Israeli cinema is hotter than the Negev right now, with daring, new films bursting forth from the tiny nation like water from the Rock at Horeb. Joseph Cedar's “Footnote” took father/son rivalries to academia, Samuel Maoz' “Lebanon” was an entire war epic (and formalist's fever dream) from the interior of a tank and the live action/animation hybrid of Ari Folman's “Waltz With Bashir” led to his sci-fi freak-out “The Congress.”
Few have broken away from “what we expect” of Israeli cinema quite like the duo of Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. Their 2010 film “Rabies” is a smart, nightmarish killer-in-the-woods slasher with a sizable dollop of comedy. The follow up, “Big Bad Wolves,” comes to us this week after a remarkable run on the festival circuit. (Yes, you are remembering correctly, this is the one that Quentin Tarantino called the best movie of 2013 at a festival in South Korea.)
“Big Bad Wolves” is a scary and gross movie, mostly in one confined space, where the audience's sympathies jockey between three characters. It is, essentially, a “talking through” of a classic ethical dilemma. Is it right to use brute force against someone to prevent a murder? Yeah, sure. But what if you aren't 100% sure the guy you've got is the guy? Well, then I'm not so sure. What about revenge? No, leave that to the justice system. What if they're duped? Well, then I'm not so sure. Are you morally culpable if you don't stop someone from taking the law into their old hands? Well, it depends on – oh, GOD, what is he DOING?!?
These are the issues that permeate the strangely enjoyable – and frequently funny – film. I was lucky enough to speak to the two writer/directors. An abridged transcript of that conversation follows.
FILM.COM: I'm recording this over the phone. Quickly tell me who is who.
AHARON KESHALES: This is Aharon.
NAVOT PAPUSHADO: This is Navot.
Yeah, I think I got it, but if I misattribute I'm sure it's okay.
Aharon or Navot, not sure which one: Yeah, it's fine.
Two directors is a pain, especially for critics who like the auteur theory. We like one voice of God, one commander in chief. The Coen Brothers get a pass because they are brothers, they share dna and a childhood. But for you guys, how do you fight over things, but not in front of the cast and crew?
Navot: Aharon was my professor, and the only one to encourage me to make genre films. The other professors encouraged more political or dramatic films. We became very good friends, we discovered we had similar tastes. He was also a prominent critic, and is also a lot like Marty McFly from “Back to the Future.” If you call him chicken, then he has to do it. I said, “you write about film, you teach film, are you afraid to do one yourself?”
But on the set, how do you solve problems moment-to-moment? No two people always agree every time.
Navot: Well, if someone is not happy, we discuss and, actually, we find it easier. We agree on so many things that it's nicer for the actors, they get all the attention they need because we can split the duties.
Aharon: And like father and mother, we don't bicker in front of our kids. We wait until the end of the day. But we fight more about other stuff. Like if he hates an arty farty film he should like.
Navot: Yeah, I'm more mainstream. But, yeah, the joke is that Aharon and I share the same brain. So, I guess this means we each only have half a brain.
You could say this entire movie is drawn out from that one moment in “Dirty Harry” when he's pressing down on that shot leg.
Aharon: That's the best scene in “Dirty Harry.”
Did you worry that one ethical argument would be enough to blow out into a feature film?
Aharon: It is, I suppose, one instant in time that becomes a 110 minute feature. But when you see how “Gravity” is doing these days – that's 90 minutes of a woman escaping a shuttle. If you are afraid of confined subject matters then you are just being afraid. A true cinematic achievement can take something that's just a scene in another film and make it into an epic. Think about “Jaws.” It's three guys on a boat – you could do it on a Broadway stage, right? That's what we wanted to do, three guys handling the same matter, but from three points of view – and to give you a peek into the Israeli mentality of how to deal with this kind of predator.
But we weren't afraid to use comedy. The main thing we always think of with a script is “what can go wrong?” But in a way like “how can reality interject,” like a phone call from your mother on an Arab on a horse.
Navot: That's how me pitched the movie, actually. We wanted to make “Dirty Harry” crossed with a mistake from a Korean revenge thriller written by the Brothers Grimm.
You mentioned “Israeli mentality.” There will be a lot of people who watch this who maybe don't have the context of Israeli history, Israeli culture, the mandatory military service, the legacy of the Holocaust, the question of the settlements, the geographical isolation blah blah blah. What does an audience member like that come away with?
Navot: Listen, even some Israeli audience members don't get all that.
Our first intention is to make an entertaining film. A good genre thriller, which we don't really have in Israel. This is pretty much the second one ever, and we were the two idiots who did the first one.
Aharon: A lot of Israeli films feel like lectures to us. When we made “Rabies” and “Big Bad Wolves” we want audiences to enjoy the plotline, then afterwards can think about the context. If it is entertaining, then afterwards people will ask “why does everyone in the movie have an Army past. Why is there an Arab on a horse in this goddamn movie?”
For me, and I didn't even think about it until after the movie, was realizing the father's ringtone on his cell was Richard Wagner.
Aharon: Yeah . . .that was a blast to do.
Navot: Did you notice his gun? The glock?
Aharon: Yeah, because Israelis don't buy anything from Germany. But, yeah, when you are creating the film, you think what would be a good inside joke, maybe, so this leads to a ringtone like that. The spectator who gets it will enjoy the movie ten times more, but when you write the movie it is first for the mass crowd. We believe, like Tarantino, or Spielberg when he started, and the Coen Brothers, they are great works that you enjoy as films first, then you enjoy them with subtext and philosophy after.
What has been the most memorable reactions you've gotten from the film.
Navot: Two girls approached us at the end of the first screening who demanded to know if [redacted for spoilers.] And we said, “well, we won't say.” And they became very adamant that they needed to know. We got back home and on our Facebook, those two girls had tracked us down and demanded to know. Also a few female viewers in Israel approached our lead actor and accused him of “not going far enough.” And he said “not far? I just [spoiler of shocking, violent act] what else could I do?” These women said “we would have gone further.”
Reactions are different depending if we are at a genre festival or a mainstream one. The shocked reaction at mainstream festivals remind us that some people are still sane. Another thing we learned is that you don't need to be Jewish to have a Jewish mother.
You guys got a lot of press when Quentin Tarantino called “Big Bad Wolves” the best movie of the year. So now let's return the favor – what is your favorite Quentin Tarantino film?
Aharon: A tough draw for me between “Reservoir Dogs” and “Inglorious Basterds.” But, lately, I think “Inglorious Basterds” truly is his masterpiece, like he says at the end.
Navot: Yes, for me “Inglorious Basterds.”
I know you guys are part of “The ABCs of Death Part Two,” can you tell me which letter you have?
Aharon: They don't allow us to say, but we are doing something surprising.
Navot: There were fewer contracts for going into the army than when we signed up to do this movie.
Aharon: But after that we want to make our spaghetti western “Once Upon A Time In Palestine,” about our whole love affair with the British here in the 1940s.
Navot: Yes, the time when the British were occupying Israel, and we were the freedom fighters, or the terrorists if you like – killing people, putting bombs in hotels.
You could also call it “Have Irgun Will Travel.”
Aharon: Yes, that will be the a/k/a, definitely.
“Big Bad Wolves” is in select cinemas and On Demand services on January 17.