Upon the release of new film 360, the director of City of God talks with PopMatters about chance encounters, Freud’s concept of civilization, and how to survive the slings and arrows of producers and critics.
360Director: Fernando Meirelles
Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jude Law, Rachel Weisz, Ben Foster
Studio: Revolution Films
US Release Date: 2012-08-03
When he first encountered Peter Morgan's screenplay for 360, director Fernando Meirelles hadn't read Arthur Schnitzler's La Ronde, the 1897 play on which 360 is loosely based. Nor had he seen Max Ophüls' classic 1950 film adaptation. Meirelles, perhaps still best known for 2002's contemporary classic City of God, went away to do his research and then realized that Morgan's version had little to do with either.
"I think Peter really used the idea of one character taking you to the next one and taking you to the next one, and that's pretty much it. Oh, both stories start in Vienna with a prostitute, and in some way they talk about sex. But the stories are very different, so I think the play triggered the project, but it's not really an adaptation."
What seems to interest Meirelles, whose other films include The Constant Gardner (2005) and Blindness (2008), is the dramatic effects of human beings upon one another, especially in their attempts to live within the boundaries of institutions. As a director, his choices are continually visually stimulating, and sometimes his characters are at the mercy of that visual design. Ultimately, though, his focus always returns to the human consequences at the heart of the films. And in a film like 360, there's no shortage of characters to attend to. He's hard pressed to choose a favorite.
"In my mind when I was shooting, I tried to make each story the best story of the film and tried to get the best I could from each one of them, the best performances. And then in this case, each story has a different tone. There's a bit of humor, some stories have a family drama, like Jude (Law) and Rachel (Weisz), or a sad romantic story like the French dentist (Jamel Debbouze). Anyway, I tried to get as much as I could from each one and then, when you cut, you're surprised, you know? Sometimes you like better one story and then when casting comes, you like the other, and then when you cut the film, you realize there's another one that is more interesting."
360 boasts an impressive cast that mixes movie stars (Law and Weisz join Sir Anthony Hopkins) with character actors (Debbouze, Ben Foster, Moritz Bleibtreu) and less familiar faces (Maria Flor, Lucia Siposová, Gabriela Marcinkova). The film is particularly a showcase for the latter trio of actresses, whose characters all become involved with men that have the potential to change their lives. Meirelles is enthusiastic about their work in the film.
"Well the Brazilian actress (Flor), she's quite known in Brazil. She now wants to start her career internationally. That's why she decided to join the film. And then we have the two Slovakian girls, who are fantastic, and completely unknown. The older one (Siposová), she had done television before, but not much. And the little one (Marcinkova), the very pretty girl who's at the end of the film, this is her first film. And that girl was really born to be a star because she's so sensitive, and what a face! You see her face, and you like her, right?"
The director's fondness for his characters and concern for their choices is evident in every frame of the film, but the critical reception has so far been mixed. A common complaint is that the film's structure shows its seams. This criticism is not exclusive to 360, having been increasingly deployed in the post-Crash proliferation of multi-plot dramas. I ask Meirelles why he thinks critics are quick to resist storytelling that involves fate, coincidence, and chance meetings. "I don't know but they do happen in life, don't they? And in this case, it's not really coincidence -- it's really more like a chain reaction. Whatever I do here, this will affect the next person and then the next person, so it's not a coincidence -- it's really a cause and effect, right? And I think we see in our everyday lives how we affect the others around us. I'm sure we do it. You're right. The critics have some patters that they just repeat. I don't read critics, by the way. No, neve
r. I don't read reviews anymore. Not for a long time."
I initially suspect his aversion to critics is a response to the drubbing that Blindness, his last feature, received in the United States. An adaptation of José Saramago's 1995 novel of the same name, the film chronicled a blindness epidemic and resultant social degeneration. Though the film wasn't a perfect adaptation, it was ever so slightly ahead of its time in the sense that popular culture now regularly embraces thematically similar works like Steven Soderbergh's Contagion and Frank Darabont's/AMC television's take on comic book series The Walking Dead. So was Meirelles burned by the response to Blindness? Has he let it go? He answers by first extolling the source text:
"I find the book on which it's based a really fantastic book. I think it talks a lot about ourselves and how blind we are. When I think about the environment -- that book's perfect, it really tells everything. It more than proved that we're really finishing all our resources on the earth. That we can't live the way we're living. All the countries are willing to grow their economies, to produce more, to consume more. That's blindness. To me, it's exactly what that story talks about. It seems that few people got it."
When he does get around to addressing the negative reviews, he points out how unpredictable and fickle critical consensus can be. "Blindness had really terrible reviews in the U.S. and a very bad career in the U.S. and in France. But in other places like in Brazil it went extremely well. It made a lot of box office. On the other hand, City of God, which was very well-received internationally, in Brazil the first month I was slammed every day. They said that the film was commercial, popcorn, cosmetic. I read some of the critics for City of God and they were so hard on me, on the film, I decided that I would never read reviews of my work anymore, and I don't."
