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6 Filmmaking Tips from José Padilha

The director of ‘Elite Squad’ and “7 Days in Entebbe” has some ideas to share about cinema and democracy.
Jose Padilha Directing
By  · Published on March 14th, 2018

If all you know of José Padilha is that he directed the RoboCop remake, then you could do with a lesson in Brazilian cinema. Padilha helped put the nation on the global movie stage last decade with his popular Elite Squad films as well as his essential documentaries Bus 174 and Secrets of the Tribe. His RoboCop also had some great ideas, but unfortunately, it also had some problems. Since then, Padilha has found greater success producing the Netflix series Narcos.

While he’s not one to give out advice, Padilha does have some ideas about filmmaking to share, along with some lessons he’s learned and has imparted through interviews over the years. Check out these tips below.

You Don’t Need a Formal Education

Padilha didn’t go to film school. Instead, he studied physics, business administration, economics, and international politics before deciding to become a filmmaker. It’s no wonder his documentary Secrets of the Tribe is so anti-academia since he considers himself a failure in that arena.

Since beginning his movie career, he’s shown a great knack for self-taught skills as a director and as a researcher for both nonfiction and fiction stories. He told /Film in 2014:

“I really believe, in a certain sense, in self-education. I believe in curiosity and reading books and researching things for yourself. I always was like that, I never really loved professors telling me what to do and to think. And this kind of background… it’s about curiosity, you know what I mean? If you are a curious human being and you have a brain, you can research and you don’t have to go the regular way.”

Jose Padilha Narcos

Don’t Get Stressed, Enjoy Yourself

Despite all that has come out about Padilha’s troubles with making his RoboCop remake, during the promotional period for the movie he was positive about the experience. And it’s probably not so much a lie as it is what the director aims for, especially with the cast and crew he’s managing, regardless of whatever he’s personally going through with higher ups. He told Den of Geek in 2014:

“If you ask the actors, there’s no stress on my set. I mean I don’t see a point in stressing out and creating an environment of fighting in a movie set. I think inviting collaboration and talking to everyone and having everybody in the crew engaged…I like getting everybody involved and working towards the story together with the actors and so on.

“And listening to people. I don’t do it just to do it, I do it because I mean it. Sometimes I ask the gaffer, what do you think about this? You’ve got a lot of smart people who’ve made a lot of movies together who love their craft. I love it, too. So why not enjoy yourself doing it? It’s really hard work. You have to wake up very early every day, stay in the set for 12 hours at least. It’s a really, really difficult hard working job that people do because they love it.”

Padilha Robocop

Don’t Second-Guess Yourself

According to Padilha, making a movie is not about you. Maybe it’s your vision and your story, but that story is the key, not where it came from. In the Den of Geek interview, he continues to focus on the idea of serving the story when asked whether he was afraid to take on an iconic property like RoboCop:

“I suppose you could be afraid but you’re only afraid if you’re not thinking about the story and about the movie. If you approach the movie thinking, “Oh, what if I fail. What’s it going to mean for my career,” that’s already an egoistic thing because you’re thinking about yourself.”

And in a DP/30 interview, Padilha explains to David Poland how filmmakers need to love and trust the work they’re doing, as anyone from Steve Jobs to Michael Keaton’s RoboCop character should:

“If you want to make a good movie, you really want to make a good movie. If you start second-guessing yourself or changing the internal structure or logic of the story to put elements that, let’s say, marketing wants, or whatever, then you end up with a bad movie. You have to trust your story and what you’re doing and trust cinema, in the case of movies.”

Watch that whole interview here:

Documentary Style is the Best Action Movie Style

Padilha started in documentary and has retained some of his documentary aesthetic with his dramatic narrative efforts. When asked by the old IFC News in 2011 how to shoot good action scenes, he admitted that his method comes out of his documentary background and his “not knowing how to shoot.” He explained further:

“I like to give dimension to shots inside action scenes. It’s demanding because you have to rehearse a lot of things happening at the same time and frame all those things in a shot. But I feel like when you accomplish that then you’ve got a cool action scene. It’s much better to do this than to shoot separately, where you’ve got a guy with a gun and then you cut to a guy running away. That’s easier and faster to do but I feel like it loses the punch of the scene.

“I don’t actually like blocking actors. I prefer giving actors freedom. They don’t have to step on a precise mark with me. Instead of giving marks to the actors I like to give marks to the camera. So I’ll say ‘When he’s going to say this line, you’ve got to be on his gun.’ But the cameraman doesn’t know exactly where the gun’s going to be because I haven’t marked the actor. What that gives you is the camera is always moving towards the narrative, trying to find the narrative. I feel like this takes the audience along with the story.”

Jose Padilha Robocop

Fiction Can Be More Effective Than Nonfiction

Padilha has also retained some of his documentary attitude with his narrative films. While there’s no way he can argue for narrative over documentary (his Bus 174 is still better than the decent remake, Last Stop 174), he does believe there are some benefits to pushing messages through in scripted films compared with docs. He told Remezcla in 2008:

“[What] good is it to make a very intellectual, sophisticated, slow-paced, detached movie about society that nobody goes to see? It doesn’t do any good. I believe there is a way to do serious social critique, and at the same time make movies that will have an audience. This is what we tried to do with ‘Elite Squad,’ and this is what I think Latin American filmmakers are good at…

“Even my fictional work, which is ‘Elite Squad,’ has a documentary flavor. It’s meant to portray a reality as it is. You can ask anybody in Brazil and they will tell you that reality is very similar in the movie. We did a lot of research, interviews with cops, psychiatrists, to get reality into the script. So, as far as representing reality, you can do it with documentaries, but you can also do it with fictional movies. When they work out, they reach a larger audience than documentaries. A movie like ‘City of God’ is strongly based in reality. It’s a fictional movie but it also reveals to you how the drug-dealing business started off, as well as a documentary does. But they can do the same thing, basically, which is bring up debate on social issues if they aim to portray reality. I don’t make a distinction there, but I do realize that fiction movies get to a broader audience.”

He also told Bleeding Cool in 2011:

“I did not want to be documentary filmmaker, but I wanted to make films to analyse a certain social situation.  If ‘Elite Squad’ was to be a documentary it would have to be all talking heads.

“So I decided I could take my research and to dramatize what happened. I think film is a visual medium so I definitely thought this was the better option. With the fiction film I can show truth that a documentary cannot show.

“And I could never film what happens in these actions scenes for a documentary, and they are crucial to the story, and to the effect of the film.”

Be True to Your World

Padilha also believes being truthful in his films and confronting the reality of Brazil in his fiction is important — good for democracy even. Watch him discuss this in a Park City Television interview during Sundance 2011:

What We Learned

If you follow the way of Padilha’s career, you won’t bother with a proper education nor will you let yourself get too stressed that the job isn’t fun anymore. Get some experience with documentaries, because that background will benefit you if you’re interested in making action movies and/or socially significant movies. And above all, be true to yourself, your country, your world, and your story, because reality even in fiction is very important.

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.