When José Padilha's cop drama Elite Squad came out in 2007, it was met with a huge amount of controversy because of the way it confronted police violence in Brazil. The film was also hugely succesful despite (or because of) the controversy and a few years later Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within hit theaters in Brazil, shattering pretty much every box office record in the country. Now the South American phenomenon is playing at Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX, which afforded us the chance to sit down with Padilha and talk directly about his film, why it's been so popular and controversial, and what it's like to make a dense, uncompromising drama about corruption at all levels of the Brazilian political system.
Movies.com: Were there plans early on for an Elite Squad sequel?
José Padilha: No, not really. Somehow my movies have been one leads to another. I had done a documentary called Bus 174 that led me to do Elite Squad, which led me to do Elite Squad 2.
Movies.com: And was Elite Squad 2 a natural progression of the story for you or was it a deliberate response to the controversy of the first film?
Padilha: It was two things at the same time. In order to explain it, I have to go back a little more. The first movie I made about violence in Rio was a documentary. I don't know if you've seen it, but it's called Bus 174 and it tells the story of this street kid who is mistreated by the police and the state and the system for child delinquents. And the state does this to the kid until he loses it and hijacks a bus and kills people inside it. And it's a true story, it was filmed and broadcast live on television.
So I took that story and made a documentary and at the end of the film, the Elite Squad kills him. So I tried make a story that showed we have a lot of criminals because the state is breeding them by mistreating juvenile delinquents and street kids. Then I made Elite Squad because I met those cops when I was doing Bus 174 and I realized the state was doing the same thing with the police. The state was paying very low wages, the state was tolerant of police corruption, the state was feeding the police with crazy ideology in the elite squad and it was creating violence and corrupt cops.
So, I was kind of saying with both Elite Squad and Bus 174 that we have this level of violence because we're doing it to ourselves. The state makes violence criminals and cops, no wonder everyone is killing one another. And Elite Squad 2 looks at why that is the case; why the state is doing that. In order to explain that you have to look into politics and how politicians use the police to get votes and money and stuff to finance campaigns. In that sense, The Enemy Within is just complimenting the argument from the other films. But in another sense, in side that broader thing, there is something I tried to do that is a sort of response to the controversy in the first film. But what is the controversy to begin with?
If you want to really understand it you have to look at the history of Brazil. Brazil had been a right wing dictatorship up until the '80s, meaning we had no elections and it was run by generals, which is hard for you guys in America to grasp. And because we were right wing, all the culture in Brazil was Marxist. It was believed that if you were a Marxist, you were fighting for freedom. Even though this is clearly a lie. Just take a look at the Soviet Union and you'll know. But because of this, all the movies were made from the Marxist perspective, which pretty much tells you who your hero is. Your hero is someone who is excluded from society, someone who is fighting against a factory or strike. Or your hero is a street kid, like I have in Bus 174, or your hero is a drug dealer who was born poor and forced into it.
So after Bus 174 was praised by the left wing critics – I'm not Marxist myself – I deliberately decided I'm going to make a movie from the perspective of a cop. And a cop can never be the hero in a Marxist film, because the cop represents the establishment. So that's how Elite Squad came out in 2007 and, believe it or not, it was the very first Brazilian movie to have a cop as the hero, which is insane. It was the first cop movie ever in Brazil! And it becomes the most popular movie ever in Brazil because the audience doesn't give a shi*t about the polemics.
Some of the people in the previous Marxist establishment in Brazil came and said, "You can't make a movie about that, because if you make a movie about a cop, you're a fascist." And of course one thing has nothing to do with the other and a lot of people came and defended the film saying it's not fascist at all, it's a criticism. Just look at the cops torturing people. The cops sued us! The real cops sued us!
So there was that polemic that did happen, but because it was very polarizing for the right wing and left wing even though the movie wasn't about the right wing and left wing, I decided I was going to say something about that with Elite Squad 2. So I created a character that was the classic, left-wing Brazilian politician and had him marry the wife of the right wing cop from the first movie. So they really hate each other and are fighting for the same woman and the raising of the same kid and I said I'm going to have the circumstances and the plot force them together in sort of a way of saying, "Stop with bullshit, let's just come together and get the job done." It doesn't matter if the cat is a rat, it matters if it catches the mouse, as Deng Xiaoping once said in China. That's sort of like my little thing with the polemics of the film.
Movies.com: What I love about Elite Squad 2 is that it does have this dense narrative that interweaves so many different levels of the police and political system. Have you seen or are you a fan of the show The Wire?
Padilha: The Wire came out after the first Elite Squad and a lot of people came to me and said, "You have to watch this show The Wire, it's kind of like Elite Squad 1." And I bought the first season on DVD and really, really liked it. It's an amazing writing job and it's true, it's a kind of style that I like. But I shot two of my movies before The Wire even came out.
Movies.com: Well I really appreciate that you both don't take this straight forward approach to the goal, that you bring in all these side characters to paint a picture of just how daunting this system is in its scale and how almost irreversible it seems now that it's already in motion.
Padilha: You're describing The Wire, yeah? [Laughs] But no, it's true. We did the same thing with Elite Squad. We tried to come up with a plot and several characters that interact inside the film's plot in a way that mimics a certain society and in a way in which people can understand that society but still have fun following that character through that story to a dramatic curve that works in the theater. That was the goal in both The Elite Squad and The Enemy Within. They both stand alone and they both describe an aspect of that system and if you take them as a whole, you get the big picture, which is kind of what I got from The Wire even though I've only seen the first season.
Movies.com: This is the obligatory question at this point, but do you have any plans for a third film?
Padilha: I don't. I've pretty much said what I've wanted to say about violence there. I said what I wanted to say about the way the state treats street kids in Bus 174. I talked about what's the situation as seen by a cop in the first Elite Squad and now with The Enemy Within I've talked about how it is that politics shape it all. And that's what I have to say about it. There's no reason for me to go make a sequel just because it's going to sell tickets.
Movies.com: I'm glad to hear you're sticking to your guns on it.
Padilha: [Laughs] People will get mad because it's a lot of money, but I'm not doing it.
Movies.com: I love that the movie is like a shark that just keeps moving forward and can't even slow down for any character's introduction or end. When it comes to things like character deaths, how hard is it for you to do that? Is there an urge to take a breather and savor moments or is it more rewarding to shock and keep moving?
Padilha: I like to grab the audience. I think a lot of the political films of the '70s coming out of South America were films that pushed the audience away, detached them emotionally from the story so they couldn't criticize. That's the theory behind it, anyway, and I tried to do the exact opposite. I want to put the audience on an emotional rollercoaster that goes through intense scenes and make them emotionally connect with the character. Even though the plot is complex and there's a lot going on, I want the audience to go through a journey with the character and then they can think about it at home! There's no reason to detach. There's no reason to have a slow paced sequence where the audience can think about the film as they're watching it. I believe those films – and this is a tradition that started in Brazil with City of God.
City of God was the first film that was a social commentary and didn't have the slow paced, artsy thing. It's fast paced and you're with it from beginning to end and lo-and-behold it created a lot of debate. More debate than all the others that used an approach to make intellectual films that only intellectuals watched. So I tried to follow the steps of what City of God did, because that's the kind of film I like to make. It's about creating in the audience the need to know what's going to come next.
As for what's next, here is our chat with José Padilha about his remake of Robocop.