Forty Minutes with Fernando Meirelles

Every once in a while a film comes from out of nowhere and throws me for a loop. That happened to me two years ago when I saw City of God from Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. City of God was a jolt of extraordinary creativity and kinetic energy. Meirelles told many inter-connected stories set in ďfavelasĒ--the worst slums of Rio. The gangsters ruled, but these gangsters were adolescents and teenagers, most of whom did not live past age 20. Through his brilliant camerawork and innovative editing, Meirelles drew you into to these kidsí lives and their environment. If that was not impressive enough, Meirelles worked with mostly first-time nonprofessional actors, many of whom lived in the favelas. For his effort and artistry, Meirelles received a 2004 Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Of course Meirelles did not come out of nowhere but has been directing in Brazil since the 1980s. He began in television, commercials, and promotional videos. The independent studio he founded, O2 Filmes, became the largest in Brazil, and won many awards. In 1997, Meirelles moved to feature films. City of God was his third feature.

His fourth feature is The Constant Gardener, adapted by Jeffrey Caine from the novel by John le Carrť. Like many le Carrť stories, The Constant Gardener tells of murder and intrigue. Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), a mid-level British diplomat stationed in Kenya, lives a quiet existence. His activist wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) gradually discovers that large pharmaceutical corporations are secretly using Kenyans to test new drugs, often with deadly consequences. When Tessa uncovers too much she and her friend are brutally murdered. Once passive to a fault, Justin marshals his grief and anger to continue Tessaís work. As Justin digs deeper he discovers a conspiracy stretching across nations and involving those closest to him, including his colleague Sandy (Danny Huston) and his boss Pellegrin (Bill Nighy).

A few weeks ago I attended a screening of The Constant Gardener, followed by a Q&A with Meirelles (see below for the Q&A). The next day I had the privilege of participating in a group conversation with the director as he discussed his new film and what lies ahead:

Question: I read that you were recruited for this. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Fernando Meirelles: Yes. Who was supposed to direct this movie was Mike Newell. So Simon (Channing Williams), the producer, bought the rights. He developed the script one or two years and then Mike Newell was going to direct. He invited Ralph and then he (Newell) was invited to do Harry Potter and so he left the project. During this week I was in London by accident, just came from Kenya, and I met Simon through a friend of mine and he said ďI have this script here and I thought about you.Ē I read the script and thought it was very interesting. The story was set in Kenya and I was just coming from Kenya researching this place to do another film, a different story that I was planning to do, still planning to do. So I thought it was a good opportunity for me to shoot in Kenya with a big production behind me. It was a story with the pharmaceutical industry behind it and I thought the pharmaceutical industry were perfect bad guys. This is a big issue in Brazil, pharmaceuticals, because in Brazil the government pays for treatment for AIDS 100 percent. The past five years has been like a war between the big pharmaceuticals and the Brazilian government because the government is always trying to negotiate lower costs of drugs and the pharmaceutical industry doesnít want to lower the cost so the government starts to use generics for some drugs. All kinds of pressure comes because of this... So this issue has always been in the front pages of Brazil. For years youíd see and read about the pharmaceuticals and the pressure and how it works. Thatís why I was so interested in exploring this subject.

Adam Spector: Following up on that, what was the most surprising thing you found when you were doing research on ďBig PharmaĒ for the film, and what do you think the most surprising thing would be for the audience, many of whom would just be learning about it now?
Fernando Meirelles: Well, actually the story in the film is about using Africans as guinea pigs. This is a real story based on a story that happened in Nigeria. There was a company that did essentially the same thing. People in Nigeria signed informed consent because they had medical treatment for the families for free. Then they test the drugs and everybody had problems with their legs, their joints. So now there are a lot of American lawyers suing this big company. And the story for the film is based upon this real story. But I think the biggest problem with pharmaceuticals is not using Africans as guinea pigs. Itís really about pricing. They have the monopoly of pills that they help to invent, to create. If you have a pill that saves lives everybodyís prepared to pay anything, and they know that. So they can charge 50, 60, 100 times more than it costs. Thatís why itís such a profitable industry. They say they spend a lot of money on research and all of that. Thatís an excuse to charge 100 times more than it costs.

