It's very difficult to schedule anything other than films during Fantastic Fest; I'm concentrating on films and events and any outside time is made up of posting and sleeping. But Emma Griffiths, God bless her, really wanted me to see ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN, and really wanted me to sit down with its director, Jose Padilha. Why? To quote her, "because it's really fucking good."
Well, I would be the judge of that, but since Mr. Padilha was going to be directing the ROBOCOP reboot, I really wanted to sit down and talk with him. So I saw the film, and was utterly blown away. ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN is a riveting crime drama, with multiple subplots and characters, led by Wagner Moura who plays the head of wiretapping in Rio de Janeiro, who has something of a political awakening amongst the various corrupt politicians, dirty cops, and drug dealers in Rio. It's a hell of a movie, and some people think I may have a lot of nerve comparing it to Scorsese, but there it is. It's one of those films that gets undr your skin, and once I saw it, I knew I had to make the time and sit down with Mr. Padilha and talk about his film. Without further adieu...
Nordling: Here we go, I’m with Jose Padilha, director of ELITE SQUAD and ELITE SQUAD 2 and the upcoming director of ROBOCOP. I just wanted to talk about ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN. I haven’t seen the first one, though I didn’t feel like I had to to watch this one.
Jose Padilha: You don’t need to. These are stand alone films.
Nordling: Yeah, it was terrific. It had a real Scorsese feel to it and I just loved the story; it was wonderful. Do you have any political issues with the film back home? Even though it is fictional, it’s a pretty striking indictment of the entire political spectrum of Rio.
JP: It’s not as fictional as it looks you know, like the things in the film actually took place. For instance there was a rebellion in the jail like that. There was a left wing congressman in between the rebellion and the police and you know ELITE SQUAD and also THE ENEMY WITHIN, the second film, they are totally based on real life events. I mean almost everything that is in those films happened. There was a militia that took place and is still growing in Rio. There was an investigation by a congressman. There were people arrested. I mean it’s how it is.
Nordling: Right. How difficult was it for you for this film, because there are many plots and character and stories, how difficult was it for you to juggle it? Did you have to have characters that you wanted to focus on? Obviously there’s the character of the wire tapping guy.
JP: Listen, you are totally right when you say… and I’m happy that you said that there is a Scorsese feel to the film, because indeed that’s sort of like a big influence for me. One of my favorite films ever is GOODFELLAS and GOODFELLAS is about what it is like to be a gangster in a mafia as seen by a gangster, Henry, narrated by a gangster in first person. ELITE SQUAD and also THE ENEMY WITHIN are both films about what it’s like to be a cop in Rio as seen from the perspective of a cop and so indeed there is a Scorsese kind of thing going on and you know I’m glad you picked up on that. Going back to your question, what shapes the life of a cop in Rio? It’s shaped by very complex social processes. It’s shaped by politicians. It’s shaped by the corrupt police. It’s shaped by the elite squad and it’s violence and shit. It’s shaped by the drug trade. It’s shaped by the people who consume the drugs and I tried to have it all there, by the media… I tried to make a film that’s true to the context of the character without oversimplifying for the sake of the screen and that takes a lot of work, because it makes a complex plot and it has a lot of characters in it, but I tried to do it and I think I got away with it in both films because it’s all filtered through this one character and so you understand everything the way he does and you can you know sort of relate to this character and see this whole complex world with several different things interacting at the same time, but all leading to the light and affecting one single person, so there is a unity to the narrative.
JP: That’s why I think it works.
Nordling: I love the narration and basically it’s from his point of view and you can tell that he had a political awakening, but it didn’t change the intrinsic nature of himself, that he still didn’t like Fraga. You could tell that they did not get along, obviously because he’s with his wife and everything.
JP: That was mean.
Nordling: But I really loved how he laid out his philosophy and his political awakening didn’t necessarily conflict with his philosophy, which was interesting.
JP: Yeah, you know there’s this thing that was very strong with ELITE SQUAD 1 which is this sort of dichotomy between the left and right wing… I did a movie before ELITE SQUAD called BUS 174.
Nordling: Yes, I’ve heard of it.
JP: Right, so BUS 174 was praised by the left wings, because the story is told from the perspective of the street kid and the street kid is a Marxist hero in a sense, because it’s the one who is being pushed out of society by… He hasn’t been able to get a job… so it plays well to make a movie in Brazil that puts focus on a street kid. If you make a movie in which the main character is a cop, that’s not a Marxist film. Cops are not Marxist heroes, right?
