Coming out of Fantastic Fest this year, one of my biggest surprises was how much I enjoyed a film I had heard very little about called Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. The fact that it was a sequel had me weary. Why would I drop in the middle of a story? But then the buzz picked up, and I heard multiple people recommend it without the pretense of seeing the first film. Luckily enough, director Jose Padilha‘s political thriller gives you enough of a foothold to not feel lost while also providing a living, breathing world filled with corruption and violence. So when I had the chance to speak with the director I had to accept. After the break you can read the complete transcript as we talk about the hype surrounding the film now, the disparity between the first film’s ticket sales and the second, the extreme measures they took to protect the film, how he struck a balance between a message and entertainment, and whether Elite Squad 3 is a possibility.
JOSE PADILHA: This movie has gotten a lot of… It opened in Brazil, and it’s biggest grossing movie ever in South America. Including Avatar. So it did well. We opened the film in Brazil thinking it was going to sell 4 million, 5 million tickets, which is already great, for Brazil. And we sold more than 11 million tickets. And so, it’s been a trip because I’ve never… For Elite Squad, the first version of it, sold two and a half million tickets, which is a good number. But it’s not… comparable. It’s just a different kind of thing. So in Brazil, I felt like mission accomplished. Right?
With two and a half million?
PADILHA: With the 11 million.
Oh, right, right.
PADILHA: And I said, ‘Well, there’s nothing that can happen that’s better. Now what I need to do is take this film to Sundance and Berlin,’ –which is where we opened– ‘and see how it plays for other audiences’ How does a guy at Sundance or a guy at Berlin relate to the character of this story, who is a Rio De Janiro cop. Is it universal enough so they will get it? That’s the question I had as a filmmaker because I already knew in Brazil it was working. So it was great because the audiences were really responsive to the film, both at Sundance and in Berlin. We got reactions… this film is funny because we got reactions in the middle of the screening. Like, ‘Playa!’ That kind of thing? And it was happening in Brazil, big time, and it happened at Sundance and Berlin, too. So that made me very happy. And the other thing was… this is a film that is a social analysis of something that takes place in reality in Brazil. The police violence and political corruption. But it’s also an entertaining film with action scenes in it. And so it puts this film in a sort of… you cannot really say it is a genre film. So I thought about whether that would make it hard to place the film up there because it’s sort of supposed to be an art film, but it’s not an art film, it’s an action film. It’s none of those things. I felt like that wasn’t a problem at all. People just look at the film and talk about it without trying to pigeon hole it in some category. And so those are two things that I’ve learned from the foreign festivals that I went to.
Going back to some of the ticket sales… Obviously two and a half million compared to 11 million… not even close to the same ballpark. And I’ll confess, I’ve only seen Elite Squad 2. I haven’t seen the original.
PADILHA: You can. It’s a stand alone film.
Was that part of your idea or did that naturally come about?
PADILHA: No, I try to make movies that are a stand alone. You can watch The Enemy Within first, and the first film second. It doesn’t matter. They are about different things. Different angles on violence, even though they have the same main character. And listen. The first movie, I have to tell you this because people don’t realize. Elite Squad, the first one, was pirated. So before it opened in theaters, everybody had already seen it.
PADILHA: So, it’s hard to get which movie was seen by the most people. We hired a polling company. You know, those companies that makes polls to say who’s going to win an election?
PADILHA: We hired one of those. And they think that the first one would have sold almost as many tickets as the second one if it wasn’t pirated. They came up with a figure that 10.5 million people had watched the movie before it even opened in the theaters. For Elite Squad 1. On pirated DVDs. And that actually explains why the second one sold tickets so fast. Because everybody had seen it. Everbody had seen the first one, so they had a base of fans already that was much bigger than two and a half million because of the pirate copies. I’m not saying this because I like piracy; I don’t. But it was a weird experience on the first movie. I was in New York, doing the final touches and editing on the film, and I got a call saying, ‘The film is out here. They’re selling pirate copies everywhere in Rio, and you know what? It’s great! Everybody loves it.’ And I said, ‘That’s bittersweet.’ Because, you know, I’m losing a lot of money! [Both laugh]
PADILHA: As a director, I love it. But as a producer I hated it. And so it was sort of bittersweet. So, for the second movie, because there was so many people wanting to see it. It was so expected in Brazil, we had to make a crazy investment in security for it not to be pirated. Just so you know, there was no digital copy of this film. The AVID had no internet connection. And everything was made on film. Everything. There was no digital copy of this film in Brazil. All the screens were 35 millimeter.
