Fernando Meirelles Exclusive Interview – BLINDNESS

     October 2, 2008

Frosty here. As most of you know, Collider is partner’s with the Brazilian website Omelete. That’s why you see their logo in all our videos. Anyway, sometimes we get exclusives and they run them…and sometimes they get exclusives and we run it. Like tonight. As you’ll read below, Érico and Marcelo interviewed director Fernando Meirelles for his new movie “Blindness” and the English translation of the interview is below. Hope you like it…

Written by Érico and Marcelo

translation by soraia yoshida and john evans

A couple of weeks ago we, Érico and Marcelo from the website Omelete, had the chance to speak with one of the most famous Brazilian filmmakers, Mr. Fernando Meirelles. The interview took place at O2, his production house, and it was very relaxed. Unlike the junkets we’ve done while in Hollywood, we could speak more openly about some tools used to make the movies, such as the screen tests, and how he does see the Brazilian movie industry. The interview was recorded in video for our videocast, OmeleTV, but now here’s the translation for the readers of Collider! We hope you enjoy it.

Marcelo: We’re here with another OmeleTV special interview. I’m Marcelo Forlani.

Érico: I’m Érico Borgo.

Fernando Meirelles: And I’m Fernando Meirelles.

Marcelo: With us, we have a very special guest, indeed someone we have great admiration for. Because we loved the film ‘City of God’ so much, it’s a film we published two reviews on. Of course they were positive.

Érico: It’s an honor for us and a good way of showing, that Omelete TV is here. We are always looking at alternatives for the show, one of which is to have a talk show… and what better way to start than with Fernando Meirelles.

Marcelo: Here’s something interesting to start with (talking to Érico). You did an interview a few months ago with Dustin Hoffman.

Érico: I interviewed Dustin Hoffman two months ago and all he could talk about was ‘City of God’. I think that’s a proof that ‘City of God’ has become an icon of the Brazilian cinema. It’s an icon of new Brazilian cinema.

Meirelles: For me at least. Although I have made international movies, ‘City’ is going to be the ghost that haunts me from the grave.

Érico: Not only in terms of business, I think. Forlani was living in England at that time, people went crazy about it, and when I travelled in Cuba, a tour guide asked me: ‘Are you Brazilian? I was so scared watching ‘City of God’. Is Brazil really like that?’

Meirelles: ‘City of God’ went to the Cuban Film Festival and we got loads of prizes there. We got seven in total, one from the critics. The film was really big there.

Érico: I reckon that helped opening many doors for you?

Meirelles: It’s interesting because the film has got a lot of plaudits outside of Brazil, but in terms of box office and business, ‘City of God’ made only a third what ‘The Constant Gardener’ did. This one now that I am releasing, ‘Blindness’, I don’t know how it’s going to be, but it didn’t get the same money as ‘The Constant Gardner’. People who work in the film industry know ‘City of God’.

Marcelo: I think that happened because of the language barrier. Still it’s a non-English production with subtitles. Here in Brazil we’ve got used to watching movies with subtitles, but in lots of places it’s not like that…

Meirelles: When you say the film was a hit outside of Brazil, it was a relative success. It’s a success measured within certain parameters. ‘City of God’ made $30 million at the box office outside of Brazil. For a Brazilian movie, it might be a record, but that doesn’t mean it’s a big, big hit. It got great reviews, it won festivals, it was more that kind of success.

Érico: Still the film might have helped to open doors in terms of projects being offered.

Meirelles: Yes, it did.

Érico: How do you choose a project?

Meirelles: I’ve had many projects, but coincidentally these I did were books I read and took an interest in the subject. The ‘Constant Gardener’ came first as a script then I read the book and became interested. But I still haven’t done a movie where the script is ready, so I just have to go and film it. Scripts, I get loads. So I am always trying to develop something. ‘Blindness’ and ‘The Constant Gardener’ were projects that caught my attention. I read the book and that was it. I don’t have enough experience to have developed a standard way of doing things. When you make nine, ten films, then a pattern develops. I don’t have one yet.

Marcelo: You follow your instinct, your feelings…

Meirelles: ‘City of God’ was like that. I read the book and got completely hooked. When I finished, I just wanted more because I wanted to know more about those lives, that place, everything. And making a movie is a great way to get into a subject, you have to do in-depth research, you go there to talk to people and see how things really are, so you dive into that universe. I think for me, the great part of the interest was that, I didn’t want the book to end. I made a film so I could keep the book going.

Érico: So you do these projects for one, two years…

Meirelles. Two years to the point that you cannot stand it any longer than you let it go, then I have to change the subject.

Érico: Someone told me you don’t watch your own movies. Is that true?

