was or wasn’t popular anymore. It’s just my taste. Not that I don’t like what’s new in music, but there’s something about that particular song that resonated for me. It’s different from so much hip-hop these days. It isn’t about some fantasy life that the rapper is imagining. It’s the reality of a good kid going to school. There’s an innocence to it that I really identify with.
When you’re directing teenagers in a movie, how do you hold their attention and get their respect? Do you try to speak their language and be the “cool” adult?
Well, being the “cool” adult never works. But I remember, when I was a teenager, the adults I liked the most were the ones who treated us as equals, who were not condescending. So that’s always the approach I took. I’m pretty shy in general, but I tried to show them right from the start that I trusted them. I wasn’t going to come barging in and give them a lot of orders. I trusted them and their abilities. And I learned as much from them as maybe they learned from me.
So you were never like, “Hey kids, who wants to breakdance and listen to ‘Bust a Move’?”
No. I can’t imagine that working out very well for me.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)