By Danny Peary
Beware that this Friday, Big Bad Wolves opens in New York theaters and also can be seen on VOD and iTunes. I saw Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado’s first film, Rabies, on a whim at the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival and afterward I tried to coax everyone into seeing it. I’m not sure if they wrongly believed it was about rabid dogs–rather than vociferous and dangerous human hunters and prey–and weren’t intrigued that it was being hailed as “the first Israeli horror film,” but no one seemed interested. So I was a bit surprised that the writer-directors’ second film, Big Bad Wolves, was one of the most anticipated films at the 2013 TFF. Later last year, it was the lone midnight movie at the prestigious Boston Jewish Film Festival. Back home, it was selected the best film of 2013 by the Israeli Critics Association. (Quentin Tarentino did it one better, claiming it was the best film of the year in the entire world.) According to a lengthy article in last Sunday’s New York Times, the film is changing the landscape for genre films in Israel. Whereas Rabies initially was given a designation that prevented anyone under 18 from seeing it, Big Bad Wolves can be “enjoyed” by moviegoers over 14. I guess after Rabies, about a maniacal killer threatening several screwy characters in the woods, played in about fifty international festivals and was lauded by horror-movie critics, word got out that Keshales, a film theory professor, and Papushado, his former pupil, should not be included among the new generation of horror-filmmakers who emphasize gore over content and characters.
In Big Bad Wolves, Miki (Lior Ashkenazi), a brutal cop, and Gidi (Tzachi Grad), the even more brutal father of a young girl who was kidnapped and beheaded, torture a suspected pedophile, Dror (Rotem Keinan), trying to make him confess to the crime. It sounds like shallow torture porn, but from the first shot of the film, it’s clear that these filmmakers know and understand not just horror films but every other kind of movie, and their new work is an exercise in putting film theory into practice. I much prefer it to Prisoners, which has a similar premise. It is sometimes hard to watch and to defend, but refreshingly there is rhyme and reason behind everything that happens in this movie. And significantly, the brutality is meant less to excite the senses than it is to stimulate the mind into thinking about serious political and social issues–and to question our own morality.
This is confirmed in the following interview/conversation I had with Keshales (pictured left, left), who lives just outside of Tel Aviv, and Papushado (pictured left, right), who lives in the city.
Danny Peary: Perhaps because Big Bad Wolves is essentially about three immoral guys, it reminds me of Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly. Leone’s title was meant to be ironic and his film could more accurately be called, as your film could, The Ugly,The Uglier& the Ugliest. I thought my comparing the two films might be off-the-wall because your film isn’t a western, but I’ve now heard that The Good, The Bad & The Ugly is your favorite movie.
Aharon Kehales: Yes. I think Tuco [played by Eli Wallach] is the best-written character for an adventure film that I’ve ever seen. You know, none of the three characters has an origin story or history, but Tuco is the only one with whom you get a glimpse of his other life.
DP: Well, the Man with No Name/”Blondie” says practically nothing. Clint Eastwood plays him, so he’s handsome, but he’s actually a ruthless, greedy killer; Eli Wallach’s Tuco is very funny but he’s committed every crime including murder, and Lee Van Cleef’s black-clad villian “Angel Eyes” is evil through and through. Three bad guys, with varying degrees of badness. But I don’t know if you were thinking of your movie in that way?
Navot Papushado: We didn’t want to call it Big Bad Wolf, we wanted to call it Big Bad Wolves, and that really relates to what you’re saying. It was very important for us to portray all three men as complex with shades of bad to them and shades of good to them and in the end no one is clean.
DP (laughing): I don’t know if they have shades of goodness. Very, very little. They like their daughters, that’s about it.
AK: That’s a basic thing in Israel, the familial trait. There is horrific stuff but family is always in the center of the Israeli identity. We’re always doing stuff and we justify whatever we do with our kids and the future of our kids.
DP: Your pre-title scene where three kids playing hide and seek in slow motion is stunning. I was thinking Leone, Brian De Palma, Sam Peckinpah, and having seen Rabies, I was thinking you guys, too. When did you decide to have this pre-title sequence?
NP: I think it was a very early stage that we decided we wanted to do something which would stand out.
AK: We put a lot of effort into that first scene, because we wanted to set a specific tone for the first three or four minutes, before it escalates into another kind of story. You have this fairy tale opening, slow motion, very beautiful, very innocent, and then something wrong happens and you deteriorate into this very sick fairy tale.
DP: There’s a sense of menace and we know something is going to go wrong. We wonder which of the kids something bad is going to happen to. And we know it’s a bad idea for the girl to hide behind a door in an abandoned building.
