Check the Gate is a reoccurring column where we go one-on-one with directors in an effort to uncover the reasoning behind their creative decisions. Why that subject? Why that shot? In this edition, we chat with Navot Papushado and discuss his love for cinema and the classic movies that inspired Gunpowder Milkshake.
Try as he might, Navot Papushado could never amount to anything more than a filmmaker. Once upon a time, the director aspired to be a history teacher. He flirted with a rock star fantasy. Let’s not get into that; it’s too embarrassing for him to discuss. But whenever he imagined a world away from movies, the movies themselves seemed to groan disapproval.
Papushado is the grandson of a projectionist. From an early age, he recognized the work and the artistry that went into delivering stories to the big screen. Somewhere along the line from creation to projection, a place had to exist for him. His classroom and world tour delusions faded quickly as he embraced his passions.
His first two movies — Rabies (2010) and Big Bad Wolves (2013), both co-written and co-directed by Aharon Keshales — sparked ravenous conversation. The converted, including Quentin Tarantino, immediately championed this film geek as the next great genre-buster. And while we got a short from the duo within ABCs of Death 2 (2014), it’s been a long wait for a third feature.
Thankfully, the delay is no more, and Navot Papushado’s first solo directorial effort, Gunpowder Milkshake, is set to Swiss cheese Netflix’s algorithm next week.
There are so many bullets and blades in this flick, friends. And hammers! And chains! And Michelle Yeoh! And Angela Bassett!
When you get Papushado talking about Gunpowder Milkshake, particularly the filmmakers and films that inspired it, he becomes vibratingly excited. The movie is an eruption from his psyche — a psyche soaked in movies. Separating the two is nearly impossible for him, and attempting to talk outside cinema is fruitless and absurd. What the hell are we here for anyway?
“I’m a very boring guy,” he explains. “Movies are basically the only things that get me passionate.”
Gunpowder Milkshake looks like a slick, non-stop action film with weird-ass mythology, a la John Wick, and it is, but it’s also about a half dozen other things. It’s a musical, a noir, a comedy, and a family melodrama. Papushado saw an opportunity to gorge Gunpowder Milkshake and go full Baskin Robbins, jamming Hollywood’s thirty-one flavors into its runtime.
“I want the movie to feel colorful,” he says. “I want it to feel like we are transported into Hitchcock’s Vertigo era. I want it to feel like a musical, like Jacques Demy’s The Umbrellas of Cherbourg. I want it to feel so full of life that sometimes it will even contradict the themes. If we can achieve that, we can actually tell a much more emotional story.”
Capturing and containing those varied tastes that inspired Gunpowder Milkshake required a like-minded and adaptable cinematographer. Michael Seresin has shot every kind of movie with a range that spans Midnight Express to the most recent Planet of the Apes sequels. Together they drilled into the colors, mapping out their meanings meticulously.
“Every color in the film means something different,” says Papushado. “For example, yellow means death, from the bag of weapons to the body bags that we manufactured specifically for this film. And orange means change. Color is the most important thing, and that’s where we started, and then it led to film noir and art deco and architecture. All of that builds texture and mood.”
Papushado and Seresin found Gunpowder Milkshake by firing films at each other. The cinematic shorthand covered a wide net, but it always returned to three particular directors and the characters who frequently populated their films. In dissecting their work, Papushado patched his movie together.
“It all starts with Alfred Hitchcock, Akira Kurosawa, and Sergio Leone,” he says of the filmmakers who most inspired Gunpowder Milkshake. “Obviously, when approaching this genre and these themes, you have to go there because the assassin genre is basically something that evolved from their contract killers and Kurosawa’s samurai-turned-ronin. These are those director’s characters, and from there, they evolved into the much more professional killers of Jean-Pierre Melville and Michael Mann, and you can go on all the way up to, I think, Kill Bill. But also, for me, maybe some Luc Besson and many, many others.”
The way Papushado understood it, these filmmakers found their diligent nature through their characters. Hired assassins survive by being careful, and being careful requires constant precision. If you’re making a movie about contract killers, you can’t improvise; you must be exact.
“It starts from the rules and codes of those assassins and those outlaws,” he says. “It starts from their joints, their meeting places. It’s the cafeteria they go to. It’s that diner or that coffee place where they can have lunch in peace, not worrying about rivalries or cops. It’s their mechanic who takes care of their cars. It’s the weapon supplier. It all starts with that cinema and Hitchcock, Kurosawa, and Leone.”
And as alike as those three icons are, they’re also wildly different. Embracing those distinctions was equally important for Papushado to concoct his Gunpowder Milkshake hodgepodge.
“When Kurosawa shoots action scenes,” he continues, “he shoots them with short lenses from two miles away. And Leone uses extremely wide lenses, and Hitchcock is much more practical about his approach. Whatever works for the best effect. And I find myself in a very comfortable place being inspired by those three.”
At a certain point, however, you gotta toss rigor out the window. Gunpowder Milkshake‘s action scenes are deliberately choreographed, but raw narrative is behind the swings and punches. These brawls are volcanic, passionate outbursts.
“Emotion is everything,” says Papushado. “We can talk about how a different genre inspired every action sequence. The first one in the bowling alley is something between Buster Keaton and Jackie Chan. But what was more important than that was the storytelling inside the action sequence. It’s not just about how this character can kick the shit out of these guys. It’s how she does it, and it’s about the audience understanding where the punches go because it has a payoff. What she does to them pays off in the humiliation they’re experiencing.”
Papushado confesses that there is not a day that goes by where he doesn’t watch at least one movie. They are his great pleasure, and the business of crafting them has not muted that enthusiasm — quite the opposite.
He tells us that this makes him a boring person. But it sure as hell does not make his movies boring. Gunpowder Milkshake is a bazillion things, but it ain’t dull.
Navot Papushado’s Gunpowder Milkshake explodes upon Netflix on July 14th.