Director Fernando Mereilles worked in independent television for nine years, moved into publicity and commercials, then became director of a popular children's television show. In 1998, he became a feature filmmaker with the family film Menino Maluquinho 2: A Aventura, followed by 2001's Domésticas, but it was the 2002 film Cidade de Deus (City of God) that rocketed Mereilles to international prominence. Now, he's responsible for The Constant Gardener, a John Le Carré adaptation starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz. Weisz's decade of film roles kicked off with Bernardo Bertolucci's Stealing Beauty, which led to work in independent films (Going All the Way, The Shape of Things, Confidence) and studio productions (Chain Reaction, The Mummy, The Mummy Returns, About a Boy, Runaway Jury, Constantine). She will next appear in The Fountain, a science-fiction romance directed by her fiancé, Darren Aronofsky. I spoke to Mereilles and Weisz at San Francisco's Ritz-Carlton Hotel on August 12, 2005.
Groucho: About the pharmaceutical industry, since you're releasing this film that addresses that issue and touring the country talking about it, have you felt any heat from the pharmaceutical industry in indirect or direct ways?
Fernando Mereilles: Kill me? (Laughs.) Or kidnap me? No, I don't think [so], and I don't think it will—because the film is very generic actually. We're not pointing against any specific company or—even the story: the plot in the film, it's all fiction. There's no drug for TB being developed, no Kenyan[s] used as guinea pigs. This plot is based on something that really happened in Nigeria, actually. But our plot itself really is fiction. So I don't think I'm going to be threatened...
G: You have a reputation for doing research, and I think maybe playing a journalist is something like being an actor—investigating that role. How did you prepare to play Tessa?
Rachel Weisz: In London, Oxfam were very gracious, and they let me meet some people that have been practically working in the fields, who are activists, and they told me their stories, and that was very interesting. But the real inspiration came from Africa when I was there and got to spend a few days in Kibera in the slum before we filmed there. And there was one woman who was like—someone rather like Tessa—she was unpaid; she was not belonging to an organization; she was just someone who was going around the slum helping women. She'd been living with HIV for twelve years, and she went to the slum to counsel women who had HIV, and she allowed me to come with her. So I really went into people's homes. It was an incredibly—I was very privileged to be able to have this experience. And this woman Rea really, really inspired me.
G: And was the novel a frame of reference for you, or did you just focus on the screenplay?
Weisz: No, the novel was, definitely. I kept going back to it and kept reading it, and it was definitely part of the tapestry of everything. You know, we all had it around—
Mereilles: Yeah, the book was already present.
Mereilles: Sometimes before shooting some specific scenes, we would read the scene—I mean, the story told by the book.
Weisz: Yeah, because it was a luxury to have extra—
Weisz: Mmmm, yeah...It's very textured, the novel, I think, and it's very vivid.
G: And, shooting on the fly—kind of, you know, more flexible and fast—that to me makes it seem like maybe the closest you can get on film to stage work or improvisation. Can film ever match the high of being on the stage? What was that like working in that different way for film?
Weisz: Well, obviously, there are moments in the script, which we very much stayed with the script. But there were moments like walking around Kibera, which—they were—I was a fictional character interacting with reality. It's a very kind of—very interesting situation. So the actors were leading the camera, and Caesar and Fernando—Caesar was operating the small camera—would follow us and whatever happened, happened. So, in these moments, it's a kind of —they're moments of reportage. And you even see sometimes in moments where people in Kibera look into the lens even.
Mereilles: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.
Weisz: Which is brilliant, isn't it? It's breaking a rule, actually, but it's great.
Mereilles: But it helps. Keeps the experience documentary, of reality...
Weisz: Also it's kind of—Fernando was just talking about: you come in from a different culture, and you see it through your eyes, and then you start to see their life through their eyes. And in a way, there's something similar about allowing them to, in a sense, represent themselves, as we walked through the slum. It wasn't Fernando or the screenwriter giving the people in Kibera lines. I mean, it wasn't—there is a scene like that—but on the whole, it was—they came and represented themselves. It was (pause) uncolonial. (Laughs.) These moments, you know? Because it's a tricky thing to go in and capture on film somebody's culture, and they—I think the vibrancy and the life that is there Fernando captured on the camera. And it stands for itself, and it spoke for—you feel it, don't you? You see the life there, and the children and their faces and their warmth and their openness, and it's just—that wasn't imposing an interpretation on them—you know what I mean.
Groucho: That reminds me of the theatre scene in the film—the SAFE Theatre. How did that come about, and was it difficult to organize?
Mereilles: No, we actually—I have seen that story on a short film. A British actress showed me this 'cause she was coming from Kenya, and she had done this little short film with that story. That's a group that—they usually do plays in different slums in Kenya to talk about AIDS and all that. And she had done, with this group, this little short. It was so beautiful. So I asked them to—I called the group and asked them to adapt that short film to a play. And we just did the play in this—in Kibera, that place where we shot Henry (?) And all the crowds that [were] there, they were really watching the play. There were no extras—they were real people watching the play. And we were shooting our scenes, 'cause there's a little scene with Tessa there. So we were shooting our scene, and the play was still going on. So that sequence is a bit prepared, produced—'cause we put the stage there and brought the actors and all. But at the same time, it was real, because all the crowd was really watching that thing for the first time. So it's a mixed-up bowl. And that's a very old tradition in Kenya. They do plays where each character is played by three actors. And sometimes four. Sometimes, five. And they use the same lines and the same movement. So it's a mix of—it's a play, or it's a choreography—and it's a mix of very—it's from that culture.
Weisz: It's like a chorus almost, isn't it?
Mereilles: A chorus, yeah, but they do movements. 'Cause a chorus, usually they just say lines—they don't move. And here, they choreograph it as well. They do the movements together, and it's so beautiful. We'll see the whole play on the DVD—twelve minutes. It's a really beautiful scene.
Weisz: Yeah, and it was an English actor, actually, Nick Redding.
Mereilles: Yeah, he leads this group. He's the director of this group.
Weisz: Yeah, it's a real theatre group that exists in Africa to do this. It's an English actor who went to Kenya and never went back to acting. (Laughs.) He just founded this theatre company to educate people about HIV...
Groucho: And the film has left somewhat of a legacy of this trust, right? The Constant Gardener Trust?
Mereilles: Yeah. Simon [ed.: producer Simon Channing-Williams] keeps going back and forth to Nairobi. Now he's building a school in the desert, in North Kenya: Loiyangalani. And he built a couple of water tanks and bridges and—
Weisz: And in exchange for filming in Kibera, in the community—rather than giving cash—a schoolroom was built and a bridge was built. So something was left. Because it's all very well being moved, but—. (Laughs.) It doesn't really help anyone. So Simon really has—
Mereilles: Yeah, but now it became much more than that. Because we finished shooting one year ago, and he keeps trying to raise money—he's really involved in this Trust now.
G: Thank you very much.
Weisz: Thank you so much.
[For Groucho's review of The Constant Gardener, click here.]