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How Canadian nabbed hottest film, biggest stars

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Blindness, the movie, has been seven years in the making. It started as a germ of an idea with McKellar. He pitched Fichman the idea of adapting the novel into a movie while the two were attending a film festival in Buenos Aires, where McKellar's film Last Night - about the last night on Earth before all mankind is killed - was showing.

Fichman laughs now that his immediate reaction to McKellar's idea was less than enthusiastic. He had not read Blindness, and said to his friend, "Are you sure? You don't want to be known as that apocalypse guy."

But then he read the novel - and read it again - and became "infatuated" with the project. Fichman, who also produced writer-director McKellar's Childstar and Girard's The Red Violin, approached Saramago's agent about acquiring the film rights. He was shooed away, and told by the agent that the 1998 Nobel laureate had turned down scores of other overtures, including, ironically, from Meirelles and from Whoopi Goldberg.

But Fichman would not take no for an answer, and mailed Saramago copies of some of Rhombus Media's high-brow documentaries, including The War Symphonies: Shostakovich Against Stalin, the story of Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's musical protests against the dictator's crimes.

Then, on July 20, 1999, Fichman and McKellar got the call they had been waiting for. The author himself invited them to his Canary Islands home. They hopped on a plane.

"On the afternoon of the second day, out of the blue, Saramago said, 'I've decided I think I want to give you guys the rights,' " recalls Fichman. "It didn't click, because he said it in Portuguese. I asked his agent, who was translating, to repeat it again. Then he told us he didn't want to have anything to do with the film. He wanted no control over it."

Soon after, McKellar began work on his adaptation - based on a novel written in sentences up to a page long, with scant punctuation. It took him six years to complete.

Fichman says he believes they got the rights to Blindness because Saramago felt, as Canadians, that they would be able to make an American-style film in English - with access to the same worldwide distribution system - but without too much American influence. "He was afraid [a U.S. studio] would turn his book into a zombie film," suggests Fichman, "one that would not properly balance the social consciousness that underlies the story."

Last June, Fichman flew to Sao Paulo to woo Meirelles. The 51-year-old director signed on immediately, bringing along his cinematographer, Cesar Charlone. Ruffalo says Meirelles has been a "a leader, and someone you're gladly following. Rarely can you just show up and trust. Especially when you're so exposed," adds the actor. "Being blind is nearly impossible to act, because your mind so badly does not want to do it. So it's scary."

Blindness wraps in Toronto in mid-October, moves to Uruguay, and then onto Meirelles's hometown of Sao Paulo. The director expects to finish the movie by next March, in time to vie for a for a spot in Cannes and, later, the Toronto International Film Festival.

For Meirelles, part of the magic of Saramago's work is its portrayal of how quickly society can collapse when faced with disaster - a message he feels is apt in a world of environmental degradation, political unrest and religious fanaticism. "We're not seeing what we're doing," says the director. "We all just keep moving. Moving. Like we're blind."

gmacdonald@globeandmail.com

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