Photo by Anne Fishbein

At any given moment in time, a few movie directors in the world manage
to develop a style that is uniquely their own, but which succeeds with audiences
far and wide, and in turn has a constructive impact on other filmmakers. Such
directors are what keep cinema alive: Godard in the ’60s; Fassbinder in the ’70s;
Kieslowski in the ’80s; Almodóvar, Lars von Trier and Wong Kar-wai in the ’90s;
and, most recently, the Brazilian Fernando Meirelles. In his two films to achieve
worldwide distribution, Meirelles has revisited established film genres, packing
them with unique new content while respecting their traditional significance.
City of God, which was nominated for four Academy Awards (including best
director), took the form of a socially conscious, documentary-style street drama
and saturated it in the aesthetics of MTV’s rapid-fire editing. His new film,
The Constant Gardener, takes on the conspiracy thriller — perfected three
decades ago by directors like John Frankenhimer and Costa-Gavras — and ingeniously
grafts onto it a vivid, erotic love story and agonizing, askance glances at the
catastrophe of African poverty.

In The Constant Gardener, as in City of God, Meirelles and his team (including the brilliant editor Claire Simpson and cinematographer Cesar Charlone) shoot and edit with a jagged, feverish intoxication that paradoxically deepens their humane political agenda. And both films possess a sensuous, kinetic charge that sets colors off inside the viewer’s head — your dazed efforts to manage the physical beauty, the speed and excitement of the imagery, upsets any rote response to the political horrors that are simultaneously being exposed. Which only makes the exposure of those horrors all the more affecting.

It’s films like The Wild Bunch and The Godfather to which I’d compare Meirelles’ work, and in this key respect: an honestly tragic sociopolitical vision reaching us through a sensibility that is also alive to aesthetic value for its own sake. This definitely isn’t the by-the-numbers activist cinema that we’re used to — that spinach we swallow dutifully in order to receive its politically correct nutritional value. Whatever moral and ideological concerns propelled Meirelles into making these projects, the savage gaiety of their imagery and zest for fresh modes of storytelling demonstrate that his first and deepest obligation is to the film medium itself. The urge to “make a statement” isn’t allowed to trump these films’ responsibilities as works of art. This intricate juggling act of style and substance has compelled some to question Meirelles’ seriousness, but to me, it only confirms it. You come out of the films of Fernando Meirelles feeling as if you are seeing with new eyes.

L.A. WEEKLY: Let’s start with John le Carré. He’s been a major figure in contemporary fiction for nearly 50 years. Were you always interested in his books?

FERNANDO MEIRELLES: I had never read his books. First, I read the script, then I read the novel, and then I said, “Yes, I want to do the film.” Now, I’m planning to read his other books.

One of the things about this film and City of God that make them different from more orthodox, purely liberal social-injustice stories is that there’s a real element of tragedy in your vision of things, where you don’t come up with easy solutions to the problems.

Actually, I just do films about things that interest me. I never see myself as a political director or an activist or anything like that. I try not to preach to the audience and not to judge. I try to be — I’m not sure if this is the right word in English — amoral.

Well, amoral implies a certain indifference to morality. I think what you mean is nonjudgmental.

Yes. In City of God, we show boys killing each other, but I’m not judging them. That’s their life, that’s how it is. In this film, actually, I had originally inserted a kind of short documentary on drug companies — in the middle of the film, Tessa (Rachel Weisz) would go to her computer and would watch a lot of information about real companies and people from Oxfam and Medecins Sans Frontiers. But after watching the whole thing, I decided to take it out. It was like my voice preaching, and it’s better to just expose something and let the audience think about it.

One of the striking things about City of God, and we see it again in The Constant Gardener, is that the social and political and moral action is contrasted by a personal element in the main character’s life. In City of God, it’s the boy’s urge to get laid, which inserts itself into this grim panorama of war and death — it’s a very insistent part of that story. Here, there’s a tremendous insistence on an autonomous love story that has an arc quite separate from the destiny of Africa.

But that’s how life is, isn’t it? Sometimes you’re dealing with big social problems, you’re an activist, but you also get a hard-on for your partner. This is something that I like in this script, that there are a lot of gray areas. I mean, most people who see the film don’t like the character of Tessa at all in the beginning.

I loved her.

Really? But you can talk to lots of people, and most don’t like her. I wanted her to be a bit annoying, actually. Some people even hate her, and I love to see that. It means that she’s not . . .

. . . one-dimensional.

Yes. She’s really human, and so everyone sees her in a different light.

In one of the entries from your production diary — which was covertly published on the Internet — you say that you’ve narrowed down the part of Tessa to Rachel Weisz, Sarah Polley and Samantha Morton. How did you arrive at a final decision?

I did this first meeting with Rachel, and I had a very strong impression. I wasn’t even casting yet. She was shooting Constantine here in Los Angeles, and she had a weekend free, so she called production and asked if I had a half-hour available to meet with her, and I said, “Of course.” At that point, she had already read the book and the script, and she had read thinking only about Tessa. I was just arriving in London, trying to understand the film, and she comes and talks to me so knowledgeably about the character — I was very impressed. I then spoke to several other actresses, but I never forgot her, and in the end I came back.

Was the script written in chronological order?

No. The script began with Justin in the desert preparing the gun and waiting for
the guys to come and shoot him, so it was all in flashback. But when we put Tessa’s
death in the beginning — which is how it is in the book — and you have that long
close-up on Justin, it’s amazing how everything changed, because we established
from the beginning that he’s the main character. Without that scene in the beginning,
the film was really boring and then, suddenly, everything came to the right place.
It was like magic. And we found that in the cutting room.

I think that you’re an incredibly inventive editor and, in both this film and City of God, you seem really committed to taking the audience away from the spoon-fed, A-B-C-D way of telling stories.

I like films that you have to work with while you are watching them, that demand an active audience, like Memento or 21 Grams or Last Year at Marienbad. Actually, organizing things in a chronological order is just one way to organize things. I can also organize according to colors, numbers, emotions. I mean there’s so many ways to organize things, why do you have to put them in chronological order?

Did you ever work with Le Carré directly?

Yes. He came to the office a couple of times, and we also had lunches and dinners. There’s even one scene that he wrote himself — the scene at the lecture hall when Tessa stands up and talks about Iraq. That discussion was originally about diplomacy, but it wasn’t very interesting, whereas the discussion that he proposed was very good because it establishes the time as two or three months after the invasion, it sets up Tessa’s character, and it’s something that everybody has an opinion about.

In the film, you also have this unbelievably brilliant color palette in
Africa, and then when we get to England, it’s so starkly monochromatic — it’s
almost like the movie switches to black and white — and that produces a whole
new level of nervous energy for the audience.

For me, this was like a subtheme in the film, this difference between the two
worlds. We have some shots like this golf-course shot where you’re inside Hyde
Park, beautiful green gardens, and then we turn the camera and, next to this beautiful
place, there’s this huge slum. We have another scene with a waiter who’s inside
a kitchen, where it’s very confused and noisy and hot, and then he crosses through
the door and he’s in a different world. I use this idea of these two worlds —
the green one of the gardens and golf courses and the red one of Africa. Always
cutting green to red.

To read Ella Taylor's review of The
Constant Gardener
click here

LA Weekly