Adam Spector: Clearly your film has a message. It has things to say about Big Pharma, whatís going on in Kenya and other African countries. Yet audiences, especially American audiences, hate to feel like theyíre being preached to. How do you walk that fine line--getting your point across without hitting people over the head with it?
Fernando Meirelles: This was an issue. I think I mentioned yesterday that I shot a documentary to insert in the film. Even I could tell... I could hear my voice, the director saying things. You know, the middle of the film the director comes and says [in fake authoritative voice] ďNow you see...Ē We tried to take all of this out. That was the limit. But I was aware that this could happen. It was a pity because I liked the documentary very much... I liked the information that was said in that little piece. But it really didnít work. I was really aware of the problem and we noticed that it wouldnít work.

Adam Spector: You mentioned yesterday that youíre putting the documentary on the DVD.
Fernando Meirelles: Yes. On the DVD itís different because you click just to see a specific thing. Seeing the documentary makes sense.

Adam Spector: With City of God, you were in that one location, that one neighborhood. Whereas with The Constant Gardener, you filmed not only in several different areas, but in several different countries. What type of challenge was that for you?
Fernando Meirelles: In City of God itís a low budget film so it was like a war, a guerilla type shooting. Just a small camera on shoulder and a small crew in the middle of a place where we did not know exactly what we were stepping on. And now it was different. We had a big production behind us, so we shot in different places, some very difficult places like in the desert where we shot that scene with the raiders. There was no hotel, no lodge, no nothing. We set a camp with 250 tents and everything was brought by plane. We built the air strip and brought horses and food and everything. It was such an operation. I was not the producer so, from my viewpoint, it was very easy. This was an interesting experience for me as well because I had always produced my own projects like I did with City of God, which I even financed myself, and now I was just a director. It was so much easier. You donít have to deal with any problems. I had this excellent crew and they would provide anything. It was even a bit scary. Sometimes I would say things in a meeting, just putting ideas out and they would provide. So like ďOh, it would be nice having some camelsĒ just in the middle of a meeting. And then one week later I see people calling because the camels are coming in from Somalia and the plane has to get the camels in. ďHey, what are you doing?Ē ďWeíre bringing the camels.Ē ďNo, please you donít have to bring camels from Somalia. If thereís no camel around, letís forget camels.Ē Itís really scary. Theyíd bring you anything. Whatever you say.

Question: Budget was not an issue?
Fernando Meirelles: No, itís a $25 million film. For my standards this is big, but from American standards this is not a big film.They say itís not a low budget but a medium film. They really know how to spend money.

Question: Was there anything you wanted that you werenít able to get?
Fernando Meirelles: No. Everything I wanted was there. Money was never an issue. I think the way I shot, me and my director of photography (Cťsar Charlone), itís a very light way. He doesnít use equipment, lights, generators. Itís all just changing bulbs... The heavy work on the images is done in the post-production when transfer from film to tape then bring back to film--thatís the process. And this process, thatís when you fix light and we really do our photography. So during the shooting there is not much equipment, not much lights, and used a very small camera, 16mm. So our set was very, very light and inexpensive and there was some money left. Whatever I wanted I could have because they did a budget for an average kind of set and our set was more inexpensive.

Question: What was it like working on an English language production?
Fernando Meirelles: This was difficult because I think I understand English 80 percent, but sometimes even understanding what the words mean or what the lines mean you donít get what is behind... In Portugese when I say ďThere was a boy under the mango tree.Ē A mango tree is not just a mango tree. It speaks to my childhood and itís something in the past and a lot of things when I say it. In English each word... I just donít get it. I just see a tree. I donít see all that is behind the tree. This was very hard. All the actors and the writer and everybody... I had this problem and I was always asking them ďWhatís the meaning of this?Ē and ďWhy do you say this line this way and not in that way?Ē They were very patient in explaining and tried to include me in that script but it was very hard.

Adam Spector: One of the reasons City of God worked so well was because, in addition to the main story or stories, you got a real flavor of the neighborhood, a real sense of what it was like to live there regardless of whether you were involved in what was going on or not. I thought this quality carried over to The Constant Gardener. The scenes in Kenya gave you a real idea of what it was like to be there at that time. From the press notes it seems you spent a lot of time working on that. I was hoping you could talk about your research into Kenya and how you brought that into the film.
Fernando Meirelles: Thatís why we decided to shoot in Kenya. Youíre in the middle of Kibera (a large slum area in Nairobi) for instance, that slum youíre shooting here with the actor. And then you look there and thereís an interesting face. Just point the camera. So we used to do a bit of documentary in between the scenes. Itís such a nice environment. Just point the camera around and thereís a world to be shown. We used this. Instead of trying to produce a reality we just used what is around, which is really very rich. We had never seen Kenya before so everything there looks different and interesting.

