Fernando Meirelles garnered award nominations for City Of God and The Constant Gardener. So he was probably the perfect choice to direct the film version of Blindness, Jose Saramago's terrifying novel about an epidemic of inexplicable blindness. The paralyzes an entire country and reduces civilized city-dwellers to near-animal status. But Meirelles struggled to find the right level of horror and "degradation" in his movie version, he tells io9 — an early cut of the film had dozens of women walking out in outrage. Spoilers ahead.
In Blindness, a eye doctor (Mark Ruffalo) and his patients are among the first victims of the inexplicable epidemic, which turns your vision milky white. They wind up locked in an asylum under armed guard, along with the doctor's wife (Julianne Moore), who keeps her sight. They create a semblance of order in Ward 1, but then the barbaric inmates of Ward 3 seize all the food supplies and impose their own rule over the asylum, culminating in a sexual assault on all the women in other wards. Eventually, the inmates get out and discover the outside world has collapsed into total chaos.
We were lucky enough to talk to Fernando Meirelles this morning, and here's what he had to say:
One thing that really struck me about the film was the way you used the camera to try and create a feeling of disorientation with the camera going in and out of focus, and blurring into white and so on. How much did you experiment with that?
To be honest, when I was shooting the film, I thought I would go much further, that the film would be much more abstract. But then, when you have great actors, it's very hard not to use them. Anyway, [I liked] the idea of finding a different way of shooting some parts of the film. Usually where you shoot the film, you have the camera where the point of view of the characters are, right? You have the actor turning his head and looking at some point, and you see where he's looking. In this film, the characters have no point of view. How am I going to tell this story if the characters have no point of view? So that was the solution. It came out very poetic, I thought.
So most of the movie takes place in an asylum where the characters are trapped, and it captures an amazing feeling of claustrophobia, with the walls seeming to close in all the time. And yet, it's just a normal institutional space. How did you achieve that?
We were very lucky to find that space. The space where we shot the asylum is a prison actually, for mental prisoners. And it was empty, so we were very lucky to find this. What we did was just try to find a good pallette for the film's colors, and as the film progreses, we see that the set is degraded. So it gets dirtier and dirtier, and we planned for each scene how far should we go with the filth. The walls should be dirty, and... That was all planned, even for the wardrobe and the makeup. When we planed the film, we had three stages for the degradation [so that the scenery and costumes would match for each scene in a section of the film.]
Did you ever debate how far to go with the filth and excrement and grossness? In the book they're basically living in their own shit.
The book is much worse. I shot more degrading images... The first two or three cuts of the film were darker, you know. But then I felt that I didn't need to go so far to sell my point, and at some point the film gets too disgusting, and you don't want to watch any more. So I tried to find the right balance. I had the images, and I could go further, or I could just pull back. In the cutting room, that's where I honed it, where I decided where I would go... I really don't see any point in shocking [for its own sake.] Have you seen a film by Gaspar Noé called Irreversible?
I haven't, no.
There's a scene with Monica Bellucci, where she's raped. It's a twelve minute sequence of rape, and the camera is steady and it's very shocking. I remember watching this film with a big audience, and part of the audience leaving the theater because of that scene. It's a very great film, but some people don't like it just because of that scene. I thought about Irreversible when I was making my film. Actually, I've talked to Gaspar directly, and he doesn't think that scene is a mistake. But anyway, I felt my first cut was very unbalanced.
Did you get any pressure from Miramax to make your film less shocking?
No. What really maybe shocked me was I did a test screening in Toronto. It was the sixth cut. And we had around 500 people in the theater, and I think 62 walked out. There were two rape scenes. In the first rape scene, there were four or five women who left, and in the second one a bunch of people just stood up and left the theater. I was shocked by that. I didn't know it was so strong. After that I went back and said, "I can't have people walk out." That, to me, was the turning point. And then I showed the film again at a second test screening in New York, and only a few women walked out in the rape scene.
The screening in Toronto, was that the film festival that just happened?
No, it was before, it was in January. The film wasn't ready yet. I thought the film was ready, and then the repsonse was so crazy, so many people leaving, I decided to recut. It was a problem of balance. Sometimes you have a film where more and more people leave the theater... but [in this case] it was only during the rape scene. [That means] I didn't prepare them to get to the scene, or the scene is really too much.
And in the final cut, the rape scenes are almost abstract.
Sometimes when you don't show things, [and] you only suggest, it's much stronger than showing, right?
One thing about the rape sequence that was really interesting was the role of the accountant, who was born blind. He's one of the main organizers of the rape scene. And he tries to act all gentlemanly and gallant towards the women he's helping to gang rape, talking to them politely throughout. That's not really in the book. Where did that come from?
It's creepy, isn't it? The lines that he's saying there. Maury Chaykin, who plays the accountant, thought of this guy trying to be kind. He came up with his lines, it was improvised. At first, when I heard, I laughed a lot like it was a joke, but then when I cut the voices, the lines, for the film, I felt it was really creepy.