Did you shoot the first one in 35 millimeter?
PADILHA: Everything is 35 millimeter.
PADILHA: But it’s easy to make a pirate copy when you have digital tapes of things. And it was so complicated and complex to go through all the post-production of a movie without ever going digital. Which is what we did with Elite Squad 2. Just so people would not be able to copy. It was insane. We had the prints being taken over by police officers following trucks. We had cameras everywhere.
You had your own elite squad.
PADILHA: We had an elite squad to try to prevent this movie from going to a pirate copy. There was cryptography in everything. For instance, when we’re doing sound, the files with the sound… like mixing. We had a mixing session. At the end of the mixing session, everything was downloaded to a hard disk with cryptography and the hard disk was given to a police man who would take it to a safe. The next morning, he would come again, and take it and plug it in, and so the guy who was mixing, he had the code for the cryptography. The police man didn’t have the codes, so it was so insane. Total insanity trying to prevent this film from pirated. And we managed to. And we just opened it. The premiere was the opening day, and boom. So it was a crazy thing because the films were released in very different ways.
And one thing you were kind of talking about was that it does have a very strong political message. It does have a lot of messages that it is trying to get out. It’s not necessarily one, central, thing. You’re touching on a lot of different subjects. But it felt like at first, “Aw, man, this is going to be really heavy-handed.” And then you start to get invested in the characters. And all of a sudden, you can take it for the political message that comes in the first half of the film, but you can also take it for the tense thriller that you’ve setup. How did you try to strike a balance between those?
PADILHA: Right. You know… there’s one thing. What you have said is very important to me as a filmmaker. Because you have action movies that only focus into action. So James Bond. James Bond is going to an adventure of action and you follow him from the beginning to the end, and that’s the movie. What I found out, because my movie is grounded, and it’s based on research and real life characters. And I wrote the movie with a cop. In real life, this is not how things work out. You never find yourself involved in a single action story. Your family is always being with you. And you cannot separate whatever is going on in your life with your relationship with your son, with your wife… those things are always mixed.
They’re butting heads, a lot.
PADILHA: Yea. And so I sort of decided that, yes, it’s going to be a political thriller. My character is going to go through a sort of adventure in this political/police world. But his family is going to be a part of this. It’s going to affect his son. It’s going to have to do with his relationship with his former wife. So I decided to come up with a plot that will be complete, in this way. Not some character that’s outside of his regular life, living with adventure. But a character that is living an adventure inside his life. Inside his day to day life. It has to deal with the corrupt police and politicians, but he also has to deal with his relationship with his son and his former wife, and so on. So, by trying to put those things together, it’s what gave us the plot. How do you mix those realities in the life of a single character?
PADILHA: I hope that makes sense. [Laughs]
It does! Obviously this is a big breakthrough for you, and it’s kind of lead to the announcement that you will be taking over Robocop. But, with this film, are you going to revisit this at all or are you going to head for greener pastures? What’s going on?
PADILHA: As a filmmaker, I make the films that I love, that are in my heart. That’s what I care about. So, I make no distinction between directing Robocop and directing a film in Brazil, or even a documentary in the sense that, if I’m doing a documentary, it’s because I love the project. And if I”m doing Robocop it’s because I love the project. And I do love the Robocop project, for several reasons. I have a take on it which is something that’s dear to me. A subject matter that’s important. To me, I find it relevant, socially and politically. I think I can explore through the story of the new Robocop that we are coming up with. And that’s why I’m invested in this project, 100 percent. The same way I’m doing a little documentary in black and white about hunger in Brazil.
PADILHA: So, to me, greener pasture, for me, is whatever is a great subject matter that really interests me so that I can be a 100 percent involved. I never make movies for the sake of, ‘Well, this is going to be a blockbuster. Let’s do that.’ I just don’t go there. And everybody wants me to do Elite Squad 3. I’m never going to do Elite Squad 3. Because it doesn’t make sense. It’s done.
That wrapped up our conversation, and I would just like to remind you that the film hits theaters in limited release on the 11th, and will go through a gradual expansion throughout. You may want to seek out the first film, but I cannot recommend the sequel enough even without seeing the original.