Take Two and Call Him

A conversation with Fernando Meirelles, director of The Constant Gardener and City of God

Perched rather wearily at a table in Le Meridian's Cosmos bar, his thin blond hair falling into watery blue eyes, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles appears endearingly ordinary. Wearing a limp polo shirt and plain gray pants, this pallid figure is the force behind 2003's vibrantly brutal City of God, a neorealist tour of a Rio de Janeiro slum that garnered Meirelles immediate international acclaim and a surprise Oscar nomination for Best Director.

Granted, he's tired. After flying in from Brazil last night for a screening of his new film, The Constant Gardener, at Lagoon Cinema, the 49-year-old has been cooped up in the hotel suffering interviews. But where's the megalomaniacal swagger? Can a little jet lag really crush the inner control freak that lives in every director?

Playing God and doctor both: Director Fernando Meirelles on the set of 'The Constant Gardener'
Focus Features
Playing God and doctor both: Director Fernando Meirelles on the set of 'The Constant Gardener'

Meirelles (pronounced may-RELL-es) offers a diffident smile. "I'm a dis-control freak," he says. "I'm very disorganized on purpose because I want everybody to participate. Usually with chaos comes a very good surprise."

Meirelles put his chaos theory to the test during the making of City of God. Along with co-director Kátia Lund, Meirelles opened an acting school in Cidade de Deus (City of God), the real-life favela (shantytown) where the movie takes place. "I wanted to work with nonprofessional actors, with people from the slums," he says. "If I could find the actors, I would do the film. If not, I would move back to São Paulo. That was my pledge." He and Lund (who worked primarily on the acting side of things) whittled down to 200 the 2,000 kids who auditioned for the school. The young actors never saw a script (a tactic Meirelles picked up from two of his favorite directors, Mike Leigh and Ken Loach); instead, they were simply made aware of their characters' intentions and, over the course of six months, before the cameras started rolling, they improvised. The result? About 70 percent of the movie is ad-libbed, which further accentuates its documentary-style authenticity.

The Constant Gardener, a suspense film about the pharmaceutical industry in Africa, starring Ralph Fiennes as a British diplomat whose activist wife (Rachel Weisz) is murdered, strikes one at first as an odd follow-up to City of God. It just seems so...well, British. Based on a novel by British spy novelist John Le Carré, the movie was initially set to be directed by Four Weddings and a Funeral's Mike Newell until he jumped ship to helm the upcoming Harry Potter movie. After his Oscar nomination, Meirelles was flooded with hundreds of Hollywood offers (including, he wryly notes, several medieval period pieces)--all of which he rejected. So why did he pick this one? In a word: pharmaceuticals.

Although initially intimidated by the scope of the project--at $30 million, its budget was 10 times that of City of God--and the pressure of directing celebrities, Meirelles was intrigued by the film's focus on drug companies that run trials on Third World people. "I thought it was a good opportunity to tease them," Meirelles said at the Lagoon Q&A.

It's telling that Meirelles's first movie aimed at a white, Western audience also takes aim at that same audience, a fact not lost on the Grandpa Simpson-like figure who, tightly clutching his umbrella, stood up after the screening and accused Meirelles of hating the West and capitalism before quickly, inexplicably, yet all too predictably, segueing into a rant about how Islamic terrorists would kill everyone in the screening room if they could. Ever gracious, Meirelles gently pointed out that he, too, was from the West, and respected it, but that, at the end of the day, "the pharmaceutical industry is using Africans as guinea pigs" for the benefit of those of us in the First World. (As a character played by Pete Postlethwaite succinctly puts it in the movie, "This is how the world fucks Africa.")

Meirelles, who is white, grew up the son of a gastrointestinologist and a landscape designer in a middle-class neighborhood of São Paulo. He readily admits that he had never even been to a favelabefore filming City of God and didn't know anything about the slums until a friend lent him the 1997 Paulo Lins bestseller on which the film is based.

Some critics questioned the idea of Meirelles making City of God since he wasn't from the slums and almost all of the film's characters are black, but the director rejects that idea. Not only did coming at the project from the outside, "as a foreigner," he says, help him see more clearly how the favelas work, but, he noted at the Q&A, "I did City of God because there was a part of my country that I did not recognize. I did it for a Brazilian audience, that was my intention."

Works of political activism as much as entertainment, Meirelles's films forgo abstraction and irony in favor of a transparent, direct style of filmmaking that probes social and economic realities. Of course, it remains to be seen whether the director will stay true to his roots and his humble aesthetic. Although the first half of The Constant Gardener displays moments of the arrhythmic, mundane beauty that flashed through City of God (a dreamy purple-soaked sky abruptly followed by a decayed corpse; a pregnant Weisz vigorously drying her ass after a bath), there is the slightest hint of a paycheck in the way the film collapses into a somewhat maudlin, formulaic thriller tinged with didacticism--something Meirelles so brilliantly avoided on City of God.

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