The City of God phenomenon: a new interview with Fernando Meirelles

The Brazilian director remembers the moment the phone started ringing off the hook at the Cannes Film Festival, and teases details of an upcoming director’s cut.

23 February 2024

By Sam Wigley

City of God (2002)

Fernando Meirelles is as bemused as anyone why a low-budget, hyperlocal production like City of God (2002) should become such a worldwide sensation. Meirelles was still starting out as a director when he read Paulo Lins’ bestseller about life in Rio’s favelas – and if we don’t have to explain, translate or hyperlink that last word, that’s surely testament to the phenomenon that the City of God film has been. It took Meirelles to Cannes. It took him to the Oscars. And it became one of those comparatively rare non-English language releases that catches fire on a global scale.

That’s how I remember it anyway, though if you compare City of God’s original worldwide box office to the Mandarin language Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon of 2000, it was a comparative minnow. But to do so doesn’t take account of its extraordinary afterlife – not just in spawning two separate spin-off TV series with Meirelles’s involvement (City of Men and City of God) and a spin-off movie in turn from one of those, but also in becoming one of those films that the internet just loves, even now. At time of writing, it’s the 25th highest rated film among users of IMDb and the 12th on Letterboxd. A dig into IMDb data by the website Preply suggests it’s the second most watched non-English language film in the world.

Fresh shoots in Latin American cinema were one of the stories of the turn of the millennium. Films including Central Station (1998) from Brazil and Amores perros (2000) and Y tu mamá también (2001) from Mexico boasted a new flair and swaggering confidence, becoming major arthouse crossover hits. City of God won ecstatic five-star reviews in places like Empire magazine, and – as in the case with Amores perros – the message to readers was clear: if you love GoodFellas (1990), if you love Pulp Fiction (1994), then this hectic, stylish, violent, impassioned, decades-spanning epic of street-level crime has your name on it.

But while plenty of reviewers name-dropped the Scorsese and Tarantino connections, in its bones Meirelles’s film is essentially different from those movies in also being borne out of a documentary impulse: to catch some of the energy and tragedy of real life in Rio’s slums, and the violent patterns which entrap the neighbourhoods’ children. That all begins with Lins’ semi-autobiographical novel – so that’s where we kick off when I speak to Meirelles over Zoom.

Paulo Lins’ novel had been a bestseller in Brazil, and is credited with opening people’s eyes to what life was like in the favelas. What did you respond to when you first read it?

Fernando Meirelles: I was really surprised. At that time we really didn’t know much about the community life inside the favelas. All we heard about favelas was from outside, from TV news or from writers writing from outside about what was happening inside. So it was mostly about crime and drugs. Paulo Lins lived in the City of God, and was writing the book about his own experiences. He would see one of his characters passing by his window. He would go outside, interview, come back and finish writing. That’s what attracted me. I said, “Is this Brazil? I never knew that this could be my country.” And I decided to dig in to understand this world.

You’re from a middle-class background – you’ve spoken before about there being two halves of Brazilian society. What did you feel you could bring to the story and what made you think you were the right person to do it?

Maybe I wasn’t, or maybe I was because I was like a foreigner coming to this world and seeing with fresh eyes. My intention was really to shed some light on this world. In Brazil, we never saw favelas represented on TV, in films or soap operas. And after City of God, there was a movement – in Brazil, we call them the favela movies. There were maybe 20 films that followed with stories inside favelas. And then the favela became a place that you see in soap operas. It’s like Brazil finally included this big part of our population. I think that’s the biggest contribution for the film: we brought the favelas into the official Brazil. At that time, we would say that Rio is a city surrounded by favelas. But no, the favelas are Rio.

Author Paulo Lins, director Fernando Meirelles and actor Seu Jorge on location for City of God (2002)

Had you visited the favelas before, were you at all familiar with them?

Not at all. I think I visited once or twice, but just on the edge. After I’d spoken to Paulo Lins and told him I was interested, he said “Well, you have to visit.” And he took me to visit the City of God. By chance, we parked the car and we walked two blocks inside the favela, and after 100 metres there was a guy with a big gun pointing to our heads. It made me think, “The book’s not bullshit.” But then of course, the guy that was with us said, “No, no, no, stop, they’re with us, this is Paulo Lins, it’s all good, all good.” And the guy just left. But I said, “Well, that’s real.”

How did Katia Lund become involved as co-director? I understand she mainly worked with the actors.

Fernando Meirelles and co-director Katia Lund on location for City of God (2002)

Yes. She had done a very good documentary about favelas with João Moreira Salles [News from a Personal War, 1999]. And she was assistant director for Walter Salles on some projects. I knew she had the experience in the favelas, and I called her to invite her to be my first assistant in the film. And she said, “No, I don’t want to be first assistant, I want to move on.” And I said, “Well, we can do the casting together.” And she was really helpful. She introduced me to people who were able to bring the boys for me to cast.

