Fantastic Fest: Jose Padilha Talks Oscar Entry Elite Squad 2, His Take on RoboCop, and Those Fassbender Rumors

Following the success of his 2007 cop drama Elite Squad, Brazilian filmmaker Jose Padilha turned his lens back on Rio de Janeiro's corrupt system in a sequel, Elite Squad 2: The Enemy Within. A critical and commercial smash that set box office records and was selected as Brazil's official Oscars entry, Elite Squad 2 played Sunday at Fantastic Fest where Movieline caught up with Padilha to discuss why his incisive films have resonated in Brazil and the philosophical questions raised in his remake of RoboCop, which he's currently writing. And what's up with those Michael Fassbender casting rumors?

Elite Squad was a great success in Brazil but the reception of Elite Squad 2 was even greater. What do you attribute that to - why do you think Brazilian audiences responded so well to it?

The first Elite Squad sold two and a half million tickets; the second one sold eleven and a half million tickets. So it kind of grew, a lot, and became an amazingly popular film in Brazil. And why is that? I think it's because it talks about something that is in the day to day life of every Brazilian that lives in a big city, in a way that has not been discussed before. It shows violence and where it comes from, from the perspective of a violent policeman. And that perspective has not been seen in Brazilian film before. Most of the Brazilian films that dealt with urban violence were shot from the perspective of the criminals -- like City of God, like Bus 174 which I did myself... so you understand what it is that makes a poor kid violent and become a criminal and so on. And the police just show up to kill them but you don't understand what makes a policeman violent. So I decided, let's look at the other side of this reality, following the life of a guy in the Elite Squad.

Are these sorts of corruption stories widely known?

Elite Squad and The Enemy Within, both films are based on real events. There's very little fiction in there. Not only are the stories made of actual events, the scenes are. So in The Enemy Within, when we open with a rebellion in a jail, that took place. There is a left wing guy who's trying to mediate between the Elite Squad, that person exists. It's all taken from reality, and it's interesting because this is also one of the reasons why this movie works so well in Brazil. People go to the movies saying, 'Now I'm going to know exactly what took place,' which is different from the official media version of it, because I got the people to write the screenplay with me.

Was there ever any fear that exposing these real events and people through the film would put you at risk?

No. Well, I was sued by policemen and the chief of police wanted me to give a deposition to give the names of all the cops who helped me.

Do you think they're tapping your phone?

I don't think so, no... I change numbers all the time. [Laughs] But in any case, those official lawsuits and stuff happened, but then the film became so popular that it became hard for the police to do that, because the governor of the state would say, 'Stop it' because it's not popular for a politician to go against it. I think if you make a movie and you talk about, let's say, the mob, and you make a general movie about how the mob works in America, that's not going to put you at risk. But if you go after a specific gangster, that can get you killed. My movie is general. I like to survive after I make my films.

The opening line of your film mentions Hollywood clichés, and films like Fast Five, for example, have recently come to Brazil to depict a version of what's going on there from an outsider point of view.

Well first of all, when we say 'Hollywood'... we're talking about the cheesy kind of thing, not all of Hollywood. Those formula films, they are generic. It doesn't matter where you make them. If you take a movie like this to Rio, it's for the scenery -- it has nothing to do with Rio itself because that's not what the movie's about. You could take it to Japan if you like -- in fact, they did! It's not local, you know?

The Fast Five plot did involve corruption and local police in Rio...

It did, but it's so superficial that it doesn't matter. If you go to Japan, you make a plot that has to do with the Yakuza... it's on the nose, and that's the nature of those kinds of films. Not to say whether they're good or bad, that's what they are. So in the first line of The Enemy Within, Nacimento says, 'It may sound like a Hollywood cliché, but it's when you're about to die when you understand your life.' And it sounds like a Hollywood cliché, but that's what he meant! [Laughs]

Your next film, RoboCop, finds you going from one police story to another.

Right! I'm sort of stuck with cops.

Do you see a throughline there?

