Director Fernando Meirelles first garnered international attention in 2002 for his propulsive crime drama "City of God." That movie, which nabbed him an Oscar nomination for best director, sizzled with the violence and passion of the favela, and it featured, hands down, the best performance by a chicken in the history of cinema. For his subsequent movie, he swapped Rio for the slums of Nairobi, detailing a different kind of violence in "The Constant Gardener." The movie earned Rachel Weisz an Oscar for her role as a woman who railed against the evil activities of an international corporation.
His latest movie "360," written by "The Queen" scriptwriter Peter Morgan, is less overtly political but more expansive. Based loosely on Arthur Schnitzler's "La Ronde," it is a globe-trotting daisy-chain of tales about love, sex, and obligation. The movie opens with a Slovakian prostitute disrobing for a camera in Vienna, and it ends with another working girl doing the same thing for the same cameraman. In between, we see Jude Law as an unhappily married businessman who almost spends the night with the aforementioned Eastern European escort; his wife in London (Rachel Weisz) breaks up with her hunky Brazilian lover after hearing an emotional voicemail from her husband. When the lover's heartbroken girlfriend flees London for Brazil, she inadvertently changes the lives of two men. One, John (Anthony Hopkins), is a recovering alcoholic searching for his estranged daughter, and the other is a convicted sex offender (Ben Foster), who was recently released from prison. Hearing Hopkins' character give a speech at an AA meeting in Phoenix inspires a French-Russian dental hygienist to return to Paris and divorce her thuggish husband (Vladimir Vdovichenkov) and confess her feelings for her Muslim dentist boss (Jamel Debbouze). You get the picture. It's a movie about the struggle of trying to do the right thing over our baser impulses and about the global repercussions of all of our actions.
I had a chance to talk by phone with Meirelles not long ago. We talked about Freud, working with actors, and cajoling Rachel Weisz.
JC: What drew you to this film? Were you involved with this during the scriptwriting process or had Peter Morgan already finished the script when you were drawn to it?
FM: Peter just sent me the script and I joined. I wanted to work with Peter Morgan, who I admire a lot. There's also something else that I liked about the script. All of the characters seem to be good people trying to do their best. There is no antagonist in the film, at least among the main characters. But all the characters are fighting with the demons, their desires.
It reminded me of reading Freud's "Civilization and its Discontents" when I was in school. I was always very intrigued with his view of civilization. That you have to repress your impulses, your desires in society. This conflict between our rational side and our primitive side. So, that's what I wanted to explore.
JC: For a movie that is supposedly based on "La Ronde," there is actually very little sex in the film.
FM: You're right. We don't see much sex, but all the stories are all about sex.
JC: So what part of this movie was you and what part of it was Peter Morgan? What did you add to this project?
FM: Well, I think this is really a Peter Morgan film that I directed. But, of course, I also think there's a lot of me in the film. Like I was mentioning Ben Foster's character [who is a convicted sex offender.] I tried very hard to humanize his character and understand his conflict.
There were also some scenes like Anthony Hopkins' scene at the AA meeting. He used some of Peter Morgan's lines, but most of the lines are his own lines. He just improvised and I asked him to just go for it because when he tells the story of the priest, the Father Riley and all of that, that's Anthony Hopkins talking about himself. It's not the character.
That was so beautiful because he started the scene saying the lines from the script then moved on to his personal experience and then went back to the script. It was like jazz, you know. I try to create a very loose mood on set so the actors and everybody are very comfortable to bring their ideas, and this usually helps.
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JC: I guess one of the many challenges of this film is trying to assemble such a cast. How did you pull together this cast?
FM: Yeah, this was the most fun part of the film. There's an interesting thing that almost all the actors in the film are really big stars in their home countries. You could Google Jamel Debbouze for instance, the Frenchman????, you'll see there's probably 500,000 things about him. The same thing with Vladimir Vdovichenkov-- the Russian guy. He can't walk the streets in Moscow. He's really huge. It was amazing that I was able to put everybody together in this film and they all wanted to come, even for one-third of what they're usually paid. Every week, I would change my actor because I was shooting a different story in a different place with a different actor. It's really amazing. What an opportunity for a director.
JC: So were the actors finally drawn to the project by you, by the story, or by Peter Morgan?
FM: I think some of them were drawn by the story as well. For instance, Anthony Hopkins was drawn to the story because his character in the film is really similar to his personal story. He goes to AA meetings still today. I mean, he's been sober for 32 years, but he still goes to meetings because he feels at home in these places. So he wanted to shoot the story because of that.
Jamel Debbouze, the French guy, wanted to be in the movie for the same reason. He had a Portuguese girlfriend who was Catholic. He's a Muslim, of course. He was already very rich and very famous, but both his family and her family didn't want them to get married. So he broke up with the girlfriend who he said was the love of his life. He was so traumatized that he decided not to be a Muslim anymore. He doesn't go to the mosque anymore. So when he read the story, he said, "Well, that's my story. That's exactly my story. I want to play that."
Rachel [Weisz] came because I blackmailed her. She was very busy in New York, and I say, "Rachel, you owe me. Please, you have to come." I begged. I did some emotional blackmailing. It worked. [Laughs]
Watch the trailer for '360':