[A BP Interview with the cast, director and screenwriter of this controversial film. Interview conducted by Stephanie R. Green]
Miramax films’ ‘Blindness’ hit theaters on Friday, October 10th. Directed by Academy Award nominee Fernando Meirelles (The Constant Gardner, City of
The film, produced by Niv Fichman, Andrea Barata Ribeiro and Sonoko Sakai is a gripping story of humanity in the clutches of an epidemic of mysterious blindness. It is an unflinching exploration of human nature, both bad and good individuals and their selfishness, opportunism and indifference, but also their capacity for empathy, love and sheer perseverance.
It begins in a flash, as one man is instantly struck blind while driving home from work, his whole world suddenly turned to an eerie, milky haze. One by one, each person he encounters – his wife, his doctor, even the seemingly good [or not so good] samaritan who gives him a lift home, will in due course suffer the same unsettling fate. As the contagion spreads and panic and paranoia set in across the city, the newly blind victims are rounded up and quarantined within a crumbling, abandoned mental asylum, where all semblance of ordinary life begins to break down.
Inside the quarantined asylum, there is one secret eyewitness; one woman [four-time Academy Award nominee Julianne Moore] who has not been affected but has pretended she is blind in order to stay beside her beloved husband [Mark Ruffalo]. Armed with increasing courage and the will to survive, she will lead a makeshift family of seven people on a journey, through horror and love, depravity and beauty, warfare and wonder, to break out of the asylum and into the devastated city where they may be the only hope left.
Their journey shines a light on both the dangerous fragility of society and the exhilarating spirit of humanity.
In 1995, the acclaimed author Jose Saramago published the novel Blindness, an apocalyptic fable about a plague of blindness ravaging first one man, then a city, then the entire globe, with devastating fury and speed. Though the story was about a stunning loss of vision, the book opened the eyes of its readers to a new and revealing view of the world.
The book is a magnificent parable about our disaster- prone times and our metaphoric blindness to our sustaining connections to one another. It became an international bestseller, and also led, along with an accomplished body of equally thought-provoking literature, to Saramago garnering the 1998 Nobel Prize for Literature.
As the novel rapidly gained millions of fans around the world, many filmmakers were magnetically drawn to its intricately created world, one that had never been seen on screen before. After all, how does one make a compellingly visual film in which almost no one can see? It called for a grand vision and one filmmaker who had such a vision right from the start was Fernando Meirelles, who, at the time, was an up-and-coming Brazilian filmmaker with a passion for big, intense, all-enveloping cinema.
At the time, Saramago rejected all suitors, saying he was uninterested in a movie version of Blindness – and Meirelles went on to make another heartfelt movie, his groundbreaking, electrifying, yet lyrical tale of life among the young, fearless gangsters in Brazil’s slums, ‘City of God.’
Meanwhile, multitalented Canadian screenwriter, actor and director Don McKellar was also trying to win the rights to Blindness. McKellar, was grabbed by Saramago’s themes as soon as he read the English translation of the book and he knew those feelings weren’t going to let him go until he wrote his vision of the adaptation. He approached producer Niv Fichman of Rhombus Media – with whom he had collaborated on both Last Night and as a screenwriter on the Oscar – winning The Red Violin – with the idea of securing the rights. As soon as Fichman read the book, he was equally fervent about it but there remained that one major obstacle in their way: convincing Saramago.
In 2007 Saramago told the New York Times Magazine that ‘he always resisted giving up the rights to Blindness because it’s a violent book about social degradation and I don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands.’
I sat down in a roundtable setting to speak with Danny Glover and Alice Braga about their roles in this film.
What did you learn about the challenge of blindness?
DG: I saw a fascinating documentary called Black Sun, I found myself thinking about the documentary a great deal as I prepared for the role and also since then. It’s about a man who lost his sight due to an attack on him and how he began to see the world. That was the first thing that helped me. Then while I was in Bulgaria doing a movie, blindness coach Christian Duurvoort came and spent about three days with me.
