When “City of God” was discovered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2002, Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles was inundated with scripts.
Thanks to an Oscar push from Miramax, the low-budget urban drama scored four Oscar nominations, including best director, and grossed $24.7 million worldwide. And after initially resisting Hollywood’s entreaties, Meirelles succumbed to one offer, taking on as his first English-language film the $25 million adaptation of John le Carre’s African-set thriller “The Constant Gardener.”
With Focus Features opening “Gardener” in the on Aug. 31, Meirelles spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about making the transition from local filmmaker to international director.
The Hollywood Reporter: What finally made you go to Hollywood?
Fernando Meirelles: This was a British independent production — nothing against Hollywood. I’ve always been very independent, I’ve always produced my own things; I don’t know how to share. A big studio invests a lot of money, and they want control. I’m not prepared for that yet. “The Constant Gardener” was a project with Simon Channing Williams, who produces Mike Leigh’s films. Seeing his tiny office in SoHo with just him and two girls, I said, “This is a scale I know how to deal with. I like the script. I want to shoot in Africa.”
THR: Did Focus make any demands?
Meirelles: They wanted to shoot in South Africa, because insurance is very expensive and it was dangerous to shoot in Kenya (where the film is set). In a 20-minute meeting, I explained what I wanted to do: I would shoot some things like a documentary, so I needed to be in a real place. In some scenes, the locals didn’t know we were shooting with a small 16 millimeter camera. When Ralph Fiennes is walking in the market in Kibera (in Kenya), the camera followed behind him and no one was seeing the camera; he was really asking people and they were answering. They weren’t extras. Working with a small crew, we were able to do this. When you watch it, you feel it’s real.
THR: Did you rewrite Jeffrey Caine’s Script?
Meirelles: We changed it a lot. This was done in the cutting room. We had this thriller, political drama and love story. In the end, we decided that the love story was the strongest thing. I tried to change the order of things in the script, but it was a very complicated story, so we decided that we would shoot a linear script in chronological order. When it was first edited in a linear way, it really didn’t work. It was a very boring film ... We had a screening of the first cut in New York, and the film was too long. It was like a documentary, an aggressive political drama. Focus suggested cutting a thriller sequence shot in Winnipeg with Pernilla August as a scientist who gets killed. You don’t have to yammer to make a point, that’s what I learned.
THR: Did the experience of releasing “City of God” teach you anything about releasing films in the U.S.?
Meirelles: [Miramax Films’] Harvey Weinstein liked “City of God” from the beginning. He didn’t want to change anything. When the film’s release was done, he called me to say, “This film deserves more than it got, and we’re going to spend money and do a campaign, and we’re gonna get nominations.” From the business side, it was a bad experience, but I would do it again. I don’t think I signed a good contract. I didn’t really believe in the film. It was a low-budget Brazilian film in Portuguese — what can a film like this do? Harvey liked the film more than I did. They paid exactly what was on the contract.
THR: Where are you with “Intolerance,” the film you have been developing with “City of God” screenwriter Braulo Mantovani?
Meirelles: We were working on it in Kenya, now I’m back to the script. Hopefully, I’ll do it next year. The difficulty is putting the script together: It’s six stories from different countries in six languages: Portuguese, English, Chinese, Tagalog, Swahili and Arabic. We went to each country to see places and rewrite, checking to see if our story was true. “Intolerance” is about different perspectives on life. It’s about happiness — what do we need to be happy? It’s more philosophical. We Westerners assume that this is the way, all the countries have to achieve what we do. We had some offers to finance the development, but I decided to do it myself. I have no commitment with anybody; I haven’t shown the script to anybody. I have no dates to meet, just when I am 100 percent sure that the script is ready to go. Otherwise, you create expectation, you’re trapped and have to deliver.
THR: Will you ever want to tackle a big-budget movie?
Meirelles: I’m going to do some big film at some point but not now. My ideal career would be to do what Pedro Almodovar does [in Spain]. I’d like to make Brazilian films for international audiences that are not big-budget. This would be the best.