City of God

Interview: Fernando Meirelles

by Carlo Cavagna



LEFT: Fernando Meirelles' new film, The Constant Gardener.

When director Fernando Meirelles was nominated for a 2004 Oscar for City of God, it was a bit of a surprise. The Brazilian unknown got the nod over Cold Mountain's Anthony Minghella, 21 Grams' Alejandro González Iñárritu, and Gary Ross, whose Seabiscuit made the Best Picture cut while City of God did not. Not many people saw it, either—the film grossed under $8 million in the United States. The critical acclaim, however, was enormous. City of God earned a total of four Oscar nominations and over fifty awards worldwide. Set in the titular government-built government-built slum outside Rio de Janeiro amid horrific violence and poverty, the sweeping coming-of-age epic depicts a boy who dreams of becoming a photo journalist instead of a gangster.

Meirelles began his career as an architect, but he was dabbling in video productions even while still in school. In the 1980s he worked strictly in television, founding the Olhar Electrônico (“Electronic Glance”) studio and directing the award winning series Rá-Tim-Bum for Brazilian public television, among other projects. In the 1990s, he moved into commercials and promotional videos until making his feature film debut in 1997 with O Menino Maluquinho (Wacky-Wacky Boy). His second feature, Domesticas (Maids) came in 2000, but it was City of God that brought him international renown.

Now Mereilles finds himself an in-demand director in the English-speaking world as well as Brazil, but his first English-language assignment came as an accident. He was actually developing a different film when Mike Newell was invited to direct Harry Potter 4. However, Newell was already attached to The Constant Gardener, based on John Le Carré's novel, which he dropped leaving star Ralph Fiennes in the lurch. Producer Simon Channing Williams turned to Mereilles, who found himself irresistibly attracted to the project. For Mereilles, the story's attack on multinational pharmaceutical companies hit particularly close to home because of his own country's experiences with Big Pharma. In order to honor a law requiring the provision of free medicine to all HIV patients, Brazil broke drug patents in order to manufacture its own generics, landing the country in a bitter international trade dispute.

The film depicts Justin (Fiennes), a proper reserved Englishman assigned to the British High Commission in Kenya who spends his time shut away in his garden while his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) risks her life doing dangerous AIDS relief work, making many enemies. When she turns up murdered, Justin must abandon his detached lifestyle to discover the truth. Meanwhile, the film probes the odd history of their relationship in flashbacks.

Prior to The Constant Gardener' s release, Mereilles spoke to reporters in Los Angeles about the film's political issues, shooting on location in Kenya, and that rumor that he told Nicole Kidman she was too old to play Tessa.

Question: What was the challenge of working with something that not your original story, or even in your native language?

Meirelles: Yeah, this is a story that I never thought about. I would never write this story, because it's the story of one character from the beginning to the end. Every time I think about films, I think about talking about something, and using characters to talk about whatever I want to talk about. And here was a piece following the same guy from the beginning to the end. So this was a big challenge, because I was doing a film very different from the films that I'm always imagining, or that I've done. English was difficult as well, for me, because sometimes you understand the meaning of the word, but you don't really get what is behind the word. Especially in London, the way they pronounce the words, the kind of words that they use, it's all related to where they come from—you know, this British class system. All the relations between people in the UK are based on that—where you studied, where does your family come from, if you're upper class or working class—and this is all established by the language. When two Brits talk to each other, immediately they know where each one has studied. I don't get that, you know, so it was very difficult for me.

AboutFilm: If this material is so unusual for you, then why did you choose it?

Meirelles: What first attracted me to this project was the possibility of shooting in Africa, in Kenya. By coincidence, I was in Kenya doing research for another project—the project I'm going to do next now. So I was coming from Kenya to London, and that's when I met Simon Channing Williams, the producer, and he gave me the script. I was not interested, because I was working on the other script. But then I read [it], and the story was set in Kenya. I said, “Well, this might be interesting.” Then there was the pharmaceutical industry; they were the villains. I thought they were very good villains.

AboutFilm: You've had problems with them in Brazil.

Meirelles: Yeah. In Brazil, the government has [been] dealing with the pharmaceutical industry for five years now. The government, they broke the patent for some drugs for AIDS, because in Brazil, there is a program for AIDS. The government gives 100 percent free treatment for AIDS. This was a way to avoid an epidemic. So they negotiated directly with big companies, and [then] they broke the patent. This became a big thing in Brazil. So I've been reading about pharmaceuticals for a long time. That's why I was so interested, because they're so powerful. When the government says, “No, we're going to pay 70 cents for the pill, not six dollars,” immediately you have pressure from the State Department here. They really put all the machine against [you]. They really know how to pressure. That's why I was interested.

