Director José Padilha Addresses his Controversial “7 Days in Entebbe” (Interview)

PadilhaEntebbe3Focus Features

There have been other films that told the story of the 1976 hijacking of an airplane flying from Israel to Paris by Palestinian and German revolutionaries, but , directed by José Padilha (Robocop) and starring Rosamund Pike and Daniel Brühl, takes a much more rounded approach to the story. 

Over the weekend, Focus Features opened 7 Days in Entebbe, and unfortunately, it didn’t do very well, maybe because the film hadn’t been getting the greatest reviews, possibly due to the more controversial aspects of the film in terms of Israeli politics. Or maybe the film critic pool that’s growing younger by the year aren’t interested in history, who knows?

Regardless of what you thought of his Robocop revamp, Padilha is a talented Brazilian filmmaker whose work in his home country has helped make him a hot commodity there. After producing the first two seasons of Narcos and directing a couple episodes — yes, I realize that doesn’t take place in Brazil, thank you – Padilha has a new modern-day Brazilian political series called The Mechanism that Narcos network Netflix will be releasing this coming Friday.

The Tracking Board spoke with Padilha on the phone last week about the film and he discussed putting this complex film together as well as addressing some of the controversy surrounding it.

I spoke with Daniel yesterday, and I really enjoyed the film. As I was watching it, I kept thinking it reminded me of something else you’ve done, and I just realized that it was the doc Bus 174, which you made earlier in your career.

José Padilha: Bus 174, yes, the hijack. That’s correct.

How did this come to you? What kind of interested you in directing it? Obviously, it does have that connection with Bus 174, so was that why Working Title brought it to you or did you find it another way?

I got the screenplay, and I already knew about Entebbe from hanging out with so many special ops guys. That is a very famous operation, maybe one of the most famous military operations of all time. By hanging out with the cops I knew how this story was told from a military perspective. I got the screenplay and to tell you the truth, I just didn’t want to do any military thing, because I have done Narcos and Elite Squad and so many with police officers and so on. I looked at the screenplay and I said, “You know, I’m probably gonna pass on it but let me read it.” When I read it, I saw that it was exactly the opposite of what I thought. It wasn’t a military story. It was the story being told through the eyes of the hostages of the terrorists on one hand, and on the other hand, it was the political process that led to the decision of doing the military action, so the military action was only a small part of it. There was not a lot of bullets fired. It was really a political thriller, kind of a drama, really. I thought, “How can I make a drama that plays like a thriller?” And it immediately interested me, and that’s why I tackled it.

It’s very involved as far as, like you say, it’s not just about the kidnappers or hostages. There are the scenes with the Israeli President and his cabinet and the conflicts in Israel. In The Last King of Scotland, we see some of what happens in Uganda with Amin but that’s maybe five or six minutes in that movie. Once you decided to do this, how did you decide on casting, when you have so many characters?

I had many challenges. I mean, first and foremost, I had to find somebody to play Böse and somebody to play Brigitte that could deliver the irrational, crazy and violent aspect of terrorism on one hand, but on the other hand be put in check by the hostages when they start accusing them of being Nazis. And Brigitte [Rosamund Pike’s character], she defended herself by being even more aggressive, pushing the hostages away, and Böse tried to talk to them. This is actually true and it’s what actually happened. It required subtle actors to do that, actors with a real balance. It’s not easy to do it, and so Daniel Brühl came to my mind right away. I’ve been following his career since I saw Good Bye Lenin!, [and he’s] an amazing actor [who] understands the German history and all the left-wing groups

And then Rosamund, Tim Bevan [producer from Working Title] had the idea to talk to Rosamund. I spoke to her [and she’s an] incredibly smart actress, really talented. She transforms into the characters, so I said “Rosamund, can you speak German?”, and she says, “I can kind of, but I’ll do it. I’ll do it perfectly.” And I trust her, and she did it. She has a perfect accent, it’s amazing.

PadilhaEntebbe1Focus Features

Then, on the other hand, with Lior [Ashkenazi] who plays Yitzhak Rabin, I wanted to have an Israeli actor in that role, and I asked Yuval Rabin, Yitzhak Rabin’s son, for advice and he mentioned Lior who was a friend of the family and knew Yitzhak Rabin’s story very well. I talked to Lior, great actor and he agreed to do it, and then Eddie Marsan was the last piece of the puzzle. Eddie’s just a great actor, and he agreed to do Shimon. You know, he says, “I’ll do Shimon”, and he researched it and even though he’s not Israeli, he delivered the perfect Shimon Peres.

You don’t have to convince me on Eddie Marsan. I’ve been a huge fan of his since seeing him in Vera Drake, the Mike Leight movie. I think he’s fantastic, so I was very happy to see him in this movie.

He is an amazing guy, and a crazy talented actor. He’s just incredible.

It’s interesting how the film is split up into sections with the airplane hijacking being one thing, then there’s what’s happening in Israel, and then once the plane lands in Entebbe, that’s something else, plus there’s the dancers. And no one in the Israel scenes ever meet anyone else, so how do you decide which part to film first?

