Fantastic Fest 2011 saw the feature debut of filmmakers Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. Rabies was one of the best films at the fest, a deeply twisted, frequently hilarious twist on the slasher genre. The film follows a large cast of characters who find themselves crossing paths in the wrong place at the wrong time, namely a park in the middle of nowhere while a madman with unknown intentions is stalking its inhabitants. What you think will happen is most definitely not what happens. Structured more like a farce than a traditional horror film, Rabies is a breath of fresh air for a genre filled with dull retreads of the same story. It is also the first horror film to ever come out of Israel.
We had the chance to speak with Aharon and Navot, who told us about the difficulties of being horror fans in Israel, how they managed to build a cast of Israeli A-listers, and why it's taken their country so long to break into genre film.
Movies.com: How did you two meet? How did your collaboration as filmmakers begin?
Navot: I was a student at Tel Aviv University and one of my first classes in the first week was Aharon's. I have sensitive eyes, so I was wearing big sunglasses when I approached Aharon and said "Hey man, look, I have these sensitive eyes so I'm going to wear these sunglasses in your class, okay?" And that was the first time we met and he was so cool about it. Aharon was the only teacher who encouraged me to do my own weird stuff. The first movie I ever made was in a Nazi bunker while the Americans were attacking. Then we became friends and Aharon was much more involved in my short films and he produced my graduation film. We went to New York and to Atlantic City, where it was premiering at the Brooklyn Film Festival. We smoked cigars on the beach, gambled a little bit and lost all of our money, ate burgers and saw Tool in concert. It was there that Aharon asked me and I kind of asked him "Okay…what's next?" And we decided the next thing was a feature. Aharon's been a teacher and he's been a film critic, why not make a film? Aharon is like Marty McFly…he doesn't like to be called chicken! I asked him if he was afraid to make a film and he said "I am not afraid to make a film! Let's do it!" And that's the romantic story behind our relationship.
Movies.com: What about you, Aharon? When did you realize that your student was now your filmmaking partner?
Aharon: When I was thirteen, in my graduation book, there is a page where everybody tries to realize where everyone will be in ten or fifteen years. Under my name, there was film critic and teacher. And that's what I wanted to do and I did it by the age of twenty five. I was a film professor at the university and I was also a film critic. But now what? I still really like to write about films. I have a blog that's very major in Israel. I watched Navot and I always encourage him because he has the ambition and the tools to be a rare talent in Israel, because in Israel, no one does these kind of things, not even students. It's a funny thing…when you go into film school, everyone says they want to be the next Spielberg, the next Tarantino, the next Robert Rodriguez, but eventually, after three years, everyone wanted to be the new Bela Tarr and only do these slow, European dramas so they can get into the Cannes film festival. And [Navot] always said "I don't understand these young people who want to do films about old people dying when they're still young and all of the juices are running. They should do horror films!" So I told him to do a horror film. And then he approached me, and I think I he did it by hypnosis-
Navot: Leaving a trail of candies for Aharon to follow!
Aharon: He said "Why don't you be more involved in my second film? Why don't you produce my final film?" And then, "Why don't you write and direct?" He approached me with a basic idea in New York and I said I'm going to write it! It was like instinct.
Navot: Aharon is a huge fan of the Hebrew language. You don't get that a lot in Israel because no one speaks proper Hebrew anymore. It's modern Hebrew and slang. You can see the way Aharon wrote about films when we was a film critic. He has a passion for the Hebrew language, but in a very approachable way. He's very sophisticated and he sometimes likes to use big words, but it's very approachable. You can relate to it. You see a lot of films in Israel and they're written well, the dialogue is good, but you can hear the thoughts the thoughts of the writer. It's very measured and very designed for cinema. The way Aharon wrote was very casual, but very smart. People really like the dialogue in Rabies, even people outside of Israel. I think that says a lot about how Aharon approaches language. The minute he said he'd write the script, I knew we'd have a script that was fun. A lot of people say that a horror film will not work in Hebrew, but it's only a matter of approach.
