Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...
As we’ve mentioned a few times here on the site, our good friend Mr. Beaks has started his own website, Collider.com. I’m sure we’ll continue to work with them from time to time in the future. Everybody over there are great people, and today’s a good example of how this sort of co-operation pays off. Seems that Mr. Beaks sat down with the brilliant Fernando Meirelles, director of my favorite film of 2003, CITY OF GOD, and the director of the new John le Carre adaptation, THE CONSTANT GARDENER. We’re running the first half of this exclusive one-on-one interview here on AICN, and you can read the second half by following the link below. Check this out:
Don’t be fooled by the late August release date, the John le CarrÃ© pedigree, or the fact that this is Fernando Meirelles’s sophomore feature after the brilliant City of God. None of these traditional signifiers of a looming misfire applies to The Constant Gardener. A twisty bit of globetrotting espionage on its surface, the film becomes a devastatingly effective love story in the hands of Meirelles and screenwriter Jeffrey Caine. Forget The Little Drummer Girl, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama – this is le Carre done up as vibrant cinema.
The temporally fragmented narrative tells two stories: the first concerns British diplomat Justin Quayle’s (Ralph Fiennes) anguished investigation into his wife Tessa’s (Rachel Weisz) murder, while the second focuses on Tessa’s efforts to expose atrocities being committed by huge pharmaceutical companies in the name of profit. In dovetailing these two character arcs, Meirelles pulls off a beautiful postmortem romance between two people who couldn’t connect emotionally when they were both alive (knowing this site, people are conjuring up thoughts of Nekromantic after that last sentence; shamefully, I did while writing it). This is to say that Meirelles successfully plays to both espionage and romance fans in a way that favorably recalls The English Patient.
Though he’s a long way from the mean streets of Brazil, Meirelles knows from strife, and, with his cinematographer CÃ©sar Charlone, he captures a Kenya that couldn’t be further from the romanticized splendor of Out of Africa. His Kenya exists and must be dealt with. Below, I discuss with the ever upbeat director the challenges of shooting in the country, the perils of adapting le Carre, and his approach to the craft of filmmaking. I’ll also be back next week with Elvis fanatic Rachel Weisz and He Who Has Been Named As He Who Must Not Be Named.
It occurred to me as I was going over the basic idea of the story – a man falls in love with his dead wife while investigating her murder – that there’s something vaguely Hitchcockian about The Constant Gardener.
It’s a thriller. It’s a very common storyline. I think what makes this film different is that it’s a thriller, but it’s also a love story. How these two things connect: that’s what I like. I also like that the characters are not good or bad. Tessa, who is supposed to be the hero, she’s very annoying in the beginning; you don’t like her. Justin also seems weak sometimes. That’s what makes it interesting, I think.
I keep hearing that I’m not supposed to like Tessa from the beginning, but I really do.
You like her from the beginning of the movie?
I saw that she was terribly forthright, but that she was also dedicated to an honorable cause. People like Tessa need to have this kind of ferociousness. Without it, what’s happening in Africa could be too easily ignored.
This is actually very complimentary for Rachel. I’ve been talking to Rachel a lot about this. It’s amazing the reactions Tessa evokes from people. It’s funny that you liked her from the beginning. I met two activists three days ago, and they said the same: “Oh, she’s great!” But most of the people… there are some people who really hate her. I wanted her to be a bit annoying, somebody who crosses the line and goes too far.
But she’s dealing with such manipulative people. And sometimes, although this may sound questionable, it’s important to have people who are so brazenly manipulative for the side of right.
But we just find this out in the end. At the beginning she looks just like an unfaithful wife who’s very aggressive sometimes with her husband.
I guess I just saw the decency in her from the outset. Now, City of God was a virtuoso cinematic achievement. Though it was also this incredibly powerful document of poverty and crime, you also got a tremendous rush just from the technique on display. With The Constant Gardener, were you explicitly looking to try something different and more subdued?
It was good going in a different direction, doing it in English and working from a very different script. City of God is about this place; so, all the characters are just an excuse to show this place where they live. Here, it was a character piece. It’s really a story about this guy and his long journey to find again his wife. It’s very different, but I think it’s good. It’s hard to compare with City of God; although, there is the slum and some social issues. But I think it’s a very different story.
Hollywood has thus far been unable to make a film about Africa that isn’t told from a white perspective. Though The Constant Gardener is unusually smart and sensitive to the ongoing tragedy of that continent—
It’s still about a white diplomat.
Right. Was that ever a concern for you?
Yeah. I wanted to try to bring the film to Africa, and to try to see the whole story from a different perspective as well. So, we created some scenes for a Kenyan character. We shot some of those scenes, but, in watching the whole thing, it really didn’t work. Justin’s journey was so strong that every time we would go to parallel stories, we wanted to go back, you know? The feeling was, “Let’s go back to the story”. So in the end I cut all of those scenes of the new character. And even the story being from a white guy’s point of view, I think I was able to bring a lot of Africa and Kenya to [the film]. Shooting in the streets, and trying to show faces and places, you have a bit of a sense of Africa.
This feels very much like a film that was found in the editing room. Were you shooting with multiple cameras? Did you storyboard anything?
I usually had two cameras going most of the time. It’s true; we really did come to the final version… I’d say the final script was written in the cutting room with Claire Simpson, the editor. She’s a writer, as well; she edits, but she writes novels. She helped me understand the story, and helped find the structure to tell this story. We tried to edit first in a linear way; it really didn’t work. Then we tried four or five different ways to begin the movie. In the end, we went back to the book. Tessa dies on the first page of the book, so we tried to do the same.
Your compositions are so wonderful. Did you know pretty much what you were going to be shooting, or were you finding stuff once you got out on location?
We went to all the locations, of course, before shooting. Actually, we went the first time just to choose. Then we went a second time with a little camera, taking pictures of all the angles that we wanted to explore in each location. Then the third time we did it with actors. When we got there, I didn’t have any storyboard, but I knew what we were going to shoot and from which position. It was in my head and in my director of photography CÃ©sar [Chalone]’s head. But I don’t like to draw storyboards. I really change things a lot when I get to the set. If there’s different sun coming in, or anything, I like to feel free to improvise and change the idea that I had conceived. And when you do storyboards, and everybody’s prepared to that scene, it’s very annoying. You’re on set, trying to find out where you’re going to shoot, and your assistant says, “Okay, now we take 3B, you want the car here.” That’s why I don’t do storyboards: so nobody will really know what it’s going to be. (Laughs)
You’re not locked in.