Part of fun of The ABCs of Death movies is discovering who directed which short. The title and credit doesn’t come on until the end of each short, but you’ll know when the Israeli short begins that it’s Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado. The Israeli directors won acclaim last year for their second film Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of the year. I had met them years earlier for their first film, Rabies, the first Israeli slasher film.
They were invited to make a short film about death based on a letter of the alphabet for The ABCs of Death 2. Their film is about a downed Israeli pilot discovered by a Palestinian boy. I reconnected with Papushado and Keshales in Austin when the film premiered at Fantastic Fest. The ABCs of Death is now available on VOD and opens in theaters October 31.
Nuke the Fridge: Was it your idea to use the format of ABCs of Death to do almost more of drama than a horror short?
Aharon Keshales: Yeah, after watching the first one and L for Libido, we thought we couldn’t top that in gore. It went off the roof so we thought about doing something tAK:o go the other way. To have something that will say something, because we thought if we get the chance to have 26 directors from a lot of countries, you should do an anthology that will deal with death but what does it mean to every country? So we decided to go dramatic this time around and have something that has something to say about death. So you don’t cheer for people dying on the screen. You’re just like, “I don’t know if I want them to die.” To have a different voice inside these 26 people.
Navot Papushado: I think also, when we did Rabies and Big Bad Wolves, it takes some time for the violence to pop in the movie. We don’t want to make nihilistic films. We like watching those crazy nihilistic violent films, but as filmmakers, we feel like we should be responsible with the violence on screen. So we said for a four to five minute short, just getting some heads blowing off is not us. It’s not our voice. We like the characters to develop to a certain point that you actually feel something for them, so the violence says something. So we wanted to put our voice, our tone to it and do something that is more tragic and more humane and not over the top. I think that’s more us, with our sensibility.
Nuke: With all the acclaim you got for Rabies and especially Big Bad Wolves, was anyone concerned about you doing a horror short for ABCs of Death 2?
Aharon Keshales: No, it’s the kind of project that everybody comes with a lot of love. We don’t want to become those directors that turn their back to the things they started from. We did Rabies, we did Big Bad Wolves. We’re developing but we’ll never turn our back to the things we started off from and love the most, like having fun in the cinema. So when you get an opportunity from one of the film festival directors that supported us, we started out with Mitch from Fantasia, Tim League from Fantastic Fest and he says, “Come and do a five minute segment about death.” It’s celebration for us, because they’re putting their confidence in you to say you’re one of the leading voices in horror and we really want you to be in it. For us it’s a proud moment. We never thought about not doing it.
Navot Papushado: We were fans and we’ll always be fans. For us it’s always a challenge. It doesn’t matter if you’re doing a two hour, whether it’s a revenge film or it’s a more “respectable” genre. It’s always a challenge. As long as they keep letting us do our own thing and put our own voice and sensibility to something, we’ll always be up for the challenge, I hope. Until the day we become douche bags. We always get nervous. Even though it’s a five minute short, we get nervous. Everyone’s head’s blowing off, being chopped off in every segment. Every segment up until ours is so out there, very loud. All of a sudden our movie starts and it’s quiet, and it’s not what you would expect, and the audience is sitting there like okay. It takes a couple of moments for people to understand this is not going to be another over the top violent film. Of course we are nervous because it’s so different. I like that nervous feeling. I like the fact that we are being challenged. Features, shorts, it doesn’t matter. As long as this audience will always like us, it’s always in the back of our heads. The people that like Rabies and Big Bad Wolves are the people we are making movies for. Not the people who say, “We want them to be more this way or that way.”
Aharon Keshales: As long as we find our own voice inside the project, we don’t care. It’s our respect for the audience and for our own voice. If we’re doing what we’re doing, and I know The ABCs of Death really wanted to have a different kind of ABCs this time around. They did want everybody to bring his own sensibility and his own lairs into the film, not just doing a head explosion. And you can feel that, because this anthology really has some bleak moments and even serious stuff in it, not just fart jokes and stuff like that.
Navot Papushado: In our previous movies, they were genre movies or based on genre conventions, and we did put some political layers in Rabies and Big Bad Wolves. But doing a short segment in Hebrew inside of 26 segments, we told ourselves, let’s be political this time. Let’s not put it in subtext. Let’s put it for everyone to see. It’s a soldier, it’s a young Palestinian boy. Let’s bring all the humanity and tragedy to the subject. Let’s use that format to make a political film which is really about humanity and kids being drawn to a conflict being played as pawns, but they share a moment. You almost want them to go on a date after this because they’re smiling and you say, “Okay, maybe in a different lifetime, in a different place, this wouldn’t be a horror film. This would be a romantic comedy. A young female soldier and a young Palestinian guy meet. Oh no, it’s The ABCs of Death. It’s going to end bad for them.” It was really challenge and I remember Aharon sending the script and we’re like, “Okay, will they bite?” And they said, “Yeah, go ahead.”
Nuke: Is your lead actress a big star in Israel?
Navot Papushado: Not yet, not yet.
Aharon Keshales: She’s starting now. She has a little part in Zero Motivation which premiered in Tribeca but she’s doing mostly theater, not cinema. We hope for her that she will get recognition really fast because she’s a great actor.
Navot Papushado: Even though she’s blonde, she has something very fresh to her and I think that was very interesting. At the beginning, that’s something we always like to make. Okay, it’s a very cliche moment. It’s a very cliche stereotype. She’s the blonde, voluptuous girl. He’s a young Palestinian kid but the minute they start talking and communicating, okay, it’s different. I think she brings that extra thing.
Aharon Keshales: She looks tough but her eyes are so vulnerable. I think the moment at the end when you look into her eyes and you see all the feelings she has, she’s a great actress and I think she will get noticed really soon.
Where were you when Tarantino called Big Bad Wolves the best film of the year? Do you know if he’s seen Rabies?
Navot Papushado: Actually, we flipped a coin. Aharon had to go to the Chicago Film Festival and I went to Busan. So I was lucky enough to be in the theater when Tarantino raised his hand during the Q&A and said that for him it was the best film of the year. Aharon was entertaining some very nice Jewish grandmothers at Chicago Film Festival. We’re still arguing who got the better end of the deal. When I talked to him in Korea he hadn’t seen Rabies yet but maybe he’s seen it since then. I really hope he will. Rabies is also very much influenced by his work.