'Gunpowder Milkshake' Director Navot Papushado On Taking Inspiration From Jackie Chan And Buster Keaton [Interview]

Gunpowder Milkshake is a movie that lives up to its title. For starters, it looks like sugar, with its candy-like aesthetic – it's a visual treat from director Navot Papushado and one of the all-time great cinematographers, Michael Seresin. Seresin shot several of filmmaker Alan Parker's films, including Angel HeartMidnight Express, and the joyous Bugsy Malone. To say Papushado was excited to work with him is an understatement. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Papushado made an impression with his 2013 film, Big Bad Wolves, which Quentin Tarantino called the best film of that year. Since then, Paushado shot a segment for the horror anthology ABCs of Death 2, but after a long wait, he got back behind the camera for this original but extremely referential action movie starring Karen Gillan and Lena Headey, among others (read our review here).

During our interview ahead of the film's release on Netflix today, the filmmaker shared a long list of influences in his action-packed genre blender.

You have obviously one of the greatest cinematographers around shooting this movie. Did you two ever talk about Bugsy Malone? That feels like an influence.

I think we left that unspoken. We didn't want to touch that stuff. No, I grew up on Bugsy Malone, and I think I grew up on that duo, Michael Seresin and Alan Parker, before I even understood there are people who are actually making those movies. For me, movies magically appeared in a cinema or on TV.

I had video cassettes of Bugsy Malone, Birdie, and Angel's Heart. I was a big fan of Michael Seresin before I even made the connection there's a camera or the DOP behind it. So when hearing Michael Seresin might be available, I was like, "All right. Everyone knows their job. Everyone knows what to do." And then he read it. He was living just two blocks from where I was living back then. And he's like, "Hey, yeah, why don't you come over for dinner? We'll open a bottle of wine and talk about our influences and discuss the script?"

I went there, and we just spent a wonderful day. And then the next day, we met again, and we just realized we loved the same movies, some of his, but many others more. And the approach I wanted to bring to this movie was exactly what he represents. It's this understanding of the rich history of film, the mythology behind all the movies that I adore and love, which is pretty much some of his favorites. We wanted to see if we can bring it into something modern and contemporary and do the whole movie wide lenses, very colorful, something that is almost been done on a Technicolor era of, maybe it's a Vertigo. What would have happened if Hitchcock [did this]?

I apologize for trying to put me and him in the same sentence. It's just for demonstrating my ambitiousness. And yeah, Michael, I learned so much from him. I'm very lucky to call him a friend. I was just on the phone with him a couple of hours ago. He's shooting the new Noah Baumbach movie, and he's very excited about that. He's a legend.

What were some of the other movies you two talked about? 

It always starts with this holy trinity of three filmmakers I adore and keep watching their moves again and again, and it's Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergio Leone. For me, it all starts there and especially when you discuss the assassin genre. It goes all the way back to the gunslingers and the contract killers and the hired hitmen. And then it evolves into what Jean-Pierre Melville introduced. And from John-Pierre Melville, let's stay a little bit in the French cinema.

Jacques Denys is someone I adore. So, we say, "Okay, wouldn't it be great if we incorporate those Technicolors, those Umbrellas of Cherbourg, Singing In the Rain, into an Alfred Hitchcock, Sergio Leone kind of genre blender?"And then we discussed a little bit later on, the Michael Mann and Michael Cimino effect that on the '70s and Frankenheimer, Friedkin, and Scorsese. And being an '80s kid, I was born into the Spielberg-Zemeckis era.

So I felt like this is who I am. This is what I want to bring in. I think those filmmakers were also influenced by the same eras that I was. So it became very clear that we want to do something colorful, super stylish, very meticulous, wide lenses, dim lights, almost give it a nostalgic, retro-chic, but without holding the contemporary or the kind of modern aspect of it, so it wouldn't feel like we are indulging our own kind of, "Oh, we want to show you all the movies we like."

No, we wanted them to be there, in the presence and in spirit. We wanted to do justice to all the rich mythology, all the names we mentioned. I always felt like that when you're doing a movie in a specific genre, you have to acknowledge and respect everything that came before you, try not to copy too much, but at least acknowledge that.

Let's talk about the action, starting with the hospital fight sequence, which gives the character such a fun challenge to overcome. With the stunt team, how did you want to incorporate physical comedy into that fight? 

For me, the two best action heroes are Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. Their action sequences are funny, but more than anything else, they provoke emotion through storytelling. For them, it's all about either the plot moving forward or the character's arc. It's never about nihilistic, shoot-em-up kind of a thing.

