Cannes Q&A: Fernando Meirelles


Over a prolific career in television and film, Fernando Meirelles has moved fluidly between tones and themes. In his features, he has tackled subjects as varied as working-class women in Brazil ("Maids"), the machinations and moral quandaries of Westerners in Africa ("The Constant Gardener") and the gritty life of teenagers in Brazilian favelas ("City of God"). His newest project is "Blindness" -- a metaphoric tale of survival and collective psychology written by Don McKellar, starring Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo and based on Jose Saramago's acclaimed novel -- in which an unnamed city is stricken by a plague of blindness. THR's Steven Zeitchik caught up with the director before "Blindness" opened the 61st annual Festival de Cannes.

The Hollywood Reporter: It would seem that of all the books one could film, "Blindness" may be the most tricky -- its story is so impressionistic, almost allegorical, with so few specifics. Was it difficult to translate that visually?
Fernando Meirelles: You know, I read the book both in English and in Portugese. In English it was difficult, but when you read it in Portugese it's even worse because it's an old Portugese. You also never think the story happens in a contemporary time -- you think maybe it's the '30s or '40s -- and you don't know where it takes place. My first thought was to set the movie in the 1940's.

THR: But you decided to update it.
Meirelles: I wanted to make a contemporary film, to make it with ordinary people in a contemporary city so people can have a relationship with the characters. I begin with imagery that makes it feel like a normal film. It even feels a little like a romantic comedy. It's like everyday life, and then little by little you're dragged into a world that's very different.

THR: You also chose to shoot in English -- was that also to give it more accessibility, at least to some filmgoers?
Meirelles: Actually, if I had a choice I would have done it in Portugese. But the problem is that a film in Brazil can only cost $4 million or $5 million. You couldn't pay for it. So we had to do it in English so an American company (Miramax) could help pay. But I have people speaking in slightly bad English so you don't know where it is. I also wanted to make it like the novel and not set it in a specific place. It should be generic. That's why we shot in Sao Paulo. It's the third- or fourth-biggest city in the world but nobody knows it, which is good. I don't want viewers to know exactly where they are.

THR: The word is that Saramago has long been skeptical of anyone doing a "Blindness" movie. Were you conscious of that as you shot? Did he ever get involved?
Meirelles: Actually, sometimes the film expresses more of Saramago's point-of-view than mine. But he didn't get involved. We've spoken and he didn't want to interfere. I asked him specific questions. I wanted his input. But he never gave it. He said "I wrote the book and you make the movie." The only thing he ever asked was for me to cast a big dog as this character the Dog of Tears.

THR: That's an odd request.
Meirelles: I don't know why he was so insistent. I read an interview recently where he said "The Dog of Tears is my favorite character." But I don't know why.

THR: You've examined such diverse subjects in your films, and yet there always seems to be this common thread: of people in difficult circumstances struggling to do the right thing.
Meirelles: I like to have characters in extreme situations because that's when they reveal themselves. That's what I like about "Blindness." Underneath this thin skin of civilization we're very primitive. But the book is also funny. When you read it for the fifth time the violence doesn't reach you and you can find all the jokes.

THR: Of course you've moved a lot not just within features but within media. How do you feel about shooting in other formats?
Meirelles: I still have all these careers. I do television series in Brazil and I like to do commercials. When you do features, you can only shoot once every two-three years. On television you can be on set all of the time. And I like change. When things start to be too easy I put myself in situations where I don't know what to do.

THR: Speaking of things that aren't easy, I understand these last few weeks working on the film have been ... hectic.
Meirelles: I knew we wanted to go to Cannes. But I thought we'd get a slot at the end of the festival and we'd have more time. Then they tell us it's the 14th and all of us, the technicians and everyone, have to just really work hard.

THR: So many movies at the festival this year have an international component -- you're a Brazilian turning a Portugese novel into an English-language film with American actors, and there are others in similar situations. What do you think is behind this new globalism?
Meirelles: I wonder if it has to do with the world economy. Until a few years ago whatever happened in the U.S. would happen in other places. But it's interesting. Now you have this crisis going on in the U.S. economy and everybody said Brazil would follow. And yet we're living our best moments. The stock market is going up. We're not linked to the U.S. the way we were four or five years ago. It's the same in film. Now we get to have our own cinema and you get to see more foreign directors and foreign accents. That's good for both sides.

THR: This ferment is particularly strong in Brazil; you and Walter Salles have films here, and there's a young crop right behind you.
Meirelles: There is a new generation in Brazil. The winner of the Golden Bear in Berlin (Jose Padilha) is Brazillan. I'm producing a film from Cao Hamburger ("The Year My Parents Went on Vacation") called "Xingu" that's looking really good. This is all a good thing. For years we've had the same producers and directors here.

THR: "Blindness" kicks things off opening night in front of a Cannes audience that can be -- passionately opinionated, to say the least. Does that make you nervous?
Meirelles: It's easier to be a director than a lot of other things, like a theater actor. My work is done. I'd like to see the reaction, but I'm prepared to be criticized. I don't expect 100% of people to like the movie, and that's OK. I'm very relaxed. I'm much more nervous about another screening.

THR: Which one is that?
Meirelles: It's a screening with Saramago (in Europe) on May 17. I'm going to show him the film.

THR: I guess given how you wanted to be in the room when he watched it?
Meirelles: I did. I couldn't just send him the DVD, could I?

Nationality: Brazilian
Born: Nov. 9, 1955
Film in Cannes: "Blindness" (opening-night selection)
Selected filmography: "The Constant Gardner" (2005); "City of God" (2002); "Maids" (2001)
Notable awards: Best director Oscar nomination for "City of God" (2004); nominated for BAFTA Award and Golden Globe for "The Constant Gardner" (2006)