We had a very long process – four and a half months, five months of classes with the actors, who were non-professionals. And then she was there with me when we shot the film. She never chose the crew or she wouldn’t direct on set. But she was always with the cast, warming them up and trying to make them feel what they should feel, and reminding them of all the exercises that we had done. Her help was really, really immense. Her help was so big that I proposed to give her the credit, co-director in acting. And she said, “But that credit doesn’t exist.” And I said, “Okay, just co-director.” And this was a mistake because it has generated a lot of confusion.

What was it like filming in the favelas? Were the neighbourhoods supportive of the production?

Yes. We chose the places where we wanted to shoot and then spoke to the community leaders in each favela. Our first idea was to shoot in the City of God itself, in the proper place. But before shooting the feature, we shot a short film called Golden Gate (2000) with the same cast. It was for us to learn how to work with the boys in this environment. We shot it in the City of God, but we had a terrible night. We were kidnapped by drug dealers and it traumatised part of the crew. It’s a long story, but after this experience, we realised that we couldn’t shoot in the City of God, so we looked for other communities. Then we made contact with the community centres, and it all worked very well. We never paid for the communities or for the dealers that control the communities, but we gave them computers and soccer fields, we gave some structure for the community.

Fernando Meirelles with actors Jonas and Bernardo on location for City of God (2002)

It was filmed with a mix of 35 and 16mm cameras…

For wide shots, landscape, we used 35. Closeups and dialogue would be 16. It’s cheaper. We didn’t have money. It was my money, I was paying for it. So the option for 16 was because it was easy, light, but also cheaper.

Then – and City of God was the first film in Brazil, probably one of the first in the world, that used this process – we transferred the film to video and did all the cutting and post-production in video. Then we filmed the result. We transferred from video to film again in a process that was SD, which is not good quality.

So the quality of the film is not good at all. But now there’s good news – and maybe nobody knows this yet – I just scanned the whole film in Los Angeles last month, and I’m doing a director’s cut version. Probably to be released in a year. I’m going to cut the film again. It’s a different film now. It’s amazing. I watch the image and say, “I can’t believe this is the same film.” I’m remixing. I’m changing some things. And the cut will be like a director’s cut. But the most impressive thing will be the image, which is much, much better.

You didn’t have director’s cut in 2002?

No, no, no. Never. This will be my director’s cut. There will be some new sequences, but mostly the quality of image and sound will be much better. I might change some sound, cut some things.

Is there any particular change to the content of the film that you really wanted to bring out?

Yeah, when we shot, the film was interrupted by sequences with statements from Rio people talking about the community. They would say lines that were linked to the story. But then we decided to keep just the story. The story had a good flow, so we decided just to let go. I might bring it back. That would be the biggest change. And then some scenes that I’ll reduce or recut.

Will that get another theatrical release or is that a Blu-ray?

I would like to have a new theatrical release in a couple of years. Next year the film rights come back to me. So now will be really the last time we’ll see this version because in two, three years I’ll release my version.

City of God (2002)

Lots of the reviews at the time likened the film’s style to Scorsese and Tarantino. Were they important influences for you?

Scorsese was. He’s a great storyteller, even today. Tarantino wasn’t, though I like his films. I like Altman very much. The way he works with real people and improvises – he’s a big influence for me.

I was reading that Altman had said that City of God was the best film he’d ever seen or words to that effect. That’s high praise.

Oh, really? Wow. That’s amazing. I never saw that.

Were there any Brazilian film influences? I wondered about Héctor Babenco’s film Pixote (1981), as a very unvarnished film about street life in Brazil.

The difference is that City of God has a flavour of documentary. Babenco did a proper film: he wrote all the lines and then rehearsed and cut exactly what he planned. City of God was a very loose process. The boys never got or read a script. In the process of rehearsing, we would start creating the scene, then reshaping the scene, then I would ask them to improvise, “Use this line, don’t use that one. Remember you said that, include it.” We shaped the dialogues with the boys. They would repeat their improvisations. Maybe that’s why the film feels so authentic. And we would use our cameras to grab what was happening, like with a documentary. Babenco’s film is more the normal process, but he was a good friend and I love Pixote.

You mentioned Walter Salles before. It certainly seemed from a UK perspective that, around the turn of the millennium, with films like Salles’s Central Station and City of God, and in Mexico, Amores perros, there was a sudden upsurge in interest in Latin American cinema on a global scale. Is that how it felt to you as a Brazilian?

Yes. In those three films that you mentioned, we would take the cameras – like with Italian neorealism – to see real life. We would shoot with real people. It’s a sort of neorealism. Because we wanted to see Rio people in their environment. It became a wave.