Right, well this is how it happened. The movie is based on a well-researched book by Professor Saul David, an English professor, and he spent like 10 years researching this, and he wrote the book telling the story like this, inter-cutting between what’s happening in Israel, what’s happening inside the terminal, and also what’s happening in the military side of things. So I tried to be faithful, so we built a terminal exactly like the one in Entebbe. The same size. It’s not visual effects. Inside an airport in Malta, [we built] a real functioning airport, so we could have planes coming, cars coming.

Then in London, we looked for locations that were very similar to the cabinet and to Yitzhak Rabin’s office. We talked to Amos who was there, who was in the movie too as Rabin’s aide. He was there all the time. He described to us how the meetings in the cabinet were exactly like what was described in the book, so the book was accurate. Then we tried to always light the terminal in a way that was a strong light. Entebbe had strong light. It’s a high place, and it’s in Africa, very sunny. And then in the Israeli cabinet, a lot of smoke because people were smoking like crazy. We just tried to create the ambience that matched all the references we had and make it look and feel real. That was the goal. The dance I shot in Israel itself, and that was it..

I love the dance sequence, and it’s interesting, because at the beginning, you don’t know how it connects with everything else, so what inspired that sequence?

I know a little bit about Israeli culture, because I have a Jewish mother and a side of my family is Jewish. I think that Israel is always seen in the terms of conflict and in a military context. Israeli culture is beautiful, so I thought I should display something beautiful of Israeli culture in this movie and not only as far as weapons and military things. I knew this dance, and this dance it’s not only beautiful but is also a critique of Israel by Israelis, so in the dance you see the dancers dressed in Orthodox clothes and as the dance progresses they take off their clothes. They shed themselves of their Orthodoxies, so to speak, and the one who doesn’t keeps falling from the chair, falling from the chair, which was a way to say, metaphorically, that radical Orthodoxy will not really lead to peace in the Middle East. So I tried to do both things at once, show something beautiful of Israeli culture and create a cinematic raid, different than what was seen before and also give it a metaphorical meaning.

PadilhaEntebbe2Focus Features

You mentioned you had some of the survivors there as well, some of the people who actually were on the plane and involved in the raid. How important was that to have those people there to the creative process?

Very important. I knew that the movie was gonna do two things, no matter what, that are controversial.

One is the way the raid is narrated is a point of contention in Israel because Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother Yoni Netanyahu died, and Benjamin Netanyahu used this event in Israel to help or aid his political campaign, and Yoni is a true hero and seen as such in Israel. I wanted to do the scene and have it happen exactly as the soldiers were describing, and the soldiers described Yoni dying right at the beginning of the raid. Whenever you say something about Yoni in Israel, for some reason — I don’t know exactly what the reason is, because that’s what happened — there’s controversy.

It’s almost like somebody’s trying to take away the heritage of Yoni, and I think anyone who stepped into those planes was a hero, and Yoni for sure was one. But I didn’t want to be on the fence, so I had the two guys who broke into the terminal first right next to me when I was shooting the scene. They trained the soldiers and they were next to me, so they were blocking the scene for me. I was asking, “Where did Yoni fall? Here? Where did he come from? Here? How did you run?” Everything was done exactly as described by the first two guys who stepped into the terminal. That was, for me, important to be accurate and to have a first-person narration that had nothing to do with politics, to get away from the political aspects of this in Israel.

And then the other part of it is that what we are showing is that at the last second, there was a terrorist who had a chance of killing people and he didn’t. He didn’t make killing his first priority. As a matter of fact, all of the other terrorists look at the window and screamed for the hostages to lie down. This is controversial, because people don’t like to see terrorists like that, but it actually happened. Many, many people who were there, including Jacques Le Moine, the French co-pilot that we show as flight engineer. It was important for us to have him there. It was important for us to interview him on camera just so we have this and people understand. I know it was already in the book written by Saul David, but I wanted to be sure to surround myself with people who were there, so that whenever it became controversial, which inevitably it will, I could say, “Listen, I don’t have a political agenda. I am telling this the way it went.”

Any idea what you’re going to do next? It’s interesting to go from a science fiction movie like RoboCop into something more realistic based on history, so where do you go from here?

Well, I’m opening a series in Brazil now, O Mecanismo (The Mechanism), which I hope it’s successful and we get to the second season — I think it will be. It’s a show that is a current-day event in Brazil, so we are telling a story that is happening right now. It’s a very important story for the country, because the president, the most famous politician, may end up in jail this month. He has shaken the country, and I intend to continue to tell this story all the way to the end.

I have family in Rio as well, so I’ll have to ask them if they’ve seen the show or not. Do you think it will travel to the States or do you think it’s too specific to Brazil?

Yes, Netflix is releasing the first season on March 23 globally. I’m actually going to Rio today to promote it.

7 Days in Entebbe is now playing across the country, and as luck would have it, Netflix is indeed streaming The Mechanic starting on Friday, March 23. (You can watch the trailer for that series below.)

Related: Interview with Daniel Brühl

  | East Coast Editor
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2 Responses to Director José Padilha Addresses his Controversial “7 Days in Entebbe” (Interview)

  1. It is a political correct movie, trying to make evil look humane. this is why it got mediocre ratings.

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