JP: And so when I… And because Brazilian filmmaking is mainly shot from the Marxist perspective, when I made ELITE SQUAD 1 it was made in 2007, it’s the very first Brazilian movie ever to have a cop as a protagonist, which is insane because cops are protagonist in…
Nordling: Wow. Yeah in American films it’s all over.
JP: And the reason is that Americans want… Whatever you like, they always have cops there. Not in Brazil, and so I made a film and I chose a cop and that alone already causes a lot of controversy, because a lot of the Marxist establishment felt that “You can’t do that. You can’t make a movie that has a cop as a protagonist, that’s a fascist movie.” So there was that debate. They obviously didn’t care by the way, they just went and loved the film and it became very popular and everything…
Nordling: So how does that affect like American releases of films like LETHAL WEAPON or DIE HARD in Brazil?
JP: Well I mean it’s a different country, because it’s not seen the same way, because it’s not shot by a Brazilian. Here’s the thing you have to understand, Brazil used to be a right winged dictatorship up until the 80’s. That meant that we were ruled by generals with no elections and so because the generals were right wing, all of the culture and political intentions became Marxists and it was believed that Marxist was the way to freedom. Of course Marxist is not the way to freedom. You know, take a look at Russia and the Soviet Union and you know their economy has been Marxism, right wing and left wing, for me it’s outdated. It’s not how… I refuse to think on those terms and so I tried to, out of the controversy of ELITE SQUAD 1, which by the way was crazy, because a lot people said “This is right wing” and other people who were left wing came in and said, “It’s not right wing at all, it’s observational.”
Nordling: And that’s what you wanted.
JP: That’s what we wanted. We got the Golden Bird from Costa Gravas, who is a left wing filmmaker. It was sort of like a crazy thing, because the whole debate doesn’t make sense anyways, it had to do with a Brazilian thing and not with the film itself. But after having broken this sort of paradigm and making a cop movie and the cop movie became so popular all of a sudden Brazil now has a lot of cop movies being made and even so popular with cops and so on which is funny. I went to make the second movie and I thought “I’m going to come up with a plot that has a guy who is a right wing who hates a left wing politician. I’m going to make them hate each other like crazy and I’m going to push them to work together and they have to work together to win, but still they are not going to change their minds. This is what I’m going to deliberately do,” so in the subtext I’m telling these people “Stop it,” you know?
Nordling: They are putting aside their personal problems to make the country better, which is great.
JP: Which is what I tried to do, so you are right Fraga remains like Fraga while Nascimento remains like Nascimento. They never see each other’s side, but still they have to work together.
JP: I wish Republicans and Democrats were like that.
Nordling: Believe me, we do too… And you know in our country it is so… I would imagine it’s pretty much the same in Brazil, it’s so polarized now. It’s very, very difficult for any parties to agree and if they can agree on one thing, it’s on one thing.
JP: I follow American politics; it’s interesting to me. The United States is a country that I really love contrary to what has been going on in the war. You know after two Bush governments and the vision of Iraq and the “Arms of Mass Destruction” that didn’t exist and so on… A lot of the world is starting to turn a bad eye to America. It’s like turning the United States into sort of like an evil country… I don’t the United States is an evil country at all. I like the United States. I like a lot of the things that this country has and you know a lot of people here stand for very good things and so I follow American politics closely and funny enough even though I never aimed at American politics, I do feel that THE ENEMY WITHIN has something to say about it, because it’s polarized like it is between Nascimento and Fraga and I think they are going to learn that “Okay, you have different views, but you’ve got to agree on political matters in order to get things done or it’s not going to work.”
Nordling: Yes, exactly and it’s interesting that we are talking politically about American politics and I’m kind of going to segue into ROBOCOP a little bit here, because ROBOCOP is very much a film of its time politically.
JP: It is.
Nordling: And it’s interesting to watch and obviously you can see the influences to Frank Miller’s THE DARK KNIGHT on ROBOCOP and you can see, but also how it’s touched by the politics of the time. Is your ROBOCOP going to talk about that as well? It can be fairly political.
