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Who's Afraid of 'Big Bad Wolves'?

Wolfing down the new Israeli horror from Navot Papushado and Aharon Keshales

By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Sept. 20, 2013

Who's Afraid of 'Big Bad Wolves'?

Smashed hands. Blowtorched flesh. Decapitated children. Big Bad Wolves may sound like a gore fest, but if you ask director Navot Papushado, he says, "This whole film is about fatherhood."

Two years ago, I sat at Jo's on South Congress, chatting with Papushado and his co-director/former University of Tel Aviv lecturer Aharon Keshales, about their first film, Rabies (see "Getting 'Rabies' in Israel," Oct. 2, 2011). I introduced them to Dublin Dr Pepper, and they told me about their next project: a tale of kidnapping and torture. Back then, they called it Satan Lives Within. Renamed Big Bad Wolves, it's been gobbling up the festival circuit, with rave reviews and 11 nominations at the Israeli Oscars, the Ophirs – and now it's coming to Austin. "You were the first reporter we spoke to on Big Bad Wolves," Papushado said recently. "It's like a closure."

Widely accepted as Israel's first horror film, Rabies is part black comedy, part slasher flick. By contrast, Big Bad Wolves blends Kim Jee-Woon's serial killer drama I Saw the Devil with the Westerns on which its co-directors were raised. Papushado described it as what would happen if "a Dirty Harry film wandered by mistake into a Korean revenge thriller, written by the Brothers Grimm."

The genesis of the story was "an alleged serial killer, a teacher whose life has been ruined; his wife wouldn't want to talk to him; he's getting fired." When one child too many goes missing, a brutal cop (Rabies star Lior Ashkenazi) kidnaps the suspect and plans to beat the truth out of him – but the pair are kidnapped in turn by the girl's father (Tzahi Grad), who drags them to his homemade torture chamber. What results is a sometimes gruesome comedy of errors.

Even though Ashkenazi is arguably the biggest actor in Israel, Papushado called him "our muse. One day we saw him on the streets of Tel Aviv, and he just grabbed us and started shouting at us: 'Stop doing the festival circuit! Write me a new script; I want a role.'" Two days later, they called him: "'We have this character, this very, very dumb, violent detective, and it's going to fit you perfectly. He's going to be violent, he's going to be instinctive, he's going to be funny, he's going to be a douche bag,' and Lior said, 'Perfect, that's me.'"

With Ashkenazi, Grad, and Doval'e Glickman (who Papushado called "the Israeli John Cleese") as the girl's blundering grandfather, that still left the challenging part of the nebbish suspect Dror empty. Papushado said, "You are always sympathetic to him, but you always have a suspicion towards him." Finally, they found Rotem Keinan, who had his own take on the character. "He said, 'I don't want to make him a crybaby. I don't want to make him just shouting and crying for help. I want to shape it like he has so many layers to him.'" But bringing depth to a suspected child murderer isn't his only skill. "He's also very good at taking punches," said Papushado. "Everyone had so much fun torturing him."

Rabies got some initial attention simply because it was a first for Israel. Now that the novelty's worn off, is there any extra pressure to their second film? "No pressure at all. What do you mean? No pressure at all," said Papushado. OK, maybe some pressure. Right up until Big Bad Wolves' world premiere at Tribeca, the pair worried that fans of Rabies would just want more of the same and reject their new direction. "The day after, the reviews started to appear, and we're like, 'OK, it's not a disappointment,'" Papushado said. "It was a huge lift of our hearts." Not that the pair need a gushing response in Austin. "We are simple people," he said. "Give us a good Dr Pepper, and we're set."


Big Bad Wolves screens Sunday, Sept. 22, 11:45pm, and Tuesday, Sept. 24, 8:15pm.

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