Question: I read that you thought Kibera was shocking.
Fernando Meirelles: Yes, I never thought that I could see places worse than the favelas in Rio, but itís really, really.... First of all, the huts in Rio, in Brazil, theyíre built with bricks, so you have a floor, you have walls. In Kibera, in Kenya, itís all mud and itís a dirt floor. Thereís no electricity and no sanitation at all. In Rio all the houses have electricity. They had a television and fridge and in Kenya they had nothing. Just a dirty floor and no water. This is the biggest problem in Kibera. They have to get water tanks and walk four kilometers to get water and bring it home every day. And they cook with fire, burning wood inside the huts. Thereís no trees around because they cut all the wood they can get. So they walk to get wood and they walk to get water. Itís a very hard life, very hard life.

Adam Spector: At the Q&A last night you mentioned that the book had less of an emphasis on Kenya and more of an emphasis on the British class system. You changed the story so that Kenya would be more of a focus. Did you do that because that would interest you more, did you think it would make for a better film, or both?
Fernando Meirelles: I was not very interested in this British class system. I think you have to be British to understand all the things. I could have done it, but I was not really interested. I was much more interested in trying to show Kenya. But in the book, even in the first script, Pellegrin and Justin are upper class. Their families were friends, and Sandy was a working class guy who went to grammar school, which is a bad school for working class people. So heís kind of a wannabe. There were all these subtle things, all the relations between the characters. Gloria, Sandyís wife was upper class, so Sandy married to raise his status. It was all about that. You have just two hours to tell a story. You canít spend time explaining all of this which was not the focus of the film.

Adam Spector: You also said that it was new for you to follow one character from the beginning to the end.
Fernando Meirelles: Yes. I had never done that. When we finished the film our first cut was a linear story, just following from the beginning--and it became a very boring film. So thatís when (editor) Claire Simpson and I started to take different approaches to the film. Because we actually shot a very linear story about one character. But then, changing the order of some sequences, you give a very different approach to the story. Thatís what weíve done. We edit the film in nine or ten weeks and we had the linear story. Then we spent four months trying different order, structure, taking things out. We did two screen tests in New York to check the reaction. Because after a while we are so involved in the scenes we lose all judgement. So it was very useful being able to test it, to see what the audience was understanding and then working from all that. But this is probably still the most linear story Iíll do. I always think in different structures.

Adam Spector: One more thing you discussed last night: Rather than storyboarding scenes and putting the camera in a particular place, you have the camera react to what the actors are doing. I would think that actors would enjoy working this way. Do they respond to that style?
Fernando Meirelles: Yes. In the beginning they thought it was a bit weird, especially because I was always asking them to improvise, to give new lines, to make the scene fresh. Because sometimes if you repeat the same thing over and over it gets automatic. We were working with great actors. I always ask one actor to change lines so it will surprise the other actor. You know, keep it fresh. And the other thing is, as I was saying yesterday, we always shot from the top of the scene Ďtil the end. We never break the scene--ďNow your dialogue, now itís your turn.Ē We just do the scene from the top to the end. And the actors started doing this and they started enjoying it. In the end Rachel told me that it was going to be very difficult for her to go back to the other way of shooting. Usually they have to hit marks and have the right light in the right position and I think itís very hard. Youíre in an emotional sequence and you have to be aware of where the camera is and where your angle has to be. With me, you donít have to think about it. Just focus on the energy.

Adam Spector: Does this way of shooting make editing more difficult?
Fernando Meirelles: Yes. I donít care much about continuity. City of God probably is the record breaker in mistakes of continuity. Plus I did not have a continuity person on set. I didnít want anybody telling me that the guy was holding something in the wrong hand. So thereís so many mistakes. But, at the end of the day, there a lot of people who love seeing mistakes of continuity. There are programs, shows on television, about mistakes so I provide them with material for their shows. That's the truth.

