Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles became an instant critical favorite with his gritty breakout film City of God, which hit the U.S. in 2003 and went on to claim four Oscar nominations — including one for Meirelles himself. His impossibly bleak new work, Blindness, an adaptation of the 1995 Nobel Prize–winning novel by José Saramago, hits theaters this Friday — the film imagines an epidemic of sudden blindness spreading among the residents of an unnamed city, played with conviction by such notables as Mark Ruffalo, Gael García Bernal, and Julianne Moore. Meirelles talked to Vulture about making his extras cry, the decision to put Moore in a fat suit, and the pleasures of being (temporarily) blind.
You’ve said that this film is more allegory, less science fiction.
If you see the poster or even the name of the film, you’d think it was a film about a disease and finding a cure. But it’s not that. It’s really this metaphor for our ignorance and our incapacity of seeing. The disease, the blindness, is just an excuse to put a bunch of people in the asylum and see their behavior, how quickly they lose all their civilized practices and go immediately back to their basic instincts.
What do you think we are blind to?
We don’t know ourselves. We don’t know who we are, and because we don’t know who we are, we don’t know who the other one is. This film asks how much suffering do we have to go through to be able to open our eyes? Suffering is a good way for us to learn to see. There are other interesting ways, like having a shrink or meditation.
You designed some sort of “blind camp” for the actors, right?
What we would do was put a blindfold and for five, six hours we would walk the city and then go to some big space to do exercises like sound and smell and people chasing people. I had all the crew, editor, photographer, everyone do the same blind experiment. I did it myself.
How did everyone do?
Before I did it, I watched some groups of extras. There was always two or three persons that would, after one, two hours, get very depressed and sit down say, “No, I can’t.” They would cry and cry, really cry, like, desperate. For me, it was the opposite reaction. After six hours the guy said, “Okay, you can remove your blindfold now.” I didn’t want to! It was so comfortable. I was so by myself with my thoughts, and the experience I was having was so deep. I think vision is very distracting. If you have time, on a Sunday morning, wake up in the morning, put a blindfold on till four or five. It’s really an interesting experiment.
So much of the film is so depressing. What was it like going to work every day in that kind of environment?
Well, we thought it was going to be a very difficult experience, but it really wasn’t. It was a very friendly environment. We laughed a lot.
That’s hard to imagine!
It’s just a theory, but maybe something that helped was the thing of the contact. When they were playing blind, they were always touching each other, and one holding the other. We were for nine, ten hours a day touching each other. In a way it creates intimacy.
On an unrelated note, did you really put Julianne Moore in a fat suit?
Yeah. She didn’t want it at first, but as usual, she said okay. It’s such a effort to go to the gym every day to keep fit, and then to have somebody say, “Okay, you’re going to wear this and gain twenty pounds!” You just say, “Oh no, my year of working out — gone.”