I'm also a big fan of Asian cinema and Korean cinema and Japanese and Chinese and everything. In those movies, guns play a part, but it's actually the challenges that you throw on your characters. It's also a challenge on yourself as a writer, how can I push my heroine into the most difficult, absurd surrealist situation and see how she can come up or recover from that?

Now, having said that, those action scenes were written the way that they are. But once the entire [stunt] team came on board, they kept pushing the envelope. They would come to me, and they would say, "Listen, Karen is good. Lena is good. We can push it a little bit more. How about this and about that?" And then Michelle joined in, then Angela joined in, and then Carl joined in. Okay, we needed to rethink it a little bit. We need to create more challenges for ourselves. I'm not going to put just two guns at Michelle's hand. I mean, she jumped on a moving train with the bike. I can come up with something a little bit more creative. So, a chain would be more fitting, that will challenge us and her a little bit.

But from the beginning, it was always about the storytelling. And for me, the clinic fight also kind of represented little evolutionary step that the movie takes, from something that is more Jackie Chan, Buster Keaton-oriented, like the bowling alley fight, into the more cartoonish kind of Looney Tunes, Chuck Jones meets Who Framed Roger Rabbit? And later on, you have the car chase, which is more of a '70s kind of a thing. And later on, you have more of a Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah, let's go down in a blaze of glory. This is where we make our stand.

So we tried to keep engaging with ourselves, with our characters, and also with the audience, with fresh new takes on, okay, not just another thing of what you already got used to seeing. No, let's try to confuse you and dazzle you and then play with you. I always love to make the audience part of the movie, not just a spectator, keep guessing. So, she's got her hands paralyzed. Hmm. I wonder what you're going to do now.

The car chase is another good example of that. It's big but in a small location. 

Exactly. It was written like that. I think most of the car chases are being done with the budget of our entire movie. Now, what if you go smaller? And by going smaller, by giving yourself more restrictions, by thinking more confined, you actually come up with something that feels not only bigger but much more entertaining.

I was wanting to kind of make my little homage to Bullitt, to The French Connection, but given them my own little take. How would that kind of a car chase be translated into something narrow and small and confined and how to make it cat and mouse, kind of a thing?

The ending is where you go big. What was challenging about putting all those moving pieces together? 

That was a challenge. I remember Michelle, I think she was flying from Avatar, and she just came for one day, for fitting, for seeing the action. We were all in awe, because it's Michelle Yeoh, coming to the training stage. It took everyone else a week or two. She just comes in and very elegantly, just nails everything. We were all like, "Yeah, that's Michelle Yeoh."

Everything that comes to play in the action to do with the colors, the location that was firstly designed by our production designer and by Michael Seresin, but also with the costume designer, Louise Frogley, which did an incredible job, I think. We wanted them to be practical, professional, but still stylish. Like, this is their territory. This is their turf. So it's a lot of moving parts. But if you have the most amazing team and the most amazing cast, you just need to make sure you don't screw it up, I guess.

Having said all that, it's a close-up of Michelle Yeoh's face that, to me, is the high point. 

She's an icon. I think all these ladies are iconic. And yes, you have Michelle Yeoh in this one shot, which I think is a very also emotional moment. Like I said, most of the movie was shot with these wide lenses. For certain moments, we really wanted to emphasize something, like where it was Carla's moment, just before the last fight. Those moments where we savor them. We wanted to savor them. You don't see them a lot. Because they're happening at the very specific moment of the script, they have that impact on you.

How about the bowling alley fight? How was it timing that fight? 

So we wanted to establish how badass she is, even before she starts fighting. So it's all the build-up. It's her standing there, and the three stooges, they're far away from her, and they're not even jumping at her. They're almost like they're prolonging the way. And you can just go at her, like 3, 2, 1. But by building and establishing the weight, you kind of like, all right, she's a badass. And they're a little bit intimidated and afraid, although she's outnumbered and outgunned or out-weapon-ed.

She towers over them.

Yeah. She kind of plays with them. She's like this little cat, knows these three mice are coming. She taunts them and humiliates them in a way that will come and haunt you later. But when the fight starts, we wanted to create the first part of it in one long take, to kind of demonstrate how badass she is and how capable she is. I think for Karen, maybe I'm wrong, but I think that was most challenging and rewarding because then that's the thing we worked the hardest.

In many ways, the clinic fight doesn't require the same set of skills, is more of an acting kind of thing, because of the restrictions. But this was pure skills. Karen needed to be well versed in the ways of martial arts and kicking ass. It was a challenge because we wanted to show the choreography. So again, it's this couple of things working together. It's the wild lenses, the long take, them, and the neon. You can see them as a silhouette. As an audience, you would only be focused on the choreography, on how they come in and now they go out. It was so much fun.


Gunpowder Milkshake is now streaming on Netflix.