Michel Gondry goes back to the art house with 'The We and the I'

Michel Gondry denies feeling stung by "The Green Hornet."

The $120-million action-adventure arrived in 2011 as the Oscar-winning French filmmaker's first Hollywood-backed studio movie. A modest hit starring Seth Rogen and Cameron Diaz, it required him to make no small number of creative compromises on its way to the screen, marking the only time final cut on one of his films was wrested away during an idiosyncratic dozen-year feature career.

"Doing a big studio movie, the process could be, at times, challenging," Gondry admits in Inspector Clouseau-like English. "It could, at times, be also depressing; every decision comes out of consultation with a lot of people."

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Perhaps not coincidentally, Gondry's new art-house offering "The We and the I" (which arrived in Los Angeles-area theaters in limited release Friday) could not be less geared toward achieving multiplex mass appeal short of arriving with the warning: "Green Hornet" fans need not attend.

Cast entirely with non-professional actors and shot on a shoestring $2-million budget — nearly all of "The We and the I's" action takes place on a public bus crawling through the South Bronx — Gondry intends the movie as an "experiment." One that is decidedly outside the intensely focus-grouped parameters of Hollywood's celebrity-industrial complex.

"Is this [movie] a reaction to 'The Green Hornet'? Yes. But as well, there is a continuity," Gondry says. "The kids in 'The We and the I' are the same ones who go to the theater to see 'The Green Hornet.' They are not the kids who go see 'The We and the I'!"

Unfolding on a hot New York afternoon when high school has let out for summer break, the alternately sassy and heartrending coming-of-age dramedy chronicles a group of students' inter-personal dramas. The film kicked off the Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight in May and opened in limited release in New York earlier this month to generally positive reviews for both its humor and poignancy.

For Versailles native Gondry, who won an original screenplay Academy Award for the impressionistic 2004 brain-erase romance "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind," "The We and the I" sprung out of an unorthodox four-year production process. He cast kids who had never professionally acted before to concoct scenes based on their own real-life stories and then improvise them while cameras rolled.

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Inspired by a Parisian bus journey he had taken more than two decades earlier, the director set out to capture teenager-dom in microcosm — a one-way trip of self-discovery focused around bullies and nerds, mean girls and gay couples who bicker and bond en route to varying degrees of enlightenment.

At a South Bronx youth and community center called the Point, Gondry pinned down his cast: 40 neophyte actors in their teens and early 20s. Through interviews and journal-writing exercises that began before and lasted through his work on "Green Hornet," the filmmaker tasked them with providing their own character arcs.

"We asked them to tell us their stories," Gondry says. "We used elements of those stories to build up the basic plot. Then, when we were shooting, they could adjust the language to what they would really say."

Initially, cast members weren't sure what to make of the frizzy-haired Frenchman before being won over by his egalitarian bonhomie.

"It was weird at first," says Teresa Lynn, one of the movie's co-leads, speaking by phone from the Simpson Street subway stop in the Bronx. "We didn't know Michel and he just came into our community. To tell him our deep, dark secrets was intense. But he's very down to earth. And after awhile we became comfortable with him. He laughed with us. It wasn't like he was our boss."

That predisposition toward an un-bossy on-set mien — not to mention Gondry's growing appreciation for the skills of non-pro actors — comes directly out of the director's experiences on two previous productions.

In "Dave Chappelle's Block Party," the freewheeling 2005 documentary featuring concert performances by alt-urban music all-stars including Lauryn Hill and Kanye West, Gondry mines man-on-the-street interactions between comedy superstar Chappelle and non-actor passersby for moments of unorchestrated comic relief. In the 2008 meta-narrative comedy "Be Kind Rewind," half of Gondry's cast had never seen the business side of a movie camera before being hired to reenact scenes from such beloved films as "Ghostbusters" and "Driving Miss Daisy," using cardboard props and lo-fi special effects.

"It became nearly a philosophy with me to shoot experiments with people who are not experienced," the director explained. "When you have someone who has done no movies at all, you get a lot of excitement and enthusiasm that you don't get from someone who's doing that on a daily basis."

For Gondry's next project, "Mood Indigo," however, he found room on the payroll for real thespians. The director's first French language movie since his surrealistic comedy "The Science of Sleep" finds him at the helm of an A-list French cast that includes Gallic heartthrob Romain Duris and "Amélie" star Audrey Tautou.

Based on author Boris Vian's 1947 novel "Froth on the Daydream," "Mood Indigo" represents a make-or-break moment for Gondry in his homeland. After the relatively low-stakes gamble of "The We and the I," the filmmaker acknowledged a certain amount of pressure that comes with adapting a book considered something like France's answer to "The Catcher in the Rye" for the big screen. ("Mood Indigo" hits theaters in Europe next month but does not yet have a North American distributor.)

"This novel has been read by every adolescent for 50 years in France," he said. "Everybody knows about it. Everybody grew up with it. It's a big weight on my shoulders to deliver."

Up next, if Gondry's agent has his way: a stage musical version of "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" bound for Broadway. "It would be funny to see how we can put on stage all those visual elements," Gondry said, before exclaiming with unbridled Franglais enthusiasm: "To do something mass appealing would excite me!"

chris.lee@latimes.com

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