Question: How different is the movie from the book, and were you involved with the script at all?

Meirelles: Oh, the book is sixteen hundred pages, at least in Portuguese. In the book there's a lot of information on the pharmaceutical industry, and I even tried to include this in the script. Finally I decided to take it out. Sometimes John Le Carré stops telling the story, and he includes some reports on pharmaceuticals, some real cases from around the world. I was very impressed with all this information, so I tried to do the same in the script, [so] I added [to it]. Tessa would go to the computer and she would watch some documentaries on the pharmaceutical industry, but it really didn't work so I took it out. I think my input on the script was really trying to bring the story to Kenya. Trying to bring all the scenes to the streets, to show [the] Kibera [Slum in Nairobi] and show a bit of the country. The first script was really a story of only Brits talking inside rooms and pubs. So I tried to bring the story outside, to see the country.

Question: How understanding, or how comfortable is John Le Carré that when he sells a story to have it made into a movie, that it is going to have to be changed?

Meirelles: I read an interview, and he was saying that he was very pleased with this film. It's the film that he likes the most of all the films that were done from his books, because he said, “This is not the film from the book. This is a film, period.” We've changed quite a bit, the story and everything, but he said the spirit of the book is there, and that's what matters. I just read this two days ago. I was really pleased.

Question: What is the reality of drug companies in Africa, or is that not an important question when it comes to talking about this film?

Meirelles: It is. This is what the film is about actually. It's about exploitation from drug companies. They are using Africans as guinea pigs, which really happens. The plot in this film is based on something that happened in Nigeria four years ago. It was the same thing. In this case there was an American company [that] went to Nigeria to test a drug, and people would sign informed consent, supposedly knowing that they were testing a drug. In exchange they would have free treatment for their families for all other diseases, like insurance. But after four or five months, some of the people who were testing the drugs starting having problems with their legs. They couldn't walk. And now this company is being sued by American lawyers. Anyway this is the story that John Le Carré used to write his own story. Our story in the film is fake; it's fictional. There's no drugs for TB, nobody testing drugs for TB in Africa as far as we know. But it's very usual to have drug companies testing drugs in Africa, because to test drugs here in the U.S., or Canada, you have to pay. You have to sign a contract. This is a job. There are some people who live doing that. In Africa you don't need to pay, so it's much less expensive to trial drugs in Africa.

Question: The landscape that we see in this; the cinematography is really beautiful. What are we actually seeing? What area of Africa are people going to see in this film?

Meirelles: We shot six weeks in Nairobi. Then there's a sequence with the raiders coming to attack a little village in the desert. This is north Kenya, near Lake Turkana, in a place called Loyangalani. And then the final sequence when Justin is walking in that desert, the very colorful landscape, that's Magadi, which is two hours from Nairobi. It's a dried lake. It's [a] really amazing, amazing landscape.

Question: When you're out in these regions, how difficult is it logistically?

Meirelles: This is a big challenge actually not for me, [but] for production, and I wasn't a producer on this film. We decided to shoot in Lake Turkana, which is three hours flight from Nairobi, or sixteen hours drive in very bad roads. And there's nothing there. There's just a tribe and a little lodge with twelve rooms. So they had to create a camp with 250 tents for twelve days. All the crew stayed in this huge camp in the middle of the desert, in the sun. During the day there's a very hot sun, and in the night very strong winds, so you can't sleep because the tent shakes. This was a very big and hard and difficult operation. But we wanted to shoot there because we wanted to use that tribe as extras, and they were very pleased to do that.

Question: Film is illusion. You could make us believe that some place out here in the desert east of Los Angeles is Africa, if you create the illusion. Why is it important to be in the actual location?

Meirelles: Because I wanted to shoot the scenes we were showing in Kenya—I wanted to shoot [them] like [a] documentary. Instead of recreating the whole thing, that's how we did it—with a very small crew so we could sneak in the middle of the crowd and shoot the film without anybody really noticing that we were doing this. When you shoot in real places, you can tell. You watch the film, and sometimes it feels like a documentary, but in the good sense. You watch and you say, “Wow, this is a real place.” You can feel it. When you make things up, you bring extras, it's not the same. It can be very well done, but it's not the same. You can feel the assistant director saying, “Okay, now you walk from here to there. Now you get this bag and take it to that point.” It's not the same thing.

