Just a couple of weeks after I caught writer-director Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado's Big Bad Wolves at the 4th Mile High Horror Film Festival, Quentin Tarantino, having seen it himself at the Busan International Film Festival, declared it to be his favourite movie of 2013. Turns out QT screening the picture at a South Korean event represents a special kind of synchronicity, given that both he and South Korea's fulsome genre cinema were key influences on Kehsales & Papushado. Seeing both of Keshales and Papushado's films when I did (before I got a chance to screen Big Bad Wolves, I was inspired by the buzz on it to track down their 2010 debut, Rabies) felt like a bit of synchronicity in itself--or, at least, I felt lucky that I was able to catch this wave right at the moment that it crests and heads to shore. When I reached out to Mr. Keshales to see if he might be interested in an interview, he was quick to agree and then, over missed connections, a miscommunication about time zones (8 p.m. in Israel is 11 a.m. in Colorado, go figure), a bad Skype link, a newly-purchased cell-mike still package-fresh, and finally a cell call from a street in Israel (where Papushado almost got creamed by a car) to a suburb in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, I was able to chat at last with Keshales and Papushado: the faces--the only ones, as it happens--of Israeli horror and a new day dawning in Israeli cinema.
I started by asking them about Keshales's now-defunct film criticism blog PIRANHA KARINA:
NAVOT PAPUSHADO: Oh, Aharon's blog, yes--it had some momentum.
AHARON KESHALES: Yes, for a while there I was writing as a film critic for the biggest website in Israel, and a film magazine, and then my own blog where I could talk about the things I love. The name of the blog is taken from my passions in film: arthouse movies, Anna Karina, and genre movies like Piranha. It was an outlet where I could write about the kind of films that Tarantino would recommend. I started a club where we could see stuff that would never get released here. Corbucci films, Alex de Iglesia films, stuff that would never get a release. We got a 35mm of Oldboy to show, even--it was banned in Israel for violence. We showed Shaun of the Dead. A lot of stuff we might otherwise not get to see. The club, the blog, it got pretty popular for a while and then Navot challenged me to do more than teach and write.
I love Oldboy. Love it.
AK: It's awesome. I think the Koreans, they absorbed Tarantino and the Coens and then they brought this sensibility to this amazing visual skill. The last ten, fifteen years, the films that I really like are the ones by people like Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-ho...
I compared your film in my review to Memories of Murder.
AK: You know what, there could be no greater compliment that I can imagine. It is the best compliment. Genuinely.
Mr. Papushado, I know you were a film student in a class that Mr. Keshales was teaching.
NP: Yes, Aharon was the only professor who encouraged me to find my own voice when I was making little short films. He didn't ask me to limit myself to a certain genre or a certain kind of look for my movies--he wanted me to figure out who I was even if that was in a genre like sci-fi or horror. He didn't require that I stay close to something like "respectable"--some domestic drama like we Israelis like to make. Needless to say, he was my favourite teacher.
What was the class?
AK: Theory, mostly.
NP: Yes--it was theory for the most part.
AK: But I wanted to be sure that my students understood that beyond theory in film's there's also a pleasure principle in film--that you could do everything you want to do but if the film isn't entertaining then you might be missing a key element in your output. You might be missing the point.
NP: I think what's ironic is that the Israeli film community would have you think that the only films that you're allowed to make are either family dramas or stories about The Conflict, but it's a horror movie that makes it to Cannes from Israel. We all had heard about Aharon's class and we all wanted to take it because here was a professor who was interested in talking to us about what makes movies work, not just what makes movies, you know, define themselves as "important." As we went through our semester, I think everything evolved so that it got to the point where it moved beyond the teaching of just a scholarly theory of film into the practical theory, into things like cinematography.
AK: Eventually we were experimenting with film craft and filmmaking.
NP: It was the most popular class at [Tel Aviv] university.
What was the viewing curriculum?
AK: I didn't want to just show the classics. I mean, sure, you have to start there with the Hollywood of the '40s and '50s, but I also wanted to bring in new classics--the American '70s, the films of Steven Spielberg. I mean, Spielberg in the '70s was a very different animal, right? Jaws for instance, is a very rough movie about three different types of masculinity, on a boat, in isolation. When we approached Big Bad Wolves, I very much wanted to have the same structure with the three kinds of masculinity: the man's man, the softer man, the intellectual maybe out of his element. All of them trying to solve the same problem.