Adam Spector: Besides continuity issues, what were some of the other challenges in editing the film?
Fernando Meirelles: When I was editing I was dealing with the script, changing order. When you change the order of a scene, it's not only that the scene happens. When you have Tessa dying in the middle of the film a lot of lines that come before are prepared just for that. When she dies in Scene One thereís a lot of dialogue in the scenes that happen afterwards that you donít need anymore because you know sheís dead. So when you change something like that everything else changes. Itís like a puzzle. You do this so you have to take this line. You have this line here to explain something. Itís great. I love to do this. The part I like the most in the process is trying to find different possibilities for the same story and it's really exciting. Sometimes I donít even sleep thinking, ďWhat if that sceneís here and that sceneís here?Ē You have to have two hours in your head and know exactly what lineís where. I love this... it's like a game.

Question: Did you have to go back to do any additional shooting to make the pieces work together?
Fernando Meirelles: No, but I did a lot of additional lines. Sometimes you donít need to bring the actor, just his voice. You put somebody elseís face, you can add lines and I did it a lot. Because in the last weeks we were editing, mixing the film in one room. In the other room we had actors to add new lines. I started to work on this film too soon. I read the script and forty days later I was in Africa, in Nairobi. So we never got the script right. At the same time I was talking to actresses and trying to understand the character I was looking for. Thatís why I kept changing it, until the end. In City of God I changed it a lot too, but I spent two years working on the script so when I decided to do the film I knew it precisely. And now, in this case, Iím still in the studying stage. [laughs] Itís true.

Adam Spector: You mentioned last night that after City of God you had many offers from Hollywood studios. Iím sure youíll get even more after this film. Would you like to make more big budget films, would you rather stay in Brazil or would you like to so some of both?
Fernando Meirelles: I think the ideal world for me is to stay in Brazil and produce international films. I would like to tell the story I want to tell from that viewpoint. But I would like to be connected to international business and cinema, especially because of financing and distribution. Because if Iím in Brazil only producing for Brazilians my film would only be shown in Brazil. So Iím interested in being connected with the industry. But Iím not interested in telling European stories or American stories because Iím not the best person to do this. I thought about doing a script called The Confederacy of Dunces. Itís a brilliant script and I read it and was very interested because it was a really great story, great script, but then I decided not to do it because I wouldnít know what to do with it. You must be an American and born in the south to understand the story and the context. I felt it was not part of my culture. I decided not to do it, to avoid spoiling a very good script. I hope somebody makes this film. This was one of two films that I thought about directing.

Adam Spector: And the other one?
Fernando Meirelles: The other one was Collateral. They invited me and Russell Crowe was going to play the part Tom Cruise played. This project, I liked the script and I went two times to Los Angeles to talk about it and then this was for personal reasons. They wanted to shoot it in July. I was traveling for such a long time and wanted to go back home. I was writing this script about globalization and so in the end I decided not to do it. And itís a very different film from when I read the script. I see a much different film. Itís funny, you spend some time trying to see a film and then you see it. I like very much the film Michael Mann made. I was going to do it more like a comedy. Have you seen After Hours? The tone is drama but itís a comedy. Itís very funny and that was the tone I was proposing to the studio. They said this could be interesting and thatís what weíre talking about. Because itís so absurd, the idea and everything is so... that I was going to make it crazy, dramatic comedy and itís fantastic. Michael Mann read the script and he believed in all that... and he did it for real and it worked.

Question: Whatís the other story you were shooting in Kenya?
Fernando Meirelles: Itís part of a film about globalization. Iím writing this story set in seven different countries, seven different languages.

Adam Spector: Is that Intolerance?
Fernando Meirelles: Yes, this project that I was supposed to shoot last year but then I shot The Constant Gardener and now Iím going to go back to it. So thereís this story set in Kenya about a Kenyan runner that lives in Eldoret, north of Nairobi. So thatís why I went to Eldoret. I visited all the training camps. The Kenyans are the best runners... theyíre amazing. In marathons theyíre pretty unbeatable. So one of the runners is one of the key characters in the film.

Adam Spector: What are some of the other parts?
Fernando Meirelles: Thereís a character in the U.S. Thereís a boy in Brazil, which is a poor boy but heís brilliant. Heís the guy who tries to explain how the world works. And then thereís a worker in China. Itís an interesting story. I hope I can do it next year, depending on the script.

Question: Did you write the script?
Fernando Meirelles: Yes, Iím writing with the same guy who wrote City of God with me--Braulio Mantovani. Thatís why we were traveling. Iím writing a story set in the Philippines, in Manila. Iíve never been there, so we went to Manila to see locations.

Question: Is there a connection between all the stories?
Fernando Meirelles: Aha. Youíve gotta watch the film. [laughs].

Adam Spector
August 13, 2005


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