A few days ago, Nobel-Prize-winning author José Saramago died at the age of 87. With this in mind, I thought I’d post an old interview with one of my favorite writers Don McKellar, who adapted Blindness (one of Saramago’s most famous books) for film a few years back.
The Wide Saramago See
An Interview with Blindness screenwriter Don McKellar
(c) 2008, 2010 by Michael Marano
“It’s sort of contradictory, in a way, to do a movie about blindness.”
Canadian screenwriter (he wrote The Red Violin, and his script for Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould was lampooned in The Simpsons episode “22 Short Films About Springfield”), Genie award-winning actor (he’s a stalwart of Cronenberg films), director (his slice-of-life apocalyptic SF movie Last Night won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes), Tony Award-winning playwright (for The Drowsy Chaperone, the first line of which is “I hate theatre!”) and creator and star of the Magic Realist TV show Twitch City Don McKellar is talking about his adaptation of Portuguese Nobel Laureate José Saramago’s novel Blindness, which is directed by City of God and Constant Gardener helmer Fernando Meirelles.
“The fact that [the book] is about blindness, as I explained to Saramago when I asked about getting the rights… [relates to the notion that] a movie about blindness is also about seeing. It’s the reverse of the same thing. It makes you think about seeing. That’s what movies are about. And so all these sorts of questions about movie making, about whose point of view it is, who is looking and the responsibility of looking become central to the script, become central to the storytelling in the movie. You can address these big ‘Film 101′ issues without being pretentious, because you have to deal with them. And the visual style of the film becomes very crucial, because it becomes the actual content. And that’s sort of exciting, too. That’s one of the reasons why we were excited to get Fernando on, because he’s such a stylist.”
Blindness, as both film and novel, addresses no ordinary loss of sight–the premise is that an epidemic of blindness that spreads Day of the Triffids-like throughout an unnamed metropolis, afflicting nameless characters who are known only by nomenclature that describes what they are or do, such as the Doctor (Mark Ruffalo), the Doctor’s Wife (Children of Men’s Julianne Moore), Girl with the dark glasses (I Am Legend’s Alice Braga), and the Thief (played by McKellar).
How did McKellar, as a screenwriter, write a dynamic screenplay out of a work in which the characters are tropes, neo-platonic stand-ins, and that is set in a non-location?
“One of the things about film is, and this was something that was clear to me when I was writing, is that when you’re filming an actor, they’re not a type. They’re not an archetype, they’re a person. You’re looking at a person. So, when you look at the film, and the way Fernando shoots it, it’s actually quite realistic, the performances are certainly realistic. No one is playing it theatrically, or any thing like that. But there’s a sort of tension, still, that I like. Yeah, you don’t know what city it is, the characters don’t have names, but you don’t feel like you’re watching a play, you know what I mean? An absurdist play from the 1930s, or something? You feel like you’re fully inhabiting and looking at real characters. And that’s the feeling you get in the book, too. The reality of the situation is extreme and it really hits home. But the sort of literary distance is what keeps it powerful, keeps you watching.”
“These are the thoughts that were going through my head when I was writing. I was aware that they were actors [that we'd be using]. I was playing with that sense of extremely gritty realism, because one of the feelings of the book is that you can believe it goes as far as it does [in its depiction of the epidemic of blindness], and I wanted that same feeling. I wanted the kind of allegorical side just to play almost subconsciously. I wanted the reader [of the screenplay] and later, the viewer to think of the [people] entirely as real characters that upon reflection represent types. All of humanity, of different ages, of different races, different everything.”
Not all those who have seen Blindness have been receptive to the film’s allegorical ambitions. When Blindness opened the 2008 Cannes Film Festival, the first Canadian film to do so since 1980 (“We were a little worried about being the opening night film, because it was a very unusual opening night film,” McKellar said), the reception was not very warm. Despite the fact that, according to McKellar, the screening “went very well and there was long standing ovation for about 10 minutes”, the Cannes jury only saw fit to award Blindness a rating out of 1.3 out of four. Justin Chang wrote in Variety that “Saramago… long resisted the idea of having his 1995 masterwork adapted for the big screen. Meirelles has proven the Portuguese writer’s instincts to be sadly correct. A horror tale, a bleak allegory and a chronicle of human suffering as consoling as it is devastating, Blindness emerges onscreen both overdressed and under-motivated, scrupulously hitting the novel’s beats yet barely approximating, so to speak, its vision.” Stephen Garret in Esquire wrote: “That the director succeeds more often than he fails proves the resilience of Saramago’s potent themes as well as Meirelles’s skillful visual language. But Blindness stumbles because it’s a fundamental mismatch: a visceral director better known for searing portraits of real-life injustices shouldn’t really make a parable.”
