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José Padilha on “Elite Squad 2,” controversy, and how to shoot good action scenes

José Padilha on “Elite Squad 2,” controversy, and how to shoot good action scenes (photo)

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A version of this interview originally ran as part of our coverage of Fantastic Fest. To read the portion on Padilha’s upcoming remake of “RoboCop,” click here.

During my interview with director José Padilha, he compared the first “Elite Squad,” the wildly successful and wildly controversial film that won the Brazilian director the Golden Bear Award at the 2008 Berlin Film Festival, to Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas.” I suppose that makes “Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” his homage to “The Departed.” This time the system itself is rotten, the cops are just as bad as the criminals, and one is often impossible to tell apart from the other. “Elite Squad 2” takes the social and political critique of the first film, complicates it with an even bleaker portrait of modern Brazil, and levens it all with some truly outstanding action sequences.

The film reunites Padilha with “Elite Squad” star Wagner Moura, who returns as the charismatic, “Dirty Harry”-ish Captain Nascimento of Brazil’s anti-drug unit, BOPE. Kicked upstairs into the police bureaucracy of Rio de Janeiro, Nascimento discovers that the real problem in Brazil isn’t the drug dealers he’s so fiercely and brutally fought: it’s the political system that enables the drug dealers to peddle their wares. Now Nascimento has to team with his worst nightmare — a bleeding heart liberal — to destroy the corruption in Rio. It’s a fun movie full of important ideas.

Back at Fantastic Fest in September, I talked with Padilha about those ideas, and why he wanted to make a sequel to such a popular movie. We also discussed how he felt about the divergent reactions to “Elite Squad” — which was often described by its detractors as glorifying a fascistic view of law enforcement — and Padilha’s personal philosophy of action. It’s a philosophy that I think will serve him well when he gets around to “RoboCop.”

Why did you want to make a sequel?

I’ve made three movies about urban violence in big Brazilian cities. The first one was a documentary called “Bus 174,” and it told the story of violence from the perspective of a street kid. And what you learn in “Bus 174” is the state treats street kids very badly. Instead of rehabilitating them and giving them an education, they put them in crowded jails and so on. And because the state does that with street kids and juvenile delinquents, it creates violent criminals. That’s what “Bus 174” is all about.


The first “Elite Squad” is about how the state mismanages the police by paying very low wages, by being tolerant of corruption inside the police department, and by feeding policemen with crazy ideologies. By doing that, the state creates corrupt and violent policemen. No wonder we have a lot of violence in Rio: the corrupt and violent policemen meet the violent criminals in the streets. What else is going to happen?

That’s what the first two films were saying if you look at them both. So I thought: now I’ve got to say why. Why is the state behaving this way? And that’s the idea for “Elite Squad 2,” in which we have a cop who has been in that war all his life randomly promoted by chance because of political reasons. Now he’s working together with the politicians and now he can see what’s going on and why all the violence is connected to the political process in Brazil, with politicians trying to get votes from the slums and money for their campaigns and so on. Even though the three films are stand alone films, if you look at the three of them together, then you get the whole picture.

The first “Elite Squad” was even more fun to read about and talk about than it was to watch. What did you make of all the reactions to the movie? It became very controversial wherever it played.

Here’s the thing. You have to understand a little bit about Brazil to understand the controversy that came with “Elite Squad.” Brazil is a country that was a dictatorship up until the 1980s. We were governed by generals. We had no elections. This was a right-wing dictatorship. So all the culture was left-wing, Marxist. And if you look at life through a Marxist perspective, that tells you who your hero has to be. The Marxist hero has to be someone who’s been excluded from society. It’s the guy who’s striking at a factory, the street kid from “Bus 174,” the drug dealer from “City of God.” Up until “Elite Squad,” there had never been a Brazilian movie — never ever! — with a cop in the lead role. Which is crazy! If you look at American movies, that’s every single movie. There was never a Brazilian cop in a film because a cop cannot be a hero in a Marxist film.

I purposely decided after making “Bus 174,” which was praised in Brazil by the local culture and the filmmaking establishment, to make a movie that was going to shake things up. I was going to go in and do a movie like “Goodfellas,” where you see what it’s like to be a gangster through the eyes of a gangster. Scorsese has the brilliant idea of making you love the gangsters. You love Henry even though he’s killing people. So I decided to do that; I’m going make this cop that’s violent, and I’m going to make everybody love this guy. But you see from the perspective of this guy, which exists in real life, all the social issues behind violence. I’m going to make this film, which is against the Marxist perspective, and I’m going to get pounded for it. But who gives a shit? That’s what I did and, lo and behold, that’s what happened.

You didn’t get pounded at the box office.

It was funny because “Elite Squad” was at the time the most popular Brazilian film ever. And so there was a huge controversy amongst intellectuals, but the audience didn’t care. So it became a debate: a lot of people came out aggressively against the film, and others came out aggressively for the film. It was never concluded. We got the Golden Bear in Berlin, which was given to me by Costa-Gavras, one of the most famous left-wing filmmakers in the world, who loved the film. So of course it wasn’t a fascist film.

So how did that conversation dictate how you approached “Elite Squad 2?”

In one very specific way. I decided to make fun of this in a certain sense. I’d create a plot in which I put Nascimento, the right-wing cop, against a left-wing guy, a congressman. I’d make them hate each other like crazy. Like they love the same woman, like they both want to raise the same child. I’ll make the left-wing and ring-wing opposition as strong as I can and then push them to work together so that people understand that, as Deng Xiaoping once said, “It doesn’t matter the color of the cat as long as it catches the mouse.” You don’t need a Communist red cat to make society work. So that’s what I did.