Movies.com: When you two are on the set, how do you approach co-directing? Does one of you work with the actors while the other takes care of the camera?
Aharon: There's nothing strict. There's never one of us always on the actors and another on the camera. What we tend to do is stay behind our monitor and watch the shot together and reach a mutual decision. The first two days…nobody in Israel is used to two directors, who won't go forward without a mutual decision. So everyone was "What do we do? What do we do?" And we'd say "Chill. We're talking." Then one of us would go to the actors and the other to the cameraman and then vice versa. Neither of us is more keen on actors or camera.
Navot: We were able to cast such A-list actors and big names and sometimes big egos. When you get them on the set, they want the attention they deserve. If one actor gets the attention of one director and another actor also wants direction, we could give it to them. We were able to divide our attention to more aspects of the film. When you're shooting a feature film in seventeen days, only in available light, in the winter so you only have eight hours of working instead of ten…the two of us on the set was much easier than just one of us being there.
Movies.com: A lot of American viewers may not realize what a star-studded cast you have since they aren't as familiar with Israeli films. What attracted them to your film?
Navot: [Aharon] does hypnosis, like I said. "YOU WILL BE IN THE FIRST ISRAELI HORROR FILM." Jedi mind tricks.
Aharon: They were very enthusiastic to be pioneers. We didn't know that a lot of actors in Israel are bored with their usual roles. The dysfunctional father, the fighter in the Lebanon war…they were getting bored of the same routines. Actually, they were waiting for the chance to develop their abilities and do something more American. When they heard there was going to be a horror film, they said "Oh my God, I have to be in this!" We got Lior Ashkenazi, Israel's biggest star, to play the good cop and everyone knows he doesn't do sh*tty films! After we got him, we approached Menashe Noy, who plays the park ranger. Menashe is a very established stage actor, a director and a comedian and he read the script and said "I'm in!" He's also known for not doing sh*tty things. When you get a lot of Israel's established actors to say yes, even when you don't have real money to pay them, everyone starts whispering. "What is this film? We should read this script!" It was like dominos. Everyone wanted to be in the film.
Movies.com: One of the most surprising things about the film is that despite the extreme violence, it's a very funny movie with more laughs than some comedies. When did you decide to go for humor instead of being grim and gritty?
Navot: I have to owe this to Aharon. I'm a very serious guy in my approach to film. If you see my short films, they're very serious and heavy. Aharon is the one who noted that the Israeli crowd is a very cynical crowd. A proper, old-fashioned horror film wouldn't work on them. We have to approach this in another way. I was kind of hard to convince of this, but after you see Aharon's writing and the script and the characters, they're funny! That was a good call by him, I have to admit. It was his idea that we needed the comedy to bypass the audience's defense mechanisms. That sets the tone. I think one of the best jokes in the film is [HUGE SPOILERS INVOLVING A MAJOR CHARACTER'S DEATH]. That's hilarious for me, but that's kind of sadistic. That's my kind of comedy, but Aharon put a lot of comedy into the nuances. We didn't want to make a parody of horror films.
Aharon: We don't want you to laugh at the genre. Laugh with the genre. Every slasher film is a theater of the absurd. Even the straightforward ones. You have one guy, who kills everybody. And you're laughing! You're always laughing, even in the serious ones. You're afraid, but you're laughing. We did it intentionally. You're supposed to laugh. It's okay to laugh. "Have a joy. Everyone dies in the end." That was a our tagline, because it's from a big song in Israel. That's true. So have fun. Someone wrote "it's like It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World meets Friday the 13th."
Movies.com: What was it like working with an effects team that had never done a horror film before? Did they have fun making all of the kills and deaths come to life?
