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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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WTF Films

Artfully Off

Celebrity All-Star by Sisters Weekend is available now on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Sisters Weekend isn’t like other comedy groups. It’s filmmaking collaboration between besties Angelo Balassone, Michael Fails and Kat Tadesco, self-described lace-front addicts with great legs who write, direct, design and produce video sketches and cinematic shorts that are so surreally hilarious that they defy categorization. One such short film, Celebrity All-Star, is the newest addition to IFC’s Comedy Crib. Here’s what they had to say about it in a very personal email interview…

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IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

Celebrity All-Star is a short film about an overworked reality TV coordinator struggling to save her one night off after the cast of C-List celebrities she wrangles gets locked out of their hotel rooms.

IFC: How would you describe Celebrity All-Star to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Sisters Weekend: It’s this short we made for IFC where a talent coordinator named Karen babysits a bunch of weird c-list celebs who are stuck in a hotel bar. It’s everyone you hate from reality TV under one roof – and that roof leaks because it’s a 2-star hotel. There’s a magician, sexy cowboys, and a guy wearing a belt that sucks up his farts.

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IFC: What was the genesis of Celebrity All-Star?

Celebrity All-Star was born from our love of embarrassing celebrities. We love a good c-lister in need of a paycheck! We were really interested in the canned politeness people give off when forced to mingle with strangers. The backstory we created is that the cast of this reality show called “Celebrity All-Star” is in the middle of a mandatory round of “get to know each other” drinks in the hotel bar when the room keys stop working. Shows like Celebrity Ghost Hunters and of course The Surreal Life were of inspo, but we thought it
was funny to keep it really vague what kind of show they’re on, and just focus on everyone’s diva antics after the cameras stop rolling.

IFC: Every celebrity in Celebrity All-Star seems familiar. What real-life pop personalities did you look to for inspiration?

Sisters Weekend: Anyone who is trying to plug their branded merch that no one asked for. We love low-rent celebrity. We did, however, directly reference Kylie Jenner’s turd-raison lip color for our fictional teen celebutante Gibby Kyle (played by Mary Houlihan).

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IFC: Celebrity seems disgusting yet desirable. What’s your POV? Do you crave it, hate it, or both?

Sisters Weekend: A lot of people chase fame. If you’re practical, you’ll likely switch to chasing success and if you’re smart, you’ll hopefully switch to chasing happiness. But also, “We need money. We need hits. Hits bring money, money bring power, power bring fame, fame change the game,” Young Thug.

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IFC: Who are your comedy idols?

Sisters Weekend: Mike grew up renting “Monty Python” tapes from the library and staying up late to watch 2000’s SNL, Kat was super into Andy Kaufman and “Kids In The Hall” in high school, and Angelo was heavily influenced by “Strangers With Candy” and Anna Faris in the Scary Movie franchise, so, our comedy heroes mesh from all over. But, also we idolize a lot of the people we work with in NY-  Lorelei Ramirez, Erin Markey, Mary Houlihan, who are all in the film, Amy Zimmer, Ana Fabrega, Patti Harrison, Sam Taggart. Geniuses! All of Em!

IFC: What’s your favorite moment from the film?

Sisters Weekend: I mean…seeing Mary Houlihan scream at an insane Pomeranian on an iPad is pretty great.

See Sisters Weekend right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib

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Reality? Check.

Baroness For Life

Baroness von Sketch Show is available for immediate consumption.

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Baroness von Sketch Show is snowballing as people have taken note of its subtle and not-so-subtle skewering of everyday life. The New York Times, W Magazine, and Vogue have heaped on the praise, but IFC had a few more probing questions…

IFC: To varying degrees, your sketches are simply scripted examples of things that actually happen. What makes real life so messed up?

Aurora: Hubris, Ego and Selfish Desires and lack of empathy.

Carolyn: That we’re trapped together in the 3rd Dimension.

Jenn: 1. Other people 2. Other people’s problems 3. Probably something I did.

IFC: A lot of people I know have watched this show and realized, “Dear god, that’s me.” or “Dear god, that’s true.” Why do people have their blinders on?

