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The Early Locations
After final casting and preparations in the winter and spring of 2004, production began in May.
The production headed to Berlin to shoot scenes involving the watchdog group Hippo Pharma, which becomes a crucial part of Justin Quayle’s quest to uncover the truth behind his wife’s death. Locations in Berlin included the Lehrter Stadtbanhof, for Justin Quayle’s arrival by train in Germany; offices in the Academie der Kunste, standing in for British High Commission offices; the Residenz Hotel, where Justin experiences first-hand the brutal methods that the Dypraxa drug manufacturers will resort to in order to avoid exposure; and the venerable Studio Babelsberg.
After two weeks in Germany, the production moved to London for several days of work. A space at the Tate Modern Gallery (located on the South Bank of the River Thames) was used as the lecture hall where Justin first meets Tessa, while St. Mary Magdalene Church in Paddington became the scene of a memorial service.
Other London locations included the Liberal Club, standing in for the gentleman’s club where Sir Bernard Pellegrin has an illuminating lunch with Justin. The scene includes Jeffrey Caine in “a nifty little cameo as a club porter. I’d been banging on to Fernando about the actors improvising on my lines, and Fernando had been spreading his hands and saying, ‘Actors have to have some space to do this; what can I do?’ Then he directs me in a role written with only one line of dialogue and finds me adding lines as I go. He said, ‘Now you know what I have to put up with.’”
Deeper Into Africa
Saving the most significant phase for last and affording Fernando Meirelles the visual and storytelling opportunities he had counted on, the production moved to Kenya in early June for nearly two months of shooting in Nairobi and other parts of the country. This had come about through diplomacy from Simon Channing Williams with government officials. Le Carré’s novel had delineated a deeply corrupt government in Kenya, which led to the book’s originally being banned there.
Even so, that had not prevented Kenyans from bringing in multiple copies from abroad – and circulating them among friends and neighbors. Nor did the novel’s criticism of the British diplomatic corps prevent the current, real-life High Commissioner, Edward Clay, from offering his support to the filmmakers.
“One of our very early visits was to Edward and his deputy Ray Kyles,” says Simon Channing Williams. “As much as anything else, it was the encouragement and support of the British High Commission that allowed us to convince our backers, insurers, and completion guarantors that Kenya was a viable place for us to film.”
Meirelles adds, “Edward helped us in many ways. Our actors were able to meet people from the High Commission, and went to their houses to see how they live. We had a lunch in London with diplomats working in Kenya. Our feeling, talking to them and being in their offices, was that the High Commission these days is like any other business. It looks like Unilever or Shell; it’s really about doing business, and making opportunities for business. Although it’s been 42 years since British rule in Kenya ended, there’s still a tie that binds – now mostly for different reasons.”
Referring to both the original novel and the screen adaptation, Edward Clay states, “In the first place, it is a work of art. You don’t have to accept that British diplomats
are really like this, you don’t have to accept that particular pharmaceutical companies in Kenya are the ones the author had in mind. It is a fine love story, wrapped up in a parable that has real power and credibility. But the problems that le Carré describes are potential as well as actual. Kenya is not the only country where he could have set the story, but it was a good setting. It could have been another government; it could have been another industry. But the point about the risks and the temptations of exploitation between the rich and powerful and the poor and vulnerable is very important and very telling.”
Danny Huston, cast as the British High Commission’s Head of Chancery, Sandy Woodrow, comments, “Modern diplomacy is all about business, and about trying to encourage commercial ventures. I also had a meeting in London with two gentlemen who shall remain nameless, since they worked for [British Secret Service agencies] MI5 and MI6. The more time I spent with them, the more I felt that they actually were like the people portrayed in the book. They have an extraordinary, sometimes spectacular way of not answering a question you ask them.”
Edward Clay and his staff briefed actors and filmmakers on the political, economic, and social context of Kenya – both as it was when John le Carré wrote his novel, and as it is now, just a few years later. He says, “Africa is not an undifferentiated basket case; there are successes, and some of the countries that used to be on their backs are now doing quite well. Kenya has done relatively badly by comparison over the last 20 years, fundamentally because of problems of governance. I suppose I wanted to make the point that when le Carré was writing his book, he was writing about a Kenya of a particular era which was a very plausible setting for the story that he wanted to tell. And that now that the film is being made, we’re in a Kenya where government and society have decided and voted quite decisively for a change – that Kenya will not be a byword for poor governance and corruption as it used to be.”
Channing Williams reports, “The final link in the chain allowing us to film in Kenya was the government and at every juncture, our Kenyan production partners Blue Sky Films and I were met with great courtesy and understanding. There was a real willingness and commitment to enable us to film there.”
Given the subject matter, the Kenyan government proved to be remarkably accommodating to the filmmakers. The Hon. Raphael Tuju, Minister of Information & Communications, states, “The Constant Gardener is very critical of Kenya, and it was unprecedented that this ministry would support it and license it. But I went ahead and made sure that we did so, because if we didn’t support it being filmed here it was still going to be filmed somewhere else, and it would still be critical of Kenya in the past, with respect to issues like corruption.”
Meirelles felt that his perspective was different from the outset. He muses, “John le Carré wrote a story about a developing country and big business from the point of view of a person from the First World. When I read the book, I put myself in the other position. I saw myself in Africa, with the big companies coming in. In some respects, Jeffrey Caine’s script tells the story through Kenyan eyes and, as a person from the Third World, I identified more with the Kenyans than with the British.”
Caine notes, “The Kenyan setting attracted Fernando to the film, I think. But what he inherited was a story told through British eyes, embedded in a British post-imperial subculture with which he wasn’t wholly familiar. Unsurprising, then, that he would want these elements de-emphasized and the African elements given more prominence, without tipping the story out of balance. This I think we achieved.”