“There were some good reviews, too,” McKellar says. He notes that “critics are used to a certain realism in films”, and today don’t seem to “allow for a certain kind of literary film or allegorical film unless it’s a straight genre film” the way that they used to. Speaking of fantasy, genre and allegorical films that had in decades past taken Cannes and the international critics by storm, movies like Kurosawa’s Rashomon, Marcel Camus’ Black Orpheus, Bergman’s Virgin Spring, Fellini’s 8 1/2 and Juliet of the Spirits, Volker Schlöndorff’s The Tin Drum, McKellar says, “Those are all of a period. I think [fantastic, allegorical movies are] unfashionable now. This film [Blindness], its lineage is more with those films. When I was growing up, the films that excited me were, well to tell the truth, kind of genre films, like American genre films, horror films and the like. And I guess the big films of the time, the sort of European art films, the Fellini films and the Bergman films, films like that that are not so much in fashion. Now, the sort of high art films that people champion the most tend to be gritty naturalist films. So, in that sense, yeah, [Blindness] is sort of harkening back to an earlier period, a period of film that I miss, where big allegories could be accepted by a serious audience. Now, people look down on horror films and things like that, and science fiction films that do deal with allegory. They don’t like that to intrude on their serious fare.”
“We’ve changed the film slightly since Cannes, because we sort of rushed to get it in there [in the festival]. And I’m very pleased with those changes.”
Poetic allegory and the kind of realism for which Meirelles is known may seem almost contradictory. Yet anyone who has followed McKellar’s several careers know that in many ways, the guy is like a Magritte painting. His work as an actor, writer, director is defined by that which is fully fleshed out and “real”, but just a few degrees off plumb, so that it becomes as unreal as anything you’d see in an George Lucas effects vortex. In Waydowntown, Gary Burns’ essay on corporate wage slave culture, McKellar plays with Buster Keaton deadpan a guy so defeated, he bloodily staples motivational slogans to his chest with about as much reaction as a guy parked in a chair at SuperCuts; think Zig Ziglar’s corporate motivation as done by Hellraiser’s Pinhead. In his amazingly low key, as in limbo-low key, apocalypse Last Night (the perfect inverse of how Michael Bay ends the world), David Cronenberg plays a nebbishy utility executive who calls customers to assure them that they’ll continue to get service right up to the last second of existence. In his Twin Peaks-y sitcom Twitch City, the household cat just happens to be the Egyptian goddess Bastet. In McKellar’s work, personal realities that are just a little tweaked define unreal, fantastic scenarios. How did he develop this unique slant?
“There is a comparison, and if you think of all of my work [in relation to talking about] allegory. It’s similar to all these things [that] could be viewed allegorically, but they’re also very real. What makes them real is that there they are all based on people, on character. I remember for Twitch City thinking, the character, the sort of unique protagonist [a slacker named Curtis who never leaves the house], forces the structure of the TV show, and that’s the same for Thirty Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, the sort of extreme structure is necessitated by this very real character who is slightly off center, and so requires an off center shape to the movie around him. Where that came from, it’s very hard to define where things come from when you write. I guess on some level that I thought that my perspective was slightly out of the ordinary and as a defense I tried to find value in my skewed perspective of the world, you know what I mean?” McKellar laughs at that. “And it’s sort of the same in Blindness, where all the characters are forced together to survive outside of this rather oppressive environment.”
As movie that makes use of McKellar’s trademark character-based tweaking of reality, Blindness is still a “movie that pushes genre. And that’s what I love, it is a genre film, if you want to call it that. It is a sort of science fiction thriller, I suppose. But it’s not particularly played like that, taking the cue from the book. And that to me is exciting, that’s not a retreat. That’s new territory that’s sort of fun to play in.”
The gene-splice of art house and genre isn’t a contradiction to McKellar.
“When I was growing up–it’s hard to explain to the youngsters now–but it really wasn’t seen as an arty thing to do [going to foreign, arty movies]. In high school, we went to those [kinds of movies] all the time at the review cinemas, and it was cool to go see [Jean-Luc Goddard's SF movie] Weekend, on the weekend. They were cool movies.”
If Blindness exists in a kind of borderland between genre and art house, non-Cannes audiences can see the final cut of the film this fall and judge for themselves if they’re comfortable feeling their way through the kind of fantastic allegory that harkens back to the days when Fellini and Bergman flicks were cool.