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“Our biggest passion is finding emotional moments in horrific situations” – Talking With Director Navot Papushado

Impact caught up with Israeli director Navot Papushado, one half of the team behind Israel’s first horror film Rabies, and Big Bad Wolves which Quentin Tarantino called his favourite film of 2013.

Warning: Contains spoilers for Big Bad Wolves.

Your debut feature Rabies is the first horror film to come out of Israel, why did you choose to make a genre film? 

Aharon [Keshales, his co-director] and I were 80’s kids and these were the sort of movies we grew up on and liked. Growing up in Israel there was no genre cinema at all, and we thought there was a gap to be filled. We wanted to make a film we wanted to see. But we didn’t make it because we wanted to be the first, we made it because it was what we wanted to see.

People asked if making horror films was something Israel wanted to do.

Of course there is motivation in knowing you’re the first one, a pioneer, and it was a great way to market it. Although it was also somewhat of a disadvantage because the reason there was no horror films in Israel because Israeli people didn’t really like them. It was a great debut film for us and created our reputation in Israel, it gained a cult following and became the most successful horror film to film in Israel. But it also raised a lot of eyebrows, people asked if making horror films was something Israel wanted to do. There were a lot of pros and cons to being the first Israeli horror film.

Although Israel didn’t produce horror films, did horror films play in Israel?

Films like Alien and The Exorcist were great horror films that came to Israel. Films by Wes Craven and John Carpenter played in cinemas but not their weird stuff, we had to discover them on DVD.

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How did you begin working with Aharon?

Aharon was my professor at Tel Aviv University, we became very good friends and he became involved in my filmmaking. He was the only professor who encouraged me to make horror films. We were both film buffs, we loved popcorn cinema as well as arthouse cinema, so we became good friends. He produced my graduation film and we toured the festival circuit with it. When we were in Atlantic City he asked me what was next, and I said we should make a horror film, and that’s when we came up with Rabies.

We were good friends and then we became colleagues, it was a natural thing to do

By then Aharon was a well known professor and film critic in Israel, and I told him he was wasting his talent. It was like reading a Tarantino script in the form of a review, and I wanted to take advantage of his writing skills. He was really shy at first and maybe only wanted to write and not direct, but he’s one of the most gifted filmmakers I know. For me, working together was a natural thing to do. We were good friends and then we became colleagues, it was a natural thing to do.

What is your process of writing a script? 

Usually we go for ‘power walks’, we don’t sit down in a room. We go for walks in malls, we don’t like to shop, but we just like to walk around malls or Tel Aviv streets and pitch ideas. It usually happens when we see a movie we liked but wasn’t perfect and we think we could do it better or it gives us an idea, how about instead of doing this, we do that? We wouldn’t start writing until we have a full treatment and that’s when we sit in a room and work on the dialogue and the script.

Is there ever any conflict when writing?

The joke here in Israel is that Aharon and I share the same brain. I’m not sure if they mean each of us only has a half a brain. Usually it goes like this, I pitch an idea and Aharon tries to top it, then I try to top his…and then one of us will go too far and we’ll try to reign it in. Usually Aharon is the responsible grown up, he’ll suggest when to take it down a notch. Things usually run pretty smoothly. We just like playing with ideas and conventions, and breaking them.

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Were you ever concerned that merging horror and comedy might dilute the two? 

From the beginning we knew humour would help us deal with a subject matter. Obvious we are not laughing at child torture or abuse, but we laugh at the end of those perimeters and at ourselves, how men act like kids when it comes to their sense of justice and there sense of what is right and wrong. We laugh a lot about machoism, and we laugh a lot about family relationships.

What films or filmmakers have influenced your work?

Rabies was not only influenced by horror films. Our favourite directors, if I had to list them, would be Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Brian de Palma, Francis Ford Coppola, Roman Polanski and William Friedkin. We realised that many of the great directors started in horror. Specifically for Rabies, we wondered what it would be like if Robert Altman directed a horror film, or something like Magnolia, where all these people are brought together by terrible circumstances. We drew inspiration from a lot of genres, horror films and just films we liked. We also took influence from recent Korean films, specifically their blending of genres, it’s dramatic, it’s horrific, it’s funny, it’s everything. We are great fans of the Coen brothers and Quentin Tarantino. Rabies was our first attempt at mixing it all up. We took everything we liked and mixed it up in one crazy film.

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How did it feel to have Quentin Tarantino call Big Bad Wolves his favourite film of 2013?

