Israeli filmmakers Navot Papushado and Ahron Keshales have crafted a taut film that has done well on the festival circuit. Its unique mix of the horrific with the humorous caught the attention of another filmmaker used to dancing between dark and light -- Quentin Tarantino -- who called "Wolves" "the best film of the year" after a screening in Busan. The movie took home five Ophirs (the Israeli equivalent of the Oscars), and after storming through the festival circuit it's set to make a limited theatrical release.
Moviefone Canada began the interview with Papushado and Keshales by chatting about the fairly unique way these filmmakers began their collaboration.
Moviefone: You met as professor and student, yet now work as equal collaborators. Did that shift in the power dynamic play into how you wrote the multi-generational characters in the film?
Ahron Keshales: [Laughs] I think when you write a script all of your relationships translate into your script. In Israel, every father is a warrior. Every father was in at least one big war -- my father was in two of Israel's most violent. You grow up looking up to them, they're like big heroes. But then you get the notion that the generation before them was even more violent! When we wrote the script we thought about making a revenge film in which every character has violence in his soul, but as you go back generations you see that each generation further is even more violent. That's what's working in Big Bad Wolves -- I can honestly say there are some sadistic moments to it.
The most darkly sadistic part of the movie is, of course, the mother, who's never seen on screen. It's obviously a very Jewish thing to go on about, the mother you love yet drives you crazy and kind of sadistic. As such, how Jewish/Israeli do you feel the film is, or were you explicitly trying for a more universal tale?
Navot Papushado: We wanted to make the most Israeli film we could make and the most Jewish film we could make, as this is us. When you're playing in the playground of genre, you don't want to be the guy who tries to do American stuff or European stuff, you want to find your own voice. We knew he had to stick to the conventions, stick to the rules, but make it as local as we can. That would be our twist to it.
We didn't anticipate how universal it would be, how much it would affect people all over the world.
I think the one thing we learned from this film is that not everyone's Jewish, but everyone definitely has a Jewish mother. It's hilarious how they react -- "I'm not Jewish, but my mother is just like that!"
If that's the case, how different does this film play to Israeli audiences, be they Jewish or not, vs. how you've seen it play to international audiences?
NP: I think 99 percent of the audiences around the world react almost the same as the Israeli audiences. I really was surprised at how universal this film is and people get the joke, get the dark humour aspects of it. They also get the Jewish jokes, because obviously some of them are clichés and we used them as clichés.
The one thing that the Israeli audiences might get more is the casting aspect, because all of the actors in "Big Bad Wolves" are huge stars in Israel. For example, the grandfather is one of the most celebrated comedians in the history of Israeli TV. We grew up with him as a comedian and now he's playing this grandfather [torturing] with a blowtorch.
Overall, we couldn't be happier with the reaction from around the world. I think the American and Canadian audience obviously get this. I mean, you guys over there are just crazy, in a very positive way. We loved the audience in Montreal at Fantasia!
On the flip side, there must be people who really don't get it, and feel it's simply sadistic.
AK: Occasionally we get the people who only see it as a genre piece, only for the dark thriller without understanding the subtext. Once we even got the question, "Why did you have the Arab on horseback in your movie?" We read a few articles that missed the whole point of the film. I think that we did a very realistic film. We are not approving violence, we are not approving torture. We wrote a very elaborate script to show the absurd in revenge. I think most of the intelligent or even average audience knows what we're talking about.
Navot and I don't want to do the kind of films that are in your face, that shove everything with a spoon into your mouth. We want to do the kind of films that have subtext. You tell a fairy tale, a very brief fairy tale, but everybody will understand that there is a deeper meaning to it, more layers to what you see on screen.
One thing that genre cinema can do is free you up for political and social comment by using violence or horror or thrills as a metaphor for a larger story.
NP: Definitely! We knew from the start that we wanted to make a film that would be as far away from "torture porn" as we could, but still deal with torture. We asked ourselves, how would Tarantino or the Coen brothers do a film with subject matter like that?
It was very important for us to not show violence against children, but still talk about it because it's at the heart of the film. With technology and CGI, you can achieve almost anything, and also almost feel like it's a race for who will do the goriest and most violent film ever. You [then] forget about the characters, you forget about their motives, you forget about relationships and starting to write.
Canadian director Denis Villeneuve tackled similar issues in a very different with "Prisoners." What was your reaction to his film?
AK: If you want to know what's Jewish or Israeli about "Big Bad Wolves," you should see "Prisoners" because you see the different tone, the different handling of the same subject matter. I loved "Prisoners." It's very tough, very dramatic, and you want to see the good in every character except for the mother. I think "Big Bad Wolves" isn't afraid of looking for the dark in every character, including the mother. That's why you see [our film] has this very cynical Jewish tone to it, how it shifts gears. That's a big difference between the movies. I think if "Prisoners" had a few more jokes in it, I would have loved it even more, but it is still one of the best films of the year.
Do you think it's important that the audience all come to the same conclusion about the moral relativism of the plot? Do you think that there's a right or wrong answer in your film?
AK: We definitely do not approve of the actions of our characters. I don't think there's a way around it; you shouldn't be torturing anyone. As for private justice, we also don't believe in that. I know that it's always easy to say, "Well, we didn't go through the things the characters in the movie went through," but we're not there. Justice should be handled by the guys who are responsible for handing out justice.
Do you see that as a bigger political comment on the current state of politics in Israel?
NP: Yeah, of course. It's in there. You can't have a torture-themed film in Israel without being indicted for talking about the situation in Israel.
"Big Bad Wolves" is set for a limited theatrical release on January 17, 2014.