The things that I noticed, that were like actors – intuitively, instinctively you begin to take things and notice, you begin to use them. Remember, he lost part of his memory. The idea of what sound sounds like to me, how I use my other senses. How air felt around me, how I use my feet and hands. It’s somewhat liberating in a sense to an actor. I mean of course I’m playing the role it’s humbling at the same time. Those things I try to use. Then I had a contact lens over one eye, so I’d do things like walk around with my eyes close, just to feel the difference.
Do you think this film is a post-apocalyptic tale in a way? Is it a chamber piece in many ways? Is it science fiction? How would you describe it?
DG: As we become even more alienated in terms of just who we are in our relationship to other people, something else happens when we’re unable to pursue even there’s a mental blindness, an abstinence in some sense, or an unwillingness to kind of see what’s happening around us. Our failure to see creates a sort of figurative violence as opposed to a literal violence. When I would think of the film, I would think of it from that vantage point. I would dare to say that Saramago also saw that as well. He used the literal, but he was talking about really the figurative. It’s a metaphor. He questions literally what happens to us ideological level, what happens to the constructs that we live within. But also to understand who we are and what we can be as human beings. It forces and challenges us to re-imagine ourselves as human beings. In some sense, creating another language as human beings, and I think that’s what the film represents.
AB: I don’t think it’s really the normal way to say it’s an apocalyptic movie because of the journey of the characters. But, in my opinion, after reading the book for the first time, it’s exactly what Danny says. The characters go all the way back to the beginning of what they’re saying, with no society, no one, just trying to survive. All the characters go through changes in their lives that literally show how they changed from the beginning to the end. How the blindness which is just a metaphor in a way, and it’s not a dark one – the blindness, it’s a white one. So, I think that it’s hard to say it is an apocalypse, we think it is because it shows a whole massive change in their lives but in a way, it’s not. It’s a hard movie. It’s a hard book to talk about because it’s so expansive.
Danny, you mentioned earlier that this was a metaphor for life. With blindness we are unable to judge people by race. Do you think this film is making a statement about racism and prejudices?
DG: I think the film makes more than that. I always have problems with how we deal with the issue on racism. We’re designed to think, our minds are programmed to think of it in certain ways which I think does not facilitate as resolving the issue. When dealing with racism, Black People are not the only ones that racism is associated with. When we look at the world, and when we talk about Arabs, Mexicans and other people of color, it’s all of that but there’s something else, some core of us as human beings that goes beyond that. If indeed racism is a social construct in which people use that as a way of exploiting other human beings. Then wherever we are at some point of time in terms of understanding who we are basically what we share essentially as human beings. Dolores Huerta, who is one of the founders of the United Farm Workers Union with Cesar Chavez she always says before she makes a comment, she says ‘you know we’re all Africans’ [laughs]. ‘We all started at the same place’. So, on the one hand, I think more than just that even how we handle what is happening right before us now, as we see all the things that are happening around us and accept those things to some way without questioning them is a form of blindness as well.
AB: I don’t believe it necessarily focuses on racism but I do agree with Danny. It talks about human beings and depending on how you’re living and how you face life, it will hit you in a specific way.
DG: My 4-year old grandson, he says to me, ‘Bubba, I want you to meet my girlfriend.’ I say hello to his girlfriend and she is a young girl who has down- syndrome and she’s Asian. He doesn’t’ see anything other than she’s his girlfriend. I watched him as they played, he’s very gentle with her, and if she stumbled he went to pick her up and made sure that she was ok. I thought about that in a sense that he has no type of construct of this idea of `you’re that and you’re this’. In that sense, that was his world.
Once you took on your roles and you got into the characters, did you ever think to yourselves that you as people, how you would react, as opposed to your characters? Did you contrast your personal view from your character’s view and did you think about it in that way at all?
AB: I never thought much about how I would react, but it’s interesting to think about how human beings react, like Gael’s character, opposite from Mark’s character, in the same situation, react differently. But I didn’t think how I would react, just living it and seeing it. That’s what I did.
DG: I think you get in trouble pre-judging how you’ll react to all of this. If every single emotion that exists on the planet is a part of how I am, consciously and unconsciously, subliminally and whatever, then all of it’s me. All of us are all of us. I never think about how I would react to that. As [I say] in one of my most infamous roles as Mister in The Color Purple, ‘All of it’s me.’ And all of it reflects itself, or exposes itself, given the circumstances, and the circumstances are the circumstances within the story itself.
