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Interview with Fernando Meirelles

From the highly acclaimed director of The Constant Gardner and City of God comes the compelling post-apocalyptic thriller BLINDNESS. This must-see chilling thriller has an all-star cast including: Julianne Moore, Mark Ruffalo, Danny Glover and Gael Garcia Bernal. BLINDNESS is released to buy and rent on DVD on 30 March 2009 from Pathé Distribution Ltd.

As a city is ravaged by an epidemic of sudden blindness, its victims are quarantined in a derelict hospital where a women (Moore; Children of Men, I’m Not There), fakes the illness to care for her beloved husband (Ruffalo; Zodiac, Collateral). From here, she leads her makeshift family of seven people, through a journey of horror and love in the attempt to break out of the hospital and into the devastated city, where they may be the only hope left in a brutal world that has descended into chaos. With danger around every corner how will they survive?

From Nobel Prize winning author Jose Saramago and celebrated director Fernando Meirelles, BLINDNESS takes you on a journey that shines a light on both the dangerous fragility of society and the exhilarating spirit of humanity.

We sat down with Fernando Meirelles

Filmfestivals.com
You pursued the rights to Blindness when it was first published, but were unsuccessful. The way it returned to you after you thought you’d lost it the first time around almost seems like a reward for your success with those other movies, doesn’t it?

“Yeah, but you know it had nothing to do with the success of my other movies. When Saramago sold the rights to Niv Fichman, the Canadian, he didn’t know I was going to direct. Not even Niv knew.

“They first developed the script and then they tried to think about a possible director. They said that they’d thought about myself first, I don’t believe that, but it was pure chance. Saramago didn’t know I was going to do it, I just told him later, so his decision to sell it had nothing to do with me.

Filmfestivals.com
Good karma though, it’s come back full circle.

“Yeah, it was an amazing coincidence, I was really amazed.

Filmfestivals.com
How disappointed were you, to have missed out on the rights initially?

“You know, I moved on very quickly. There was another book that I was interested in from the same publisher, which was City of God. They said no to Blindness, so I said ‘let’s talk about that other one,’ and we started negotiating and I bought City of God from the same guy. It wasn’t a big deal.

“What I wanted at that point in 1997 was to stop doing commercials, because I had been doing them for nine years and I really wanted to move on, to stop doing commercials because my life was very boring. So I bought City of God and started working on that.

Filmfestivals.com
Did you talk to José Saramago about the book?

“Yes, after I signed the project I went to Lisbon to meet him, and I had a lot of questions. We met for dinner and I thought he was going to answer my questions but he didn’t want to. He said ‘it’s my book and this is your film, so let’s not mix up things,’. I really wanted to know a lot of things, and in the end I think he was right.

“If he had told me something, anything about a specific character or event in the film I would have tried to follow whatever he’d say and not what I was thinking. I would be a bit divided, so in the end I was happy that didn’t want to talk about his book.

Filmfestivals.com
Did you share any of your casting ideas with him, did you have Julianne Moore on board at that stage for example?

“Not at that point, his idea for the doctor’s wife was Susan Sarandon. She was also on my list, because I like her very much, but we wanted an actress who was a bit younger. I think Susan is in her fifties, and we wanted someone 10 or 12 years younger. So we went with Julianne.

“There were three things he asked us. One that the film should be spoken in English, so that it would be very international. Another was that he didn’t want the story to be set in a specific place, so it wasn’t Toronto or Brazil or anything, it should be very generic, somewhere that nobody could identify. And the dog, he said he wanted a big dog. We got a big dog but he hated it.

Filmfestivals.com
Has he seen the film since, and does he like it?

“He saw it right after Cannes, I took the film to Lisbon because he couldn’t come to Cannes, to show him. I showed him, it was a very bad screen at the cinema in Lisbon, and when the film finished he wouldn’t say anything. He was sitting next to me and he wouldn’t talk.

“I was sure that he had hated it and he didn’t know how to tell me. Then the lights came on, and he was crying. He said he was as happy seeing the film as he was when he finished writing the book.

“Actually my son was seated in front of us, so when the lights came on he turned his little camera on us and then back at the hotel that night he put this little film on YouTube.

“If you type into YouTube Saramago, Blindness and maybe my name this is the first thing that pops up. It’s had over 140,000 hits already. My son’s film is more successful than mine!

“But it’s a very movie moment because I was so pathetically nervous next to him, because I was sure he hated the film. When he said he loved it I kissed him, and I don’t kiss people usually. I was so moved.

Filmfestivals.com
How did he feel about the way the film worked compared to how the book did?

“He really liked it, he said that of course the film and the book are different and it had to be because a film and a book have different sensibilities and different people telling the same story. But what he liked about it was that the spirit of the book was totally respected by the film.

“I was in Lisbon with him when he presented a screening, and the next day before coming to London I went to his house to say bye and he was so moved. He said ‘Fernando, watching it again yesterday, it’s a great film,’.

“He talked a little bit about the way the violence is featured in the film, he really loved the texture and the tension, he was very happy so that was good news for me. But he really didn’t like the dog.