It was definitely one of the highlights of our career. Aharon said it would be like meeting Elvis and having him say you could actually sing.  Big Bad Wolves was really successful before we met Tarantino, it had been picked up by Magnolia [Pictures] and received positive reviews from critics, we had already sold it in many territories, in Israel it was a huge hit and picked up five Israeli Academy Awards. By the time we met Tarantino we thought the film had gone as far as it could, and then he put another spotlight on it and the whole world saw it.

How did Tarantino get to see the film?

During the surprisingly successful Big Bad Wolves festival tour we flipped a coin, Aharon went to Chicago and Denver and I went to Sweden and Korea. While in Korea I get a call from Aharon telling me Tarantino is there and that I need to get him to watch our movie, and I asked “how could I do that?” It was just by a miracle that that was the only film he was going to see at the festival. I got a chance to spend the whole day with him. It’s one of those coincidences where you make a film inspired by a particular director, even the title, Big Bag Wolves evokes Reservoir Dogs. It was one of those moments where you think getting his seal of approval has to be more than a coincidence, but it showed that we were on the right track and doing something right. It was a great honour and it put our film in the spotlight.

Big Bad Wolves

In the end of Big Bad Wolves it’s revealed that the tortured man was in fact guilty which arguably vindicates the actions of the perpetrators. Why did you choose to end it this way and did you consider ending it differently? 

That’s the million dollar question. We had a lot of arguments with our producers about it, they wanted it to end on a happier note. They wanted the audience to leave the theatre with an uplifting ending, a bit like Rabies did in a very twisted way, where you leave laughing not realising you just saw one of the most misanthropic films ever. They said it would be much more commercial if the guy didn’t do it so the moral was that violence only leads to violence. Aharon and I argued that we’ve seen that a million times, there’s nothing new about bad things happening to good people or the wrong people.

It’s showing that the circle never ends. When you think about, it’s a reverse revenge story

We wanted to raise another question. What if he did do all those horrific things? Does that justify what they did to him? It’s a much more interesting moral question. You can argue about that question more than if they just caught the wrong man. But they caught the right man, what some people might call justice. But in doing so, they accidentally kill another girl who will never be found. It’s showing that the circle never ends. When you think about, it’s a reverse revenge story, it’s really the revenge of the school teacher. That is why he keeps his mouth shut throughout the whole movie, he knows that by killing him he will have the upper hand in the end. It was much more interesting and complex morally to make him actually the bad guy.

How did you get involved in ABCs of Death 2

The producers of ABCs of Death 2 are the festival managers of all the genre festivals, so we were introduced to them and they took us under their wing, they discovered us and Rabies. With Big Bad Wolves we showed them that they’re confidence in us was not misplaced. It was a natural progression for them to ask us to make a short segment.

Your segment is more dramatic and political than many of the others, why did you decide to take this route?

We knew everyone would go and do something very gory and shocking, but that is not really us. If you’ve seen Big Bad Wolves you’ll see we’re interested in a different aspect of horror. We set out to make something more dramatic and take the opportunity to be more political. Big Bad Wolves and Rabies have a lot of political subtext. Being part of 26 directors and having the opportunity to represent Israel we wanted to do something political and represent Israel horror. We were lucky enough that the producer said: “Hell, go for it!”.

Aharon and mines biggest passion is finding dramatic emotional moments inside of a horrific situation

It was a script which we had written specifically for the anthology, and we wanted to show something that was more emotional and dramatic about how kids on both sides are being used as pawns in the political conflict between our two nations. We also wanted to show that in a different lifetime those two characters could be friends, there is a sort of sexual tension between the two of them, you can see that they like each other. Aharon and mines biggest passion is finding dramatic emotional moments inside of a horrific situation.

F is for Falling

Do you have a favourite segment from either ABCs of Death?

From 2 I really liked ‘A is for Amateur’, I think E.L Katz is a brilliant guy, Cheap Thrills was probably my favourite film of last year. I also liked ‘Z is for Zygote’. From the first film I really liked ‘L is for Libido’, well, I can’t say I liked it, but I was shocked by it. I hadn’t seen anything like that.

You use mainly practical effects in your films, do you prefer these over CGI?

Oh yes, definitely. Though there was an effect in both Rabies and Big Bad Wolves that we simply could not do entirely practically, so it was a combination of the two. In Rabies you have the bad cop being speared in the chest, we had to do some compositing work on that. The burning in Big Bad Wolves with the blow torch, we had to use some CGI for that. Other than that, there’s is no school like old school, we try to get everything we can on the set, I think it feels more real and natural. It’s much more challenging, but better for the actors, it’s better on every level.