NP: Aharon always had kind of a twisted sense. He's not telling you he would also bring in all these violent, South Korean films--all these violent genre films to go alongside those Spielbergs, but also stuff like Men in Black, even a few clips of Michael Bay films. He really wanted to expose us to mainstream movies, to current movies, and for us to consider all film as part of the foundation for what we were to do. He didn't do what you expect a professor to do. Maybe he was too young (laughs). Most important, he taught us that so much of the stuff of the last twenty years--I mean, like the Coen brothers--was valuable. In so many ways we're behind, we have a lot of catching up to do, especially in genre cinema.
Elaborate on the '70s.
AK: Oh man, the '70s were it. Never before that, never since, did anyone make movies like that anywhere.
Aharon, we're simpatico on this one.
AK: The talent. Coppola, Scorsese... The Conversation.
Which is my favourite film.
AK: (laughs) My top five, definitely. Walter Murch is a genius. I used to teach, when I talked about sound, it was The Conversation. We did Godfather, too, Apocalypse Now's sound design. Ridiculous. I used to teach Murch's book...
In the Blink of an Eye.
I love his Return to Oz, too.
NP: That's one of my favourite films!
AK: It's so good, that group of filmmakers, that period of film. Special.
What is it about Israeli culture that's so discouraged horror movies? Why are you guys the first...and second?
NP: That's a really tough question, the mother of all questions. People have said that it's that we're surrounded by terror, surrounded by war, and death, and horror and that's why we don't make horror movies...
But why do you make movies about The Conflict, then?
NP: Right, that's right, so I don't buy that. I think that's not a good answer to that. I think that, a couple of things, I think that for the longest time the expectation inside and outside of Israel is that we would only make a very specific kind of film. The ones that were successful at festivals were the ones that were you know domestic, handheld, very real, very serious. It's kind of a chicken/egg argument, right, is that success what drove future behaviour or were we inclined just to make those films and some of them got successful?
I've heard you say before that you'd be interested to see what your films would look like remade through an American perspective... What's the Israeli perspective that your films provide?
AK: It's our backgrounds, I think, we are essentially different as a people.
NP: This is true of most cultures I think, but in a very literal way for us, our fathers were superheroes to us. Everyone goes to the army, every year for one month we go back to reserve military service. We grew up in that environment where our dads held that place as literal heroes, you know, who protected us and went away to protect us and were strong and held our borders against the world outside that wanted to hurt us. We're a militaristic, paranoid society, we're a bipolar society and I think that our entire perspective is a few millimetres off from what someone from a more...normal part of the world would have. It's the little stuff--the way you react to emergency in an environment that's always exploding. Like when you're watching a football match on television and there might be a terror attack somewhere in the city and then instead of breaking away from the match, we just see the terror attack in a splitscreen.
NP: Yes, it infects everything about the way that you are and the way that you look at the world. That's normal for us. We'll have a memorial day for the Holocaust or some battle or some thing and then it's seven o'clock or something and it's Independence Day and we're setting off firecrackers and celebrating.
AK: We're afraid that everyone, everyone is coming to get us. We are this bubble and everyone is pushing in on us from every direction. That changes you. That forms you. We're in constant conflict and what kind of people does that produce?
Is it repression? Pragmatism?
NP: It's difficult... Yes, I mean, it's both, right?
AK: Yes, we are absolutely afraid at all times and at all times nothing makes us afraid, it's a very peculiar state. We are ironic, too, we have strong senses of ironic, inappropriate humour about that fear and horror in our lives, I think we needed to develop that. We needed to cultivate absurdity. It's that sense of absurdity. We're not making an Eli Roth film, we're making a different film--funny, ironic. As a people, that's how we are. You get four or five Jewish guys in a room and you'd be amazed how many Holocaust jokes we'd come up with in an hour. It's how we deal with our pain and our fear. I think that comes through in our movies. A film about a pedophile, I mean, that's so hard, that's so rough, we have to treat the subject matter seriously, but if we do it straight-forward, I think we lessen the impact. Look at something like Prisoners that deals with a lot of the same things as our film, but I think loses more of the audience than ours does because it's so humourless in its approach. When writing Big Bad Wolves and coming up with a tagline, my first thought was "A Brutal Comedy for a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World," and the poster that you see is modeled after the Saul Bass design for that film.