Were you satisfied with the version that you saw on the screen?
DG: For the most part, I’m always satisfied with the translation from the novel to the movie, because it’s the perception of the director. It’s always fascinating for me, and because what Fernando does, not only with his narrative and his visual language, makes it interesting, makes it fascinating, making it come alive for me, because he’s so daring with both of those things.
AB: Yes, definitely. It’s a really hard book to adapt. Fernando faced a huge challenge trying to adapt this, because the way that he writes, Saramago, he really builds the story with specific little details, like the characters have no names, and everything is part of a big thing. I think Fernando did it well.
I would like to ask both of you about upcoming projects. If I’m not mistaken, Alice, you have Repossession Mambo coming up, please tell us about that. And Danny, you have 2012. Am I correct that you’re playing the President? Can you tell us about that as well?
DG: I think it’s a symbolic role within the film. 2012 is what they call Roland Emmerich, `The King of Destruction’ [laughs].so you know; the Mayan Cosmology says the world ends in 2012. This President happens to be elected in 2008 [laughter], so I play the President, and it is a really wonderful cast, including Woody Harrelson, John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Thandie Newton, Oliver Platt, Amanda Peet, they’re all really wonderful and it’s really interesting. I’ve never been in a film quite like this before. Well, I think the last thing I’d been in with all this destruction was Predator II or something like that, years ago. It’s almost another lifetime, a lifetime ago.
So it’s kind of a pre-apocalyptic tale almost, right? It’s before the destruction?
DG: It’s as the destruction is happening.
And Repossession sounds very cool.
AB: It’s really interesting. It’s a crazy story in a way, supposing that there’s an industry of artificial organs, so, it’s kind of a crazy movie.
And how do you fit into it? What character or part are you playing?
AB: I play a character that, she’s a young girl with dreams and life. I had her, and then suddenly everything changes, and then her whole body changes and it’s really hard to talk about her, because if I say something about it, it brings the journey of the character to the forefront.
Is there going to be another Lethal Weapon film?
DG: Not that I know of. No one’s come to me with anything, so, I don’t know. I mean, you never know what’s happening with this stuff. I mean, there are so many other things that are possibly happening. I get a chance to work with Michel Gondry, Fernando Meirelles, Lars Von Trier, and Wes Anderson. These are wonderful directors to work with. That’s what’s in hand, and it’s over 10 years ago since the last Lethal Weapon film, so, who knows.
Danny, you are a voice in Tortoise and Hare. Is that something that you did for your grandson?
DG: I’m doing everything I can for my grandson. He’s got his college education!
The following is my interview with Screenwriter, Fernando Meirelles and Director, Don McKellar.
This film took a long time to get to the screen. Take us through the process.
DM: I was promoting my first film I directed, Last Night, which was about the end of the world, and I read this book, which seemed similar but even more extreme. And I was obsessed with it, immediately obsessed. Actually, I don’t normally read books thinking about whether they’d make good movies. I usually read books to avoid thinking about the movies, but right from the first page, I don’t know why, I just thought this image of the guy (suddenly blind, lost) at the street light was an amazing opening to a movie.
It’s about seeing, and movies are about seeing. It’s about blindness, which is the flipside of seeing. And just this image of society of being so fragile and able to crack so quickly just struck me as being so true and so powerful and shocking. The book shocked me. I just couldn’t believe how far it was going, but at the same time I just kept thinking, ‘I’d buy it,’ which was a scary thought. I believed that and couldn’t get it out of my head. So we tried to get the rights. I got my producer (Niv Fichman) involved and we tried to get the rights, politely and persistently, for years. And then Saramago won a Nobel Prize.and I thought, ‘That’s it, we’re screwed now.’ But we sent him movies and kept cajoling. They said he never allowed any of the rights to any of his books to be adapted before, so we had a rejection right off the tops. But, finally, his agent said, ‘he’ll meet you one of two days in the Canary Islands. It’s still a no, but you can meet with him.’