Question: How small is your camera crew when you go into those places? It seems like it must be very compact.

Meirelles: Yeah, it's usually César Charlone the DOP., myself, the sound guy who uses a wireless microphone for the actor, and one producer, and that's it. Four or five, and the cast. Where we have Rachel and Hubert walking in Kibera, in that scene they were really leading the camera. There was nobody telling them where to go. They were just walking in Kibera, and the camera was following. And we did other scenes like this, like Justin in the market asking for Kioko. He's really asking people—because the camera is so small. We were using A-Minima, which is a very small camera from Aaton, so nobody could really see [it]. So Ralph was walking and asking, “Do you know Kioko?” And people say, “No, I don't know [him]. Sorry.” To do that sequence in the market with two thousand people selling things—you can imagine the cost and the time to put that [together]. Shooting this way, there's a lot of production value and a lot of reality value, for nothing.

Question: Was there a fight with the producers to let you do it this way?

Meirelles: Yeah, it took some time for them to start believing that we would be able to shoot like this. The first time we did [it] was actually in Berlin. We were shooting a couple of scenes in Berlin, and I wanted to do some scenes of Ralph coming out of the train. I wanted to have some images from trains. This was not scripted, that little sequence—so I said, “We have one hour. Just me, Ralph, and César—we go to the train station, just us three.” They sent three other producers with us. But it was really three, four guys. In one hour we did all that sequence. If you bring crew, then you have people to take out of the frame. It just makes your life much more complicated. And that's a good sequence, that one. I really like it. We did it in one hour.

Question: Rachel wasn't pregnant for this? She's pregnant, and she's naked, and it looks real. How did you do that?

Meirelles: Yeah, that scene when she's naked coming out of the bathtub. It's just a prosthetic. There's this great makeup artist, Christine Blundell. She got an Oscar already [for Topsy-Turvy]. She's great. The problem was really to match the skin tone. She had this prosthetic and then some pancake [makeup] or something, you know, where the prosthetic touches the body. She did it quite good actually. Even looking from all the sides, and in front of her, you couldn't tell. It's really fantastic.

Question: When you got the script were Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz already attached?

Meirelles: Ralph was attached, because this film was supposed to be directed by Mike Newell, and then Mike Newell was invited to do Harry Potter. That's when they called me, and so Ralph had to approve me and not the other way around. Rachel and all the rest of the cast, I cast [them].

Question: Were you the one who told Nicole Kidman she was too old?

Meirelles: No, this is ridiculous. When I started to cast for Tessa, my idea was to have a very young Tessa, like a teenager. So I spoke to, like, Sienna Miller, Eva Green, because I thought it would be very interesting to have this very young girl with this forty-five year old guy, like a Lolita. This girl comes into his life and really shakes his life. And so I had spoken to several very young actresses. That's when not only Nicole Kidman, but a lot of other great actresse including Rachel, and I said, “No I want to go for a teenager.” And so I mentioned this to somebody and somebody publishes that she's too old. Of course she's too old to play a seventeen year old. She's not a teenager, that's what I meant. But then reading the script with some of those actresses, I felt for the love story it would be great but for the political side of the thing, it wouldn't. A teenager wouldn't die for a cause. A teenager challenging a diplomat in front of an audience is just a teenager bad behaving, you know. It really didn't feel like a woman who was committed, who believed in what she believes. So I started to cast a bit older actresses.

Question: What was your reaction when you heard in print that there was a rumor going on that you had said to Nicole Kidman that she was too old to be in your movie?

Meirelles: I never said that. I remember this—we were re-releasing City of God and we had this big lunch with journalists to promote City of God. And there was this journalist—I didn't know she was a journalist—seated next to me, and she asked me, “Are you thinking about Nicole Kidman?” I said, “No I'm looking for a teenager.” And she published only, “She's too old.” That's really ridiculous. And the next day this was published everywhere, which is really ridiculous.

Question: Can you talk a little bit about working with Ralph?

Meirelles: Ralph was mostly a wonderful experience, because he's so committed to what he does. He's a bit obsessed as well, for the character and for his work. So I was always very impressed by his kind of acting. He's very minimalist I would say. He doesn't do much. He doesn't prepare; he doesn't rehearse movements or anything. It's all internal—always concerned only in trying to reach the same feeling that the character would be feeling in different scenes. It was really a great pleasure working with him. And he likes to talk, to share decisions, so it was really a great thing.

