José Padilha of ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN - Interview
Director José Padilha has indomitable spirit.
Talking with Padilha a couple of weeks ago, out promoting his new film ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN, a thriller that mixes together action, drama, and political intrigue on the streets of Rio de Janeiro, you have the sense that you’re having a discussion with someone who enjoys their craft. He’s excited to talk about what he’s doing and how he’s filming it that you become jealous of a man who will make do with what he has by making the best of it. It’s hard to believe that an individual filled with so much positivity would be the one hand picked to lead the Robocop reboot but as we talk you can tell that there is no better choice who should bring back the half man, half robot, all cop back to life.
ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN is now playing.
PADILHA: I’ve been making movies about the violence in Rio for a while. I started with a documentary called, Bus 174 about this street kid that hijacks a bus and makes hostages. Since I did that documentary I had to interview a lot of cops in Rio pretty well and so I was always very attracted to how crazy and insane their lives are. That got me into Elite Squad – first movie – which basically talks about the cops and their day-to-day lives. After I’ve done that I thought I should make another movie that explains why police are the way they are and to explain why the police behave the way they do. In Rio I had to make a movie that would talk about politics basically. I had to put my character not on the police day-to-day work but on the interface between the politicians and the police. That’s why I decided to make Elite Squad II – to be able to say how corruption and elections effects the way the politicians manage the police.
CS: And the one thing I saw as sort of a through-line, something I see connected, is – in your talking with the actual police who were trying to fight things down in Rio, is it getting to the point where the police in Juarez in Mexico is called the silver or the lead – take one of the other?
PADILHA: It’s not how we do it in Brazil. Here’s what’s going on in Rio to give you a picture – in Rio we have had, and still have, a lot of very violent drug dealers controlling certain communities. All those drug dealers they are in business with the police. The police is getting a cut from the drug dealers. We used to say that Rio is the only city where you know every single place where people sell drugs. You know the address and nothing happens. And the reason why nothing happens is because the police is a part of the game. Now, slowly though, the police has started to realize that by kicking the drug dealers out of the slums they could have a more profitable business because instead of getting a cut from the drug dealer they would get a cut from everything – like the mob. They would charge every business for protection – they would control the cable TV market – they would control water selling – they would control gas for ovens – all of this.
So, slowly what took place in Rio, which is very different from Mexico, the drug dealers are now controlling more than half the slums and not the police. The police is now controlling by itself, more than half the slums in Rio and operating like a mafia and pushing the drug dealers out. So it’s a very different contact. With Mexico is very much mob driven and Rio we now see corrupt police take their knocks and drug dealers out of the slums and run the slums by itself like a mafia and getting people elected because they control the votes in the slums. So I think it’s very different from Mexico - not fair to even compare those two realities.
CS: I agree. I think one of the follow-up questions to that is the reception of the film. I know it shattered all sorts of box office records in Brazil. Did the movie improve the dialogue about what is happening or was it just seen as a diversionary pleasure – this is just an action movie, it’s all fake….
PADILHA: People get it. Mostly it’s not seen as an action movie, it’s seen as a political thriller because that’s really what it is, even though there’s action. The movie generated, and the first one also, a lot of debate and newspaper articles and screenings at universities and so I feel that as far as movies can contribute changing things – those two movies have contributed. But, of course, movies don’t change things by themselves – they can only help a little bit. So I see the contribution of my films to change things in the context of the culture as a whole. One movie doesn’t change anything but books, theatre plays, several movies, newspaper articles, all those things together in the long run do change things.
CS: To your filmmaking style, I’m wowed with the way your documentary style bled over to the way you shot this film. I know in previous interviews you talked about the connecting shot – you’d rather shoot for schedule than for – you want to make due with what you have and want to make the most impactful shot you can. Can you talk a little bit about your filmmaking style and how making a documentary helped you?
PADILHA: Absoloutely. I think that the most different thing that I do from regular, if there is such a thing, directing in fictional movies is that I don’t give marks to actors. I give marks to the camera. So because I don’t tell where the actor has to be in order to lend a certain line the cameraman never knows in advance where the camera should be at. He has to find where the actor is moving towards. So what I do is I tell the cameraman, when the actor gives such and such a line you have to be at the gun. So by giving marks to the camera and not to the actors I try to make the camera move towards the story all the time, the camera is searching all the time what’s relevant to the story telling and that’s exactly how to film a documentary.