We met with him and he’s quite an intimidating guy. He lives on top of a volcano in the Canary Islands with no vegetation around except for one little olive tree planted in his courtyard. And the house, he designed it himself. It’s sort of a fantasy James Bond version of a Nobel Prize winner. It was quite an intimidating environment. We talked for two days and it turned out, I think, it wasn’t that he didn’t think it could be a good movie. Actually, it turns out he knew movies very well. It was just that he thought no one would make this movie (properly), that it would be compromised and it would be turned into an exploitation film. We convinced him that we’d keep control no matter what. He gave us the rights, years later after it was written – it took me a long time to write – it became clear that we needed a real visual director, because it was about seeing and the visual.
The style of the film was clearly not going to be extraneous. It really was the content. So we approached Fernando.
Was Saramago satisfied with your depiction of his novel?
DM: Fernando and I were both extremely afraid about he was going to think. Like I said, he’s very intimidating. For a Portuguese writer, he’s as big as they get.
FM: He’s the most important Portuguese writer alive. So, in Brazil, he’s big, like a pop star, very well known.
DM: I went to have dinner with him one time after he read the first draft and it was in Madrid. Every head was turning. It was like going to dinner with Mick Jagger. He was sick so he couldn’t fly to Cannes. We went to show it to him in Lisbon and it was a long silence after the screening. We thought he didn’t like the film at all. And then when the lights came on he was crying, he was really moved by the film. He said he was so happy to see the film like it was when he wrote the book. It was a great moment for me.
In your mind, what did the film have to capture in order to be true to the book and do the story justice?
FM: Of course, this journey had to be there, this group losing their humanity and then being able to find their humanity back. And coming out of this asylum and finding their humanity. That’s the journey of the film. They lose it and they find it back. They’re able to create this family and find a faction and all of that.
DM: There’s this feeling when you’re reading the book. At one point you start feeling, ‘Oh, God, I don’t know if I can take this much more, and yet I have to keep reading.’ So I guess I just didn’t want to wimp out on that level, you know? I felt that’s what makes it moving at the end that sense that these people can persevere and that they do their best to preserve their dignity in the very worst possible circumstances.
This question is for Don McKellar. How concerned were you personally with having too much of your film Last Night bleed over into this film, because the similarities of the flow-line between the two?
DM: That’s true, my first film ‘Last Night’ was about the end of the world. I guess I was a little scared about that. It seemed like the dark side, the flip side of the same message. And obviously I hadn’t gotten that apocalypse out of me yet, I had darker places to go so.
You dealt with an existing apocalypse in doing City of God, so how did you reference in your head this false apocalypse?
FM: But it’s a different one. In City of God, it was something that I could relate to, I went to the places. I saw it and talked to people. I was just doing my version of something that existed. Here, everything is really created, invented. That’s what makes this film for me, much more difficult, than all the other films that I’ve done. Not only did it have to be invented, the story was set in a city that doesn’t exist, and characters with no names, no passports, no back stories. The disease doesn’t exist. I asked myself all the time how am I going to get the audience involved. When you’re telling an apocalyptic story in New York like I am Legend, you see an emptyFifth Avenue. You have something to relate to. But in this film, there is nothing to connect to.
You have characters with no names and we don’t get to know anything about their past histories. All of that made the casting even more important. How did you go about choosing your actors?
FM: Usually, I don’t like to have known faces in my films, but in this film I think it helped me a lot. Being able to work with Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, two actors I really admire, is great. The idea of the cast was trying to put up a multi-ethnical cast, some Asians, Blacks, Whites, Latinos, because it’s really the story of mankind. We avoided talking about a specific place or a specific country. So that’s why I wanted the film to be spoken in English. Actually, this was Saramago’s request. But I thought it would be very interesting, English with accents. So there’s a Japanese accent, Mexican, Brazilian. So it’s bad English in some way, like me.
How closely does the film stick to the novel, especially at the end?
DM: It’s pretty close. Obviously, there are a lot of changes. There are tons of things that are cut. But the major plot points are in the book. The ending is pretty close.
FM: If you read the last line, it’s exactly the same.
DM: We end up in the same place.
For comments and inquiries about this column, please send e-mails to Stephanie R. Green at the following e- mail address: [email protected]