The only problem working with him and with Rachel, is that they're both obsessed. So you shoot the first take, a second take, and a third take, and it's perfect because he's really good from the first one. And then they want to keep going. They say, “Oh let me try something here. Just one more please.” And they do the fourth. “Perfect! Let's move on.” “No, no, no. I think I felt something—something came to me—may I explore this?” And they would do six, seven, eight, nine. Sometimes I would have to beg. “Please, let's move on! We're done! It's good!” He's obsessed, and Rachel is the same. “I think I can do better. It's going to be quick—please, please.” Always. Every day.

Question: The love scene with Rachel and Ralph was very interesting, with her giggling throughout the scene. Was that something you directed them to do, or something natural that was going on that you just captured?

Meirelles: No, no. I was there making jokes, and trying to avoid the usual mood in love scenes. I wanted something different. I didn't want to establish that there was passion between them. It was just fun. He sees this beautiful girl in the lecture hall, and takes her to bed, and that was it. So when she comes to say, “Take me to Africa,” it was a surprise. That scene was improvised. All the scenes between them that were supposed to show their relationship were improvised. The scene in the bathtub, the scene at the nursery when they're talking about names for the kid—it's all improvised.

Question: What about your choice of Bill Nighy?

Meirelles: Oh, I love Bill Nighy, but I had only seen him in films. I didn't have any opportunity to meet him before. It was not a [risk], because we know he's good, but I met him ten minutes before we started shooting. He came a bit late. He was shooting The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy at the same time. So he ran off for two days and I met him exactly ten minutes before shooting that sequence in the church. I said, “Nice meeting you. Please go to makeup and let's go.” Then he came to the set. “Okay, stand up here and do your lines,” and we were shooting. No direction at all. Then we did the other scene in the gentleman's club, and we could talk a bit. But it was a very interesting way to be introduced to an actor. We didn't say anything about the character. Nothing. “Have you read it?” “Yes.” “You understood?” “Yeah.” Okay. That was it.

Question: Can you talk about what the title means?

Meirelles: The title is the same title from the novel. I think it's because this guy lives in a cocoon. He does the right thing every day. He lives by a code. He lives in this garden, his own cocoon. He lives in Africa, but he really doesn't touch Africa. He doesn't see Africa. Then because of Tessa he finally understands the place, and so that's the idea. This title I think is a hard title, actually, especially for the U.S. In Europe it makes sense because the book was a best seller in the UK, in Germany, in Italy, and in France as well. But not here. Not in Brazil. But they're keeping the title because of the book. In Europe it really makes a difference.

Question: There's a lot of people in Latin America who have the same attitude toward their own country, and their own places. They're in a cocoon, and not seeing the reality around them. Would you agree about that?

Meirelles: I agree. Even myself, because when you live in Brazil you're very close to poverty, and so sometimes you have to pretend that you're not seeing, otherwise you can't leave [the house]. But actually it's not very different from here. This country is a very rich country, everybody has cars and everything, but there's a lot of poverty in Africa, which is just eight hours' flight from here. It's on the same planet, but we pretend that we don't see it. It's the same thing I think.

Question: How did all the attention to City of God change your life? You were a filmmaker before all of this acclaim and the Oscar nomination. Did it change you or the world that you deal in?

Meirelles: Before City of God I was doing advertising for ten years, and before that I had done a lot of television, and architecture before that. So when I decided I wanted to do films, this was a big change for my life. And with the success of City of God what really changed is that now I have a lot of people interested in doing projects with me. So this is a very pleasant situation actually. Because I know that whatever I come up with, whatever idea I have, I will have people interested in producing. This is the good thing about the success of City of God—all the doors that are now open to me. And I know I can do, according to my agent, at least two bad movies, and I will still have some credit. [laughs]

Question: Is City of Men available outside of Brazil?

Meirelles: Yes. City of Men is a TV series. Now we're doing the fourth season, and you can buy it on Amazon. But now we sold it to Palm Films in the U.S., and we're going to distribute it to television, hopefully.



Fernando Meirelles
Fernando Meirelles on the set of The Constant Gardener.






Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz
Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz star in Fernando Meirelles' The Constant Gardener.






Fiennes, Weisz, and Meirelles
Fernando Meirelles (right) with Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz on a UK set of The Constant Gardener.






Fiennes and Meirelles
Fernando Meirelles (right) directs Ralph Fiennes on the set of The Constant Gardener.







[Read the AboutFilm review of The Constant Gardener]

Article and interviews © September 2005 by AboutFilm.Com and the author.
Images © 2005 Focus Features. All Rights Reserved.

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