Channing Williams welcomed the new light that Meirelles cast on the film’s subject matter. He notes, “I feared we might get stuck in a ‘middle-class British male’ box. When Fernando signed on, suddenly all those middle-class prejudices were thrown out the window. Instead, we were getting an entirely new vision of the world that le Carré wrote about, visualized from a deeply intelligent foreign national’s point of view. Fernando’s perception is all to do with character as opposed to class. Our British class structure is not important to him; it was great that we could get away from that, and tell the story as seen by 95% of the rest of the world.”
Production designer Mark Tildesley comments, “When I first read the book, I thought it was something that described and would appeal to my father’s generation. But then we went to these clubs in Nairobi and it’s like a time warp, even at the British High Commission. They try to get funky and tell you they ride a bike to work, but then they ring a bell for breakfast and people come in to serve it with white gloves…What we really needed to do was to make people have a sense of Africa, and care about Africa in order to understand the story. So it couldn’t all be cricket and gin-and-tonics.”
Ralph Fiennes recalls, “Fernando was very keen to incorporate African footage, the colors and the faces. When I was first told that he was going to direct, what I hoped was that he would make Africa a keystone for the film, and that’s just what he did.”
Meirelles’ “Third World perspective” also ensured that, in addition to the hundreds of extras employed on the shoot, a large proportion of the cast would be African (the film features Kenyan nationals in nearly three dozen speaking roles). Moreover, the British crew was joined by more than 70 Kenyan crew members represented across all departments, in addition to drivers, caterers, location hire staff, and laborers.
Channing Williams states, “All of these people, on both sides of the camera, were there by right; those jobs and roles should have been theirs, and were. There is an amazing well of talent in Kenya and I hope that, in some small way, our presence there might help to alert others to what is on offer.”
Although Meirelles regards Kenya as “almost the third principal character in the movie,” the filmmakers originally considered shooting most of the Kenyan scenes in South Africa, where there is a thriving film industry and a more established infrastructure. Channing Williams notes, “The idea was for us to come to Kenya to see where the book was set and then go down to South Africa. But I’m delighted to say that, within 24 hours of our arrival, Fernando and I both knew that we didn’t want to move from Kenya at all. Of course, there were serious problems in terms of insurance, in terms of the perception that Kenya was a very dangerous place to be – which we found not to be the case. We fought long and hard; it was very clear from the outset that Kenya was where we should be.”
Mario Zvan, executive producer for the film’s Kenyan production partners Blue Sky Films, reveals, “East Africa is very different from South Africa, and Fernando and Simon understood that immediately. The people look different, the vegetation is different, the light is different, the buildings are different. Shooting this story in South Africa would have been like filming a Boston tale in Miami.”
“We were very concerned that this looked real,” adds Meirelles’ friend and collaborator of many years, director of photography César Charlone. “We were trying to show the truth, to be as faithful as we could be, using real locations and natural light. If a mortuary was lit with fluorescents, we went with fluorescent lighting. It was very important to us not to choose locations because they were more filmic or more beautiful.
“Then, as we started getting deeper into the project, it was as if we were dealing with two different realities, two different worlds. There was Justin’s old world, where he came from, with the British High Commission. As he finds out more about Tessa, she becomes his door into a new world, the real Africa that he had been unable or unwilling to see. We determined that Justin’s world (England) would in cool greens, while Tessa’s world (Africa) would be in warm reds.”
“Fernando and César were determined to present as authentic a view as possible, to try to make something remarkable,” comments Bill Nighy, who plays Bernard Pellegrin. “I’d worked in Morocco but I’d never been to Kenya or anywhere else in Africa. The sights, sounds, and smells are like nowhere else. It’s more than just a backdrop because The Constant Gardener is an African story, dealing with how the West uses the continent as a laboratory.”
“One of the great things about the experience was that we shot in real places in Nairobi,” says Ralph Fiennes. “Fernando was very keen to use real people in the background. There isn’t a strong film infrastructure in Kenya, so we weren’t shooting with professional, practiced extras. The feeling towards the film on the part of the people was very positive; they engaged with something that was happening in their neighborhood. Simon and Blue Sky did an amazing job to make sure that we were not seen, as films coming in are usually seen – a lot of people shouting into walkie-talkies and crashing through a community, ignoring the sensibilities of the people who actually live there. I never felt any resentment or negativity. The sensitivities of the locals were not only acknowledged, they were embraced by the camera so that they felt part of the project.”
Kenyan extras casting coordinator Emily Mbonga clarifies, “It’s not that we don’t have an infrastructure for filming in Kenya; it’s more that it had been forgotten.” Mbonga found the majority of the white extras through open casting calls among local amateur theater groups. Other extras were recruited from the professions being portrayed; for example, the members of the press intruding on Tessa Quayle’s funeral are all journalists and photographers working in Kenya.
“The key to creating a character is mostly imagination and when you are in the actual place, it is there for you on a plate,” says Fiennes. “On a subtle level, you’re already responding physically and emotionally to the environment.”
Rachel Weisz adds, “Nothing against South Africa, but the Kenyan landscape has a particular spirit and you can’t just try to mimic that somewhere else. I can’t separate Kenya from the story, or the story from Kenya. What’s also important is that we have helped the existing infrastructure, so that more films might shoot there in the future.”
Pete Postlethwaite, who appears as Dypraxa’s elusive creator, Lorbeer, says, “You do your work, you read the book, you figure where your character is at. But actually going to Kenya puts it all into focus, like a magnifying glass that you could use to burn your hand.”
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