A conversation with director José Padilha

Gary Collinson chats with José Padilha, director of Elite Squad, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within and the upcoming RoboCop remake…

Earlier this month I had the opportunity to speak to José Padilha, the acclaimed director of Bus 174 and Elite Squad, about his latest film, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, which comes to DVD and Blu-ray here in the UK later this month. A huge hit upon its release in Brazil, the sequel overtook James Cameron’s Avatar to become the highest-grossing movie in South American history, and it is also Brazil’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards. Take a look at the full interview here…

You made your debut back in 2002 with the documentary Bus 174. Did you always see yourself as a documentary filmmaker?

That’s how I got started. I’ve made more documentaries than I have fictional movies because basically I’m interested in real life events and using film to analyse certain social processes, which is very common in documentaries but not so common in the fictional world. So I would say I’m drawn towards making movies that analyse specific social issues and that is the reason why I make more documentaries than fictional movies. But you know – if a fictional movie is the way to go in order to talk about a social issue, which was the case for Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, then a fictional movie will be.

How was it that you came to be involved with Elite Squad?

Well, the first Elite Squad came out of Bus 174. When I was doing the research and the interviews for Bus 174, I started to get to know several policeman that were involved in the Bus 174 event, and from talking to them I started to get a feel for what it is like to be a policeman in Rio. Rio is a very unique city and being a policeman there is very edgy, not only socially but also psychologically – there are a lot of problems for someone who tries to be a policeman in Rio, more so than in other cities. By getting to know those policeman from Bus 174 I started to become very interested in describing the social role and ethics and structure of the police work in Rio and so that’s why I wrote Elite Squad. As a matter of fact, Elite Squad was going to be a documentary but once I realised that I wouldn’t be able to capture the images – you know, the amount of violence and everything going on – I saw myself with two options. I could do a talking heads documentary about violence or I could do all the research, write a script and go with a fictional movie, and I decided a fictional movie would be the best way to do it because film is a visual art and it’s important to show things rather than describe them and so that’s how Elite Squad was born out of Bus 174.

The first Elite Squad was exceptionally well-received in Brazil and also brought you international recognition. Did you always have plans to continue the story with a sequel?

Well, while the first movie was very well received, it was also very polemic. Both movies that I’d done, Bus 174 and Elite Squad, were very polemic films, and they were polemic in a very peculiar way. Bus 174 was criticised by the right – some people in the right consider that movie to be making an excuse for a criminal by trying to explain the social background that led Sandro to being as violent as he was on the bus. But Bus 174 was also praised by the left, because Sandro is the perfect left wing character, he’s someone who’s been excluded from society, he’s suffered at the hands of the state all his life, and for what? And so we had a polemic on Bus 174 in which the left wing is defending the film and the right wing is attacking it. When I put out Elite Squad it was also polemic, but it was exactly the other way around – the left, or some segment of the left, were attacking the film and the right, or some segments of the right, were defending the film. That’s very interesting because it’s the same filmmaker, I always thought the same things – how can I make one film and I’m defended by the left and I make another and I’m attacked by the left, what’s going on?

That’s what led me to doing Elite Squad: The Enemy Within and the basic idea behind the film is, I’ve created a left wing hero in Fraga [Irandhir Santos], the NGO leader that becomes state legislator, and I put him in the strongest possible opposition I could to the right wing guy, Captain Nascimento [Wagner Moura], who was working for the government. More than through their ideologies against each other I made it personal – they were married to the same woman, they were trying to educate the same kid and so on. And so I created a left wing character and a right wing character that hated each other, but I forced them to work together in order to succeed. So the whole idea of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within comes from the polemic of the first two movies I made and funnily enough, I put Elite Squad: The Enemy Within out in Brazil, and there’s no polemic – it’s unanimously accepted by everybody, so I suppose it worked.

Both Elite Squad and The Enemy Within were shot on location in Rio’s favelas. Did the reaction of the locals change between the two movies?

It’s always difficult to make movies on location in Rio, especially ones like we were making. There are a lot of people in the crew, big action scenes, and you are going into a places where there are a lot of armed drug dealers or militia and it’s always complicated. The way to do it is to engage the local community, to try to get them to understand what the film is, and to have them working as extras and helping the film crew and so on. And because the first movie was very, very popular, anywhere we went on the second movie when we were shooting we had a lot of help from the locals. It was much, much easier to shoot the second movie.

Elite Squad: The Enemy within was a huge success in South America…

We never thought it was going to be like that. Everyone was expecting that the second movie would be a repetition of the first and the second is actually more intellectual than the first. It’s more complex and it’s more political. When we watched it in the screening room we though it’s not going to be as huge as the first – we love it, it’s the best movie we’ve made, but the public is not going to really get it. And we were wrong, we opened the movie and the first weekend was an amazing result. We had to put out more prints for the second weekend and so on and really it was kind of a surprise.

You’ve spent around five years working on both movies. Do you have any plans for a third, or is this the end of the Elite Squad story?

Yeah, I think I’ve said what I had to say and what I thought I should say about violence in Rio with my three films, Bus 174, Elite Squad and Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, so I don’t have anything else to say for the moment. I’m ready to tackle other issues and to tackle other subject matters.

Earlier this year it was announced that you’d make your English language debut with a remake of RoboCop. The original shares many similar themes with your previous films. Is that what drew you to the project?

Actually, no. I like several things about RoboCop. The idea of having a man having actual body parts replaced by a computerised existence and the idea of a corporation taking control of this man and turning him into a product… this idea is very modern and very, very truthful. I mean you can talk about all sorts of important social issues and tendencies nowadays exploring the RoboCop concept. And you know, I bet you that in 30 years from now wars will only be fought by drones and law enforcement will be populated by drones and automatic systems. That creates a host of ethical issues, a lot of questions that have not been answered. Another interesting thing about RoboCop is that it allows you to talk about the philosophic mind/body problem, which is can a computer system be conscious? What does it mean to be conscious? Can you consider a robotic entity ethically guilty of a crime, or is the corporation that made the robot guilty? All those issues are the core of the RoboCop concept and those are the ones that drew me to the project.

Michael Fassbender recently said that “it could be kind of fun” to don the RoboCop suit. Is he still on your shortlist?
I am a Michael Fassbender fan – I love his work and I think he is a fantastic actor. The reason he said this I believe was that I had given an interview in Holland a couple of months ago in which a Dutch journalist asked me, ‘who would you consider for RoboCop’, and I had to really stop and think about it. So I said to the Dutch guy, ‘I don’t know’, and he said, ‘if you had to say one name, who is a great actor?’ And so I said Michael Fassbender, and immediately the Dutch guy cast him for RoboCop [laughs]… which would be great by the way.

When might we expect to hear some casting news on RoboCop?

I’m actually working on the script rewrite now to get it ready and once I have the script ready I’m going to start working on the cast. I like to have a good script before I show it to talent, you know? I’m not quite there… I’m almost there, but not there yet.

Many thanks to José Padilha for taking the time out of his schedule for this interview.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is released on DVD and Blu-ray on December 26th.

Gary Collinson