FERNANDO Meirelles is a Brazilian filmmaker who grew up in Sao Paolo and trained as an architect. His films include City of God, which won him an Academy Award nomination and global recognition, The Constant Gardener, and Blindness. His latest film is 360, a panoramic drama about interlocking lives written by Peter Morgan and starring Anthony Hopkins, Rachel Weisz, and Jude Law. It opened last year’s London Film Festival and is on general release from today.
What drew you to this story?
It was triggered by Arthur Schnitzler’s classic play La Ronde. The idea that Peter Morgan took from the play was that one character can lead you to the next, and one story always leads to another. Finally, a circle is completed. Oh, and both versions talk about sex a lot.
What interested you about this group of seemingly disparate characters from all over the world?
There are no antagonists in this film. The characters are basically good people trying to do their best. They are, like all of us, led by their impulses and desires. These mysterious forces within them guide them to different places – whether into the arms of another lover or to a conversation with a stranger in an airport. Even a sex offender wants to be a good citizen in this film. He is a man trying to change. I think 360 is about the idea that in order to build a civilisation we need to repress our instincts. Our personal happiness and a good civilisation don’t necessarily go together. We must sublimate our desires to build a world together.
Your films often seem preoccupied with ideas of social exclusion and justice. Should films do more than entertain?
I don’t know if films should offer moral messages but they should explore ideas. I’ve never thought about making a film that purely entertains. I’m not interested. I don’t need to make a lot of money. My life is good. I’m well established. And I’m 56 and wouldn’t spend two years of my life on something just to sell tickets. Life is too short.
How much did your career change after the enormous success of City of God?
It was quite a scary time. I wasn’t very interested then, and I’m not now, in Hollywood. Too much control, too many different people telling you what to do. I’ve always preferred going my own way. Which is what I’ve done, my whole life. I’m often invited to do big American films. So far I’ve said no.
Is this because you like to make films that employ different languages, locations and mix famous actors with unknowns?
Yes. When you make films like this you have to spend less money but it’s still worth it. You have creative freedom. And you have a good time.
After City of God, people called you the Martin Scorsese of Latin America. What did you make of that?
It’s very complimentary. City of God had a lot in common with Goodfellas. The structure was similar – a young guy talking about the Mafia in his neighbourhood. In my film, it is a young guy talking about the drug dealers in the favelas.
Were you concerned that people would think you were glamorising violence?
It’s very different from, say, Quentin Tarantino’s approach to violence. But when the film came out in Brazil I was slammed. Everyone said I was using serious social issues in Brazil to sell popcorn. They felt I was turning poverty into entertainment. That was hard. There were a lot of people talking about how stupid I was. But now in Brazil everybody loves the film. It just took time.
Do you go back to the Rio favelas and keep in touch with some of the children who were in the film?
Yes. Most of them no longer live in the favelas. After the film we started up and funded a school in downtown Rio for them. It is still going now. I visit and talk to them if there is a problem with the water system or they need to do some renovations.
Did you worry about them after the cameras were turned off and you left?
Yes, but the good news is that in the last decade the situation in the favelas of Rio has changed. There is a programme in Brazil where the police work in the favelas in a much more friendly way, without guns. So now they have the support of the community, the drug dealers have gone, and the favelas are being incorporated into the city.
Is it true that your father gave you your first camera when you were a boy?
He gave me a Super 8 when I was 14. He was a doctor but he used to make short films for fun, parodies of westerns and thrillers. So I always saw him shooting films with his friends and having fun with a camera.
Were your parents film buffs?
No, they didn’t go to the cinema. They preferred making films to watching them. It was a game for them.
What kind of films did you make?
Short experimental films. I liked to shoot in a very slow speed, making things disappear, things like that. I have always had a thing about experimenting with different speeds.
Did you realise you wanted to be a filmmaker at that time?
No, I trained as an architect!
How did training as an architect affect your filmmaking?
If I hadn’t become a filmmaker I would have loved being an architect. I was always interested in cities and how cityscapes develop and that is in all my films. I picture cities as an architect as much as I do a filmmaker. And I think about the look and feel of a city a lot when I’m choosing locations.
Why the change from architect to filmmaker?
It was almost an accident, like everything else in my life. I loved to draw and my friends and I decided to make an animated film so we could see our drawings move. We created a little story and shot it. Then I had to write my thesis and so instead of writing a paper I decided to make a film. So I shot my thesis instead of writing it. After that I had equipment, friends who were keen, and so we created a small film company in Sao Paolo. It never stopped. And I never got to work as an architect.
Why have you always chosen to work in an improvisational way with actors?
I like to work this way with crew as well. I like to keep my options open until the very last minute. I never storyboard. With City of God I was very radical. I knew I couldn’t establish how I wanted to shoot because the actors were not professionals. I knew they wouldn’t be able to perform if I gave them marks. So I shot in a way that left them very free to go and do as they pleased. And it worked. Since, I’ve always worked in a very loose way. Before I go to the location I visit a few times so I know the angles I like and have an idea of where to place the actors. But if something interesting happens on the day, I change everything. And I’m very fast.
Working with you sounds terrifying…
Yes it’s very experimental. But I always wrap up each day ahead of time.
How does an actor like Rachel Weisz respond to working like that?
She loves to try different approaches. We might do a scene where she speaks very low, then try it again with her shouting, then a third time laughing. There are some actors who can’t bear that. They want to know exactly what I’m looking for.
What about Anthony Hopkins?
His main scene in 360 is an incredible monologue during a group therapy session and mostly improvised by him. He just sat there and told his story, mixed up with his personal experience. He actually spliced the script with his own life, just like that, on the spot. It was so beautiful to watch, like pointing a camera at a jazz musician.
And finally, who are some of your favourite directors?
I love Paul Thomas Anderson, everything he does. And I watched Gaspar Noe’s Enter The Void recently and was shocked, blown away. Everyone should see it immediately. Do it over two consecutive nights because it’s three hours long and you will get tired. This film deserves attention.
360 is on release from today
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