Exclusive Q&A: Directors Keshales & Papushado on “BIG BAD WOLVES”
After an impressive festival run in 2013 and the declaration from Quentin Tarantino as “the best film of 2013,” BIG BAD WOLVES finally unleashed it’s unique brutality on American audiences back in January. Now, with the film hitting DVD/Blu-ray today from Magnet Releasing, directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado spoke to Fango about what influenced BIG BAD WOLVES and where their relentless sensibilities may take them next…
FANGORIA: BIG BAD WOLVES does an excellent job of setting up certain expectations and then subsequently tearing them down. Did you approach the film with an intentional sense of subversion or did that grow organically from the story?
AHARON KESHALES: When we were writing RABIES and BIG BAD WOLVES, we didn’t want just to frighten [the audience] or to only do a twist at the end in a “Shyamalan” way. We like to have a moral compass in our dramatic structure, so when we’re making a film, we’re in a unique situation where we ask ourselves, “What would we do? What could go wrong?” When you ask yourself that question, all sorts of original stuff comes to light.
In WOLVES, they’re torturing a guy in the middle of an Arab village and there’s Arabs surrounding them, so you could think of all the possible scenarios. But you also then think of the most original scenario, which would be that the Arab just walks by and doesn’t do anything back. He just smokes with you and talks with you. That’s how we think about plot devices, like a telephone [call] from your mother. Everyone gets them, but to get one in a kidnapping thriller is unusual.
NAVOT PAPUSHADO: I think that comes with genre filmmaking. After seeing so much [genre films] and being such huge fans, we have to ask, “How do I do something original but don’t go too far out of the box so that others don’t feel alienated?” We didn’t want to do anything too far fetched or to go too far. So you have to go the route where you’d surprise even yourself sometimes, like, “Oh, I didn’t see that coming,” instead of something like, “Oh, that’s too far.” We’re such huge genre film fans, but maybe since we come from Israel, we may have a fresh point-of-view towards genre films. Perhaps that’s an advantage. We want to surprise fans but also want to be a part of the genre family.
FANG: One curious aspect of the film is the lack of central female characters in the narrative. Outside of a brief scene with a Realtor and the opening credits with the young girl, female characters only appear via telephone calls. Was there a specific reason for the absence of female figures in BIG BAD WOLVES?
KESHALES: We thought about that and when we were writing, we decided we wanted to write about a male-dominated society. Israel is a very male-dominated society as we’re at war all of the time and we’re always stressing the importance of the army. We’re a paranoid country, and in the reality we established in BIG BAD WOLVES, the woman’s voice will always be the logical voice. A logical, emotional voice would tell us to stop with all of the bloodshed and we wanted to show an absurd, male-driven society that says it’s not a woman’s place to tell the men what to do.
In that society, all the men care about is their sense of justice; they don’t care about anything else. That sense sends all the men in the direction of doing something wrong. In one way, that mentality is in our DNA. Every Israeli, male or female, has to learn how to kill a man in the army.
PAPUSHADO: Another reason is because our main characters are all intended to be ex-military guys, and the problem is right there. Everyone in Israeli is “prepared for anything.” We’re always alert and prepared, and sometimes being alert or prepared all the time can lead to bad situations, even if the intentions are valid. When we grew up, our fathers were like superheroes to us. In Israel, everyone has to go into the army, but one month a year you have to go into reserve service. You can be in your late ’50s or ’60s and you still have to go for one month. So we’d be left with our mothers and we’d get a phone call from our fathers every couple of days, but when he came back, he’d be in uniform and he picks you up.
So in Israel, you grow up thinking that your father is this warrior and the society puts the army on this pedestal. So we had to portray a society where everyone is ex-military and we chose to go with males, especially because the military images that we grew up with were of our fathers. In some ways, BIG BAD WOLVES is an homage to our fathers.
KESHALES: It’s a sick homage. We’re taking their mentality to an extreme. We lived in houses where we were told to hit back; your father will not tell you to turn the other cheek or run away.
PAPUSHADO: And sometimes hit them before they hit you. It’s like vaccination. “Take your medicine before the sickness comes.” We were raised in a very male, macho and, when you think about it, violent society. Even our happy moments are mixed with remembering people who had died fighting for our country. So we took that mentality to the extreme, but not to make fun of it. We wanted to show how surreal it had become.
KESHALES: Even with the grandfather character, he doesn’t try to stop the violence. He’s more interested in showing them how they used to do it. When you go back through history in Israel, you find the warriors were greater, tougher and crazier. But in BIG BAD WOLVES, we wanted to show that each generation had become less tough, even if the society is still male-driven… like in JAWS [laughs].
PAPUSHADO: We’re like PRISONERS, except there’s no whistle at the end of ours [laughs]. I actually have a funny story from back when we had our premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival last year. After we screened, someone close to the production of PRISONERS came up to us and said, “In six months, we’re going to premiere a movie very similar to yours.” And I said, “I don’t care as long as our film comes out first.” But, in America, it came out after PRISONERS. Technically, we’re the fastest Israeli remake of a Hollywood film ever [laughs].
FANG: There’s many aspects of the film that are Hitchcockian, from the limited location to the rigid focus on the suspense. Was that specifically in mind when you were making BIG BAD WOLVES?
PAPUSHADO: That’s it. You just gave us the biggest compliment!
KESHALES: When we finished BIG BAD WOLVES and approached our composer, Haim Frank Ilfman, we asked him to write some Bernard Hermann-esque music for the film. There were several parts in the film where we knew we’d be borrowing Hitchcock’s devices, like the part with the Real Estate Agent. Even the way she wears her hair is a reference to Kim Novak in VERTIGO. In that scene, you have this feeling like something bad is going to happen and you’re filled with suspense, but nothing happens. And taking something with a dark tone and putting a little comedy in it is something else Hitchcock used to do. So, yes, Hitchcock was a major inspiration.
FANG: When you spoke to Michael Gingold in Fangoria #330, you mentioned your next project may be a spaghetti western. Is this still on the table?
PAPUSHADO: I think that Aharon and I would like to make a film in every genre, and as for spaghetti westerns, Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is our favorite film of all time. We grew up on spaghetti westerns; our fathers showed us spaghetti westerns. Spaghetti westerns are in our blood, and we played with their aesthetics a little bit in BIG BAD WOLVES with the Arab guy. So we’re thinking of doing a spaghetti western during the most Spaghetti Western-like time, which was when the British ruled Israel. That was a crazy time.
That said, the project is still on the table and we’re still developing that. It’s a big budget film and it’s morally complex. We’re still developing that; I’d love to make that. We also have a sci-fi idea and Aharon wants to make a romantic comedy.
KESHALES: We really want to make something for every genre, although our dream project is ONCE UPON A TIME IN PALESTINE. It’s about a very ugly time in Israel because everyone was bad and good at the same time. You’ll be amazed by what really happened back then.
PAPUSHADO: I like to call it THE BAD, THE BAD AND THE BAD [laughs]. The British even brought over Australian cowboys to try to maintain order and round up Jewish resistance groups. Eventually, the British left and said, “We’re out of here! Those Jews are crazy!” [laughs] Everyone talks about this period of time in Israel because, honestly, we were brutal back then. It’s a difficult thing to do right, but we got away with putting comedy in a movie about torturing a potential pedophile, so we can probably get away with that.