Aharon: They were having too much fun sometimes! They were so enthusiastic that they sometimes painted the characters too much. They brought out on actor, who had just been hit by a car into the movie, from the make-up tent and I said-
Navot: A bear!
Aharon: It looks like a bear ate his face! Even in war films, you don't get to do these kinds of effects. Dark faces, maybe a scar over here, but nothing like this. They were in a kid's store, the entire department! They were just laughing and having fun.
Navot: Also, all of the special effects, all of the accidents, characters getting hit by cars, getting stabbed through the chest, the minefield, are all in one shot, without editing. That was something we wanted to do, to make it old-fashioned and try to not use any CGI and to do all of the special effects in one long take. That puzzled the effects guys, who said "We don't how to [LISTS A LAUNDRY LIST OF THE FILM'S MOST IMPRESSIVE AND SPOILERY MOMENTS] in one shot!" We challenged ourselves and everyone in the industry, but they were up to it. You don't notice all of the long shots and effects the first time you watch the film, but that just means that the movie works. We really should compliment all of the effects guys and stunt guys and make-up guys. They did a really amazing job.
Aharon: [Rabies] won the make-up effects prize at the Israeli Academy Awards, just last week.
Navot: Rabies is in the mainstream! We won an Academy Award!
Movies.com: What was the state of horror films in Israel before you guys came along?
Navot: Zero! Zero films, zero awareness to the possibility that we could make one. The audiences in Israel are not keen on horror films, even the big ones, the studio ones like Saw-
Aharon: Final Destination.
Navot: Even Paranormal Activity, the first and its sequel, are not doing well at all.
Aharon: They're flops. The new Fright Night spent about two weeks on the big screen. Only about 5,000 people went to see it.
Movies.com: What was it like being horror fans in Israel?
Aharon: It was very tough. You have to see the films on DVD and you have visit the stores that carry movies from America and Japan. We don't get to see these films. We don't get to see any Japanese films, no Korean films…the only really good Korean film that came to Israel was Oldboy and we did all the work to bring it! After that, no Memories of Murder, no Sympathy For Mr. Vengeance, nothing. All of the violent genres are dead in Israel. It was hard. You had to explore where you could find it or download it because sometimes they don't even bring it to the libraries or the DVD rental shops. You had to download it like a pirate and feel horrible about yourself.
Navot: It was like listening to rock music in the Soviet Union in the times of the Cold War. Aharon and some of his colleagues started a-
Aharon: Underground club.
Navot: An underground club where they were able to screen movies. The first movie they screened was Fulci.
Aharon: Yeah. Zombie. That was our opening night film.
Navot: It felt like a guerilla thing, watching all of these films in Israel.
Aharon: In order for you to understand the state of horror in Israel…even when we got this club and a lot of big-name professors joined and we did it in the heart of the Tel Aviv film department and we premiered Shaun of the Dead…I think seventy people showed up. No one comes to see Shaun of the Dead?! Sometimes, only twenty people showed up, like when we screened The Hitcher. Even when we gave Israel the chance to watch horror films on the big screen, no one came to see it.
Movies.com: Do you think horror movies haven't taken off in Israel because of the violence in the region? Do you think Israel needs more fun movies?
Aharon: I don't think Israel is ready to have fun. Everybody is a bit pretentious.
Navot: In the industry.
Aharon: In the industry. Not the crowd. I think the crowd has succumbed to very heavy entertainment. You only have two Israeli genres: war films, which are also filled with violence, and dysfunctional family dramas. When you do something that is out of the box, the people in Israel tend to be amazed and shocked and a little afraid of the new thing. I can think of a lot of cult films in Israel that were first approached with a lot of…well, they were scary. But afterward, they became a cult phenomenon. Even with Rabies. If you look at the life of the film in Israel, you'd be shocked. We did good business at the box office, not a huge success and we had to battle censorship. But now, it is the end of the year in Israel-
Navot: It's a Jewish holiday today. The most important one.