Aurora: Because most people when you’re in the middle of a situation, you don’t have the perspective to step back and see yourself because you’re caught up in the moment. That’s the job of comedians is to step back and have a self-awareness about these things, not only saying “You’re doing this,” but also, “You’re not the only one doing this.” It’s a delicate balance of making people feel uncomfortable and comforting them at the same time.

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IFC: Unlike a lot of popular sketch comedy, your sketches often focus more on group dynamics vs iconic individual characters. Why do you think that is and why is it important?

Meredith: We consider the show to be more based around human dynamics, not so much characters. If anything we’re more attracted to the energy created by people interacting.

Jenn: So much of life is spent trying to work it out with other people, whether it’s at work, at home, trying to commute to work, or even on Facebook it’s pretty hard to escape the group.

IFC: Are there any comedians out there that you feel are just nailing it?

Aurora: I love Key and Peele. I know that their show is done and I’m in denial about it, but they are amazing because there were many times that I would imagine that Keegan Michael Key was in the scene while writing. If I could picture him saying it, I knew it would work. I also kind of have a crush on Jordan Peele and his performance in Big Mouth. Maya Rudolph also just makes everything amazing. Her puberty demon on Big Mouth is flawless. She did an ad for 7th generation tampons that my son, my husband and myself were singing around the house for weeks. If I could even get anything close to her career, I would be happy. I’m also back in love with Rick and Morty. I don’t know if I have a crush on Justin Roiland, I just really love Rick (maybe even more than Morty). I don’t have a crush on Jerry, the dad, but I have a crush on Chris Parnell because he’s so good at being Jerry.

Jenn: I LOVE ISSA RAE!

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IFC: If you could go back in time and cast yourselves in any sitcom, which would it be and how would it change?

Carolyn: I’d go back in time and cast us in The Partridge Family.  We’d make an excellent family band. We’d have a laugh, break into song and wear ruffled blouses with velvet jackets.  And of course travel to all our gigs on a Mondrian bus. I feel really confident about this choice.

Meredith: Electric Mayhem from The Muppet Show. It wouldn’t change, they were simply perfect, except… maybe a few more vaginas in the band.

Binge the entire first and second seasons of Baroness von Sketch Show now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

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G.I. Jeez

Stomach Bugs and Prom Dates

E.Coli High is in your gut and on IFC's Comedy Crib.

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Brothers-in-law Kevin Barker and Ben Miller have just made the mother of all Comedy Crib series, in the sense that their Comedy Crib series is a big deal and features a hot mom. Animated, funny, and full of horrible bacteria, the series juxtaposes timeless teen dilemmas and gut-busting GI infections to create a bite-sized narrative that’s both sketchy and captivating. The two sat down, possibly in the same house, to answer some questions for us about the series. Let’s dig in….

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IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a fancy network executive you just met in an elevator?

BEN: Hi ummm uhh hi ok well its like umm (gets really nervous and blows it)…

KB: It’s like the Super Bowl meets the Oscars.

IFC: How would you describe E.Coli High to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

BEN: Oh wow, she’s really cute isn’t she? I’d definitely blow that too.

KB: It’s a cartoon that is happening inside your stomach RIGHT NOW, that’s why you feel like you need to throw up.

IFC: What was the genesis of E.Coli High?

KB: I had the idea for years, and when Ben (my brother-in-law, who is a special needs teacher in Philly) began drawing hilarious comics, I recruited him to design characters, animate the series, and do some writing. I’m glad I did, because Ben rules!

BEN: Kevin told me about it in a park and I was like yeah that’s a pretty good idea, but I was just being nice. I thought it was dumb at the time.

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IFC: What makes going to proms and dating moms such timeless and oddly-relatable subject matter?

BEN: Since the dawn of time everyone has had at least one friend with a hot mom. It is physically impossible to not at least make a comment about that hot mom.

KB: Who among us hasn’t dated their friend’s mom and levitated tables at a prom?

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

BEN: There’s a lot of content now. I don’t think anyone will even notice, but it’d be cool if they did.

KB: A show about talking food poisoning bacteria is basically the same as just watching the news these days TBH.

Watch E.Coli High below and discover more NYTVF selections from years past on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

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