How To Shoot And Edit An Action Scene, With Elite Squad’s José Padilha

José Padilha‘s film Elite Squad: The Enemy Within is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today. I got to speak with the director about the film (and his Robocop remake) a couple of weeks ago.

What particularly interested me was the specific way in which Padilha shot and edited the action sequences. Here are a few pointers that he gave me as to how he did this, and how a director of documentaries became Brazil’s best action filmmaker of the moment.

1. What an action film offers that a documentary can not.

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 dramatise 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.

2. Allowing the cameramen to use their documentary skills

I don’t give marks to my actors but I do to the cameraman. So I say “When he gets the gun be close on his face.” But they don’t know when he’s going to get the gun because I don’t give marks to the actors. It’s not like somebody saying “move the camera around on purpose” it’s the camera moving around as the camera man tries to film the relevant thing.

3. What to have in the frame

I used what I call “connecting shots”. So I’ll have the helicopter here in the frame, say, with Moura looking down… and an explosion will go on down there, visible in the same shot. Both things are in the same shot. I don’t like action scenes where everything is in its own shot. I think it’s important to show the connection between these things.

And then, in the next shot, I will have one of those things from the previous shot, for example the explosion continuing. The audience than always knows where everything is and does not get lost or lose interest in the action.

4. The editing is important, and part of the plan all along

Harvey Weinstein saw the first action footage from Elite Squad when it was rushes and he was surprised by it, and he didn’t think that it was going to work. I had to cut a sequence together to show him and then he understood. I imagine he’s a busy man and then suddenly this footage comes in and he’s got two minutes to look at it and he thinks “What is this?” [laughs]

In Brazil you can’t go back and reshoot an action scene so I planned it all out very carefully. I had to know exactly what I wanted. Because I have the connecting shots it is very easy to cut my sequences together and move around in the action. It was just about moving to the right shot at the right time to show the right thing, what the audience needs to see next.

Both Elite Squad films are available in the UK now, courtesy of Revolver. Definitely recommended.

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