French director’s latest features local high schoolers
Academy Award-winning French filmmaker Michel Gondry is known for blending the real and the surreal, but for a group of young people from Hunts Point, his latest movie is an especially intriguing mix of fantasy and reality.
Several local teens make their screen debuts, playing characters based on their own personalities, in Gondry’s “The We and the I,” which will begin showing in two New York theaters on March 8.
The mercurial director came to The Point CDC four years ago to hold acting workshops with local young people, many of whom were participating in ACTION, the teen leadership program. Gondry was drawn to the neighborhood by its reputation as a colorful place. He used those sessions to craft a script based on a group of South Bronx teens riding the bus home on the last day of school, then cast the young actors to play the roles they had inspired.
“At the time it didn’t feel like such a big deal,” said Chantelle-Lisa Davis, a graduate of William Howard Taft High School, who acted in the film. But after seeing an advanced screening in The Point’s Live from the Edge theater in January, she changed her mind.
“I got really into it. I even shed a tear,” she said.
“I love it,” said Nicole Rivera, another cast member, who is now studying film at SUNY New Paltz. “It’s so real. So raw.”
The movie, which will begin showing at the IFC Center in Manhattan and MIST in Harlem, uses flash-backs and cellphone video to touch on issues common to high school kids everywhere, such as bullying and identity. To help understand how Bronx kids interact, the director filmed the young actors on a bus every day over a period of several weeks.
“I don’t feel like we went by the script,” said Rivera, who graduated from the Bronx’ Monsignor Scanlan High School. “We would talk and talk, and they’d ask if we could say it again.”
But despite its attention to the nuances of everyday life for South Bronx teens, the film is not a documentary. The life-like drama it creates was shaped through a Hollywood lens, allowing the actors to improvise the fictional characters they play.
“Sometimes it would be really challenging,” said Rivera. “They wanted us to be serious, and we were fooling around.”
“The maturity was not there,” said Davis, who noted that she and her fellow cast members grew up during the years in which the film came together.
After a while, the characters the young actors had created melded with their real life selves, said Rivera, adding that the close confines they worked in brought the cast together.
“When we were on that bus for a whole day, we had to get close,” she said. “We were packed like sardines.”
Gondry and his crew came to The Point periodically to work on the script between 2008 and filming in 2011.
“I was getting antsy,” said Michael Brodie, a cast member who lives in Longwood. “We took a lot of breaks.”
“I didn’t realize the process took this long,” said Brodie, a former ACTION member, and a graduate of Fordham High School.
Brodie and other cast members hope to use the film, which played at the Cannes Film Festival last year, as a stepping-stone to an acting career.
“This is what I blame for having me go crazy for film,” said Jazmine Rivera, who is studying film production.
“Seeing the production and how it all works really amazed me,” she said.