Aw, man, Saul Bass.
AK: Yes--I used all of his film openings in class. I had them all on one disc and we watched them and my theory was that Bass had a lot to do with the shape of the films, that he didn't just illustrate what he was told, but he actually influenced style and execution in those films.
Now how that affects horror films...
NP: Right, yes, in a film if the car breaks down in the woods and someone suggests that they go off into it, an Israeli says, "Fuck no, we're not going into the woods, at least not without this M16 and lots of backup." Our reality is that if we stray outside of our boundaries, we're maybe dead. We learn this as children. There's no suspension of disbelief in Israel when it comes to this. Even when you talk about Superman, we say "a man that can fly?" (laughs) I find that to be highly unlikely. We're very realistic people--yes, pragmatic is the better word. We talk about horror, but science-fiction doesn't succeed here either--that's the next line for us to cross.
AK: I want to address, too, speaking of crossing lines, that we're both also guided by a strong sense of morality in our work--we don't want to scandalize when we talk about crossing lines and about horror. We want everything to be grim because reality is grim, but we do recognize the line and what not to cross. We don't want to make pornography, something not artful or with only the purpose to disgust to get a reaction.
"We thought that it would be funny that the only sane person, the only good person really, in this Israeli movie would be an Arab man."
You say you don't go into the woods, but both of your movies are set in the woods.
NP: (laughs) Well, in Rabies I think what we wanted to do was make the isolation represented by the woods become a metaphor for the isolation of Israeli society, to create almost a laboratory environment for this idea that there might be some outside threat. Sure that's one reality, but the only hope for our survival as a culture is to begin to address the threats that are internal.
Well, right, because that's the twist of Rabies, right?
AK: Right--we don't have serial killers here. It's not a good career here.
NP: (laughs) The one exception that proves the rule--we don't have them really, and we said you know that if we were to make a slasher movie, that we all love slasher movies, how do we do that in Israel when we first have this sort of inability to suspend disbelief and then we don't have a real sort of familiarity with that kind of threat, but we do have other internal threats and maybe then the movie could be a reflection of our society. The forest then becomes a primal place, too, where we can take away the civilization and really get to the primal root of what it means to be an Israeli. We're animals. We're all animals and for us the forest was access to our most violent parts. I mean, we're Mediterranean, we are very quick to anger. The forest was the perfect, primal environment to put them into and to show the consequences of our anger response, our essential violent natures. There are so many problems in Israel--and most of them come from within ourselves.
AK: Right--if we don't have serial killers then let's make a slasher movie without a slasher, and then we thought, Hey, that's a poignant metaphor, let's go for it.
NP: Absolutely. But that's what fairytales are: they are brutal, and they are metaphors, and you dress them up in these nice images or language, but it's all about our essential nature and controlling that or failing to control that. With Big Bad Wolves, that's even more obvious, from the open when the kids are playing and something is lurking.
AK: Yes, we had the wardrobe there, the kids playing, the little red shoe that's lost. I think for that film we really wanted to, needed to, highlight the fairytale elements--to remove it so much from any kind of responsibility that it be realistic so that Israelis could go to it and finally suspend that disbelief. If the film is completely a metaphor, completely fairytale from the beginning--maybe a trail of candy that leads to the dead girl--all of that horror becomes something that they can accept when it's in a metaphorical space.
NP: You put something "far away"--something removed, detached, it doesn't bear the responsibility for not just our audience, I think, but for any audience. From the start, we wanted to do it as fairytale--no handheld camera, no realistic drama, no Conflict. We wanted to go far away so that we could get very close.
I didn't know places like that existed in Israel that you depict in Big Bad Wolves.
NP: I know, right? Even people from Israel, they look and say, Wow, where did you shoot that, the Netherlands?" But no, we found that right in Israel. We don't have many forests, we don't have many of those places left, but we found it and it was the perfect mix of far, far away-seeming, but right in our backyard.
Talk to me about the Arab character in your film, riding in on horseback in the beginning and at the end.
NP: That was the first thing that Aharon wrote--he called me with the idea that in the middle of this violent film.. What if...
AK: I had the idea of that scene with the cigarette in the open. I was thinking of the old American Western and of the noble savage, maybe, and the hero cowboy--but here it's an Arab and a "hero" that is a torturer, meeting in the wilderness and in the middle of all this violence and insanity, here's this only normal person and it's this handsome Arab man on a horse, and all he wants is a drag on a cigarette that the torturer is rolling. It was our "peace pipe" moment, an idyllic scene, peaceful music, and really it was the first moment. The rest of the chaos and madness of the film really grew around this really peaceful moment.
