Bringing Le Carre's 'Constant Gardener' to the Big Screen Fernando Meirelles, director of the Brazilian film City of God, joins us to talk about his latest movie The Constant Gardener. Based on the John Le Carre novel, the movie tells a story of love, betrayal and big pharmaceutical companies set in East Africa.
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Bringing Le Carre's 'Constant Gardener' to the Big Screen

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Bringing Le Carre's 'Constant Gardener' to the Big Screen

Bringing Le Carre's 'Constant Gardener' to the Big Screen

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Here are the headlines from some of the stories we're following here today at NPR News. Police in Britain have made four arrests in connection with the attempted bombings in London on July 21st. Anti-terrorist and local police raided two homes earlier this morning in the city of Birmingham. And President Bush made a rare visit to Capitol Hill today to urge House Republicans to support the Central America Free Trade Agreement. The House vote is expected to be close. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, we premiere our summer movie awards, a series of debates about the `best ofs' in various categories. First up, summer blockbusters. Before you line up at the ticket booth for "Stealth" or "The Dukes of Hazzard," we want you to reflect back on the best popcorn movie of all time. Was it "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Independence Day," "Men in Black?" Send us your nominee and a short explanation of why to totn@npr.org, and be sure to include your phone number. We may get you on the show to defend your choice. It's TALK OF THE NATION's film awards starting this Thursday on TALK OF THE NATION.

The common ingredients for a summer blockbuster often include an exotic locale, dastardly villains, a touching love story and a lot of explosions. "The Constant Gardener," which comes out late this month--late next month, excuse me--has several of those elements. It also has spy novelist John Le Carre's insidious paranoia and the highly caffeinated camera work of Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles. "The Constant Gardener" follows a midlevel British diplomat assigned to Kenya as he searches for his wife's killers through the steamy intersection of giant pharmaceutical companies, Third World corruption and ruthless capitalism.

Fernando Meirelles' last film was also an exploration of love and death in a hot climate. "City of God" traced 15 years of gang wars in Rio de Janeiro's worst slum and earned him an Oscar nomination for best director.

Fernando Meirelles joins us here in Studio 3A.

And welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. FERNANDO MEIRELLES (Director): Thank you very much for the invitation.

CONAN: If you have questions for Fernando Meirelles about his past films or about the process of making this one, the Brazilian film industry, give us a call: (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. And our e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Now Kenya is a long way from Brazil. How did you end up making this movie?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Well, I was in London. It was almost by chance. I was in London and I met Simon Channing-Williams, the producer of the film. Mike Newell was supposed to direct the film, but he was invited to do the "Harry Potter," and so when I met Simon, I mean, one week before he had lost his director for the project, he gave me the script. I read it during the night in the hotel and I came back next day; it was a very interesting story setting, in Africa. I thought it would be very interesting shooting in Africa. And the plot deals with pharmaceutical industry, which is a big issue in Brazil, because Brazilian government, they provide free treatment for AIDS, so they buy--I mean, they buy drugs for AIDS, against AIDS, directly from pharmaceutical companies. So they're always fighting about costs and all that.

CONAN: About getting generic drugs as opposed to the...

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. Well, Brazilian government, we--five years ago, they started to produce generics, because they couldn't get a reasonable price for the drugs. And so that's how the war between Brazilian government and the pharma industry began. And...

CONAN: So that's one of the things that interested you.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yes, because I've been following this issue for the last five, four years, so I thought it would be interesting doing a film on pharmaceutical. I mean, they're the perfect bad guys.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Well, and it's interesting; in this film--it's a John Le Carre plot. It's from his novel, and these are very tightly plotted books, very different from your last film, which was a much more personal movie.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, but, I mean, like in my film--'cause my film--I had lots of characters to try to show City of God, this neighborhood in Rio de Janeiro. My idea was to try to show something through those characters. And I think here I have the same thing. I mean, I'm trying to show a bit of Africa and to talk about pharmaceutical through some characters, and the social issue, like the other one. But it's true; it's a very different experience for me, because working with big stars like Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz, this was a challenge, and it's a big-budget film--at least, very big for my standards. So this was--I mean, I'm learning how to spend $25 million in a film.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Well, one difference is, when you made "City of God," as I understand it, that was mostly your money, your personal money. Now you're playing with $25 million of somebody else's money.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. That was a very, very low-budget film; I mean, done with our own effort, and it was a different experience.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. What lessons from "City of God" and your previous work, of course, did you carry with you into this project?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Well, actually, the way--in "City of God," we were not working with professional actors. They were all amateurs. So we--me and Cesar Charlone, my DOP, my cinematographer, we developed a way of shooting that would allow the actors to be very free. I mean, we had no stands, no light equipment...

CONAN: Aha.