“I had read this interview in which he was asked which of the characters he had ever written was the one he liked the most. He said he could kill all his characters, but the dog of tears, that’s what he called this character. So for him the dog was really, really important, that’s why it was the only character he asked for. And I missed it.

Filmfestivals.com
Did it surprise you that blind groups in America picketed the film when it was released there?

“It was not a surprise because when we were preparing the film and they read that this story was going to be shot they wrote us letters saying that they didn’t approve of the project, and they only would approve it if we sent them the script so they could revise and correct the script.

“They’re very bossy, you know? So we politely answered that it was an opinion, and everyone can have their own opinion. But this was our film, so sorry. And so as promised, before we released the film they told us that they were going to do demonstrations.

“And they did their demonstrations in front of 75 cinemas, which was quite a big thing. To be honest they missed the point completely because they thought the film told the audience that blind people can’t be adapted for life, that blind people can’t work because they’re stupid and they’re aggressive.

“But it has nothing to do with blind people, it’s human nature, it’s people going blind and losing their humanity. It’s a totally different story, it has nothing to do with blind adaptation.

Filmfestivals.com
You spoof a Stevie Wonder song in the film, has he experienced the movie too?

“That actually was a little joke that happened while we were shooting, we were waiting to shoot the scene where Gael was supposed to talk into the microphone to threaten everybody. Before doing that he had the microphone in his hand and just for fun he started playing it up as Stevie Wonder, I thought it was funny and that we could shoot it.

“He started singing the song as a joke, I wasn’t sure I was going to use it but we were all laughing a lot and finally I decided to use the joke. We bought the rights, it was the most expensive joke of my life. They charged us 50,000 dollars so it was a very expensive joke. But we paid.

Filmfestivals.com
So Stevie Wonder approves?

“He sold us the rights, he charged us a lot.

Filmfestivals.com
What does it say about a group that protests against something before it even exists?

“Yeah, well what we found out about this group, this organisation, is that they don’t really work for blind people, it’s more like a PR organisation. They want to promote the idea that there is an organisation for blind people, so they don’t have – like other organisations do – training for blind people, for adaptation or school, it’s just like an agency.

“It’s about promoting the idea that blind people can adapt, which is fair. They protested before watching the film or hearing the film. I thought it was really a mistake.

“Saramago’s reply was quite aggressive, he said something like there are some people who have sight who are blind, and some people who are really blind who can see how stupid some people can be.

Filmfestivals.com
Common theme of metaphorical blindness, the idea that we don’t see each other – do you think this is heightened by modern urban life?

“I think so but this is an older story, it’s something we humans have. We’re really quite ignorant about ourselves, we really don’t know much about who we are, and if we don’t know who we are we don’t know others.

“We really have this incapacity of seeing what is in front of us. It’s funny in a way, the film coming out now when we’re in the middle of this financial crisis that was in front of is but no-one saw.

“Now the whole world, people studying in universities, everybody is surprised. But it was right in front of us. We really don’t see what we don’t want to see, that’s a bit of what the film tells us.

Filmfestivals.com
Were you under pressure to cut any material, things that perhaps were quite tough or upsetting in their depiction?

“There was no studio involved in this film so we were very free to do it. This film is independent, it’s a Canadian, Brazilian and Japanese film. The Brazilian company is my company, which is quite a big production company.

“The Canadian company occupies just one regular sized room and the Japanese company is Sonoko Sakai, who is one woman who works in her kitchen. So there was nobody telling us what to do. We sold the film in 2007 in Cannes for 43 territories, excluding the US.

“Then we shot the film, we cut the film and then we sold it to Miramax. That was the last territory, just to avoid any problems. We did do test screenings in Toronto, I asked Alliance Atlantis our Canadian partner to pay for that because it’s expensive.

“And in the test screenings a lot of the women walked out during the second rape scene. I felt that the film was very unbalanced because when you have 50% of the audience leaving the theatre you realise something is wrong. So I decided to dim down the film, but that was really my decision.

Filmfestivals.com
What about issues with the censors?

“No, I didn’t see any point in selling the film or showing the film where can’t sit through it. Imagine if 15% left, another 60% who stayed with the film were really angry with the film and took against it. They would feel like that to the end, that’s why I decided to do that. It was out of balance, that was our mistake.

Filmfestivals.com
Did you cut some scenes out after some negative reviews?

“No, I added some scenes. After Cannes. We rushed to finish the film for Cannes, and the film was not ready. The first time I watched the film – and this is a stupid thing to do – was at Cannes, with a thousand people watching with me. That was the check print, we were checking the film.

“It’s true. We finished the sound, the mixing, in Brazil. At the same time the DP was finishing the colour correction in Toronto and four days before the screening both of them sent the material to Paris to put it together with the subtitles.

“The film got to Cannes the day that we arrived, the day before the screening and the first time I watched it was with everyone else. There were a lot of technical problems, the mixing and the colour correction, everything was very dark, which I really disliked.

“So we decided to return to the film, and once we decided to make these corrections I decided to bring back three or four scenes in the first part of the movie. In the film there’s a moment when you see Don McKellar, the guy who rescued the Japanese man and takes him to his apartment.

