Jose Padilha is the Brazilian director of three social realist works that take a sympathetic, no-easy-answers look at the rampant urban violence in Rio. His blockbuster hit was Elite Squad, a film he calls "a lot similar to" The Wire, which made Brazilian box office history by being the highest-grossing movie ever in Brazil—despite a stolen pirated copy having circulated all across the country three months before the official release. He recently eclipsed his own record with Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within, Brazil's official selection for the foreign film Academy Award, which is now out in American theaters. His next film will be the American remake of Robocop (Michael Fassbender is rumored to star). Boxoffice asked Padilha to explain why Elite Squad was the first ever Brazilian film to have a policeman as a protagonist, how cops in Rio are like American soldiers in Iraq, and whether he'll be the first Robocop when the technology becomes available.
Why did you decide to do a sequel and how did you come up with the story for the sequel?
Elite Squad 2 actually is the third movie I've made about the same subject matter, that being urban violence in Rio. I started with a documentary called Bus 174, and while I was doing this documentary—it was about a kid, a former street kid that hijacked a bus in Rio and made hostages. And the police surrounded the place, and the Elite Squad was there. When I tell that story, I got to know the cops. They were there, and I got to talk to the police and the Elite Squad in Rio, and I figured out it's important to make a movie about this, not only about the street kids and the way the state mistreats the juvenile delinquents, which is the subject matter of Bus 174, but also about why the policemen, even in the Elite Squad, have been not so well-trained, why they have so little wages, why they are so violent. So that led me with Bus 174, to do Elite Squad.
Then, as I was doing Elite Squad, that movie was about the cops in Rio. And by looking at that movie, I realized that the organization of the police in Rio, it's almost like it was promoting corruption and violence. And so that led to a question: Why is the organization of the police in Rio like this? And this led me to the sequel, which is not really about the day-to-day life of a policeman, but actually a movie that takes place in the interface between the police and the politicians where the policies are made. And so Elite Squad 2, it's a movie that sheds light on the previous movies I've done before.
You've gotten a lot of flack, I think, from the Brazilian press for Elite Squad. They've called you a Marxist and then a fascist.
Yeah, that's actually when I did Bus 174, the documentary. Some people in the right wing thought that I was sort of making an excuse for the street kids that were being amazingly violent. Because I flashback and I show the kid's life and how he was violently treated by the state. And my argument was, if the state treats someone that violently in the long run, the state is bound to produce a violent individual. And the state does this to everyone, not only Sandro [the street kid who hijacked a bus]. So some right-wing people took issue with that, and it's true, they started labeling me as a Marxist.
Then, when I did Elite Squad, the first movie, I had a protagonist who was a violent cop. Just like in Goodfellas, the protagonist is a violent gangster—in Elite Squad, the protagonist is a violent policeman. And some people from the left took issue with that. Like, you couldn't do a film in which the protagonist was a bad guy. And those people, some of them labeled me a fascist. But you know, I don't worry too much about this, 'cause I am not running for elections, so I don't have to make the world accept my views to get votes. I can pretty much say what I see. So let the ideologists deal with it.
When I did Elite Squad 2, none of this happened, actually. It was sort of unanimous in that it's sold a lot of tickets, it's the highest-grossing movie ever in Brazil, and it got great reviews and nobody labeled me anything.
Do you appreciate the fact that your films are taken so seriously by social commentators, or are you tired of the political debates and you just want people to react more to the characters and their emotional journeys?
The point of making those films is for them to be taken seriously because it's a serious issue that's been dealt with in the movies. And not only in my movies, but in other movies. Like City of God, for instance, is a movie that deals with the growth of the drug trade in Rio, and that takes place before my movie. And then you look at there are several documentaries made about this. So it's a serious issue.
If you put it in perspective, the American police kill every year about 200 to 250 criminals who resist arrest. The United States has about 300 million inhabitants. The Rio de Janeiro police has killed more than 1000 people in one year. And Rio has seven million inhabitants. It's a serious issue in that no wonder the politicians and the social commentators look at those movies and use them, actually, to debate this issue we need to solve. So I'm happy that the movies are taken seriously because that's how I meant them.
Do you feel like you have a journalistic duty in some sense because politicians and social commentators use those films as illustrations of what is happening in Rio or in Brazil?
I do, if by journalistic you mean representing or trying to represent what's going on in the real world. I try to do that. I do a lot of research to make my films. I wrote the first movie with a cop who used to be in the Elite Squad. I interviewed for Elite Squad 2 a huge number of politicians and cops in the militia and so on. I spent a lot of time researching, I saw all the investigation of the militia by the Rio de Janeiro congress. Literally, physically, I went there and sat down and saw all of it, all the depositions and so on. And so you know, I do research because I think it's my duty to represent things correctly for the audience, at least in the best possible way that I can.
I think that's something Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2 do very well. There's a line in the movie about how individuals all serve their own self-interests, but they're obviously still cogs in a machine.
There is. Listen, it's a very, very clear and established fact of social life. And it began with this research in the US, a famous researcher named Stanley Milgram, who designed this experiment that test that people would go against moral standards in situations if they were being controlled by authority inside a big organization. And what Stanley Milgram found out is that they will indeed—and not only military people, but anybody will do it. So it's very important, given that this is a fact. It's important for society to pay attention to its organizations. It's important for Rio de Janeiro to understand how the police in that city is organized and what is the culture of the organization and how it affects its members in the same way it's important for Los Angeles to organize its own police department and see how it functions and what effects it has on these cops.
Are you talking about the Rampart scandal?