Compared to the other titles in his filmography, 360 perhaps represents the director's most prosaic look at human relationships. The visual aesthetic of the film (courtesy of director of photography Adriano Goldman) follows accordingly, meeting the actors where they are and looking squarely at their faces. Meirelles acknowledges this departure from his usual style. "In this film, because we're not talking about some big subject matter, like pharmaceutical industry or social institutions in Brazil, but we're really talking about people and peoples' reactions -- we agreed that we should have photography that would benefit the actors. So all the photography and the way the camera is handled and used, is really just to get as much as possible from what the actor gives us. Because in the other films like Blindness or City of God, sometimes we really wouldn't see the actor's face or what they were doing. It was all in the sound or in the cut, but in this film I asked Adriano to be more contained. This is a film really for the actors, for the characters. And I had such an amazing cast that I really had to use as much as I could from each one of them."
The film's most frequent visual motif that corresponds to characters' situations is the use of frames within frames, such as windows, mirrors, and walls. Increasingly boxed in to their circumstances, these are characters struggling with the choice to maintain life as is or to follow their (often deceitful) hearts. While Ophüls' interpretation was masterful in both theatricality and cinematic innovation, its tone toward affairs of the heart was blithe. 360, on the other hand, immerses the viewer in the always complicated, sometimes tortured decision-making of its cast of lovelorn souls. Meirelles says he found inspiration for the drama in Sigmund Freud's Civilization and Its Discontents.
"He says that for us to build civilization or family or society, we must repress our desires and impulses, so we really can't express what we would really love to express, if we want to create order or civilization or culture. So I think that's the theme of the film. All the characters are dealing with this conflict. They're all between following their organization, (Spoilers ahead) like with the Muslim: be a Muslim or go with the girl; and Jude with the prostitute; or Rachel with her lover; and Anthony Hopkins who lost his daughter because he had an affair. It's always dealing with this choice -- should I be what I planned to be and build civilization or should I just let go? Even Ben Foster, [his character is] a sex offender, but he wants to do the right thing. He's really struggling hard with his desires, and so he can get a job and have a proper life. This conflict is very interesting. It seems that we can't be happy and civilized at the same time. Civilization or culture implies unhappiness or something, if you can't really fulfill your desires."
Considering the ways in which the various journeys of 360 conclude, the film affirms that life within the boundaries is often times more fulfilling than the departures of desire. So despite Freud's influence, in the end the film somewhat defies his division between happiness and civilization. I point out this seeming contradiction and the moral therein. Meirelles accedes, "Some of the characters, they give up their desires for a good reason, for the family. And some of them, they just let go. We don't know what is going to happen." Yet beyond the discussion of whether or not they reach "happiness" is the question of why a film should place a final value on any character's circumstances just before the credits roll.
"There's something about the film that we discussed a lot with producers. I insisted that we do it this way: When the film finishes, we have this new character, the new girl that has nothing to do with the story. That starts a new circle. I wanted to put that because I didn't want the film with an ending, like Jude Law and Rachel Weisz walking away. I think there's no ending in life. Life's a process that's always starting and finishing, so that's why I really insisted with the producer that didn't want to have that last girl in the film. Life is spinning and it just keeps going on. It's just the end of the film, not the end of the stories. They'd like it better to finish the film with Rachel and Jude walking away very happy and…end of the story. No, that's not how life is!"
According to Meirelles, these sorts of disagreements with producers are nothing new. He laughs as he admits to encountering such conflicts, "usually, basically every day." He does acknowledge, however, that "There's a difference because I'm just working on independent productions. So far all the films I've done are independent productions. So all my producers are my friends and are on the same team and they respect -- they know that they can say whatever they think and I'll listen. And sometimes, of course, I use a lot of their ideas, but sometimes I say, ‘I'm sorry. Your job is to produce. My job is to direct.' And they understand. It's different from having a producer from a studio, who's not a producer. He's your boss. And so he has the last take, but it's not my taste. Like in this situation, I mean. If they could, they would have had Rachel and Jude walking away. In the end, I said, ‘No, let's do it this way,' and they agreed. It's a very friendly environment when you work with independent productions."
It's worth noting that his next film, an adaptation of Peter Evans' Nemesis: The True Story of Aristotle Onassis, Jackie O, and the Love Triangle That Brought Down the Kennedys, is a studio production, but he's optimistic about the working environment. Meirelles says the film "will be produced by Pathé, but Pathé's not so big, and I have a very good relationship with Cameron (McCracken), who runs Pathé and who's been my boss on this film. So hopefully it's going to be alright."
As for the director's years-long attachment to a Janis Joplin biopic, Meirelles says he's off of the project for good and is uncertain about whether it will ever come to life. "Since the project fell apart, I'm not sure they're starting again. I read something, but I don't think they're moving on. That project is complicated because the guy who has the rights to the music and the story, he wants to produce his own script, and it's not a very good script. And every time a director changes his script, he says, ‘No, that's not the story I want to tell.'" To hear this account of how the Joplin project dissolved is to understand why 360 is the right film for Meirelles at present. Who better to conduct this cast of characters torn between passion and convention than a director who chose artistic freedom over the discontentment of directing a compromised vision?