What are your memories of the Cannes premiere and the reaction there?

It was amazing. I was really surprised, because Canal+ had decided not to promote the film much. They liked the film very much. But there was only the poster, my name, which nobody knew, and some names of actors that nobody had ever heard about.

So when I went to Cannes, I had 14 interviews scheduled. That was all. I thought I was going to watch films in Cannes and walk around. On the day of the afternoon press screening, I was in a hotel doing nothing. And then the press screening finished, and people start calling for interviews. And then I did 150. It was completely booked. I spent the rest of the week from eight in the morning till seven doing interviews, repeating the same thing. It was exhausting.

Then I had some meetings, people would call me to meetings. And I came from Cannes with 14 scripts to read. Harvey Weinstein sent me seven. I was overwhelmed.

It must’ve been an incredible fish out of water experience for the actors as well.

It was really a life-changing experience. There was one thing that could be better. That year, Walter Salles was invited to be part of the jury. And because he was part of the jury and he’s producer in the film, the film had to play out of competition because of course a film’s producer can’t be judging the competition. Walter was kind enough to call me and say, “Fernando, your film is selected and they invited me to be on the jury, so if I’m on the jury, you won’t be competing. Is that okay for you?” I said yes, that was my mistake. I should have said, “Oh, would you mind being on the jury next year.” But I didn’t know the film was good and the film had chances. Maybe we could have got something. But I don’t regret it, the film had an amazing career.

Cinematographer Cesar Charlone with actors Bernardo and Jonas on location for City of God (2002)

And then at the Oscars as well. It was virtually unheard of for a non-English language film to get multiple nominations in those days. What do you remember about the ceremony?

The Oscars was another interesting thing. In the year that we released the film, the film wasn’t selected for the Academy Awards. It was there in the package of the 48 best international films, but it wasn’t picked. And Weinstein again, he said, “This is not fair, this film really deserves to be in the Oscars.” He decided to campaign for the film [for the following year].

At that point, I was in London, on pre-production of The Constant Gardener (2005). They called me from Miramax and said, “Well, we’re promoting your film for the Oscars. Can you come here for a week to promote?” I said, “No, I can’t. If you want to do it, do it yourself, I won’t do anything.” I really had no clue what I was doing.

One day I was in a meeting with John le Carré discussing the script, and the producer came and said, “Fernando, do you know it just got four nominations?” I didn’t even know it was running! I was such a surprise. I knew it had no chances, but it was such an interesting surprise.

Why do you think the film became such a global hit – what were people responding to?

Maybe responding to what I responded to when I read the book; surprised to see how things are organised inside a slum. It’s a totally different world. And the authenticity. It’s well shot, good music, there’s a vibe – but maybe the authenticity is what made it. I don’t know. I really can’t explain. I know the boys make the film what it is. I don’t have spectacular shots. It’s shot in a very simple way.

The film provided a huge boost to Brazilian film production. Did that have long-term benefits for the industry or was it more of a bubble?

There was that wave of favela movies. At the time, City of God was the record breaker of Brazilian cinema. People wouldn’t watch Brazilian cinema in Brazil. The best Brazilian film at the time had been seen by, I don’t know, one million and a half or something. City of God was five times this. But then two years later there was another one and another one. In five or eight years, City of God was already the 11th in the list of most seen in Brazil, which is good. So in some way it helped a Brazilian audience to trust in Brazilian films.

City of God (2002)

Even now, it’s the 25th highest rated film on IMDb and the 12th highest rated on Letterboxd, which suggests that younger film fans are still finding it and responding to it.

I’m still invited to go to universities or talk to film students because they like the film; they like the energy. It’s a subject that touches everybody. And now we’re making the series, City of God – I’m not directing it, I’m producing it. We just finished the first season, and we’re going to start shooting the second season this year.

What is the City of God like today, do you still feel quite invested in that neighbourhood?

Sometimes when I go to Rio, to go from the airport to where the Globo studios are, you cross the City of God. It’s quite different. There’s a lot of buildings, more streets. It’s still violent, but not as violent as other areas in Rio. In Rio, what happened is that the militias took control of all the favelas. They expelled all the drug dealers and now they control the areas. In the City of God, they didn’t allow the militia to come, so it’s different from the other communities in Rio.

Are you still in contact with the actors?

With some of them. Mostly with Leandro, who plays Li’l Z – he’s quite known in Brazil. He was in Big Brother. And now because of this TV series, we brought some of the others back. There’s a guy who plays Marreco. He’s one of the three guys from the beginning of the film. I found him three years ago. He was living on the streets inside a car. And I found him. I have lots of contact with this guy now. I rent an apartment for him and I support him. He’s trying to come back to acting. I think he’s the one who I talk to the most.


City of God is back in cinemas, including BFI Southbank, from 23 February 2024.

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