Meirelles: I don’t watch them. I only watch up until the point I have to. ‘Blindness’, for instance, I just came from Toronto some days ago where it was presented at the festival and I think that’s the last time I will watch that movie in my life. It was a great screening, great sound, the audience was amazing. There’s no reason for me to watch it again. I don’t know, maybe I will in 30 years when somebody presents an exhibition of my work.

Marcelo: How do you work with test screenings, those sessions where studios try to check how the audience feel about the movie? Do you use them to fine-tune the film?

Meirelles: I like screen tests a lot. In these screenings you get the audience in a theatre, show the film, then they answer a questionnaire. Then most people go home, leaving only a few to answer simple yes or no questions like those a game show host would ask. That’s something most of my contemporaries are really afraid of. But the studios use it quite often because depending on the result, the film can be re-edited to try to follow those opinions. Using it like this is not really a good thing to do. The times I used it in the last three movies was to help me understand if the ideas I wanted to show were really there. So before the test you can ask questions such as ‘did this character grab your attention?’, ‘did you understand why he got the key from there to bring it here?’, very specific things or general interest , such as when you felt tired of the story, at which point you got hooked… then you read the answers. When you are editing the movie, alone, for months, it comes to a point that something you thought would have great impact on the screen doesn’t have the same effect because you’re tired. Your mind has gone elsewhere. So it’s cool to present the movie to a fresh audience and check what works and what doesn’t. It’s expensive though, but it’s a great tool and I use it as much as I can.

Érico: In ‘Blindness’, you experienced that on the screen test. The audience was divided about the violence in the film. It seems the audience thought it was too violent, but the critics said it was not violent enough.

Meirelles: Actually there was no big disagreement. I showed the sixth or seventh version of the movie in Toronto and there were two rape scenes that were more intense than the current version. In the first scene, about 14 women left the room. In the second scene, another 40 people left the session. So 12% left the session in the middle of the movie. Because when you’re laboring and editing, sometimes you lose the notion. I was surprised. I didn’t realize it was like that. I can’t make a film where 15% of the audience leaves at that point because that probably means the rest who stay can’t stand it any longer. So I changed the balance a little. When it’s a movie where people tend to leave little by little, that’s ok. But no, the film was unbalanced, because people were watching with interest and then you have one scene and then everybody leaves. That can only mean one of two things: Either the film didn’t prepare the audience for that point in the story or it lacks balance. So I changed it to get more of the tone of the story.

Marcelo: I read in an interview that you were talked about the difficulty of turning the book into a film script. The characters don’t have names, their past is not told or defined, the story just starts there. Did you choose an all-star cast exactly to create an empathy with the audience or did it just happen?

Meirelles: I think it helps. Actually, those are actors that I admire. I invited them and one by one, they accepted, so I thought let’s go! But you have a point because the story starts in a cold way, so when you recognize the actor, even not knowing the character, at least you have some reference, something you can hook onto. So that helps. Thinking about that, the film starts with the Japanese actor. The first ten minutes of the film you don’t have any big stars. Later I kept thinking if I should have chosen a star to do the first character that became blind. Instead of casting Yusuke Iseya, maybe I should have gone for Gael Garcia Bernal. Maybe then the audience would have been pulled into the movie earlier, but these things you only learn with time, after the movie is ready. It’s amazing when you finish the film and watch it, you think “Now I got the film, now I can start from the scratch again” but it’s too late.

Marcelo: Does your training as an architect help you in any way to make movies?

Meirelles: I never worked as an architect, but I reckon I think like an architect. Architecture has things in common with direction, yes, because the architect is someone who doesn’t know how to do plans for plumbing, electricity, foundations, structure… he calls everybody in. He’s the guy with the vision, but he needs all the other professionals to make it work. And the director is something like that, he doesn’t do the cinematography, doesn’t edit, doesn’t do the sound or write the score, doesn’t act, but he’s the guy who gets everybody involved and gives them a path to follow. You have to learn how to integrate people into the project and get the best from them.

Érico: I think there’s already been a seminal moment in your career that shows the difference between making movies outside Hollywood. It’s that scene in ‘City of God’ when the gang boys are chasing the chicken. You used a camera hanging on a broomstick to show that dizzying chase. It’s something that I think they would try to do in Hollywood and spend $500,000 because it would be a trained or a animatronic chicken.

Meirelles: I think today they would go for a 3-D chicken. That would cost about $ 800,000 if you could find someone to do it cheaper.

Marcelo: How much did you spend on the broomstick?

Meirelles: Oh, the broomstick costs about three dollars at today’s prices – about a thousandth of the cost.

Érico: What’s it like when you go to America to work with producers there?