“In the Cannes version we didn’t see him going to the apartment or inside the apartment, and then the wife coming home. It moved much faster in that first bit, so I brought back some scenes of that. And then the couple, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, preparing to be taken away.

“Nothing of that was in the first cut, calling the doctor and calling the hospital, all this is in there now. So that was a big change. And also I had some voiceover with Danny Glover, I had six voiceovers in the Cannes version. I cut four and left only two. Those were the changes. It was the same film but I think it changed a bit.

Filmfestivals.com
Is this your first film that hasn’t won universal praise from critics? How does that affect you?

“I’m a democrat, everyone can have their opinion. We’ve had some very good reviews, like the Guardian here or the LA Times. It’s clearly divided opinion, it’s a difficult film. Some people love the book, and others can’t read it to the end.

“The good news – with this release there is good news as well as bad – that the film in Brazil was aiming at selling 300,000 tickets, because it was a hard film to promote. We made 95 prints and we thought we would do 300,000 tickets.

“The Constant Gardener did 500,000 in Brazil, and we thought this was a harder film so maybe it would do a bit less. But in fact this film went to 900,000 and we might make a million with no investment, it’s all word of mouth.

“We released it eight weeks ago [as of October 31 2008] and we still have 95 prints going on because the cinemas are still packed. Audiences are responding very well, in Mexico as well. But in the US the film didn’t work at all, I don’t know why. We released it four weeks ago and now we have only 80 prints left.

“The American audience is not interested in seeing this story. They opened very wide and on the first weekend the audience didn’t show up. They just weren’t interested, they saw the trailer, saw the poster and said ‘I don’t want to see a depressing film,’ and they didn’t go.

Filmfestivals.com
Why do you think that would be?

“I thought a lot about it. If the film hadn’t been so successful in Brazil or in Mexico, these are two countries where the film is going on for weeks, I would say it was a problem with the film.

“But it really is a cultural thing, maybe the election is dragging attention away from it, and in this financial crisis people are losing their jobs, losing their houses, losing their investments. It’s not a good moment for dark stories.

“In the same week that we released this film, Beverly Hills Chihuahua came out and it was a big hit. It was number one, really huge. So it’s a better moment for Beverly Hills Chihuahua.

Filmfestivals.com
How was blindness camp? You took part in it along with your actors, didn’t you?

“We would do groups, blindfolding people for hours and do different exercises together. In every group there were always two or three people who, after one or two hours, would sit down and cry. They really couldn’t go on, but we wouldn’t let them take the blindfold off.

“But for me it was the opposite, it was so comfortable, so cosy. I did it twice. The first time we did a lot of things and then we were taken to a restaurant. We were served, and we had to eat with the blindfold on.

“After lunch the guy said ‘okay, you can remove your blindfold,’ and I didn’t want to. I think I stayed with the blindfold on for another eight minutes. It was so pleasant, being with myself.

“When you’re talking to people you don’t see their faces, I’m talking to you and I see your expressions. If you don’t see that you’re much more free, it’s so liberating. The other thing that I found that was very interesting is when you have a blindfold on and you’re talking to somebody the conversation goes to places it would never go if you could see the other person’s reaction.

“You start talking about intimate things, it’s such an interesting experience. I recommend, maybe on Sunday morning waking up and putting a blindfold on and spending a day like that. That’s really, really interesting.

Filmfestivals.com
What are your next projects?

“I’m working on a comedy called Twentysomething that was I supposed to shoot in 2009, but I’m taking a break now. I’m considering taking this break for the whole of 2009, I don’t know.

“Right now I’m finishing a tv series for Brazilian television called Sound & Fury, 12 episodes that will be broadcast in February [’09] so I have to finish cutting this thing, and then I really want to stop for a while. My next film will be, for sure, very light, simple, hopeful, possible comic film.

Filmfestivals.com
Is it true that you don’t want to make films about Brazil any more, only television projects?

“I did say that, but that’s doing something for Brazil. The point is that if I do a film in Portuguese it’s going to be watched – if I’m lucky – by 400,000 or 500,000 viewers, if it’s successful.

“Most Brazilian films this year did 100,00 or 200,00 – that’s why our million for this film is amazing. If I did the same thing, exactly the same story, on television it’s 25 million or 30 million. So I think, what’s the point? Doing a film, working for two years, to be watched just by a little part of the population of filmgoers.

“It’s much more interesting doing something that the whole country will see. I like to do television a lot, it’s a faster process and the post production is much easier because you don’t have to go through laboratories. So it’s less expensive and easier and faster.

Filmfestivals.com
Can’t you be more profound, working in your own language with actors who have the same cultural background?

“I might do small films in Brazil, in Portuguese. Very low budget. This of course I’m going to do. I don’t want to do big projects in Portuguese because it’s hard to sell, it’s hard to finance.

“I mean, if I could have done this film in Portuguese it would have been much better, because of course it’s easier for me to understand it better. But you couldn’t finance it, this film couldn’t be done in Portuguese because it cost 24 million dollars.

“In Portuguese a film can’t cost more than five million. If you need to close cities, and do CGI and have a lot of extras you can’t pay for it. Depending on the story, it really must be done in English.”

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