Rio de Janeiro — "HAS the academy gone mad?"
That was Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles' reaction nearly two years ago upon learning of his nomination for best director for "City of God," a kinetic, exhilarating look at violent life and death in one of this city's squalid, drug-ridden shantytowns. Shot entirely in Portuguese, on a budget that would have trouble paying for catering on a Hollywood set, the movie was a surprise critical and financial hit worldwide.
If a similar call comes through in a few months with news of an Oscar nod for his direction of the acclaimed John le Carre thriller "The Constant Gardener," Meirelles will be elated, this time -- but not shocked.
"I'll be surprised and extremely happy, but it would make more sense, because at least it's a film in English, and there are a couple stars in it," he said. " 'The Constant Gardener' is more part of the game than 'City of God' was. It's a $25-million film versus a $2-million film."
Meirelles' career has undergone a dramatic shift since that bolt-from-the-blue Academy Award nomination, vaulting a man best known in his native country for making commercials onto Tinseltown's list of coveted directors.
Doors he never knew existed have now swung open. American producers recognize his name, even if they mispronounce it on occasion (it's may-REL-less). Scripts are pouring in.
But Meirelles, who turned 50 last month, is interrupting his rocket rise in Hollywood's sights to go back to his roots in Brazil, where he has two smaller-scale projects in the works. Both are meditations, he says, on the nature of happiness and the meaning of life.
The only thing he'll say about one of them is that it will be a low-budget film in Portuguese. The other, "Intolerance," will be a takeoff on, or a sequel of sorts to, D.W. Griffith's silent-film classic of the same name. Like its predecessor, Meirelles' movie will weave together stories from locales around the world -- Kenya, China and the United Arab Emirates, to name a few.
"There are a lot of sequences in English, because in the Arab Emirates, Philippines and Kenya, they speak English as well. But it's a Brazilian project, from Brazil," Meirelles said, adding: "Of course, when I have the script ready, I'll try to get some American financing as well. But my goal is to be very independent in this project."
Independence and a search for his own distinctive style have been characteristic of Meirelles' career as a filmmaker ever since he began experimenting with a Super 8 camera he received as a gift at age 12. By high school, Meirelles, the son of a prominent doctor, was doing research on foreign movies for his campus film club. In college, he submitted a video documentary as his thesis, even though he studied architecture, a field that still affects the way he approaches his craft.
"I see things like constructions -- graphically," Meirelles said in Rio, where he was in town for the Brazilian premiere of "The Constant Gardener." "When I read a script, I see the structure of the script, sometimes more than the emotions of the characters or the lines of dialogue. The structure is really what [grabs me], and I think this is a bit of my architecture experience."
Learning to shoot
MEIRELLES made his name directing television commercials -- at least 700 of them at last count by his Sao Paulo-based O2 Films, one of the biggest production companies in Latin America.
"That's how I learned how to shoot. I see my commercial career as really my school, especially when you do commercials the way I did," he said. "I was doing four or five a month. I was shooting in different situations -- in studios, underwater, on helicopters ... with different POVs [points of view], hundreds of different actors. I'm really confident of my skills to tell stories and where to put the camera."
That assurance was evident in "City of God," which critics praised for its adrenaline-fueled camera work, inventive perspectives and edgy editing. Meirelles and his longtime cinematographer, Cesar Charlone, employed some of the same techniques in "The Constant Gardener," including encouraging the actors to improvise, just as they did with the untrained youths, plucked from the shantytown, who starred in "City of God."
"They were debating all the time different ways of shooting," said actor Ralph Fiennes, who plays the lead character, the grief-stricken diplomat Justin Quayle, in "The Constant Gardener." "Because they have a kind of jiving, adventurous quality about how we can shoot, I'd pick up on it and would be saying, 'Can we do one more? I can do it like this.' So there was a sense that nothing need be too fixed."
Yet "The Constant Gardener" was a different experience for Meirelles than "City of God," and not just because, as he told one interviewer, "the wine is better [and] you travel first class."