Aharon: And every newspaper in Israel voted us the people of the year and Rabies as the cultural phenomenon of the year.
Movies.com: Wow. Congratulations, guys!
Aharon: When we started, everyone said "How dare you do stuff like this!" and now, nine months later, everyone is talking about how Rabies has changed the Israeli film industry. After playing over forty festivals and winning a lot prizes, everyone is in shock. "We can get into Tribeca with a horror film!? Why didn't we do this earlier? Why were we so cynical about it?"
Navot: You don't have to be ashamed anymore. People were looking down on us because we did something that was not very prestigious. A lot of old filmmakers and old government funds, which usually support films, looked down on us, saying that we were doing a lowly genre. Since then, we've been to so many arthouse and prestigious…
(He makes air quotes when he says "prestigious.")
Navot: What do you call that?
Movies.com: Air quotes.
Navot: Air quotes! "Prestigious" film festivals, not just the genre film festivals…which we like better, of course! But Rabies has enjoyed both worlds. Now Israel is realizing that it shouldn't be ashamed [of horror films]. Rabies gets recognition as an "important" film, but it can also get recognition as a fun film, which we much prefer. Of course, Rabies has many layers, but Israel deserves more fun films in theaters. Films that you can go to, buy popcorn, buy Coke, and just enjoy, laugh, scream and not think about. Sometimes, you go to Israeli cinema and think "Wait a minute…I'm back in school all over again! They're trying to teach me a lesson!" I don't want to be taught when I pay ten dollars. I want to be entertained. I think Rabies has a lot to do with New Wave thinking, a new way to approach cinema in Israel. We really hope it will start a movement. I want to go see more entertaining Israeli films!
Movies.com: Aren't there now a few more Israeli horror films in production now?
Aharon: Yeah, two more productions. One of them is a zombie film, the first Israeli zombie film, but it will be in English. The other one is like a Troma film, very campy and stupid. And we're doing our next feature soon.
Movies.com: What can you tell us about that?
Aharon: We're going to do a kidnapping thriller. It will be like a Coen brothers comedy, but with a lot of violence. A LOT of violence. When we started Rabies, we wondered how we would do a serial killer movie in Israel when Israel doesn't have serial killers. Our next film will ask the same question about kidnappers. Who's the kidnapper? Who's the real victim? We'll ask these questions with out cynical point of view.
Navot: It will be very funny, very violent. We want to take things to the next level. This time, we won't have trouble with censorship…no one will stop us from shooting for an R.
Movies.com: Wear it proudly, right?
Aharon: We don't like it when you make a PG-13 horror film for the entire family. Horror films are not about that.
Movies.com: Any final words for the American horror community? Why should they go see Rabies?
Navot: Because it's fun! To see the reaction of the audience and how they real connect to the film, it tells us about human nature and how film is universal. We were thinking we were making a very local Israeli film with a lot of Israeli mentality in it, and then we see the Texas audience reaction to it and it's amazing! To be there in screenings and hear people cheering, laughing and clapping…that really tells us something about how, in the end, we're all the same. Rabies is about that. It's about humanity. It's about communication. It's about tolerance-
Aharon: Now you're making it sound like an arthouse film! Oh my God!
Navot: No no no!
Aharon: I'm not going to see that film! I'm not going to see Rabies!
Navot: No! It's about blood and having fun and watching people explode and people's faces being torn off and people being stabbed and being shot!
Aharon: It's the Israeli interpretation of the great American slasher film.
Navot: Yeah! You should write that! Don't mention all of the other stuff I've said.
Aharon: When you see a cliche in a genre, you want to see a new interpretation. Sometimes, that interpretation has to come from another country. Like what Korea did with vengeance and vigilante films and the Italians did with westerns in the '60s and '70s. Israel sees films from a very cynical point of view. This is a very cynical interpretation of a great genre that has been dying for ten years or so. This is our gift to the slasher genre.