JP: The first thing that I have to say to you is this; forget about the movie ROBOCOP, which is a great movie. Forget about the context in which it was released back in the 80’s and the great asset criticism of the media that it made. Forget about all of that, just the concept of ROBOCOP theoretically… Robocop is not a superhero, Robocop is what happens to a man when you start changing it with technology so he can follow certain purposes and do certain things for corporations or whatever. What happens when technology takes over consciousness and free will?
JP: And that in itself… If somebody comes to me and says “Let’s make a movie about that” and there was no ROBOCOP, I would still say “Great, let’s do it,” because it talks to my heart, it’s a freedom concept, and we are getting there.
Nordling: Exactly. We are there.
JP: In forty years we will really be there, we will be able to… There’s going to be robots all around us doing things and they are doing things according to specific software programs designed by specific people with specific goals and criteria, like Robocop is and so it’s a genius concept and I embrace the concept of the film and the project just by the concept alone. Now you are right, the environment nowadays is different than the environment in the 80’s and the way to explore the concept is different and so we are doing something that is original and in its own terms even though we have the same brilliant concept that ROBOCOP has. That’s it.
Nordling: Yeah, well I mean I don’t know how it was… Just going back to the original a little bit, when did you see the original first?
JP: When it came out.
Nordling: See at the time when the original came out I think people thought the old idea of corporations just running everything was ridiculous. It’s not ridiculous anymore.
JP: (Laughs) Nope. More and more corporations are consolidating. There are less corporations, but they run more things than they did and yeah we are in an OCP era…
Nordling: Yeah, exactly. That kind of leads to the world that you are going to create in your film, is it going to be similar or is it going to be something that is your creation?
JP: We are sort of… I’ve been writing this with Josh Zetumer, who is a great screenwriter, and we are sort of… I have a specific take on how to tackle this sort of like new ROBOCOP and I’ve presented this take to MGM and to Roger Dickman there and they like the take. They said, “Yeah, that’s cool. That’s timely. We need to do a film about this” and I’m following it. I mean we are in the third draft. We are getting close to the shooting script, I think, and so you know I can’t really tell you what it’s about, because I don’t want to spoil the movie for you…
Nordling: I don’t want you to. I understand.
JP: But you know, it’s our own thing inspired by this great concept that Verhoeven came up with.
Nordling: Cool. Getting back to ELITE SQUAD, so it’s been taken well in Brazil, but have you had any feedback from government officials or anything like that?
JP: No, you know the first movie I got a little bit of feed back like I was sued by the cops and the elite squad… the chief of police threatened me… The police wanted me to go and give a deposition to tell them who were the cops that gave me the inside info…
JP: And I said I wouldn't do it and so the guy said they were going to arrest me in my house, but the movie was so popular that the governor of the state said, “You can’t… If I let this guy be arrested it’s bad for the next election.”
Nordling: And you can actually see that in the second film where he becomes so popular, Nascimento, that they have to promote it. It’s like being kicked up stairs. That’s really interesting that you use that for that.
JP: So kind of the governor stepped in and said, “No, no you are not arresting this filmmaker,” and so on and then the second movie… it became so popular, like the first movie was already popular… The second movie, you know it’s the biggest grossing movie ever in South America including AVATAR…
Nordling: Wow, that’s great. It’s wonderful. It’s a wonderful film.
JP: Yeah, it sold 11,260,000 tickets… eleven million, so it’s insane and so you know even though it was very aggressive against politicians and in specific politicians that could see that we were talking about them, they pretended the movie was not there, because you know what are you going to? Are you going to say bad things about the movie everybody loves?
Nordling: Yeah, exactly.
JP: What could happen…
Nordling: That’s cool. I loved how you shot it which was really interesting; the action scenes especially really had a sense of geography to them which I really liked.
JP: “Sense of geography” is a good way of putting it.
Nordling: Yeah, that’s important to me in watching an action film, because a lot of them, and in America it’s really particularly bad about that in that… and the films at this festival especially have been great in that they have nailed what makes action films great and why people respond to them and keeps them immortal for so long is that the characters come first and when you care about putting these characters through the ringer, then the action is more…
JP: Then it makes sense, then it matters.
Nordling: Yeah, it matters and a lot of them, especially this last summer, a lot of films that came out in America it was all about the action scenes and the characters were incidental almost.
