Following up an international hit and Oscar contender is no easy task, especially one as popular as City of God, but director Fernando Meirelles has managed to do so beautifully with the subtle political thriller The Constant Gardener, one of the best films to emerge so far in 2005.
Recently I was able to sit down with the Brazilian born director and learn more about the filming of such an ambitious project, the perils of the pharmaceutical industry and how truth in casting can get you into trouble.
What were the main challenges of working with something that was not your original story?
This is a story I never thought about, I mean I would never write this story because this is the story of one character from the beginning to the end. Every time I think about films, I think about using characters to talk about whatever I want to talk about. Here was a piece with 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 film I always imagine. English was difficult for me because sometimes you understand the meaning of the word but you don’t really get what is behind the words.
If this film was so unusual for you, what attracted you to this project?
What first attracted me to this project was the possibility of shooting in Kenya. By coincidence I was in Kenya doing research for another project 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. The story was set in Kenya and the pharmaceutical industry that were the villains, I thought they were very good villains. I had been reading about pharmaceuticals for a long time, that’s why I was interested because they are so powerful.
What are the differences from the book from which the film is based and your picture?
It’s 1,600 pages in Portugese so there’s much more information. In the book there’s a lot of information on the pharmaceutical industry and I even tried to include this in the script and finally had to take it out. My input on the script was really trying to bring the story to Kenya, to the streets. The first script was really a story of Britain, only Brits talking inside of rooms and pubs.
What does the author of the novel John Le Carre think of the film?
I read an interview and he’s very pleased. This is the film he likes the most of the films done from his books. This is a film where the spirit of the book is there and that’s what matters.
How much of this film dealing with drug companies is based on fact?
This is about exploitation, using Africans as guinea pigs which really happens. The plot in this film is based on something that happened in Nigeria three years ago. In this case, an American company went to Nigeria to test drugs and people would sign informed consent forms in exchange for free treatment for the families. After four or five months some of the people started having problems with their legs and couldn’t walk, now the company is being sued. This is the story John Le Carre used to write his own story. Our story is fictional. It is very usual to have drug companies testing drugs in Africa. To test drugs here in the US or in Canada you have to pay, this is a job, you are paid to test the drug. In Africa you don’t need to pay so it’s much less expensive.
What was important about actually shooting in Kenya as opposed to a different, easier to access location?
Because I wanted to shoot like a documentary. I did it with a small crew in order to sneak through the crowds. For some reason when you shoot in real places you can tell. When you make things up it’s just not the same. You can almost see the assistant director say “walk from here to there”.
Were Ralph Finnes and Rachel Weisz always attached to the project?
Ralph was attached. This film was supposed to be directed by Mike Newell and then he was invited to do “Harry Potter”, that’s when they called me. Ralph had to approve me not the other way around.
There is a rumor floating around, appearing even on the IMDB, that you turned Nicole Kidman down for the lead role because she was too old, is there any validity to this?
No, this is ridiculous. When I started to cast for the part for Tessa my idea was to have a very young Tessa, like a teenager. It would be very interesting having this very young girl with this forty five year old guy and this girl really rocks his life. That’s when Nicole Kidman (became interested) and I said no I want to go for teenager. I mention 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 anyway, after reading the script again, I felt that for the love story it would be great, but for the political side it wouldn’t. A teenager wouldn’t die for a cause. A teenager challenging this diplomat in front of an audience is just a teenager bad behaving. It really didn’t feel like a woman who was committed.
How small is your crew when shooting on the streets?
It’s usually Cesar Charlone the DP, myself, Stuart the sound guy, one producer and the cast. We have a scene where Rachel and Hubert are walking and they are really leading the camera and wherever they go we just try and follow. To do the sequence (with a large crew) in the market you can’t imagine the cost, shooting this way there is a lot of production value and reality value for nothing,
How was it working with Ralph?
Ralph was a wonderful experience because he’s so committed to what he does. He’s a bit obsessed as well. I was always impressed by his kind of acting. He’s very minimalist, he doesn’t rehearse movements, it’s all internal. It was really great working with him. The only problem working with him and Rachel was that they are both obsessed. So you shoot the first take, the second take, the third take and it’s perfect. But they want to keep going. Six, seven, eight, nine, sometimes I would have to beg “let’s move on”.
Can you talk about what the title means?
This guy lives in a cocoon. He does the right thing everyday but he lives in Africa and he doesn’t touch Africa, doesn’t see Africa. Because of Tessa he finally understands the place. I think this is a hard title especially for the US.
Is the fact you connect to a project such as this because of your living in Brazil and the social problems going on there?
When you live in Brazil you are very close to poverty. You have to pretend you’re not seeing otherwise you can’t live. This is a very rich country and there is a lot of poverty in Africa which is just eight hours flight from here. The same planet and such a difference and we pretend we don’t see it. It’s the same thing I think.
How did all the attention to “City of God” change your life?
With the success of “City of God” I have a lot of people interested in doing projects with me. Whatever idea I have, I 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. According to my agent I can do two bad movies and I still have some credit. The third one…