A Veteran of the Short Form Makes a Big First Splash; Fernando Meirelles Discusses "City of God"
by Matthew Ross
At the ripe age of 47, renowned Brazilian commercial director Fernando Meirelles took his time before making his entree on the world cinema scene with the ferocious "City of God," an urban epic that has torn up the festival circuit since its debut in the competition section at Cannes 2002. An early favorite for a Best Foreign Language Oscar, "City of God" exhibits that combination of social consciousness and virtuoso technique that doesn't lend itself easily to critical or audience consensus. Is it glamorizing criminals and exploiting poverty, or is the film's style in sync with the subject matter? These issues have followed the film since its early screenings, and will do doubt carry on when Miramax releases it to U.S. audiences this Friday.
Like Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu's 2001 Mexican import "Amores Perros," "City of God" offers viewers a glimpse into the brutal life of the Latin American underclass, and like "Amores Perros," it's got style to burn. An epic retelling of novelist Paulo Lins' fact-inspired novel of the same name, the film follows a group of kids from the dirt-poor shantytowns outside Rio de Janeiro, beginning in the late 1960s and ending (in a spectacularly violent finale) in the early 1980s. Using a voice-over technique from its good-guy main character nicknamed Rabbit, the film's structure draws comparison to Scorsese's gangtster masterpiece, "Goodfellas." Its cinematic language, however, is far grittier than Scorsese's elegant tracking shots: handheld camerawork, grainy images, and the saturated colors of Brazilian culture dominate much of the film, which exhibits a different style for each time period. indieWIRE's Matthew Ross spoke with Meirelles about his methodical preparation, his visual style, and the solidarity among the new wave of Latin American filmmakers.
indieWIRE: I have a couple of Brazilian friends who've seen "City of God." One of them told me that he was so happy he saw the film because he felt that it was a story that needed to be told. Was that something that you though about going into this film? Was there a social purpose?
Fernando Meirelles: Of course! When I read the book, I was very surprised and shocked. I lived in Brazil for 46 years and didn't know how things happened in those slums. Paolo Lins, the author of the book, wrote the book when he was living it, he was raised there. And so this book has the inside point of the author, and thus is very revealing, When I read the book, I wanted to make the film with the exact same point of view.
iW: Your filmmaking history has run from documentary work to television commercials to a couple of co-directed features as well as the short film "Palace 2." How did these experiences help prepare you to make the move to "City of God," which is such an ambitious film?
Meirelles: I think my background was good for the film. When I was working for TV, I did a lot of documentaries, and so I was used to talking to real people, about real life. My work in commercials helped me learn how to tell the stories. I've probably done a thousand commercials in the last 8 to10 years, so I've become used to all the technical parts of making a film.
iW: "Palace 2" was made primarily to prepare you for this movie, is that correct?
Meirelles: Yes. We had been prepping "City of God" when a friend of mine who works at one of Brazil's big TV networks invited me to do a three-minute special program for Christmas. I told him I would do it if I could work with my crew and my people, and that I would be using the short to rehearse for my feature that I was already working on. He said, "OK, go ahead." And so they paid me to rehearse for the film, it was great. We did all rehearsals, not only with the actors and visuals, but also with production elements like locations and make-up. We had a huge budget for this short that we used for rehearsal, and you can see that, in each sequence there is a different approach, with lighting, with colors. Sometimes we used a lot of lighting, sometimes we used no light, it was very natural, sometimes it has bright colors with high contrast, and some of the images are soft. When we didn't like it in the short, we didn't use it in "City of God." Everything in "Palace 2" was a rehearsal for the feature. It was a great opportunity.
iW: The visual style of "City of God" changes periodically throughout the film. How would you describe what you were trying to accomplish?
Meirelles: The story is told in three different moments. I wanted the audience to feel the progression, to feel that things were changing in that location. So we had the first moment as romantic moments, so it was warm and more classical in our shooting. The camera was still and we were using a tripod; even the landscape was more organized. The second part is when the drug dealer Little Ze takes control of the area and starts to sell marijuana. His business is doing very well, so we made it very colorful. This part of the movie is very happy, there are a lot of parties, there clothing is very colorful and everything is OK. The camera was hand-held; we were more free in the style of shooting. The last part, the part we call the "cocaine part," is when the war begins. So we tried to create something less colorful, monochromatic, or using cool color. They way we shot it and the way we edited did not follow all these rules of axes and using the same lenses. We mixed up everything. When we saw the film, the scenery you have is the crew losing control of the film. In the beginning, it's very classic, and in the end it's really a mess. Our story is about the state losing control of the area; that area became uncontrolled, so we did the same thing with the way we were shooting.
iW: You used non-professional actors who were mostly children and teenagers. How did you approach the process of finding and preparing the actors for the film?
Meirelles: After doing 2,000 interviews, we brought 200 actors to this place in downtown Rio, and invited them to participate in this workshop. In the beginning, they didn't know we were going to do a feature film for this workshop, we just invited them for a workshop for actors. At the end of the workshop, they got a certificate, and that was it. During the process, some of them found out that we were going to do a film later. We chose our main actors, and worked for two or three months with each one.
iW: Did you give them a script?
Meirelles: That's the other thing; we didn't give them any script because they are not professionals and we were afraid that they would become very attached to the lines and not feel what they were doing. Our process was always telling them what the scene was about and asking them to improvise. We'd say thing like, "Put yourself in their position, if you were Little Ze, what would you do?" We were just giving them ideas and they created their own dialogue.
iW: For a first-time feature director, you are uncommon in the fact that you have a lot of filmmaking experience behind you, and this is a very ambitious first film. What were the biggest challenges you faced, and at any point did you start to question that you took on too big of a project?
Meirelles: To be honest, my great fear was related to the script: to deal with characters, to build drama, and to keep the attraction. I had no problems in dealing with the sequence, and how to shoot it with the camera. This is not a challenge at all for me, it comes naturally. My real challenge was dealing with the dramaturgy. This is what I was not used to. This was my great challenge.
iW: For the past few years, Latin American cinema as a whole has been making more of an impact on the world stage. Do you consider yourself part of a larger community of filmmakers?
Meirelles: Of course! I have a great relationship with those directors from Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil. We communicate a lot. I think we are part of the same generation, the same thing. It's really like a wave that is growing and growing. Next year, I'm sure Brazil will have three or four excellent movies coming out; it's going to be a surprise at the international festivals. Friends of mine are doing things here and they are going to be released internationally next year.
iW: What's next for you?
Meirelles: I'm working on a project called, "Intolerance, The Sequel." The title's kind of a joke, a play on the D.W. Griffith film, it's about globalization. Working with Braulio Mantovani, [who also wrote "City of God"]. He is finishing the script by July or August, and we will begin shooting in December. It's five different stories from five different countries, spoken in five different languages, and it's going to be about the relations between First and Third World countries. It's what you call a "dramedy."