NP: We thought that it would be funny that the only sane person, the only good person really, in this Israeli movie would be an Arab man.
Can I hazard that this scene made less of a splash in Israel than it has in Europe and the United States?
NP: No, that's true, that's very true. I think more Israelis than not look at that scene and don't think anything about it. But we do get asked about that in America a lot--it seems that you're very attuned to the appearance of an Arab in an Israeli film--especially in a role that isn't as the Other with bombs and wanting to blow people up, the villain, and not really a human being.
AK: Yes, but even in our movies and our depictions we see Arabs as either the victims or the victimizers--they're very seldom just normal people with normal lives and routines. He just wants a smoke and to get away from his wife. We wanted the most beautiful, peaceful moment in the film to be between a Jew and an Arab. We wanted a depiction where he wasn't the monster or the miserable ignorant savage.
Well, that's how we depict Arabs in our films, generally.
NP: So what if the Arab is the hero, the cowboy who kind of saves the day, who has a wife and a family and an iPhone. Honestly, audiences in Israel for the most part don't see it as weird which is a good sign, I think, and we laugh at ourselves at the end when the cop acts surprised that he has an iPhone and we can look at ourselves and at prejudices that we maybe didn't know that we had.
AK: Here he provides closure for us--he saves the day, sort of, and in a way I think we see that it's really only him that can.
Part of it, too, is that if you're an American and you question any element of Israeli policy, you're labelled anti-Semitic.
NP: (laughs) Yes, Israel has taught the world that you are not allowed to talk about Israel in a negative way, but within Israel, there's a strong, healthy, loud dialogue about what we do and the way that we go about it. It's an open debate. It's unfortunate, it's a problem, we project that we don't have to answer to our actions, we have no consequences, but we don't believe that--the Israeli people don't believe that. I think it colours even the way that people ask us about our film. We hurt ourselves when we close off dialogue.
AK: But we also avoided Arab depiction in Rabies just because we didn't want to be too obvious in how we were talking about that closed environment. This movie about paranoia would lose its effectiveness if there was an element in there that would actually justify somehow that paranoia so we had no Arab presence at all in the first film. In Big Bad Wolves we were really careful and purposeful about it. We tried to be, anyway. Too much and it becomes a Conflict film, too little and you do more harm.
Talk to me about the portrayal of the Israeli police in your films...
NP: (laughs) You're going to get us in big trouble. A few years ago, right after Rabies, in 2011, there were [social justice] protests that a lot of students and other people came out in organized protest against the social order in Israel and corruption. We were all taken back, I think, by the way that some of the protests were put down in a way that was violent. We saw this, some of us, as the first steps towards something like a dictatorship or, more really, like martial law, and it caused us to look at ourselves differently as a people and at our power structures and government.
Is it fair to say that the environment now in Israel is similar to that that spawned the New American Cinema?
AK: I think so, I think so because there's something going on in the cinema. In the last five years, our cinema has evolved into something more individualistic. We're moving away from those family dramas about honour and stuff and we're becoming more experimental. We're challenging our power structures, we're challenging corruption, we're looking at our soldiers in a different way. Lots of films are coming now that reflect a different attitude. We're starting to see the kind of film that I loved from the American '70s: paranoid films where you're always looking behind your back and you do your best and everything right and you solve the mystery and you end up dead or worse. You can't get what you want. Sometimes you just die.
"Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."
AK: (laughs) There's another element to us as Israeli citizens, we're required at the age of 18 to give three years of our lives to the military--to that kind of structured civil service in defense of our country. We wanted to portray this idea that all of us, at a very young age when maybe people in other countries are going to college and growing up there in a very different kind of experience, that when we come of age we go and learn how to kill people and try to avoid being killed. We have the grandfather who's you know, very much a grandfather, but when the subject comes to torture he knows a lot about torture! That's alarming to think about it from the outside in, but from the inside, that's totally normal. When we put it on film in this metaphorical space, we can laugh at ourselves even as there is this great terror and evil; and we can truly begin to appreciate that beautiful absurdity.
Big Bad Wolves opens in select U.S. cities on January 17, 2014.