No, I'm being more general. I'm saying, you always have to keep an eye and watch out for how those key organizations function in your society and also the effect they have on individuals. You can go back, you can talk about the way a police department is organized, the way the policemen are treated by the corporation—are they well-trained, are they getting good, basic wages-all those things matter in what happens in the streets. And I'm just saying you have to look into those things if you want to understand what's going on in urban violence.
You've said in previous interviews that Elite Squad was the first movie with a police protagonist. What has been the reaction of the Brazilian police or the Rio police to Elite Squad and Elite Squad 2?
Indeed, Elite Squad was the first Brazilian movie ever to have a police protagonist, which is in itself an interesting thing, because there's so many movies in so many different cultures that have policemen as protagonists. That begs the question: why the first Brazilian movie to do that took place in 2007? And I think the answer is that most of the Brazilian film culture looks at the world through a Marxist perspective, because Brazil has been a right-wing dictatorship for very long. And so culture, all of it, became left-wing and Marxist. And the hero of a Marxist film is the street kid, is the guy striking in a factory. It's not the cop. And so it took awhile for us, the Brazilian cinema, to get away from these Marxist rules and come up with a movie like that [with a cop protagonist]. And that, of course, has its consequences. That's one of the reasons why some people label Elite Squad, the first movie, fascist, just because it had a cop as a protagonist. You can't do that in a Marxist environment, so to speak.
Now, how did the policemen react to it? A lot of policemen reacted very positively. Because, in a certain sense, the policemen are the first victims of the way the police is organized in Rio. They have no training, they have a corrupt leadership, they have very low wages. So a lot of policemen came and e-mailed me saying it's great, it's good that you say this. But I also got sued, you know, by several policemen that though, because I showed the torture, the Elite Squad officials, almost every one of them sued us, trying to say that the torture was misrepresented and the battalion doesn't really do that. But we won every single lawsuit because the judges know and everybody knows exactly what goes on.
And that was the first movie. The second movie, we were unanimously received because it made a connection that everybody wants to spell out, which is that corruption on the political level contaminates the police. And in a certain sense, it spawns the violence into the police and into the city, because the politicians, when they make their policies, they are thinking only about votes, even if the votes mean getting in cahoots with the mafia, the militias that control the slums. By showing that side of things and having a broader view, which actually ends up in the center of government in that movie, Brazilians embraced the movie because we all feel that this is what's going on.
Switching gears a little bit, how important are non-Brazilian audience's reactions to your films?
As a filmmaker, I make a film that should be self-explanatory. Of course, you lose some things in any culture. Like if you make an American movie you show in Brazil, there's gonna be something that gets lost because Brazilian culture doesn't have the same background as American culture. So I understand that any movie, when it travels, it loses something. But it also can, as a filmmaker, be enriching for me to see how people react in different parts of the world to the way I show what goes on in Rio. So in a recent trip to New York, I had a New York policeman stand up and ask me a question. And that, you know, was interesting to me because I could see his perspective.
I think that this movie is universal enough for everybody to understand. Because everybody understands the trauma of a policeman who has been very violent fighting the drug trade, thinking he's fighting for justice, and then when he's promoted, he realizes that he was not fighting really for justice. He understands the political machine behind the war he was fighting. So this is a simple matter for him. It's like he's a soldier in Iraq, right? You grow up in the United States with a war in Iraq that allegedly has something to do with weapons of mass destruction being there, and then there's no weapons of mass destruction, and once you get there, you understand that there are other reasons for this war to go on. And they are manipulated, not related to democracy, and you know, how do you feel? This is kind of what this movie is about in another context. So the situation repeats itself in different societies. So I think people will relate to the movie abroad.
What drew you to the project of Robocop? Was it the crime aspect?
Robocop is a very interesting concept for me because it's a movie that talks about what does it mean to be human. What does it mean to be conscious, to be able to make your own decision and have free will? And how do you lose that? Because in Robocop, it's a movie in which a man is turned into a robot by a corporation. So metaphorically speaking, this very concept is amazingly interesting to me as a filmmaker. How do corporations take out individuals' freedom and use them to their own means and goals? This is at heart the concept of Robocop, only in Robocop, this is taken to an extreme because the corporation is actually replacing body parts. It's not doing this only psychologically, but it's doing this to the body of the individual by turning the human into a robot. So that setting, that dramatic setting of the film is exciting. That's what draws me into Robocop.
Did you do research about crime in America for Robocop? I think I read somewhere that you saw The Wire...?
Yeah, I saw The Wire. It's a great series. It's a lot similar to Elite Squad, only it's in another city. So I saw it for Elite Squad, but not for Robocop. Robocop, the original movie, it's not really about a specific city, how it works. Robocop is universal in the sense that it talks about something that happens everywhere to any individual: it's how we lose our identities to certain corporations. Or certain social corporations. It doesn't even have to be a corporation. So Robocop is universal in this sense.
I am researching for Robocop, but I'm actually learning a lot of neurology, a lot of philosophy on the brain, the mind-body problem, a lot of philosophy of free will and so on. And the future of robotics, which is pretty much around the corner for us. We're totally gonna have, you know, smart body implants and stuff like this. Which was a lot of fiction in the '80s, but it's no longer fiction now. That's what I'm researching because that's what's at the core of Robocop.
So when these new body technologies come out, are you going to be first in line to get them? Or do you think you're gonna wait a bit?
I'm not gonna enlist to be the first Robocop.
Okay, so Jose Padilha is not going to be the first Robocop. Got it.
I'm not. I'm not enlisting myself to be Robocop. But you know, listen, I think there is a brilliant concept in the idea behind Robocop, and it was very well-explored in the first movie. But there are other things you can say using that same concept, more modern things that have to do with the new science and so on, and there are also very important social issues that are here now that will still come. And that is a great reason to make this movie.