Fernando Meirelles

Fernando Meirelles

Born and raised in San Paolo, Brazil in a middleclass home, Meirelles spent a great deal of his youth traveling the United States, Asia and other places, thanks to his father, a prominent gastr nterologist who went abroad for business or to just take his family on vacation. At 12 year-old, he was given a Super-8 camera which he used to make experimental shorts with friends. During high school, he researched foreign films for the Cine Club, a hobby he continued throughout his life. He then attended San Paolo University where he studied architecture, though the only building he ever designed was his home in San Paolo. Despite his major, Meirelles was considering a film career, and even presented his senior thesis on urban living as a documentary. In 1989, he and some friends formed Olhar Eletronico, a production company that made comedic news shows and a popular children's series for Brazilian public television. He later went into commercial production, creating 30-second spots for every product imaginable-name one and he probably made an ad for it. After ten years of making commercials-over a thousand by his count-Meirelles became bored despite his success. He wanted to direct features. A friend then gave him a copy of Paulo Lins' Cidade de Deus, a novel about teenage drug dealers in the slums of Rio de Janiero vying for territory through unrepentant violence. The director's interest was immediately piqued and, after convincing the author to sell the rights, began working on the script for "City of God." Meanwhile, Meirelles co-directed another feature, "Domesticas" (2001), with filmmaker Nando Olival. Set in Brazil, the satiric drama adapted from Renata Melo's play told the true-to-life stories of six domestic workers with countless stories about grueling work, secret ambitions and constant loneliness. The film competed in the 2001 Rotterdam Film Festival. After "Domesticas," he returned to work on "City of God." He recruited Katia Lund, a documentary filmmaker familiar with the Rio favelas (or slums) and the drug dealers running the streets, to help him set up a theater group and cast for the film. Meirelles then sent a team of productions assistants armed with VHS cameras into the slums to scout for talent. In 40 days, they videotaped over 2000 people. Of the 2000 recorded, around 400 were selected to participate in the theater group. Pretending to be an assistant director to avoid intimidating the would-be actors, Meirelles ran improvisation workshops with the group, whittling it down to about 200. This group was divided into eight groups, and Meirelles finally informed them that he was making a movie. In order to prepare for filming "City of God," Meirelles and Lund co-directed a 20-minute short, "Golden Gate," about two young men who turn to crime so they can make money to attend a concert. The short was screened at the New York Film Festival in September 2001. Meirelles then shot the feature-length version using 100 people from his improvisation group, and while all non-actors, he allowed them to improvise a majority of their dialogue. Though unable to film in the real City of God neighborhood because it was too dangerous, he still needed approval from local drug dealers to shoot in other locations. With their blessing, Meirelles went on to make a highly-energized film spanning several years about teenagers struggling to deal with their poverty the best way they can-usually by becoming murderous drug dealers. "City of God" won several international and critic awards, including the 2003 Best Foreign Film Award from the New York Film Critics Circle. It was also nominated for a 2002 Golden Globe, and four Academy Awards in 2003, including Best Director for Meirelles. Though Meirelles could have had the pick of the litter after his Oscar nomination-he refused offers to direct big budget Hollywood features, and even turned down "Collateral"-he chose instead to continue making films in third world countries that were closer to his heart. His next project was "The Constant Gardener" (2005), an adaptation of the John le Carré novel about a kind and genial British diplomat (Ralph Fiennes) in Kenya whose socially-conscious, outspoken wife (Rachel Weisz) is mysteriously murdered after investigating massive corruption between the government and pharmaceutical companies. Amidst rumors about her infidelity, the diplomat embarks on a personal quest to find out the truth about his wife's death. The film's producer Simon Channing-Williams realized he needed someone with a third world perspective rather than a middle class British viewpoint. Channing-Williams gave the script to Meirelles, who immediately said yes, days before original helmer Mike Newell bowed out of the project to direct the fourth "Harry Potter" film. Meirelles then found himself in Kenya scouting locations and working with a $25 million budget-a first for the formerly low-budget director. Despite the negative portrayal of the Kenyan government in the script, Meirelles was surprised that they were eager to have the project filmed in their country-at least it would provide some jobs. Once on location, both cast and crew quickly became enchanted with the joyous life pulsating throughout the country, particularly in the poorest sections. Initially worried about feeling sorry for the locals, the filmmakers came away touched by their hospitality and generosity of spirit. Meanwhile, "The Constant Gardener," co-starring Danny Huston, Bill Nighy and Pete Postlewaite, was an astounding artistic triumph, with Meirelles successfully raising a strong human story rich with feeling and emotion out of le Carre's meticulously plotted potboiler and getting compelling, multidimensional performances out of his actors.