For several weeks in August and September, the heavy black doors of the Live from the Edge Theatre at The Point Community Development Corp. concealed a Hollywood studio.
Crew and equipment crowded the auditorium, bustling about the business of movie making.
Add to this the 35 cast members, all between the ages of 14 and 20, with many from Hunts Point and Longwood. Scattered around the room in clusters, they would erupt in intermittent commotions as they went over lines, talked to directors and fooled around.
The controlled chaos offered a glimpse into the heart of Michel Gondry’s new feature film, “The We and the I.”
“It’s still kind of surreal,” said Jillian Rice, a 20-year-old cast member from Longwood Avenue. “It’s not every day you get a director looking for ordinary kids. It’s been a really great opportunity,” she said.
Gondry, a French director known for films like “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind” and “Be Kind Rewind,” came to The Point three years ago to run acting workshops with area kids.
“He’s a very peculiar guy,” said Kenny Quinonez, 18. “I’ve never seen anyone like him. He always has so much enthusiasm, it makes us get into it.”
Gondry’s team interviewed participants from youth programs at The Point, Go Girl, Bronx Defenders and area high schools, asking them to describe important moments in their lives, then to act out these stories, improvising short sketches.
“It’s a sort of induced method acting,” said Jordan Kinley, an associate producer on the film.
This collection of recorded vignettes, “like a big salad of stories,” became the basis for the script, said Oona Ibar, an acting coach on the project, and a friend of Gondry and his family. Ibar, who has worked with Carey Clark, visual arts director at The Point, to build floats for the annual Hunts Point Fish Parade, is the bridge from French filmmaker to the South Bronx.
About a year after his first stint at The Point, Gondry returned to Hunts Point with a screenplay. He cast the same young people who had participated in the workshops as characters, most playing themselves.
The film will explore group dynamics. It takes place entirely on a bus as it drops off students after school, and shows how interactions among the students change.
Gondry’s team has come back to The Point periodically over the past two years, coaching the kids and developing their characters.
“It’s hard,” said Raymond Rios, a 20-year-old cast member from Melrose. “Long hours, remembering all the lines.”
“But I’m super excited,” he added.
Shooting for the film began in August. During the production, the young actors were getting paid around $500 per week. They earned every penny.
“It’s a lot of work,” said Chenkon Carrasco, 20, a Hunts Point resident. Film productions have “all these complicated aspects you don’t think about,” he said.
“I felt like the workshops didn’t help me remember anything,” said Rios of the challenge of mastering his lines. “But they did make me more comfortable in front of the camera.”
Filming this script posed a particular set of logistical problems as well, with the crew having to worry about keeping a consistent background outside of the moving bus, so that when the movie is edited, the pieces will fit together smoothly.
To solve this problem, the producers divided the script into sections, and had the bus drive along a set route while filming each section.
The bus, hired from the MTA, made 15 separate loops, traveling back and forth through Mott Haven, Port Morris, Melrose, Hunts Point and Longwood.
Viewers of the movie will watch the South Bronx whirl past the windows as the bus sheds its passengers. As fewer and fewer students remain on board, their “conversations grow less superficial and more intimate and thought-provoking,” according to Kinley.
As he road the bus, directing the action, Kinley said, Gondry reflected on the film’s meaning. It raises the question, the film maker said, “When are we most ourselves?”
“The We and the I” will look for answers in adolescent lives, dealing with issues like “bullying, stereotypes, and insecurities” said Ibar — “universal issues about interpersonal relationships.”
“We have something actors don’t,” said Carrasco. “And that’s realism.”
“It’s everyday life,” he said.