Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is Brazil’s official entry in this year’s competition for the best foreign film Oscar. The often-violent action movie has a reality-based and politically explosive plot – an insider’s pursuit and exposure of deep-seated corruption in the top ranks of the country’s police and government. It has become Brazil’s all-time box office champ, taking in some $70 million to date, more than even Avatar.
Elite Squad: The Enemy Within was directed by Jose Padilha, 43, a fast-rising star in Brazil’s new firmament of filmmakers that is also getting acclaim abroad. (Padilha, after only two features, has already attracted the attention of Hollywood, getting the plum assignment to direct the next RoboCop movie). Because of its urban cops-and-corruption theme and multi-layered time-skipping story-telling, Elite Squad: The Enemy Within has been compared by different critics to Serpico, Godfather II and the HBO series, The Wire
For his part, Padilha cites Martin Scorsese’s 1990 mob film, Goodfellas, as a big influence. “My movie is similar because it’s looking at a criminal world from the point of view of one person who is involved in it, and tries to follow that point of view.”
Padilha started out in documentaries. The new movie is only the second feature he has directed. If not exactly a sequel, it’s certainly a follow-on to his first narrative film, also called Elite Squad, which came out in 2007. A big hit as well, it went on to win numerous awards including the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival. Both films share the same main character, but the new film is more ambitious and can stand on its own for moviegoers.
Both Elite Squad movies are about BOPE, Rio de Janeiro’s Special Forces Operations Battalion – a kind of paramilitary SWAT team, that ruthlessly pursues urban violence and, especially in the first film, drug dealers in the favelas, or poorer neighborhoods of Brazil’s best-known metropolis. Elite Squad: The Enemy Within paints on a broader canvas: the interconnection of government leaders, members of BOPE and drug lords in exploiting the favelas for turf, money and power.
In making Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, Padilha relied on previous collaborators, most of whom are part of Brazil’s free-wheeling and close-knit film community. “I’ve been working with many of the same people from the beginning. They are my partners in crime,” he jokes.
His cinematographer on the film is Lula Carvalho, son of Walter Carvalho, who gained recognition on Central Station, one of the first films by Walter Salles, Brazil’s most prominent director). Academy Award nominee Daniel Rezende is the editor. Others include art director Tiago Marques Teixeira, costume designer Claudia Kopke and composer Pedro Bromfman. Martin Trujillo, an award-winning designer and stylist from Mexico, did the make-up.
The film owes its visual energy to the kinetic camera work of cinematographer Carvalho. “I favor a certain style of shooting, which comes from my background as a documentary filmmaker,” says Padilha. “I put the story first and foremost and I like to have the camera always on the move, not knowing where to turn but searching to follow the action and tell the story as if in a documentary, and Lula, who also has a similar background, does it brilliantly.” Most of the movie was shot handheld with an Aaton Penelope – a lightweight 35mm camera that’s easy to maneuver and can be adapted to provide more shooting time per film load, enabling longer takes.
To deal with scope of the film, which includes complex sequences on indoor sets and numerous outdoor location shoots on the streets and neighborhoods of Rio, two cinematography crews with 22 members each were assembled. While one crew filmed the other prepared or disassembled the set. Time and location hours were saved as a result.
The most elaborate set-up was the 8-day shoot for the film’s dramatic opening – a riot in a top-security prison that’s violently put down by the special operations police. Nineteen digital cameras were employed, some hanging from ropes to get closer to the action. “I had to direct a huge number of people in different places and Lula and I had a big argument on how to shoot it,” notes the director. “I finally made the decision to shoot everything live. It was a little crazy to do it this way, but it worked out as planned.”
On the first Elite Squad, shooting on the streets of Rio and in the favelas or poor neighborhoods was not only daunting but dangerous. Some crew members got hijacked by drug dealers, but were later released. “This time around, local residents, familiar with the previous movie, would come up to us to see if they could help in any way,” says Padilha.
Rezende, who did the edit, is highly regarded for his skills, not just in Brazil but also in the United States. Most recently, he was on the five-person editing team that director Terrence Malick assembled to cut his new film, The Tree of Life. Other credits include City of God, directed by Fernando Mireilles, for which Rezende received Academy Award and BAFTA nominations for his editing; and The Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Salles, which won the Oscar for best foreign film.
Beyond his role as editor, Rezende was on set during much of the filming of Elite Squad: The Enemy Within. That participation would be unheard of here. Beyond jurisdictional issues, the editor normally approaches the footage in a neutral way for the first edit, without being influenced by what happened during the shoot. Rezende’s presence made his editing job easier and faster, says the director. “We edited the movie quickly, in just over three months,” he notes. “The first cut came pretty close. Daniel and I looked at it and we knew we had it.”
Rezende was not just present during the shoot, Padilha also tasked him with the job of being second unit director. In another unusual twist, Braulio Mantovani, the film’s co-screenwriter with Padilha, dropped in for several days during the edit. ”He helped us make sure the film was heading in the right direction.”
For veteran art director Teixeira the biggest challenge was recreating the country’s high-security Bangu 1 penitentiary where the botched jailbreak at the start of the film takes place. The expensive and expansive set consisted of two galleries of cells separated by a corridor with five cells on each side. It was built in a 10,000-square-foot studio space, at a total cost of about 15 percent of the film’s overall budget. Another big set, the State Security Office, was built in a building where it was previously located. The set was constructed on a 5,000 square-foot part of the original facility.
The responsibilities of award-winning Mexican make-up artist Trujillio went far beyond the application of facial cosmetics. He also produced charred bodies, fake legs and silicone heads. He worked with a big-name Hollywood special-effects crew that Padilha had flown in from the United States. Members of the team included Bruno Van Zeebroeck (Transformers, Public Enemies), William Boggs (Milk, Spider-Man), Rene Diamante (Che), and Keith Woulard (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and Forrest Gump). They also helped with stunts and action sequences.
“When one speaks of cinema, especially action movies, American films are the reference,” says Padilha. “Any country whose culture doesn’t include the production of action movies will hire American specialists when one is made. It’s normal. The team from Hollywood added to the film’s look, feel and vibe and made the action sequences as thrilling and intense as possible.”
Costume designer Kopke tried to come as close to reality as possible in the outfits, within restrictions that barred exact duplicates. “Her work helped immeasurably to add to the film’s convincing realism,” says Padilha. The hardest part of Kopke’s job was the fabrication of 300 costumes for extras who played members of the militia. They had to be aged. First they were stone-washed at a cheap laundry and then sanded. The uniforms came from the same supplier as BOPE’s but were slightly altered. She designed distinctive insignias to resemble but not copy the originals.
The movie’s soundtrack, composed by Pedtro Bromfman, is also laced throughout with numerous popular songs and instrumental numbers.“I wanted the music to reflect as much as possible the kind of music Brazilians listen to,” says the director.