There is never an excuse to give up on your dreams.
That’s what I took away after hearing Brazilian Director Fernando Meirelles talk about the making of his hit masterpiece City of God.
To give you a quick background. Brazil is a country in which investments in culture are slim. The film industry is small and movies are usually financed by the government. Most flicks produced here are very mediocre slapstick comedies or artsy films that have limited success with the wider audience. It’s tough.
So, when Fernando Meirelles decided to adapt a book called City of God into a movie, he had a really daunting task ahead.
The story was about the Favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. It was a grim and realistic take on the life of people that are very often looked over and left out by society. The subject matter was very delicate. How do you depicted the day-to-day violence this people have to endure in an authentic fashion, but without exploiting the average citizen’s suffering for entertainment’s sake? After you figure that part out, how do you still make that into a movie people will want to watch?
No investor was willing to take this risk. Meirelles tried his luck at financing his vision with everyone he could pitch the movie to. No one was having it. The answers he got were some variations of the following:
- There is no market for such a violent movie in Brazil.
- People are not interested in the Favelas.
- This has every trait of a guaranteed flop.
He could’ve given up. Luckily for us, he pushed through all the doubt and disbelief he was met with.
Meirelles used up all the money he had saved from ten years working in advertising. He gathered the talented people he had met during his Marketing days (camera crew, editors, cinematographers, etc), rolled up his sleeves and said:
“Let’s make this happen."
Meirelles on set of City of God.
Due to the very short budget, most of the cast was made of untrained actors making their debut.
When you think about it, the skepticism he was met with by the investors was sort of warranted. Who would put money in a project like this? Especially given the fact that the only two directing credits for a feature Meirelles had was for a B kids movie and one of the mediocre slapstick comedies mentioned before.
Even if a project like City of God was greenlit, Meirelles wouldn’t be the first choice to hold the Director’s cap.
If you want to check it out what he said: here is a clip of an interview he gave to what probably is the least enthusiastic audience ever gather in the history of mankind:
Here's the video:
Well, when it was all said and done, the movie not only saw the light of the day, but it also was a success in every conceivable measurement. Today, it’s regarded by many as the best Brazilian film ever produced. If you check IMDB, you’ll find City of God ranking at #22 all time. The highest rating by any from South America and just one spot behind “Silence of the Lambs” (already a cheap film) which had a budget 6 times the size Meirelles worked with.
The Director managed to tell such a great story with so little because he had a really creative team. No one in the crew approached problems with “we can’t do that, it’s impossible."
Their mindset was “I don’t know how I’m going to make that happen yet, but it’s possible."
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the opening montage of the movie.
Check it out:
In another interview Meirelles talks about a great story regarding this opening scene. He was in LA being considered to direct the 2004 film Collateral. In a meeting, the legendary Steven Spielberg asked him “how in the hell did you film that chicken chase footage?” The great American director couldn’t figure it out. He even had his technical team trying to solve this particular puzzle. He knew to be miles off the real answer because the estimated budget for it he arrived at was around USD 1.5 Million. It couldn’t be right.
“So, how did you do it?” Very much to his surprise, Meirelles revealed that he got a small camera silver-taped to the far end of broomstick. The crew dropped the chicken on the ground and he just chased it with the improvised camera support.
Done. There you go. One of the best opening scenes ever in a film-student budget.
Although I couldn’t find this anecdote told in English, there is an article by Wired describing Meirelles’ brilliant budgetary mind at work. It tells how he had to pull off Brazil’s Olympic Opening Ceremony in 2016 with a budget 10 times smaller than the previous London Olympic Ceremony.
If you haven’t watched City of God, you should. It’s fantastic. Meirelles solved all the problems he was thrown at with unmatched creativity. He delivered a touching yet fun film. You laugh, you cry, but most of all... It’s honest. We can see that the movie on the screen is the movie he envisioned. Regardless of the very limited budget and lack of resources.
For that impressive feat, Fernando Meirelles was rewarded with a brilliant career. He made it into Hollywood. His most recent film was the acclaimed Two Popes (2019). Oh, and of course, those people that said “no” to him, never dared to make the same mistake again.
It’s a great lesson on never giving up. Never losing hope. On believing in your dream. In having the drive to put your story on the page and then getting it to the screen. No matter how hard the road ahead proves itself to be.
We’re filmmakers. If we wanted easy, we wouldn’t be.
Always be writing.
Tell better stories.
Never give up.