Another thing that really jumped out at me is at the start of the movie, the car thief, who's played by screenwriter Don McKellar, says everyone should kiss up to him. It seems like he comes close to becoming the king of Ward 1, but then everyone rejects his leadership and puts the doctor and his wife in charge instead. This was much stronger in the movie than in the book, I felt. Were you trying to suggest that Ward 1 could easily have gone the same way as Ward 3, which descends into barbarism?
He didn't have a gun [so he couldn't take charge, like the other guy in Ward 3.] In the book, in the beginning, you feel that [the car thief is] going to be the bad guy, but then he dies and there's this other guy that comes. There's one idea from the book for this character that we used in the film, and I think it's the main idea of this character. In the book, he says at some point that after he goes blind he was able to think better. He was able to understand the things he's seen. It's like a paragraph. In the book, we used that line, when Julianne Moore comes to see him in bed. He says, "I can see better now, I can help." His ideas are much clearer. For me, this makes sense. I did some workshops of blindness just to see how it felt. I used a blindfold for hours and hours, with a group that was preparing to be extras in the film. It's amazing how, after a few hours with a blindfold, you really think different, you are more in touch with yourself. I think vision is very distracting. After four or five hours of walking with a blindfold and having to touch things, and relating to people only by touching them not by talking or seeing. For me it was very pleasant. But anyway, when the thief says, "I'm a better person. I think better," I understand what he's saying. I felt like I could feel my feelings better.
How hard was it to shoot all those scenes at the end, with the streets of the city filled with garbage and disoriented blind people?
We shot that in Sao Paolo, where I live. We wanted the film to be placed in a big city, but very generic, [one] that people wouldn't recognize. It was very easy to shoot here, and we were able to convince the traffic department to clear the streets so we could shoot. It was a big operation, but I think it came out very well. The film just came out a few weeks ago in Sao Paolo and it's been a huge success. The film is really big in Brazil.
Some activist groups for the blind have protested your film because of a negative portrayal of blind people. What do you think about that?
I understand their concerns, but I really don't agree with their point of view. This is not a film about blind people, it is about human nature. All the blind people in the film are not blind like the blind people in that association. They're people who have gone blind and had no time to adapt. The only blind person in the film, who is Maury Chaykin, is very well adapted and efficient. The most efficient person in the asylum is Maury Chaykin, who is able to organize the group and feed everybody. The others are people who have lost their sight, and had no time and no conditions to prepare. There are so many brilliant artists and scientists and businessmen who are blind... I never thought this story could be criticized.
It feels like Julianne Moore's character is the emotional center of the film, even more than in the book.
I think she's stronger in the film. I agree with you.
How did that come about?
Well, you call Julianne Moore, and you have it. She was really commited and engaged. It's amazing the way she jumps into a project, with all her body, soul and mind...
In the book, the doctor and his wife have a really strong loving relationship. In the movie, though, they don't seem to get along that well. Why the change?
In the book, from the beginning they're a couple that works well, and I tried to create a kind of arc for this couple. In the beginning, they're not in a crisis, but it's not a great marriage. He really doesn't see her, and she doesn't see herself as well, she's kind of a limited housewife. Her world revolves around him and he's a bit arrogant and in control. And little by little, when they move to the asylum, she has become the leader, and little by little he loses his leadership. And he has to be taken care of by her. It's like he's being castrated by her. That's our thought. Maybe he makes love with the girl with dark glasses just because he was feeling like he's being castrated, his male-hood was being challenged. But in the end after this journey and suffering, he learns to see her. He's less blind. He says to [his wife], "I remember, you're beautiful, I see you," it's a beautiful line at the end. In the book, the story of the couple is kind of flat, so we tried to create an arc for them, so he learns to see her. And she learns to see that she's much more than what she thought. Actually, for all the characters I tried to create arcs like this, that aren't in the book.
One of the really striking things about the book, stylistically, is the way all the dialog runs together, with everybody talking at once. Often there are just commas separating lots of pieces of dialog and you have to guess who's talking. How do you convey that on film?
In the book, it's very short lines, right? He writes very short lines and very direct. We tried to cut the film the same way, with short cuts, very cutted, very fragmented. In some ways this mirrors the style of the [book], but it was more of a coincidence, I have to say. I just shot it and cut the way I do.
Finally, one thing I got very strongly from the film was the sense that people can create social order in all kinds of bizarre and untenable situations. Like we mentioned earlier, with the car thief who you think is going to take over in Ward 1, but he doesn't have a gun.
And he doesn't have the guts.
Or the guts. So it doesn't take that much to turn Ward 1 into Ward 3. And that's part of why the people in Ward 1 accept Ward 3 as being in charge.
We have really the capacity of adapting, like cockroaches. We adapt very fast. It's amazing. We get used to crises.
And that's not always a good thing.
It's not bad, it's not good. It's how we are. We learn to adapt. The film's coming out in a very interesting period to me. Today, waiting the approval of this [bailout] package in the American Congress, my friend said, "The world is weaiting for this, everybody is going to go crazy." But then I asked him, "What happens if Congress doesn't approve this package?" He said, "Well it's going to be a disaster. But we'll adapt. We'll find a way." We always find our way.