It's a different kind of thing, because my police movies in Brazil sort of analyze social structures in Brazil and what is it that breeds violence, and what sort of violence it is? How those social structures create certain types of people, like the lead role in Elite Squad. So it's a little bit like social analysis of a specific location and place. RoboCop is not about that; it's a different kind of film. Even looking at the first RoboCop, which is a film that I love, it's not local in that sense; it has an acid critique of society as a whole and it also deals with different subject matter that is more universal, like what is it like to replace people with automatic systems?

But the setting serves a different purpose than it does in your other films?

Well, it takes place in Detroit but those questions are very true. A lot of jobs today are being automated; what happens when you extend that concept to very important areas of society like law enforcement? What happens if you start controlling the behavior of criminals or people in general with software-running machines? Those questions, they look like they're sci-fi but they're not. Pretty soon we'll have robots in our society, you're going to have a lot of automated processes that used to be done by people - this is happening. Society and technology is changing so fast, and the impact of the change on society and technology is global, not local. RoboCop talks a little bit about this. What does it mean to replace a person or enhance a person by using technology? What does that do to the person themselves? What sort of drama does it create, what sort of philosophical questions lurk behind those things? So it's totally different; even though it's a cop movie, it's more than a cop movie.

You gave an interview in which you mentioned you'd like Michael Fassbender for the lead.

I love Fassbender, but that's a funny thing. I love a lot of actors and I was giving this interview for a Dutch newspaper because The Enemy Within was opening in Holland, and the guy was like, 'You've got to say, who's going to be RoboCop??' But I like a lot of American actors! I like Fassbender, I like Chris Pine! Then he printed that I liked Fassbender. I love Fassbender but I haven't even discussed RoboCop with him. He's great. There are a lot of great actors.

What qualities are you looking for in your RoboCop?

Listen, I like great actors. You can be a movie star without being a great actor -- this has been proved several times -- and I like my casts to have great actors. Acting is more important to me than being a star. I feel like if you have a great plot, if you have a great script, acting will do it for you. That's my approach. Now, if you can have a great actor who is also a movie star, because that also exists, that's the best thing. And that's what I'm looking for in a RoboCop.

How did you approach casting for Elite Squad, by the same method?

Wagner Moura is both things in Brazil -- he is an actor and a movie star. He is a great actor. He has done one of the best Hamlets I've seen in my life, and he's now doing an American film with Matt Damon, he's shooting it in Canada, and you guys are going to see how good he is. He's right there with any actor anywhere in the U.S. or in Europe, but he's in Brazil so people don't know him yet. So it was a no-brainer casting Wagner for me. I didn't discover him, he was already there. It's true that with Elite Squad he became bigger and that's what sort of gave him the movie star thing, but you could see already. You could see how good he was. Actually, he's the first person who ever read the script. I wrote thinking of him.

I also loved your Matias, Andre Ramiro.

He's a great guy -- he was not an actor. You know what he did before I cast him? He was selling tickets in a movie theater. He's a rapper. He just showed up to auditions and he came, because he liked movies and sold tickets in theaters, and he had a good sense of improvisation from being a rapper. Because of his background he knew how slums worked; he was born and raised in one. So he understood how the police worked, and how the drug trade worked, because he dealt with them on a day to day basis. He gave a good performance in the audition and I just decided, let's invest in this guy -- let's prepare him for two or three months before we start shooting, and give it a try. Now he's an actor. Now he's doing soap operas!

Another great casting move in The Enemy Within comes in the opening sequence, when we watch Seu Jorge start a prison riot. How did that come about?

Seu Jorge is a genius. He really is. He is a guy who has an amazing sense of rhythm, music-wise, he's a great singer, he's a great composer, and he's a born actor. If he decided to be an actor instead of a singer he'd be one of the best actors in Brazil. He's just like that; I did no rehearsal with him whatsoever. We just met one day before the shoot, I talked a little bit about what it should be and then, 'Let's go!'

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