NP: With these kids, there’s something that is almost innocent but it’s the opposite of that. In the early stage of the script we got the idea for this hide-and-seek scene that would establish that even the most childish games could have, as you say, a very menacing tone to them. It would be very beautiful, very poetic and dreamlike, and then we’d bring reality crashing into it in the second scene. It switches very fast to being very brutal when the cop Micki and his two thugs interrogate the suspected pedophile.
DP: I’ve seen a video of you guys being interviewed while promoting Rabies. You were talking about how your next film was going to be a very violent kidnapping film but not a gore film. Did you know what the whole film was at the point but just weren’t telling people?
AK: We started off wanting to do not a drama per se, but for the script to be very dramatic. We wanted to do a film about a suspected pedophile, and do it from his point of view. Because all the time in this kind of movie, you get the fathers’ or vigilante cops’ points of view, and we wanted to tell the story of a suspected pedophile whose life is being shattered by suspicion. His wife stops talking to him, he can’t see his daughter, he’s fired from school, and the police think he’s guilty of murder.
DP: Don’t give away the ending, but when you were just conceiving the storyline, were you thinking that the suspected pedophile would be innocent or guilty?
AK: We wondered if the script would have more depth if it turns out he did do it. What if in the end you know he did it, but still you ask yourself very important moral questions in regard to the torture: Does it make any difference whether he did this horrific stuff? Is the torture justified either way?
NP: A lot of producers and people who invested in the film, said “Okay, if he didn’t do it, then it’s morally wrong what the father and cop do to him and the impact is not that strong.” If you’re questioning if it’s okay to torture an innocent man, of course the answer would be no, it’s wrong. But is it okay to torture a guilty man? Now you have a really moral question that we wanted to raise. The ending provides comic relief in a twisted way, but we really wanted to change the tone at the end to something very dark and very…
NP: Yes, haunting. We didn’t want to release the audience.
AK: It was agreed by us, as directors and writers, that the whole point of the movie is morally twisted.
DP: As an audience member, the major concern is: do we want the man being tortured to be guilty? Or would it be better–and a stronger indictment against torture–if the two torturers go to jail because he turns out to have been innocent and they were wrong? As I was watching the movie–and I can even say this now without giving away what really happens–I was guessing you’d have him turn out to be innocent but that after being tortured to death, the police, while celebrating his death, get another phone call from the real killer. [When I name my suspect, both directors laugh.] As an audience member, you’re putting us in a real interesting situation. Do we want him to be guilty or do we not, because he’s being tortured? So what do we want and who do we want punished here?
NP: That is, I think, the most important thing, what we wanted to nail. The way you described your feeling watching the film is the biggest compliment for us because we want to put the audience in a very tough, difficult position. Okay, you’re having fun, but you’re watching the most horrific scenes. You’re laughing at what shouldn’t be very funny. We’ve actually gotten a few responses from people in the audience who say, “You’re making us very uncomfortable enjoying something.”
DP: And then no longer enjoying it.
NP: And then no longer enjoying it, and being punished for having enjoyed it.
AK: We’re covering very taboo ground, we’re dealing with very delicate subject matter. I think if we did it the easy way, we’d be cutting ourselves some slack.
DP: When you say “delicate subject matter,” do you mean the pedophile angle or torture?
AK: Both are really delicate. Child molestation and abuse is a very serious issue, yet we have a lot of jokes in this film. You have to deal with this subject with delicacy, and then when we have our ending, which is thought-provoking, we think it justifies our means, which was the action of the film.
NP: We didn’t want it to just be: mystery solved.
AK: I think the more interesting question is: do we really care if he did it or didn’t do it? Is that the big question here? Because everybody asks us, “Why did you make it a mystery thriller and not only torture porn?”
DP: But I think you have to care whether he’s guilty or not.
NP: Of course. But after you ask yourself if he guilty or not–which is of course the most interesting question–you also must ask, if it turns out he killed the girl, will you be okay with what the dead girl’s father and the cop did to him to get a confession? You know you want the answer, but do you like the answer you’re getting?
DP: You were talking about pedophiles as the main issue, but torture itself is such a big issue in the world. I don’t know if you intended to make this political at all, but your film shows that you can torture somebody to an unbelievable degree and you’re still not necessarily going to get a truthful answer from him. Yours is the rare narrative film to do that. Superheroes or Kiefer Sutherland on 24 won’t talk when tortured, but this suspect is a real person and somewhat mousy. [The same goes for Paul Dano’s suspect in Prisoners.]
