Interview: Elite Squad Director Jose Padilha


In 2007, José Padilha’s Elite Squad introduced the world to Wagner Moura’s Captain Roberto Nascimento, the head of Rio de Janeiro’s crack police team Special Police Operations Battalion (BOPE), essentially the Brazilian version of SWAT but one with higher standards that puts them at odds with the corruption that permeates the rest of the force. It was an enormous hit in Brazil despite an aggravating case of piracy that had millions of people seeing the movie before its theatrical release.

Now Padilha and Moura are back with Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, a film that puts Nascimento behind a desk in the government’s secret service where he learns that corruption goes well beyond the police force. As Nascimento tries to come to turns with losing his wife and being taken off the force, a number of non-BOPE officers have figured out a way to eliminate the drug dealers in Rio’s favelas (slums), setting up their own protective militias to take advantage of the populous areas and build support for equally corrupt local politicians. sat down with Padilha earlier this week to find out exactly how much of his latest police thriller is based on the real politics in Brazil and we were shocked to learn that it wasn’t just a movie filled police in shootouts with criminals, but an in-depth look at the city’s complicated politics. Obviously, the first “Elite Squad” was an enormous hit in Brazil. At what point did you know you wanted to do another movie and did you already have ideas of where you wanted to go with it?
José Padilha:
Not really. The first movie I did about the subject matter of urban violence so to speak was a documentary called “Bus 174” and in that, I started showing how the state mistreated small-time criminals to the point of making him a very violent individual who hijacked a bus and killed people. So what I was trying to say in “Bus 174” is that because of the way the state works, it’s breeding violent criminals itself. “Elite Squad 1” talks about the same process but on the side of the police, so the state not only breeds violent criminals but it also breeds corrupt and violent police. “Elite Squad 2” is about why. Why does the state do that? So the movie now instead of taking place inside the police environment, it takes place in the interface between the police and the politics. In a certain sense, “Elite Squad: The Enemy Within” sheds light on both previous movies because it explains why do things work that way? So I went from one movie to another movie to another movie and now I think I’ve said what I have to say about that. I’m done.

CS: I was surprised because I was expecting a lot of police shootouts with criminals, and I had no idea this was going to be more about the police taking on politicians. Usually, when you have crime or police movies, it’s either from the criminals’ point of view or police point of view, but rarely if ever looking at politics through the police.
I understand, because my agenda from the first movie, “Bus 174” to “The Enemy Within” is to explain, not to sell films, so I tried to make the movie that explains that particular thing, so in the first movie, their aim is to explain that the state, because it has very violent police, because it doesn’t have good schools for juvenile delinquent street kids, because it treats them with amazing violence, it breeds violent criminals. The second movie was to explain, “Look at how the police are organized. Look at the management culture (if you could put it this way) of the police corporation in Rio and no wonder we have corruption and violence.” The next step in the explanation of those events had to take me out of the shooting into the politics. I had to do it. But you’re right. It’s not usual. Most people in Brazil, the audience and the press, they went to the opening of “Elite Squad 2” and they thought “Oh, it’s going to be another Jason Bourne kind of thing like ‘Elite Squad 1.’ There’s going to be a lot of shootouts,” and then they look at it, and it’s not! And it sold ten times more tickets than the first one.

CS: By the way, I have family in Brazil and I lived there myself…
So you know…

CS: Well, I lived there when I was a little kid in the (DECADE REDACTED). How hard is it getting a movie like this out there when you’re taking on the government like this? I know you had problems with the police with the first movie…
Yeah, I did yeah.

CS: But with this movie, you’re going against the government, so how do you make a movie in Brazil without having any sort of government support backing you up?
Well, I’m not that popular with the politicians, I have to say. (chuckles) But here’s the thing. “Elite Squad,” the first movie, it was pirated like three months before it opened and it became like a cultural phenomenon in Brazil. It was on the cover of all the magazines and all newspapers, and it was the talk of the moments, and the polling companies that do polling for elections and everything, they researched it and thought that the movie was seen by 20 million people before it opened in the theaters.

CS: How many people live in Brazil?
About 200 million. It’s still a lot for a movie, so when we opened “Elite Squad 2,” the movie is the biggest grossing movie ever in the history of cinema in all of Latin America. It grossed more than “Avatar,” and it sold 11.5 million tickets in the theaters, which is the all-time record of Brazilian cinema, and so it’s very popular. And Nascimento is considered the most popular character ever in the film industry in Brazil, and so it’s very bad for a politician to come out against that film, so what the politicians did is they pretended it didn’t exist. They never talked about, it’s like it’s not there. What are you going to do? Are you going to say, “I’m going to sue this guy now.” Oops. You’re going to lose a lot of votes next election, so I think the amount of people that went to see the movie and the kind of a reaction it got in the press, that was what protected me from backlashes.