In a documentary you don’t know where people will go. You don’t know what people will say and you have to be ready to point your camera at what’s relevant when you’re shooting and you don’t know where it’s coming from. I try to do that in the fictional movies by not giving marks to the actors and giving marks to the cameras. I don’t know if that makes any sense.
PADILHA: Is that a good explanation?
CS: Absolutely, it makes perfect sense to me and I think it’s interesting to know without mentioning anything at all about the film itself is whether you are able to take that to Robocop or if you have a bigger budget do people expect you to do things more traditionally or are you able to do the way you want to direct?
PADILHA: And the bigger the budget the more times I’m going to do exactly what I do. Ha ha
CS: And I would absolutely be remiss if I didn’t talk about your relationship with Braulio. How has it been working with him and how does that dynamic work between the two of you?
PADILHA: First of all we are great friends. We’ve known each other a long time and so we just enjoy making movies together. That’s fundamental. Actually I’m friends with everyone in my film, Wagner is a great friend, so it’s an extension of our friendship basically. We like the subject matter of urban violence. I have done a documentary call Bus 174, Braulio had written City of God, and nobody before us had ever made a movie about the police in Brazil. There’s never been a movie before Elite Squad I in which the protagonist is a cop. Never happened. And so we thought, that’s weird we have to make that film.
So in the first movie I wrote a lot of treatments and I thought I had it maybe it was like the 4th or 5th treatment and then I gave it to Braulio and said I think this is a terrific script, can you make it better? Then he rewrote it and made it much better. The second movie we did it the other way around. Braulio wrote the treatments first and then when he thought it was good he gave it to me and I rewrote it and then we shot it. We don’t actually have a rule. We just trust each other to the point where I can let him write on top of what I write and he will let me write on top of what he writes. That’s the way we do it. We both write the same script. It’s not easy when you are a writer and have someone coming over and rewriting what you just wrote. You need to have a special sort of creative relationship in order to do that and with me and Braulio it works perfectly well.
CS: With the work that you’re doing and the ambition you have – you’re obviously not shy about wanting to take on big budget roles – do you have it in your own mind about how you’d like to see your career progress from here? Obviously, you are being pulled up to the big leagues with the ROBOCOP remake –
PADILHA: That’s probably what my agent thinks.
I don’t think in this way, you know? I do the projects that I love. That’s all I do. When I finished shooting Elite Squad, the first movie, I shot a documentary called Garapa about hunger in black and white, no music, very slow pace because I thought it was a great project. I’m doing Robocop because I think Robocop is a fantastic concept. The idea of having a corporation replace the parts of an actual man by robo parts – it’s such a powerful metaphor. It lends itself to so much social commentary and I think it’s needed nowadays. Again, it was needed when the first Robocop came out and it’s still needed nowadays. It also allows me to talk about the mind/body problem. What is it that makes someone conscious? Can a machine have a conscience? What’s the difference between a computer controlled process and a humanistic person doing a task? All those things are inside the idea of Robocop and that’s why I’m making the project. The budget, the size of it, those are not concerns for me. If the next thing on my table was a small documentary, that’s what I would do.
CS: Jose, I know my time with you is brief, so let me just finish off with the last question about how you feel about the reception it’s had – the film – obviously crowds embraced it in Brazil, played a fantastic fest here….
PADILHA: It was a great experience. Especially because it was independently distributed. Our production company – we have a garage and put a table the garage and that’s basically how we did it. We bought 3 or 4 computers and hired some people that had distributed films before and it was self-distributed movie that became the highest grossing movie ever in the history of film in South America. So, we beat all the studios in their own game without having no knowledge of how to do it anyways. So it was a little insane, truly but it’s always good when an insane thing works out. So we took that crazy risk. I’m sure we beat Avatar which was the highest grossing movie before us, I’m sure we’re going to get beat any moment now. Laughs. It’s funny to have a small company that has only four people in it do the biggest release ever. Laughs. It’s a good feeling. And, as a director, it’s great if you have people understanding your movie and buying tickets. That’s why we do it…for an audience to see it.
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