The funny thing is it’s still a movie told from the perspective of a cop, so it’s still contrary to a Marxist film perspective. But there’s no controversy with this one.

Why do you think that is?

Because I think “Elite Squad” turned a page for Brazilian filmmaking culture. Now you can make a film about a cop. In fact, they even make soap operas about cops now. The most popular thing to do in Brazil now is to make something about a cop. Which was forbidden until we did it!


It’s crazy, man. I usually say this. If you are in Brazil and you grew up in a right-wing dictatorship, you think Marxism is liberating. But if you grew up in Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union is controlling everything and killing people, then you think capitalism is liberating. Neither of those two things are true and it doesn’t take a lot brains to understand this.

Besides all the interesting political content, the “Elite Squad”s are just great action movies. What’s your philosophy about shooting action?

I’ve developed a way of shooting action scenes that comes out of my documentary background. I like connecting shots. If I’m going to shoot a guy in a helicopter flying over a slum being invaded by the Elite Squad I want the camera to get the guy in the helicopter and then without cutting go down and see what’s going on below in the slum, and the other way around too.

I also like layers. I have a shot in “Elite Squad” where drug dealers are playing foosball, cops are running behind them and there’s a ball behind them on another level. I like to give dimension to shots inside action scenes. It’s demanding because you have to rehearse a lot of things happening at the same time and frame all those things in a shot. But I feel like when you accomplish that then you’ve got a cool action scene. It’s much better to do this than to shoot separately, where you’ve got a guy with a gun and then you cut to a guy running away. That’s easier and faster to do but I feel like it loses the punch of the scene.

I don’t actually like blocking actors. I prefer giving actors freedom. They don’t have to step on a precise mark with me. Instead of giving marks to the actors I like to give marks to the camera. So I’ll say “When he’s going to say this line, you’ve got to be on his gun.” But the cameraman doesn’t know exactly where the gun’s going to be because I haven’t marked the actor. What that gives you is the camera is always moving towards the narrative, trying to find the narrative. I feel like this takes the audience along with the story.

Those are the basic things that I do that I think create my style of shooting. I think I developed it out of not knowing how to shoot. [laughs]

“Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within” opens Friday in New York City and November 18 in Los Angeles. If you see it; tell us what you think. Leave us a comment below or write to us on Facebook and Twitter.

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Millennial Wisdom

Charles Speaks For Us All

Get to know Charles, the social media whiz of Brockmire.

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He may be an unlikely radio producer Brockmire, but Charles is #1 when it comes to delivering quips that tie a nice little bow on the absurdity of any given situation.

Charles also perfectly captures the jaded outlook of Millennials. Or at least Millennials as mythologized by marketers and news idiots. You know who you are.

Played superbly by Tyrel Jackson Williams, Charles’s quippy nuggets target just about any subject matter, from entry-level jobs in social media (“I plan on getting some experience here, then moving to New York to finally start my life.”) to the ramifications of fictional celebrity hookups (“Drake and Taylor Swift are dating! Albums y’all!”). But where he really nails the whole Millennial POV thing is when he comments on America’s second favorite past-time after type II diabetes: baseball.

Here are a few pearls.

On Baseball’s Lasting Cultural Relevance

“Baseball’s one of those old-timey things you don’t need anymore. Like cursive. Or email.”

On The Dramatic Value Of Double-Headers

“The only thing dumber than playing two boring-ass baseball games in one day is putting a two-hour delay between the boring-ass games.”

On Sartorial Tradition

“Is dressing badly just a thing for baseball, because that would explain his jacket.”

On Baseball, In A Nutshell

“Baseball is a f-cked up sport, and I want you to know it.”


Learn more about Charles in the behind-the-scenes video below.

And if you were born before the late ’80s and want to know what the kids think about Baseball, watch Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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Crown Jules

Amanda Peet FTW on Brockmire

Amanda Peet brings it on Brockmire Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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On Brockmire, Jules is the unexpected yin to Jim Brockmire’s yang. Which is saying a lot, because Brockmire’s yang is way out there. Played by Amanda Peet, Jules is hard-drinking, truth-spewing, baseball-loving…everything Brockmire is, and perhaps what he never expected to encounter in another human.

“We’re the same level of functional alcoholic.”


But Jules takes that commonality and transforms it into something special: a new beginning. A new beginning for failing minor league baseball team “The Frackers”, who suddenly about-face into a winning streak; and a new beginning for Brockmire, whose life gets a jumpstart when Jules lures him back to baseball. As for herself, her unexpected connection with Brockmire gives her own life a surprising and much needed goose.

“You’re a Goddamn Disaster and you’re starting To look good to me.”

This palpable dynamic adds depth and complexity to the narrative and pushes the series far beyond expected comedy. See for yourself in this behind-the-scenes video (and brace yourself for a unforgettable description of Brockmire’s genitals)…

Want more about Amanda Peet? She’s all over the place, and has even penned a recent self-reflective piece in the New York Times.

And of course you can watch the Jim-Jules relationship hysterically unfold in new episodes of Brockmire, every Wednesday at 10PM on IFC.

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Draught Pick

Sam Adams “Keeps It Brockmire”

All New Brockmire airs Wednesdays at 10P on IFC.

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From baseball to beer, Jim Brockmire calls ’em like he sees ’em.

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It’s no wonder at all, then, that Sam Adams would reach out to Brockmire to be their shockingly-honest (and inevitably short-term) new spokesperson. Unscripted and unrestrained, he’ll talk straight about Sam—and we’ll take his word. Check out this new testimonial for proof:

See more Brockmire Wednesdays at 10P on IFC, presented by Samuel Adams. Good f***** beer.

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