CS: What about working with Wagner on the character of Nascimento and where he was going to go in this movie? Did you talk with him about that a lot?
Yes. Wagner is a very special actor in the sense that not only is he amazingly talented on the set, but when he reads the screenplay, he doesn’t just read his character. He reads the whole film, and so he understands the dramatic structure of the whole film and the role his character plays in it, and because he works this way, this is how he builds his performance, he’s very helpful for me. We discussed the screenplay – not only his character, the whole screenplay, so the creative input that Wagner has in this film, it’s very big, and on the set, a lot of what I have on-set is improvised. Not only Wagner. Wagner is a master improviser so a lot of what he says is made on the spot. I’m not fuzzy about following dialogue. What is important for me is that the actor understands the character and what’s the role of the character in that film. In a sense it’s something that’s easier to do in Brazil because in Brazil, I have the luxury of rehearsing the film for two months with all the cast, and here it’s impossible because the cast is very expensive, so you’ll go bankrupt, because you can’t have top American actors for two months. In Brazil, I can, so that process makes all the characters have a real deep understanding of the film. Typically, on set, we do the screenplay version and then I say, “Okay, let’s try something different.” I always do that and it invites the actors to improvise, and Wagner is very, very successful at improvising.

CS: Did you end up using a lot of his improvised bits?
Oh, absolutely.

CS: I’m also curious about the passage of time in the movie, because you watch it and it randomly will just jump forward four years or so, and it’s not something you see very often in movies where you see a story unfold where you actually get to see how character’s actions affect them over time. How did you work that out and why did you decide to do that?
The movie has to do with interaction of the characters with social structures, and one thing that this movie has is that it has a policeman that is now managing the whole police, trying to implement a social program to fight the drug dealers and the program works and because it works, it replaces the drug dealers with something that’s worse than them, which is the MAFIA, the militias, controlled by the police.

CS: And that’s fictional…
No, that’s totally true. That’s what’s going on in Rio right now, so because the movie has to do with how the character responds to that huge social process, it has to cover a long span of time, because the social process takes a long span of time. That’s why we have this time passage.

CS: One of the more interesting characters is the TV host, the Fortunato character, and I assume that actor was improvising a lot, but it brings a rather edgy humor to the whole thing because he’s a man the people love but he’s very un-PC and anti-liberal…
Listen, you guys have your own Fortunato guys. Most of them work at Fox, right? (laughs)

CS: It’s so strange to have this character who is so conservative but also so popular among the people of the favelas.
Well, guess what? The Fortunato character exists. Listen, here’s one thing, and if you’re a foreigner you don’t get it. Everything in this movie is true. The movie opens with a rebellion inside a jail in which one group of drug dealers want to kill the leader of the other. It happened. There is an NGO guy who goes there to talk to the drug dealers and to try to protect the police from doing a massacre. That guy exists. His name in real life is Frejo, in the movie we call him “Fraga.” This guy goes to become a state legislator; it actually happened. He tries to create an investigation about the militias and he can’t do it until journalists are tortured. It actually happened. Everything that you see in this movie is true.

CS: So you’re still using your documentary skills on these movies then.
Usually I say I have no imagination. I got this stuff from reality. Because listen, truly, reality is so crazy in Rio. It’s very hard for anybody to come up with anything that’s better than that. You do have a Fortunato character in Rio. You do have a guy who dances like that, it’s true! We have that guy!

CS: But the actor who plays him is amazing, he’s hilarious.
He’s a theater actor and a very funny one, and so I decided to go for the funny guy to play the conservative guy, somebody who is going to give what you said a funny, humorous edge.

CS: Even though you mentioned you’ve said all that you wanted to say with the “Elite Squad” movies, there’s been talk of a television show based on it, so are you involved with that at all?
No, nothing to do with me. “Elite Squad” generated a lot of other things. Before “Elite Squad,” there’s never been a movie in Brazil in which the protagonist was a cop, never happened.

CS: Which is kind of strange… at least for us.
It’s strange for anybody, because you have to understand that Brazil was a dictatorship, and a right wing dictatorship so all the culture in Brazil was Marxist in opposite to the right wing of the dictatorship, so the Marxist hero is someone who is excluded from society. It’s the worker in the factory who is on strike, is the street kid, it’s not the cop, and so it took a long time… we had to overthrow the dictators, until somebody could actually do a movie about a cop, and that was me. (chuckles) And after I did this first one, then now there are TV series and there’s a lot of stuff talking about cops, because it works. It sells tickets.

CS: When your name was first mentioned to direct “RoboCop,” the few people who had seen the first “Elite Squad” might have gotten it, but anyone who sees this movie may be surprised how close the corruption in Rio reflects the world created in the original “RoboCop.” It’s very similar.
It is, it is.

And you can read what Padilha told us about his version of RoboCop by clicking here.

Elite Squad: The Enemy Within opens in New York City at the AMC Empire 25 on Friday, November 11, in L.A. in November 18, and then hopefully in other cities after that.