Mr. MEIRELLES: ...on set. The set is like a usual place. I mean, there's--you don't see equipment around, and we're using all these very small, light cameras. And so the actors could be very free to perform, to be focused on what they're doing, and we brought this experience to the coast of Ghana. I mean, we did the same way. I mean, we didn't use much equipment. We never break the scenes, like usually people do when they're shooting films. I mean, you put the camera and then you bring the actors, and the actors perform for the camera. We did the other way around. I mean, we would let the actors do whatever they wanted, and the camera was always trying to follow them.

So the film shows a bit different from the usual, I mean, kind of thriller, I think.

CONAN: I had the chance to see the film at a screening last night, and the colors in the film are extraordinary, even in the interior scenes. How did you get those colors across using, as you say, primarily natural light?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Oh, this is part of the process. I mean, usually, Cesar--he does a very flat light and--so you can shoot in all the points of--I mean, in a certain set, you can shoot anywhere. And then all the--I mean, the photography is done on post-production. I mean, that's when you transfer from film to digital; that's how all the films are done nowadays. When you transfer, that's when you really enhance colors, you bring contrasts, you delete and you make areas darker. I mean, that's when he really works on the photography.

CONAN: How...

Mr. MEIRELLES: And it really looks fantastic.

CONAN: Let's get some listeners involved in the conversation. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255; (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address, totn@npr.org. Our guest is Fernando Meirelles. His new picture, "The Constant Gardener," comes out late next month. And we'll begin with David, David calling from Boston.

DAVID (Caller): Hi, Mr. M. I was wondering if you might be able to discuss race and skin color in Brazil and how you worked that out in casting in "City of God."

Mr. MEIRELLES: Well, actually, racism is not a big issue in Brazil, like it is here, I think, especially because, unfortunately, the black population in Brazil is the poorest population. So I think there's a--you can say that there's a prejudice, but it's a social prejudice, not a--there's no racism. It's very usual in Brazil to see couples--black people with white people. It's very, very usual, and that's why 40 percent of the population is mulattos, how we call mixed between white and black. I mean, it's--so I think it's a very different way to see the problem than what you see here.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. David?

DAVID: Yes?

CONAN: Is that it?

DAVID: Thank you so much.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate the phone call.

You were talking about the filming technique, which was much more open. You're having your characters not play to the camera, but play to each other. The difference--one of the differences in "City of God," a lot of the dialogue was improvised, spontaneous. Obviously, in "The Constant Gardener," you have a script to follow.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, but I was always trying to--asking the actors to improvise and to come with new lines and to surprise the other actors, because sometimes when you're repeating the same scene, one and two and--I mean, the fifth time that you're saying the same line and getting the same answer, it becomes a bit automatic. So I always ask the actors to try different lines, to say the same thing in a different way, so the other actor will react in a different way, and I think this keeps the scene fresh instead of making it an automatic, you know...

CONAN: I take it the...

Mr. MEIRELLES: ...mechanical.

CONAN: Yeah, mechanical--but I take it the screenwriter was off somewhere on the side of the set slashing his wrists.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. Well, he came to some days of shooting, and he was--sometimes he was complaining, `But this was not the line that was written.' I said, `Jeffrey, it's the same thing.' `No, it's not the same thing.' We had a couple of discussion about it.

CONAN: I can understand. Let's get another caller on the line. Let's go to Dennis, Dennis calling us from Nashville.

DENNIS (Caller): (Portuguese spoken)

Mr. MEIRELLES: (Portuguese spoken)

DENNIS: (Portuguese spoken)

Mr. MEIRELLES: (Portuguese spoken) I think you should speak in English.

DENNIS: Yeah, I know, but, well, my wife, she's from Americana, just north of Campinas, and she keeps telling me I need to speak Portuguese, so...

Mr. MEIRELLES: Oh, right. Yeah, there's this city in Sao Paulo called American(ph). It was colonized American town.

DENNIS: Yes. But I just found--my wife and I saw the movie here in Nashville about two years ago or a year ago or so--I can't remember the time frame exactly...

CONAN: "City of God," you're talking about.

DENNIS: Yes. And given Lula's problems now and his governing PT party's corruption issues as--we get global on satellite, so we still can keep up with, you know, what's going on back home. Do you think your film has provided any influence in his government in terms of how they're dealing with the trafficking situation in Rio, especially?

CONAN: I'd like--just let me insert that Lula's the nickname of the president of Brazil, but go ahead, Fernando.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. Well, I think during the first release of "City of God" in Brazil, a lot of people were talking about drug dealing and a lot of articles on newspaper and all, but I don't really think it changed anything, you know? It's a pity. I mean, this is still a big issue in Brazil, drugs dealing, but I don't think the film helped in any way. Well, it made this issue public; I mean, everybody talks about it now. But it didn't change yet.

CONAN: Is that frustrating?

Mr. MEIRELLES: It's a bit frustrating, isn't it?

CONAN: You...

Mr. MEIRELLES: But it's very--I mean, it's very difficult to deal with drug dealers, because there are a lot of kids, you know, and...

DENNIS: (Portuguese spoken)

Mr. MEIRELLES: OK. Thank you.

CONAN: Thank you very much for the call, Dennis.

