Though it seemed like a daring move to hire Brazilian Fernando Meirelles(City of God) to make John Le Carré’s The Constant Gardener — a story of international intrigue and British class differences — it worked out brilliantly. Of course it didn’t hurt that he had most of England’s best actors at his disposal or that, through his experience, he got great performances from the local African non actor community. Even now, this film about diplomats, whistleblowers and the evil machinations of major drug companies is being considered an Oscar contender in various categories.
The L Magazine: Were you excited about working with name actors this time?
Fernando Meirelles City of God was not only with unknown actors, but they were not actors. It was very different. When I decided to do this film, I said, well, “How are we going to deal with stars? Are they going to bring secretaries and lawyers and agents? How is it going to happen?” It was so easy. They were so involved and Ralph [Fiennes] was very easy to deal with. After 15 minutes into our first meeting I felt it was going to be very relaxed.
The L: Why are you so passionate about taking on the pharmaceutical industry?
FM: It’s a big issue in Brazil in the last five years. We read about pharmaceuticals on the front pages of newspapers almost every day. Brazil has a program for AIDS, which is one of the few things that works really well in the country. Soccer is another. But it really works. They decided to pay for 100 percent of treatment. This was a way to avoid an epidemic, and it really worked. The government is always negotiating directly with the drug companies, and four years they tried to lower costs for the drugs since this is a very expensive program. There was this conflict, and in the end the government decided to produce the generics. They bill the factory. This case went to the WTO and now there’s a new rule that if it’s for public health a government can do like Brazil did, so it was a big victory for them.
The L: What was your experience of working in Kenya?
FM: Here was really a great experience, and very easy from my point of view, because there was a big production behind it. [Producer] Simon Channing-Williams’ first idea was to shoot in South Africa, but I was coming from Kenya and had met this production company there called Blue Sky, so I told him about Blue Sky and asked him to go to Kenya before going to South Africa, at least to see the locations that we would try to recreate in South Africa. Actually, I wanted to shoot there. It was just a first step to try to convince him, and he knew that. We spent seven days in Kenya and then we went to South Africa, and on the second day in South Africa he said to me, “Fernando, we’re wasting time here, let’s go back to Kenya.”
The L:You said you did some work on the script. Did you have much contact with author John Le Carré (The Tailor of Panama, Spy Who Came in from the Cold) and what did he think of the script?
FM:Because he’s John Le Carré, he had final approval on the director, on the script, on the final cut, on the cast. He had final approval on everything.
The L: But he was open to change though?
FM: He never asked me anything. Actually, it was the other way around.
There were two or three times where I called him in London to help me with the script because I changed a lot. So he came a couple of times to help, and to talk about characters and explain to me details that I really didn’t understand because it’s a very British thing. The script had a lot to do with the British class system. All of the relations between the characters were based on that. But in the end, I just took all of that out. I was more interested in bringing the film to Kenya.
The L: Has Le Carré seen the movie and what did he think of it?
FM: He was the first person to watch the film besides the editor and the producers. I was very nervous, but he liked it. After the first screening, he was really supportive. He mentioned it was the best film from his book and maybe because we’ve changed a lot, he said it was a different approach to the story, but it was very faithful to the feeling of it. Especially with Tessa, he really liked Rachel playing Tessa, because Tessa was based on an old friend of his who died, Yvette, who is in the end of the film. He said that it was amazing how
Rachel, even without knowing anything about Yvette, was really the same kind of person.