Who is Fernando Meirelles?
That’s the question casual Oscar watchers may ask about the surprise directing nomination that went to this Brazilian filmmaker for “City of God,” his gritty, time-twisting drama about flashy street gangs in a Rio de Janeiro slum.
It’s also a question the 47-year-old asked himself four years ago — and his quest to answer it resulted in the film.
“I was doing commercials for a long time, eight or nine years. I was successful, I had a big company. Everything was fine. But my life was boring. It was sad. It was the same thing over and over again,” he said on a recent visit to Los Angeles. “I felt, you know, that middle-age crisis. I thought, ‘I need to do something: move to Australia and raise cattle or buy a red Porsche.’ I needed to do something with my life.”
Then he read a book: “Cidade de Deus” by Paulo Lins — a chronicle of the author’s experiences living amid gang warfare in a housing project built to isolate the impoverished from the city’s wealthy tourist sector. It documented the lives, deaths and escapes of various people among the drug dealing and brutality of the streets.
“I thought: ‘I’m going to jump at this thing. I’m going to tell the story,”’ said Meirelles, who had been a co-director on only two previous films. “So I moved to Rio and got involved with the boys.”
He hopes to be making movies for the next few years and is already at work on a thriller, “The Constant Gardener,” adapted from a John Le Carre novel. He’d also like to make a drama comprised of various vignettes from around the world, tentatively titled “Intolerance II,” inspired by the 1916 silent movie by D.W. Griffith.
The boys from Brazil
The “boys” Meirelles referred to were about 200 kids from the slums that he and his “City of God” co-director Katia Lund recruited for a series of performance workshops. (Lund’s work did not qualify for Oscar contention, and Meirelles said their working relationship was comparable to a pilot and co-pilot.)
Meanwhile, writer Braulio Mantovani worked on adapting the screenplay — which also received an Oscar nomination — and chose a young photographer character named Rocket (Alexandre Rodrigues) as the lead, an innocent boy whose brother Goose, was one of the thugs who triggered the ongoing street war.
“The choices we made really involved trying to find the boys who had something to do with the characters they were playing,” Meirelles said. “There is the guy who plays Goose ... the same thing happened to the real kid (Renato de Souza). He used to work with dealers and one day his father went to where he was with those guys and slapped him in the face.
“Then there was Rocket being a virgin, and the boy who played him ... well, he would hate that I am saying that,” Meirelles said, stopping to laugh. “They were kind of playing themselves. They really knew what they were doing, and that’s why they are so natural.”
A few of them became acting stars, appearing on Brazilian TV and stage shows, while others have turned the experience into other professions. Rodrigues left the slum and now lives in San Paulo and does computer graphics at Meirelles’ production company.
The fame from the movie has changed many of their lives, Meirelles said, giving them a sense of pride that replaces, for some, the desire to be gangsters.
“Everybody wants money, but what they really want is to be respected. If you have a gun, all the girls will look to you, if you go to a bar people say, ‘There’s the guy ...’ You’re important. You’re someone. You belong to a group, and that’s what they’re looking for.”