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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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New Nasty

Whips, Chains and Hand Sanitizer

Turn On The Full Season Of Neurotica At IFC's Comedy Crib

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Jenny Jaffe has a lot going on: She’s writing for Disney’s upcoming Big Hero 6: The Series, developing comedy projects with pals at Devastator Press, and she’s straddling the line between S&M and OCD as the creator and star of the sexyish new series Neurotica, which has just made its debut on IFC’s Comedy Crib. Jenny gave us some extremely intimate insight into what makes Neurotica (safely) sizzle…

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

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. 

IFC: How would you describe Neurotica to a drunk friend of a friend you met in a bar?

Jenny: Neurotica is about a plucky Dominatrix with OCD trying to save her small-town dungeon. You’re great. We should get coffee sometime. I’m not just saying that. I know other people just say that sometimes but I really feel like we’re going to be friends, you know? Here, what’s your number, I’ll call you so you can have my number! 

IFC: What’s your comedy origin story?

Jenny: Since I was a kid I’ve dealt with severe OCD and anxiety. Comedy has always been one of the ways I’ve dealt with that. I honestly just want to help make people feel happy for a few minutes at a time. 

IFC: What was the genesis of Neurotica?

Jenny: I’m pretty sure it was a title-first situation. I was coming up with ideas to pitch to a production company a million years ago (this isn’t hyperbole; I am VERY old) and just wrote down “Neurotica”; then it just sort of appeared fully formed. “Neurotica? Oh it’s an over-the-top romantic comedy about a Dominatrix with OCD, of course.” And that just happened to hit the buttons of everything I’m fascinated by. 

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IFC: How would you describe Ivy?

Jenny: Ivy is everything I love in a comedy character – she’s tenacious, she’s confident, she’s sweet, she’s a big wonderful weirdo. 

IFC: How would Ivy’s clientele describe her?

Jenny:  Open-minded, caring, excellent aim. 

IFC: Why don’t more small towns have local dungeons?

Jenny: How do you know they don’t? 

IFC: What are the pros and cons of joining a chain mega dungeon?

Jenny: You can use any of their locations but you’ll always forget you have a membership and in a year you’ll be like “jeez why won’t they let me just cancel?” 

IFC: Mouths are gross! Why is that?

Jenny: If you had never seen a mouth before and I was like “it’s a wet flesh cave with sharp parts that lives in your face”, it would sound like Cronenberg-ian body horror. All body parts are horrifying. I’m kind of rooting for the singularity, I’d feel way better if I was just a consciousness in a cloud. 

See the whole season of Neurotica right now on IFC’s Comedy Crib.

The-Craft

The ’90s Are Back

The '90s live again during IFC's weekend marathon.

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Photo Credit: Everett Digital, Columbia Pictures

We know what you’re thinking: “Why on Earth would anyone want to reanimate the decade that gave us Haddaway, Los Del Rio, and Smash Mouth, not to mention Crystal Pepsi?”

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Thoughts like those are normal. After all, we tend to remember lasting psychological trauma more vividly than fleeting joy. But if you dig deep, you’ll rediscover that the ’90s gave us so much to fondly revisit. Consider the four pillars of true ’90s culture.

Boy Bands

We all pretended to hate them, but watch us come alive at a karaoke bar when “I Want It That Way” comes on. Arguably more influential than Brit Pop and Grunge put together, because hello – Justin Timberlake. He’s a legitimate cultural gem.

Man-Child Movies

Adam Sandler is just behind The Simpsons in terms of his influence on humor. Somehow his man-child schtick didn’t get old until the aughts, and his success in that arena ushered in a wave of other man-child movies from fellow ’90s comedians. RIP Chris Farley (and WTF Rob Schneider).

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Teen Angst

In horror, dramas, comedies, and everything in between: Troubled teens! Getting into trouble! Who couldn’t relate to their First World problems, plaid flannels, and lose grasp of the internet?

Mainstream Nihilism

From the Coen Bros to Fincher to Tarantino, filmmakers on the verge of explosive popularity seemed interested in one thing: mind f*cking their audiences by putting characters in situations (and plot lines) beyond anyone’s control.

Feeling better about that walk down memory lane? Good. Enjoy the revival.

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And revisit some important ’90s classics all this weekend during IFC’s ’90s Marathon. Check out the full schedule here.

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Get Physical

DVDs are the new Vinyl

Portlandia Season 7 Now Available On Disc.

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In this crazy digital age, sometimes all we really want is to reach out and touch something. Maybe that’s why so many of us are still gung-ho about owning stuff on DVD. It’s tangible. It’s real. It’s tech from a bygone era that still feels relevant, yet also kitschy and retro. It’s basically vinyl for people born after 1990.

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Inevitably we all have that friend whose love of the disc is so absolutely repellent that he makes the technology less appealing. “The resolution, man. The colors. You can’t get latitude like that on a download.” Go to hell, Tim.

Yes, Tim sucks, and you don’t want to be like Tim, but maybe he’s onto something and DVD is still the future. Here are some benefits that go beyond touch.

It’s Decor and Decorum

With DVDs and a handsome bookshelf you can show off your great taste in film and television without showing off your search history. Good for first dates, dinner parties, family reunions, etc.

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Forget Public Wifi

Warm up that optical drive. No more awkwardly streaming episodes on shady free wifi!

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Inter-not

Internet service goes down. It happens all the time. It could happen right now. Then what? Without a DVD on hand you’ll be forced to make eye contact with your friends and family. Or worse – conversation.

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Self Defense

You can’t throw a download like a ninja star. Think about it.

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If you’d like to experience the benefits DVD ownership yourself, Portlandia Season 7 is now available on DVD and Blue-Ray.