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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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Hard Out

Comedy From The Closet

Janice and Jeffrey Available Now On IFC's Comedy Crib

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She’s been referred to as “the love child of Amy Sedaris and Tracy Ullman,” and he’s a self-described “Italian who knows how to cook a great spaghetti alla carbonara.” They’re Mollie Merkel and Matteo Lane, prolific indie comedians who blended their robust creative juices to bring us the new Comedy Crib series Janice and Jeffrey. Mollie and Matteo took time to answer our probing questions about their series and themselves. Here’s a taste.

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IFC: How would you describe Janice and Jeffrey to a fancy network executive you met in an elevator?

Mollie & Matteo: Janice and Jeffrey is about a married couple experiencing intimacy issues but who don’t have a clue it’s because they are gay. Their oblivion makes them even more endearing.  Their total lack of awareness provides for a buffet of comedy.

IFC: What’s your origin story? How did you two people meet and how long have you been working together?

Mollie: We met at a dive bar in Wrigley Field Chicago. It was a show called Entertaining Julie… It was a cool variety scene with lots of talented people. I was doing Janice one night and Matteo was doing an impression of Liza Minnelli. We sort of just fell in love with each other’s… ACT! Matteo made the first move and told me how much he loved Janice and I drove home feeling like I just met someone really special.

IFC: How would Janice describe Jeffrey?

Mollie: “He can paint, cook homemade Bolognese, and sing Opera. Not to mention he has a great body. He makes me feel empowered and free. He doesn’t suffocate me with attention so our love has room to breath.”

IFC: How would Jeffrey describe Janice?

Matteo: “Like a Ford. Built to last.”

IFC: Why do you think the world is ready for this series?

Mollie & Matteo: Our current political world is mirroring and reflecting this belief that homosexuality is wrong. So what better time for satire. Everyone is so pro gay and equal rights, which is of course what we want, too. But no one is looking at middle America and people actually in the closet. No one is saying, hey this is really painful and tragic, and sitting with that. Having compassion but providing the desperate relief of laughter…This seemed like the healthiest, best way to “fight” the gay rights “fight”.

IFC: Hummus is hilarious. Why is it so funny?

Mollie: It just seems like something people take really seriously, which is funny to me. I started to see it in a lot of lesbians’ refrigerators at a time. It’s like observing a lesbian in a comfortable shoe. It’s a language we speak. Pass the Hummus. Turn on the Indigo Girls would ya?

See the whole season of Janice and Jeffrey right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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Die Hard Dads

Inspiration For Die Hard Dads

Die Hard is on IFC all Father's Day Long

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIPHY

Yippee ki-yay, everybody! It’s time to celebrate the those most literal of mother-effers: dads!

And just in case the title of this post left anything to the imagination, IFC is giving dads balls-to-the-wall ’80s treatment with a glorious marathon of action trailblazer Die Hard.

There are so many things we could say about Die Hard. We could talk about how it was comedian Bruce Willis’s first foray into action flicks, or Alan Rickman’s big screen debut. But dads don’t give a sh!t about that stuff.

No, dads just want to fantasize that they could be deathproof quip factory John McClane in their own mundane lives. So while you celebrate the fathers in your life, consider how John McClane would respond to these traditional “dad” moments…

Wedding Toasts

Dads always struggle to find the right words of welcome to extend to new family. John McClane, on the other hand, is the master of inclusivity.
Die Hard wedding

Using Public Restrooms

While nine out of ten dads would rather die than use a disgusting public bathroom, McClane isn’t bothered one bit. So long as he can fit a bloody foot in the sink, he’s G2G.
Die Hard restroom

Awkward Dancing

Because every dad needs a signature move.
Die Hard dance

Writing Thank You Notes

It can be hard for dads to express gratitude. Not only can McClane articulate his thanks, he makes it feel personal.
Die Hard thank you

Valentine’s Day

How would John McClane say “I heart you” in a way that ain’t cliche? The image speaks for itself.
Die Hard valentines

Shopping

The only thing most dads hate more than shopping is fielding eleventh-hour phone calls with additional items for the list. But does McClane throw a typical man-tantrum? Nope. He finds the words to express his feelings like a goddam adult.
Die Hard thank you

Last Minute Errands

John McClane knows when a fight isn’t worth fighting.
Die Hard errands

Sneaking Out Of The Office Early

What is this, high school? Make a real exit, dads.
Die Hard office

Think you or your dad could stand to be more like Bruce? Role model fodder abounds in the Die Hard marathon all Father’s Day long on IFC.

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Founding Farters

Know Your Nerd History

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Everett Collection, GIFs via Giphy

That we live in the heyday of nerds is no hot secret. Scientists are celebrities, musicians are robots and late night hosts can recite every word of the Silmarillion. It’s too easy to think that it’s always been this way. But the truth is we owe much to our nerd forebearers who toiled through the jock-filled ’80s so that we might take over the world.

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Our humble beginnings are perhaps best captured in iconic ’80s romp Revenge of the Nerds. Like the founding fathers of our Country, the titular nerds rose above their circumstances to culturally pave the way for every Colbert and deGrasse Tyson that we know and love today.

To make sure you’re in the know about our very important cultural roots, here’s a quick download of the vengeful nerds without whom our shameful stereotypes might never have evolved.

Lewis Skolnick

The George Washington of nerds whose unflappable optimism – even in the face of humiliating self-awareness – basically gave birth to the Geek Pride movement.

Gilbert Lowe

OK, this guy is wet blanket, but an important wet blanket. Think Aaron Burr to Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton. His glass-mostly-empty attitude is a galvanizing force for Lewis. Who knows if Lewis could have kept up his optimism without Lowe’s Debbie-Downer outlook?

Arnold Poindexter

A music nerd who, after a soft start (inside joke, you’ll get it later), came out of his shell and let his passion lead instead of his anxiety. If you played an instrument (specifically, electric violin), and you were a nerd, this was your patron saint.

Booger

A sex-loving, blunt-smoking, nose-picking guitar hero. If you don’t think he sounds like a classic nerd, you’re absolutely right. And that’s the whole point. Along with Lamar, he simultaneously expanded the definition of nerd and gave pre-existing nerds a twisted sort of cred by association.

Lamar Latrell

Black, gay, and a crazy good breakdancer. In other words, a total groundbreaker. He proved to the world that nerds don’t have a single mold, but are simply outcasts waiting for their moment.

Ogre

Exceedingly stupid, this dumbass was monumental because he (in a sequel) leaves the jocks to become a nerd. Totally unheard of back then. Now all jocks are basically nerds.

Well, there they are. Never forget that we stand on their shoulders.

Revenge of the Nerds is on IFC all month long.

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