JP: Yeah. One thing that I like to do in action scenes, which I haven’t… Sometimes I stop an action scene in a frame and then I have a narration that has nothing to do with it (laughs) and then go back to the action…
Nordling: No, but I liked that. I thought it was great. I loved that. I loved catching the flares of the gun barrels, which was really cool. I think that’s actually about it. Let me thing of anything else I can ask you… I really, really enjoyed the movie and have those actors been nominated or anything for Brazil awards?
JP: Oh yeah, there’s the Brazilian Academy Awards which the actors we got… they give sixteen Academy Awards in Brazil every year and we got nine of them.
Nordling: Great. Congratulations.
JP: And Wagner [Moura] got Best Actor, you know the guy with the lead role and he is now… Wagner, I’ve got to say this, Wagner is one of the best actors in the world in my mind. I mean he makes great plays. You guys don’t know this, because he’s a Brazilian guy, but you know he is right there with any top actor in the world and he is doing a Neil Blomkamp film now with Matt Damon and you guys are going to see this…
Nordling: Oh cool. Very good.
JP: Watch out for Wagner, he’s coming over.
Nordling: He was an excellent actor in the movie, so it was great and I think that’s about it actually. It was a wonderful film.
[The PR lady asks if Nordling has one more question.]
Nordling: Let me formulate one in my mind…
JP: We were talking about the actors.
Nordling: Yes. I think American audiences don’t… It’s interesting, there’s another film playing here at the festival called JUAN OF THE DEAD which is a Cuban zombie movie and we don’t…
JP: Right. I’ve got to see that.
Nordling: It’s wonderful and the director is just a sweetheart too. It’s wonderful. It’s funny, because genre film is an interesting way to… and I’ve kind of learned this during this festival, genre film is an interesting way to get a perspective into a type of world that you don’t normally see and I think it’s a better way than just a straight up drama or straight up comedy, but action movies and genre films are a wonderful window and I thought that ELITE SQUAD in that way was a wonderful window into Brazilian life much like CITY OF GOD was and I’d like you to talk about that.
JP: Listen, I kind of like… I don’t really try to see what the film is in terms of genre as I’m doing it. I don’t stop and say to myself “Now I’m going to do a drama” or “Now I’m going to do…” I just look at the subject matter, then I start developing characters for research, then I develop characters and once I have the characters developed the characters sort of have their own logic and then I come up with a plot that is consistent with that logic and talks about the reality I want to talk about. So with ELITE SQUAD and also with THE ENEMY WITHIN I sort of… I’m talking about the reality of a character who is a police man in Rio. And those guys have action in their real lives, low and behold they are in gun fights all of the time, so you know I’ve got to have that on the film and so that’s how I end up making a genre film you know. That’s how we came about… Fraga was talking about drug dealers and drug dealers kill each other for control of drug trades and then he has shoot outs in the film and you know there is some action in there. Now you are right about one thing though, there are several different ways of shooting action and I made a choice. I decided “I’m going to try to shoot my action scenes in an interesting way. I’m not going to try to shy away from shooting the action scenes.” When you do that, when you make the action scenes or try to make the action scenes interesting like a cinematic sort of experience of action, then you push the movie towards the action genre, right? But you can do that without losing the look of character and the capacity of the movie to tell you how Brazil is like and so I’m happy you think this way, because I don’t think there is anything about action or any genre movie that makes the movie possible to work on other levels like social analysis or something.
Nordling: Exactly and that’s great. I do have another question, one more about the interesting aspect of the police officers in that when they were shaking down the drug dealers it was almost like “Well that’s expected.” When they start shaking down the slum people who are just living their lives, that’s when they become real villains and I liked that part about it.
JP: Well the thing is it’s true. That’s what happened in Rio. As soon as the drug trade began to be hit big time by the elite squad and drug dealers were making less money, that meant that the corrupt cops were making less money too and so they finally figured out “We don’t need the drug dealers, we can do things ourselves” and that’s what happened in Rio. That’s what is going on right now. Right now half of the slums in Rio are controlled by cops, not by drug dealers anymore.
Nordling: Wow. Okay, I think that’s it for me. Thank you for your time, it was really great.
JP: Thanks a lot.
Nordling: And it’s a terrific film.
And it is. ELITE SQUAD: THE ENEMY WITHIN is Brazil's official submission for the Foreign Language Academy Award, and if there's any justice, it'll get recognized. For now, the film will be opening in New York on November 11th, and Los Angeles on November 18th, and should be scheduled for a tiered release in early 2012. It's a damn great film and deserves to be seen.