AK: We don’t do political stuff in a very direct way, but we love to throw in hints and obscure metaphors about what we’re talking about. We are talking about torture, we are talking about a country that tortures people, and we are talking about a country that has a guilty conscience about doing that stuff.
NP: We have characters with military pasts, including the dead girl’s father and his father, too.
AK: So you have an understanding of their psyche and the way they were brought up and their military service–and an understanding of how Israel is a very machoistic society. When we talked about doing this film, we decided to do a revenge or torture film with a guilty conscience, because that’s the way we Israelis are. We do stuff and we try to justify our means and then we have a guilty conscience about everything.
DP: One of the interesting characters is the Muslim guy who rides around on a horse. Whether his appearance is meant to convey something deeply political or not, it does.
AK: He’s the film’s white knight. I remember talking with Navot about the first scene in which he appears and he and the Jewish father smoke a cigarette. We wanted to have a movie-western thing between an Arab and an Israeli guy, looking like a cowboy and Indian smoking a peace pipe, in a film that is all about brutality and violence.
NP: You really expect something bad is going to happen. They mention the Arab villages around the father’s house in this very isolated area, and when he rides up there are these brutal things going on in the basement of the father’s house. So the audience wonders, “What is this scene leading to?” They expect something brutal but it’s a beautiful scene.
DP: They all get along.
NP: They all get along, and later the Arab brings the phone to the Israeli cop. He’s like the knight in shining armor, just helping. That’s kind of the representation we wanted to have, and of course the actor is Arab, Kais Nashef, and we talked about what it meant for us to put an Arab guy in this movie. All the other characters are Israeli and they’re doing horrible, horrible stuff in the name of our sons, in the name of our kids.
DP: And they’re all bad fathers.
NP: They’re all bad fathers, and then you have this Arab guy. He’s a pretty normal guy, he even has an iPhone.
DP: There is so much torture in this film and you made an obvious attempt to balance it with humor. When you were story-boarding this, did you actually say, “We’d better put some humor in here and in here?”
AK: Yeah, when we see this kind of film, we think it’s always lacking in humor. And after fifteen minutes we say, it’s going to be like that the entire film now, just torturing, torturing, torturing. You have to breathe some new air into the film every five or ten minutes, so it won’t be exhausting for the audience. And also you want to put them in an uncomfortable place where they ask moral questions, and I think humor helps them do that. Because when we see a guy torturing another guy, and then he talks about BBQ, you have to laugh. And then you’re like, “Why am I laughing? I shouldn’t be laughing at these kind of jokes.” And this is where we aimed.
DP: You have torture, torture, torture, and then the father gets a call from his mother.
NP: He has a Valkyriean ring tone. He’s a Jewish guy with Wagner as his ringtone. But we also used comedy to lure the audience into very unsafe terrain. You feel safe, it’s okay to laugh, but now…
DP: You use humor to make us feel more at ease because otherwise the brutality would be too relentless. It’s hard what you’re trying to do, having humor balance brutality.
NP: Yeah, definitely. Aharon was talking about how all these torture porn films make you put up shields. You know you’re going to see a lot of violence and blood, so you take a step back as a defense, to keep from going too deep into the situation. We feel that when we inject comedy the audience puts down its shield and then we hit it. It’s more effective that way.
DP: The humor is also the alienation technique, so that we know we’re watching a movie and that makes it less scary.
AK: That’s right.
DP: I think one of your strengths is writing females. I think the females in Rabies are great characters.
NP (laughing): But where are the women in this?
DP: They’re all on the phones and are nags. All of these men, even the Arab, have to hide from their wives that they smoke.
AK (laughing): That’s my father hiding his smoking from my mother. I got it from there! We wanted to do a really male film, a male-oriented fairy tale. I love what Peckinpah did. I wanted to do that. But we had in mind that if there was a matriarch in the film who we’d show witnessing all this male brutality, she would probably put an end to it. But this film has only males in it and the brutality continues, and if you think about it, in a male-dominated society like Israel, you relate more to men than to women.
NP: We didn’t want any tenderness in the film, because you’d have an excuse to lay off the violence. And women add to the tenderness. We didn’t want to put tender relief in the film, because, as Aharon said, if Gidi’s nagging mother showed up at the house, she would probably say, “This is wrong, stop it, I have to clean.”
DP: You think that’s going to happen when Gidi’s father [Dov Glickman] arrives, but he’s ex-military and obviously torture is part of his world.
AK: It runs in the DNA.
DP: But before there is more torture there is deliberate funny stuff with father and son—them sitting and having the mother’s soup, which is a Jewish thing–we sit and have our mother’s soup all the time.