Meirelles: I’ve never worked in Hollywood. To be honest, I don’t even know if one day I will. ‘The Constant Gardener’ was a small independent British production, with money coming from Canada, Germany, a bit from America as well, but they only paid for the movie, they had no say in the film production. And ‘Blindness’ is a Canadian-Japanese- Brazilian project. We ended up selling it to Miramax but the movie was ready then, it was almost finished, the last step was to sell it to Miramax. So apart from the actors Mark Rufallo, Julianne Moore and Danny Glover, there are no Americans involved in this project on any level. Maybe someday I will go to America and work in Hollywood, but right now I don’t have the interest and have not accepted an invitation. I am very happy making independent movies.

Marcelo: You got some money from Sao Paulo to make the movie. Are we getting close to have a film industry in Brazil again?

Meirelles: If I am not mistaken, ‘Blindness’ benefited from $ 1.2 million from tax incentives offered to Fiat, department store C&A, money from the Brazilian development bank BNDES and the city of Paulinia but that’s only 7% of the total spent in the movie. I kept wondering if it was worth getting more money from Brazil for a film in English with international stars. That’s why BNDES decided to jump in because they thought it would be a good deal. We got $1.2 million but we spent $ 8 million here. So at the end, the movie brought $ 6.8 million for investment in Brazil. With that money we built a structure to do 3-D here. Usually, films get money from the government and ours was the opposite, it generated money for the country.

Marcelo: Generally, to make movies in Brazil you have to raise the money to get the script done, raise money for the production and then raise the money for distribution. When the film is ready, it’s already paid for. Isn’t that a problem? You’re actually doing something that you have no obligation to sell later?

Meirelles: In the first place Brazil didn’t have a film industry. Ten years ago you would have five films a- year, no more than that. Last year, 80 films were made. And when you think 80, you have to think technicians, professionals, equipment rental companies, it’s a lot of people with skills, due to the internal demand. So that was only possible because laws provide the money for that to happen. I do agree with you when you say now it’s time to change things, it’s time to call for something in return. So the guy who raises money from the government to make a movie should offer his movie to be shown around, schools, whatever. And that doesn’t happen now. The government should have the right to show the film on TV because they paid for the movie. To make it viable, then give the director a window to present the film in cinemas, then DVD release, before going to TV. I mean, giving the government the time to use the movie until they get their money back as investors. So the law needs changing. It’s no good the government paying to have the film done but the only ones who can afford to go to the movies are the middle classes in Brazil. So it’s a not a democratic investment. It’s a flaw in the law and it’s time to change.

Érico: Isn’t the only way to be more democratic is to show your film to the masses on TV?

Meirelles: My production company has got a deal with Globo TV to produce TV shows. This is the seventh year. We did four seasons of ‘City of Men’, then last year was the last season of ‘Antonia’ by Tata Amaral. So we take our projects to them and we are doing TV for the last six years non stop. And this year we are producing ‘Sound and Fury’ about a theatre company that is trying to put a Shakespeare production on and it’s a dramatic comedy, very funny I would say. The cast includes: Andrea Beltrao, Felipe Camargo, Rodrigo Santoro, Daniel Dantas, Pedro Paulo Rangel. It’s a terrific cast. And it’s a mini-series, it’s the first time Globo TV is buying an independent mini-series. We’re filming next door, and we’re going to deliver it ready, with sound, music, credits, everything. They’ve never done that before, so there is a certain anxiety on their side and on ours. I love doing TV, it’s quick, in a couple of weeks it’s done, I love it.

Érico: Is your next project also related to Shakespeare?

Mirelles: Actually, I got involved with this Brazilian series because of a previous idea, a script that Jorge Furtado was writing for me, based on his own book. It’s the story of students trying to enact a Shakespeare play. But I haven’t even touched this film yet, it’s just what I would call pre-script. And I told Jorge that I would put it on the back burner for a while because I’ve decided to take some holidays from November to February. It’s been a long time since I managed to have some time off.

Marcelo: We were talking to some people from one of the major studios the other day about a poll done with a young audience in Sao Paulo. According to them, going to the movies involves what you might call ‘multi-tasking’.

Meirelles: Multi-tasking?

Marcelo: There’s a young audience that wants to go to the movies to send text messages, talk on the phone, chat with friends, then annoying people like me come in and tell them to shut up so I can watch the film. As a filmmaker, how do you see this new generation?

Meirelles: For me I think it’s going to be a problem because of my way of making films that are not exactly orientated for the masses, for certain audiences. The box office for films like that is getting smaller all around the world because of internet. They have a different relationship with films. I don’t think art-house movies are going to disappear, but I think it’s facing a crisis. It’s interesting to know you call them ‘films for multi-taskers’. I think Nigerian cinema has something to do with it. Nigeria is the biggest film producer nowadays, making more movies that even in India. Last year, the country produced more than 2000 films. And the Nigerian films are very much based in the dialogue. They are long movies, produced for people to go and watch while they talk, leave the session and come back, so it’s not that you’re going to miss a lot. It’s very peculiar. Maybe this young audience needs to watch Nigerian films, for people who like to talk while they watch.

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