Fernando Meirelles: A highly improbable union

Acclaimed for 'City of God', Fernando Meirelles was not the obvious choice to adapt John le Carré's novel 'The Constant Gardener'. Gerard Gilbert meets him
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The Independent Culture

"I was never into any of Le Carré's spy books, all that Cold War stuff, but The Constant Gardener is more interesting to my Third World sensibility," says Meirelles, perched on a sofa in the decidedly non-Third World setting of London's Dorchester hotel. "The way corporations now virtually run governments - it's very scary."

Le Carré's novel tells of Julian (played here by Ralph Fiennes), a career diplomat at the British High Commission in Nairobi, who learns that his younger, politically active wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) has been murdered "up country", while a man identified as her Kenyan lover has disappeared. The book is about Julian shedding his quietude, continuing Tessa's investigations into drugs companies testing dangerous Aids drugs on sick Kenyans, and falling in love again with a woman he realises he hardly knew.

"The chance to take on the pharmaceutical industry was one of three elements that made me want to direct The Constant Gardener, as was the chance to shoot in Kenya," says Meirelles. "Also, it's a very original love story about a man who marries a younger woman who is very different from him, and it's only after she dies that he truly falls in love with her. It's a beautiful tale, with a touch of the existential to it."

Indeed it is, but in Le Carré's novel, and early drafts of Jeffrey Caine's screenplay, this was still a tale grounded in a very Anglocentric view of Africa. Producer Simon Channing-Williams feared that "we might get stuck in a middle-class British male box" and was delighted when Meirelles came on board. "Suddenly, all those prejudices were thrown out of the window," he says. "Fernando's perception is all to do with character. Our British class structure is not important to him; it was great that we could get away from that, and tell the story as seen by 95 per cent of the rest of the world."

Meirelles agrees that the nuances of social status were getting in the way of a good story. "The original script was too full of this British class stuff, which for outsiders is a like a secret code," he says. "I got rid of all of that." Le Carré, who retained a final say over the casting, script changes and choice of director, approved the changes made by Meirelles. "He had a lot of power on this film," says the Brazilian. "He's a fascinating man - and was very helpful during filming. I would receive notes from him from his house in Cornwall."

Undoubtedly, the most telling change Meirelles made was to throw the whole thing outdoors and into the vibrant slums and spectacular landscapes of Kenya. "Originally, there were a lot of scenes taking place in offices, and I wanted to let Africa in."

Meirelles took the film deep into the Nairobi shantytown of Kibera, the largest slum in sub-Saharan Africa. "It's hard to believe, but I think that Kibera is actually worse than the favelas of Rio where we filmed City of God," says Meirelles. "The slums of Rio are closer to the poorer parts of England than they are to the slums in Nairobi. In Rio they have electricity and running water, and cable TV - even if they don't pay for it. Even after all the time I have spent in the favelas, Kibera was a shock for me. I can't imagine what the British crew members thought. Even some of the Kenyan crew had never been there and were just as astonished."

But if the African slums were far poorer than their Brazilian counterparts, they were also far safer, reckons Meirelles. "In the favelas there were all these guys hanging around with guns, and the atmosphere was very tense at times, especially if you tried to film something that hadn't been agreed beforehand. Kibera was very relaxed in comparison."

The intention had been to shoot The Constant Gardener in South Africa, which has an established film-making infrastructure, and was the preferred location for the film's insurers. "But after 24 hours in Kenya we realised we couldn't film it anywhere else," says Meirelles. "The landscape, the faces - even the quality of light are very different to South Africa."

Surprisingly, given that The Constant Gardener is passionately critical of Kenyan officialdom and was banned in the country for many years, the government in Nairobi decided to give the film-makers their full cooperation. The British High Commission in Nairobi, too, which comes out of Le Carré's book very badly, offered invaluable assistance in persuading the film's backers that Kenya was a viable place to shoot. "Our feeling, talking to them and being in their offices, was that the High Commission these days is like any other business," says Meirelles. "It looks like Unilever or Shell; it's really about making opportunities to do business."

And in The Constant Gardener that business is pharmaceuticals - or "Big Pharma", as it's known. Julian's activist wife is out to prove that international drug companies have been using sick Kenyans as guinea pigs for unproven treatments for TB and Aids. Meirelles says that he can identify strongly in this aspect of the story. "I'm from Brazil, and over the past several years we have been making generics. And if you try to make cheap versions of patented medicines, you very quickly learn a lot about the unbelievable power of the drugs industry lobby."

The finished film is an extraordinary achievement, managing to be passionate without being preachyand above all a damn good story. Many of the themes of The Constant Gardener will be taken up by Meirelles' next project, Intolerance, which will be filmed in seven different countries (including Brazil and Kenya) and look at the effects of globalisation. What is quite clear is that his worldwide success isn't making Meirelles any more amenable to Hollywood.

"To be precise, I had 115 offers from Hollywood after City of God," he says. "Everything from action movies to films set in the Middle Ages. I was even offered Westerns. The nearest I came was flying to Los Angeles to discuss directing Collateral when Russell Crowe was on board. [Michael Mann ended up shooting the film with Tom Cruise.] The thing is that I'm not ready for an American subject yet. Maybe in eight or nine years. I mean, why would I want to work in Hollywood?"

Maybe for the money, I suggest. "I have my own commercials agency back in San Paolo, and I have all the money I need," says Meirelles. "I'm middle-aged now [he's 50] and need to be doing stuff I want to do. My ideal career would be to do what Pedro Almodovar does in Spain. I'd like to make Brazilian films for international audiences that are not big-budget."

And are there any actors he'd particularly like to work with? "Hundreds," he says immediately, before giving it some thought. "Gary Oldman. What's Gary Oldman doing these days? I'd love to work with him, although I'd be scared." Now there's an artistic marriage as unlikely as Meirelles and Le Carré, but you wouldn't want to miss it.

'The Constant Gardener' is released on 11 November