Let's see--this is Steve, Steve calling from Seward, in Alaska.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Wow.

STEVE (Caller): Right, a long way from the City of God. But nonetheless, there was a point--I lived in Brazil and worked in favelas, in the squatter colonies, in the late '60s, and there was something about "City of God" that I never read anywhere and I was hoping that you could underscore this--that the City of God was a public housing experiment whereby people were moved from the squatter colonies, the favelas, in the north and south zone, were moved out to this area in the La Serva(ph) regime, period, using American AID money from the Alliance for Progress, away from their work sites. And what went to pieces there in "City of God" was an attempt to reform the housing situation rather than the situation that people always talked about, which is the favelas and the squatter colonies.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, it's true. I mean, "City of God"--wow, this is in the film. You see it. We explain it in the film. It was not a favela. I mean, the intentions of building City of God were the best intentions, were giving better houses for people, but they forgot that they would have to go to work, and they were far away from work and there was no interest in structure. So all those projects, housing projects that were done in '60 with the best intentions, I mean, failed, and that's where all the drug dealers started their business.

STEVE: But meanwhile, as you're aware, probably, in Salvador and other areas, instead of trying to remove people from their lagados(ph), another name for original invasions or squatter colonies, there was encouragement of urbanization of those places right where they were, so that they ended up on the tax rolls as part of the urban infrastructure. So there really is both in Brazil bad examples and good examples of how things could happen, and this is still relevant, given the current attempt to remove urban squatter colonies in Zimbabwe and other places.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, it really doesn't work. In Rio now there's a program called Hiu Favela(ph), which is the same idea that they're doing in Salvador. They're trying to urbanize favelas, so they bring light in and--well, there's a good thing about living in a favela. It's because you're in downtown, in the best places of the city, and you don't pay for electricity, you don't pay for water, you don't pay taxes. So sometimes government wants to bring all those things to a favela, but the population, they don't want to, because they have all this for free. They just use, you know, illegal electricity, illegal--but you're right. I mean, they should try to urbanize favelas instead of removing people.

CONAN: Steve, thanks very much for the call.

STEVE: Thank you. Bye-bye.

CONAN: We're talking with Fernando Meirelles about his films, the new one, "The Constant Gardener," and also about the "City of God." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Peter. Peter's with us from Michigan.

PETER (Caller): Hello?

CONAN: Hi, Peter. You're on the air.

PETER: Hi. How're you doing?

CONAN: OK.

PETER: All right. My question is: During the filmmaking process to this new movie, how was it different since the subject matter wasn't as personal and close to home as "City of God" was?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, this was a big difference. And another thing is that to shoot "City of God," I worked on the script for two years. And in this case, I read the script, and 40 days later I was in Nairobi looking for a location. So I was really working as a director. I was trying just to understand what was John Le Carre's view of that story and the writers' view of this story, and tell their story. Of course, that--after a while, after two, three months, I started to work on the script and try to understand better the story that I was telling, but I--it's a very different approach for me, as you say. I mean, the first story--I mean, I started from the beginning, and this one was somebody else's story that I was trying to get involved, and I hope I've done a good film. I don't know. Let's see what people will think.

CONAN: Peter, thank you.

PETER: Yeah. No problem. Thank you.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Thank you.

CONAN: And I did want to say--you say pharmaceutical companies are the big, bad guys in the film, but one of the subjects of the film is also corruption of the local government. The novel "The Constant Gardener," when John Le Carre published it, it was banned in Kenya because it addressed that topic. How did you get permission to shoot there?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. Actually, when he wrote the story, that was Moi's government.

CONAN: Daniel Arap Moi.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. He was the former president. And then it seemed that he has one of the most corrupted governments ever. And--but now there's a new government, and so we spoke to this new government, and they were very smart, because they realized that we could shoot in Kenya, but we could also shoot the same story in South Africa, so he said, `Well'--once we were going to the film anyway, `at least do it here because we have, I mean, a small film industry that will have the benefit of learning how to produce a big movie. I mean, you're bringing jobs, you're bringing visibility to the country.' And he said, `Well, this is not the best story that we wanted you to tell about Kenya, but do it. I mean, it's better than telling it in--from South Africa or something.'

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Did you have--we just have a few seconds left, but I wondered, did you have logistical problems in terms of finding the equipment and the supplies and all that stuff that you needed?

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah. Well, we knew what we could get in Kenya, and you can get a lot of equipment, lighting equipment. And what we didn't got in Kenya, we brought from the UK. And so, I mean, it was a very--I mean, to...

CONAN: With some of that $25 million.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Yeah, we spent it ...(unintelligible) as well.

CONAN: Fernando Meirelles, good luck with the movie. Thank you very much for being with us today.

Mr. MEIRELLES: Thank you very much for the invitation.

CONAN: Fernando Meirelles is director of "The Constant Gardener." He was nominated for an Oscar for his last movie, "City of God." He was with us here today in Studio 3A.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan.

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