GUELPH, ONT. Built almost a century ago on several acres of prime Southwestern Ontario farmland, the handsome Georgian brick structure, with its circular drive, man-made ponds and fieldstone fences, could easily be mistaken for a well-to-do country home.
Walk inside, however, and you quickly realize this has never been an idyllic rural getaway. Dank and dark, corridors of crumbling cells, fitted with steel cots and rotting urinals, stretch down the endless hallways of the former Ontario Reformatory in Guelph, which in its heyday incarcerated up to 1,200 criminals. The basement - home to "the hole," where prisoners served solitary confinement - is a maze of twisting, grimy passages.
But when Toronto producer Niv Fichman came across the rundown heritage property, located about an hour west of Toronto, he thought it was, in its way, the most beautiful place he'd ever seen - and a picture-perfect spot to shoot his upcoming feature film, Blindness.
Based on the harrowing book of the same name by Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author Jose Saramago, it tells the fierce and fantastical story of a pandemic of blindness that eviscerates society. In the movie, the jail will stand in for an abandoned insane asylum, where the authorities of an unnamed city have quarantined those afflicted with a "white blindness" that eventually spreads through the community, leaving everyone - except one woman - sightless and, just as suddenly, helpless.
On set earlier this month, two of the film's stars, Julianne Moore and Mark Ruffalo, appeared bedraggled, bruised and filthy, acting out a scene in one of the asylum's wards, where their group of prisoners is forced to give up their valuables to tyrants who have been hording food.
The actors listen intently as Oscar-nominated director Fernando Meirelles (2002's City of God) quietly explains how he wants the doctor to look at his wife, without - of course - seeing. Acting sightless, it's clear, is not easy. The international cast (which also includes Danny Glover, Sandra Oh and Japanese heartthrob Yusuke Iseya) has spent weeks in blindness workshops, where actors have been required to ramble around this cavernous place - often blindfolded and cursing - as they bump into walls and trip down stairs.
The 39-year-old Ruffalo - who is married to the French-American actress Sunrise Coigney, the mother of his two small children, who are running around the grounds of the former jail today - recalls a particularly trying moment when he and the others were unceremoniously dumped, wearing eye-covering masks, at the end of the long driveway leading to the "asylum."
"We were dropped off at the gate, and told to find the ward, find food, find our beds, find water, and find the toilets in this hellhole," says Ruffalo - star of last year's Zodiac and All the King's Men, with Sean Penn and Jude Law - during a break in filmmaking. "We were wandering around for hours. Some of us stayed together. Some broke off. Some of us got lost. And some of us got testy at moments. It's very frustrating. And," he adds, "you see how nearly impossible it is to keep people from cheating and ripping each other off.
"At one point we were given food to divide up, and Fernando snuck in and took half of it away. We, of course, didn't know. A big fight broke out, and accusations were flying back and forth. So we definitely got a sense of how difficult life is for these newly blind people."
In Saramago's book, blindness is an allegory that the author uses to strip away the thin veneer of civilized society. In his exploration of man's most destructive appetites and weaknesses, those first afflicted are sent to the mental hospital, where a newly created "society of the blind" quickly breaks down. Criminals and the physically powerful prey on the weak. The place becomes a nightmarish setting of starvation, brutality and rape.
There is, however, one eyewitness (played by Moore) whose sight is unaffected (a fact she keeps secret). As seer, she follows her husband into quarantine, but eventually leads a small band of seven people back onto the ravaged streets of their city.
Sao Paulo-based director Meirelles says he sees the book as a brilliant exploration of the complex layers - both good and bad - of humanity. And his film, adapted for the screen by Toronto filmmaker Don McKellar, is, says the director, "the most challenging thing I've ever done in my life. "I'm still very scared," offers the wiry, bespectacled Meirelles, in a lightly accented English. "It's really, really difficult, even worse than City of God, which was my first feature."
Among the challenges: a vast cast (who go by such monikers as the Boy Who Squints and the Woman with the Dark Eye Patch) and the near-endless layers of themes that Saragamo explores in his dense text.
"In one scene we just finished, we had 16 actors. They're all professional actors, and each actor wants - needs - attention. So you need to talk to each one, and tell them what they were doing was good. I try to talk to everybody... but it is easier when you're doing a love story between a couple. It's much more controlled."
Later this day, Meirelles says, he will film a scene in which the female characters will be sent to a particular ward where they will be raped, afterward returning to their rooms, where some have husbands waiting. "So, after lunch, we'll do a little meeting to decide how bad they'll look," says Meirelles, an efficient director (he's ahead of schedule) but a stickler for detail.
"One of the women dies, so we'll have to establish how she dies," he adds, referring to the makeup. "And all the others, we'll have to see, one by one, how ripped their clothes are, etc. It's pretty grim."
That raw immediacy aside, Meirelles says he feels privileged to be working on Blindness - he describes the novel as "genius" - and with such a high-calibre cast. "You met Mark, isn't he the most wonderful man, warm and human? And Julie is a dream to work with, so easygoing. The humanity of the film is really on their shoulders, in their hands."
The film is a co-production of Fichman's Rhombus Media, Sonoko Sakai's Bee Vine Pictures of Japan, and Andrea Barata Ribeiro's O2 Filmes of Brazil. It's the second collaboration of Fichman and Sakai, who co-produced Francois Girard's feature film, Silk, with Keira Knightley and Canadian Callum Keith Rennie.
In total, there are about a dozen of what could be described as "lead actors" portraying the people initially infected. Glover is the Man with the Eye Patch and the film's narrator. Mexican actor Gael Garcia Bernal plays the evil King of Ward 3. Toronto's Maury Chaykin is his partner in crime, a corrupt accountant. Susan Coyne, McKellar and Martha Burns are also in the cast.
Japan's Iseya portrays the first blind man; his wife is played by Japanese actor Yoshino Kimura. Brazilian Alice Braga, who will soon appear opposite Will Smith is the apocalyptic thriller I Am Legend, is Dark Glasses.
On set, people chat away in English, French, Portuguese, Spanish, Japanese. And despite the bleak subject matter, there's a lot of good humour. One corridor of jail cells has been named "celebrity row": The cast and crew have posted signs on the sliding steel doors, sporting names of famous inmates, including Martha Stewart, O.J. Simpson, Mike Tyson, Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan.
Ruffalo enters a cell reserved for fallen Canadian media magnate Conrad Black, where the actor sits on a steel cot and talks about how, in his eyes, the multicultural cast underscores the gravity of the movie's themes. "Saramago is a self-described communist and his book - and this movie - is about community, the global community," says the actor.
"He takes away eyesight, which immediately dismisses rank, material worth, the way people look, physical boundaries and limitations. And it creates an environment where you need help, you need community, you can't do it alone. With the international cast, you get the sense this story is not located in a specific place. By design, it's nowhere and everywhere at the same time."
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."