NP: Chicken soup! Speaking of Sergio Leone, we had Ennio Morricone on the soundtrack as they ate their soup.
DP: Talk about the music. Most people who make horror movies don’t care about music but you obviously do.
AK: We wanted it to be like a fairytale, so we asked our composer Frank Hayim Ilfman, who also did the music for Rabies, to write something that is like Bernard Herrmann’s music for Vertigo, and Carter Burwell’s work with the Coen brothers, which is a magnificent body of work. We told him we wanted Herrmann and Burwell doing music for a fairy tale by the Grimm brothers.
NP: Israeli films are always underscored. It’s usually just synthesizers and some drums. We really wanted to put the music up front and use it as our fifth actor. We really wanted to make a musical piece.
DP: I want to talk briefly about Rabies, which I told everyone to go see at the Tribeca Film Festival two years ago. I remember thinking it would go full circle and end with someone trapped underground, just like at the beginning. I thought you set it up for that irony, but it didn’t happen.
NP: In a way it did. The tennis player who’s getting his face all bloody gets in the car and tries to jump-start it so he can get away from those woods. But he can’t Then there’s a family that comes along. Awful people, bickering, and they offer him a lift. But they’re stuck, too. And then the end credits come on and you know the family’s going to stay in the forest, too. No one can get away.
DP: In that film you had the idea of having basically one location, the forest. Big Bad Wolves has basically one location in the second part of the film, the house the father purchases so he can torture the suspect in private. This actually could be a play, in a sense.
AK: Exactly. We wanted to write a film that could be easily translated into a play. In Rabies we had about ten characters and we wanted to add layers to each of them. This time our focus was on directing actors. We got to play with some of the biggest actors in Israel and learn something. In Rabies, you have good actors and good performances, but it’s an editor’s piece, where you jump around from one scene and characters to the next. In this one we wanted to slow the pace down and work with grand-scale music and grand-scale performances. So we decided to make it into one location piece, an almost theatrical kind of piece.
NP: We’d love to see this in a theater, with blood flowing onto the audience, stuff like that. [Laughing] A musical!
DP: That’s interesting because usually with people who work in the cinema, the word theatrical is a negative.
AK: I think the performances are theatrical a bit, but the camera always does something in this movie. It’s more challenging for a director to work in a confined area and start thinking about how to move the camera so it won’t be only theatrical. We want to challenge ourselves without doing big-budget films, where there are car chases and the characters are throwing grenades and shooting people.
DP: In that interview I saw from two years ago, you talked about how young horror movie directors don’t care about their characters. You said that all they cared about was how gory they could make their movies. On the other hand, characters are really important to you and you like dialogue.
AK: Yeah. We love dialogue. It’s the only way you can relate to what’s happening on the screen, and, also, we know that when you do just gory stuff, it becomes like a nihilistic exercise that turns you off, shuts you down and you don’t care–and then the violence doesn’t have the same impact anymore. But when you have dialogue and comedy and characters, even small torture seems so big because you relate to the characters, you relate to their dialogues and their motivation, and then…
NP: …you can just slap them in the face and it’s huge.
DP: Have you seen Robert Altman’s The Long Goodbye? Early in the movie, Mark Rydell’s character breaks a Coke bottle on his girlfriend’s face. There’s no comparable violence after that but we’re unnerved the whole time from that one moment.
AK: Only that one scene was needed. That’s one of my favorite films.
NP: When you like the characters, even when you slap them a little it has impact. We sat in the editing room and watched Gidi slap Dror for the first time in the basement. It was just a slap but as a viewer it really knocks you down.
AK: Actually, the first fifty minutes are without violence, almost.
DP: But we know what the killer is capable of.
NP: Because you see the dead girl.
DP: Which brings me to one moment I found a little confusing. We see another missing little girl lying at a strange angle on a bed. She doesn’t seem to have been tortured in the manner of the killer’s previous victims. So is she dead or asleep?
AK: The pessimistic views go one way and optimistic views go the other way, because a lot of people want her to live.
NP: People approach us and say, “Please tell us she’s alive.”
AK: She may be dead but maybe he just gave her something to make her sleep and planned to kill her later.
END SPOILER ALERT
DP: Finally: So do you two make horror movies? Are Rabies and Big Bad Wolves horror movies?
AK: We don’t do pure horror. We want to do something that’s broader in its approach. We love comedy, we love thrillers. We won’t tell anyone that we do pure horror movies.
DP: But that’s how everybody promotes you, so does it bother you when people say, the first horror films out of Israel?
AK: No. Because I look at it from a PR angle or distributor angle. In today’s industry, you have to have an angle.
NP: I guess what you ask is the one million dollar question.