We wanted to achieve everything on set, that was quite a challenge for our special effects guys

With Rabies being the first Israeli horror film, no one really knew how to do anything, so we invented everything. If you go back and see Rabies, you can see that all the actions scenes, and all the violent scenes and deaths are in one long take. We wanted to achieve everything on set, that was quite a challenge for our special effects guys. In Big Bad Wolves we had to step it up a notch in our filmmaking so we had to actually invent a lot of stuff, do a lot of research and it’s a funny thing, but before Rabies we didn’t have a category for makeup effects in the Israeli oscars.

Has there been in an increase in the amount of genre productions coming out of Israel following Rabies?

Yes, definitely. It looks like everyone wants to make a genre film. Every wanted to make the next thriller. Tarantino is a god here in Israel, there are three directors everybody worships here, it used to include Steven Spielberg but the new generation is all about Tarantino and the Coen brothers.

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How did you assembled the cast for both of your features, and were you pleased with them all?

For Rabies, imagine the cast of Twilight, Tom Cruise, Cate Blanchett together in a small, shoestring budget horror film. It was the first time anyone did that in Israel. By the time Rabies came out, it was Rabies mania, all the newspapers were talking about it, Aharon got interviewed for the 8 o’clock news. Actually, I’m not sure we told anybody about this, but the cop in Rabies (who is also the lead in Big Bad Wolves) is the biggest actor in Israel, he is our George Clooney, and we kind of tricked him into doing it. We told him he was the main character, but he read the script and said: “Fuck that guys, I know I’m not the lead role, but I’ll do it because I like the script.”After we got him, everybody wanted in, so we felt like we owed him. We bumped in to him on the street with his fiancee, and he started shouting at us: “Listen up you fucking wankers, stop doing the festival circuit and write me a movie!” After a couple of days Aharon called him back, and said: “Listen Lior, we’re going to write you a movie, you’re going to play a douche bag cop, a violent cop, a total idiot like you are in real-life.” And he replied: “Hell yeah, I know how to play that.”

We like to bring in famous and talented actors for the cameos as we think that brings a lot to the movie

After the success of Rabies we knew Big Bad Wolves wouldn’t be a problem to cast. The guy who played the torturing father is the biggest dramatic actor in Israel, he’s the Israeli Daniel Day-Lewis or Gene Hackman. We wrote that part especially for him as well. The grandfather, is our Israeli John Cleese, he’s our biggest comedian, we grew up watching him. He hadn’t acted in cinema for over 30 years, so this was his big comeback. He was known as someone with quite a difficult personality, so for him this was his redemption. He’s the nicest, sweetest guy on earth.

For the suspected pedophile we wanted a fresh face, we wanted our Kevin Spacey. It was his second feature film, he was a newcomer and he did an amazing job. All of the other actors you see in Big Bad Wolves are big faces in Israel. We like to bring in famous and talented actors for the cameos as we think that brings a lot to the movie.

Rabies and Big Bad Wolves have their own distinct look. How did you approach the cinematography?

Because Rabies was more of a flashier film, we wanted to make it handheld. Everyone on the set of Rabies was either one of Aharon’s students or my friends. Our cinematographer, Guy, was a fellow student, we had made all our movies together up until Rabies, so it was the natural thing to do it with him. Rabies was his first feature film, and since then he has done six or seven features, so it really kickstarted his career.

Rabies was the right film to make for our first feature and the budget, but Big Bad Wolves is a lot closer to what we like

For Big Bad Wolves we wanted something entirely different, so we approached Giora Bejach, who in my opinion, is the best cinematographer in Israel. Big Bad Wolves was completely different, each crew member was the best we could get our hands on in Israel, everybody wanted to work with us. It’s is a lot closer to how we think cinema should look and sound like. Rabies was the right film to make for our first feature and the budget, but Big Bad Wolves is a lot closer to what we like.

Which director should every aspiring filmmaker be familiar with?

I’d go straight for the source: Sergio Leone, especially The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, it was the bible for me as a kid. I watch it every time I begin shooting a movie. Obviously Martin Scorsese and Steven Spielberg, the way Spielberg uses the camera to tell a story is a masterclass, it’s the best school for moving the camera. Of course Tarantino and the Coen Brothers from recent years. I can’t not put Francis Ford Coppola and Brian de Palma. Everyone is inspired by these 70’s filmmakers because they invented everything.

What you working on now?

We are developing an English language remake for Sony of a Hong Kong film called Vengeance. 

Sam Todd

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