Last year, the most touching, thrilling and atmospheric film I saw was Antonio Campos’ (AFTERSCHOOL) Simon Killer, starring Brady Corbet and Mati Diop.
Simon Killer is the story of Simon (Corbet) who travels to the city of love, Paris, after his five year relationship with his girlfriend (never seen or heard on screen) ends. The collapse of the relationship has seriously affected Simon, he has had to move out of the apartment where they live and back in with his parents. As well as this, the breakup has both emotionally and mentally affected Simon who seems to be living in a very dark place. This is the backdrop for the film, which in all serious, is a study in madness; we watch, over a period of a few months, how this dark depression can turn a man into a killer.
I reviewed it during the London Film Festival 2012, where I said that “as emotionally compelling, and visually stunning; Simon Killer stands out as an art house film, offering visual, audio and thematic pleasures and leaves the audience feeling both scared and empathetic…” This week, Eureka! is releasing Simon Killer in the UK, and I was given the very special opportunity to interview the director about the monsters that he makes.
Initially I was interested in hearing about Campos’ filmic upbringing, and what lead him to becoming the filmmaker we see before us today.
“I was a fan of fantasy adventure films at an early age. I would watch The Goonies, Ghostbusters, Back to the Future, and Indiana Jones constantly. At some point, I realized that there was someone who made these things. Around 11 or so, I saw Stand By Me and The 400 Blows, which really changed my life. As a kid, I realized that your story was something interesting enough to make a movie from. At 13, I saw A Clockwork Orange, and somehow, when the Director credit came on screen, I had this realization that whoever this guy Stanley Kubrick was was responsible for everything I just saw. That he controlled the words, the sounds, the pictures. It was at that moment that I became determined to make a film of my own. The following summer I enrolled in a 6 week intensive filmmaking course at the New York Film Academy. I lied about my age and said I was 16 when I was actually 13 (I’ve always been blessed with a lot of facial hair. I started shaving at 11. It was easy for me to look older.) They didn’t have a real teen section at the time and the youngest students they took were 16, and there was only one other real 16 year old there at the time. The rest were in their 20s and 30s, a couple in their 40s. I made my first short “Puberty” there. It was an incredibly fun and cathartic experience and I continued to make shorts through the years.”
Campos’ first feature AFTERSCHOOL (2008) starred Ezra Miller. I wondered what was going through his mind when you made this film? After repeated watchings, it appeared to me that he was making a type of commentary on a generation obsessed with technology and instant gratification. For example, the poster in Robert’s room says, “Do you feel?”, what exactly do you think Robert is trying to feel?
“AFTERSCHOOL was a way of dealing with a lot of insecurities and discomfort from adolescence. As a kid, there was so much I did feel and think but I either felt too scared to express it or didn’t quite know how. I feel like there is a numbness young people embrace to get through those painfully awkward years, and technology allows them to do so in a lot of ways. As someone who was a teenager during 9/11 and had a best friend who had lost their father in one of the towers, there was a great deal of confusion and fear and even guilt I’d say from that experience that I was trying to deal with in AFTERSCHOOL.”
It seems a long time since I saw Ezra Miller in AFTERSCHOOL, and he has come a long way since then. I personally think it is based on this film that it was easier to see him play a role like Kevin in Lynne Ramsey’s adaptation of We Need To Talk About Kevin (Ramsey, 2011). Robert & Kevin have some similar issues, but I think Robert’s affliction is much more internal. How did Robert end up where he is?
“Robert’s trajectory to where he is when AFTERSCHOOL starts is quite simple I think. Some of it is just how he was programmed, probably with a lot of love but not a lot of direction. The adolescent experience filled with posturing and hierarchy is something most kids struggle to figure out, and not having any real, stable moral compass, he ends up where he is, trying to figure things out through the videos he watches online.”
Campos’ next film, Simon Killer (2012), finds main character Simon in Paris after he breaks up with his girlfriend. I wanted to know why, of all the places in the world, did Campos choose Paris to set his film?
“I lived there for 5 months while writing AFTERSCHOOL, right on the border of Pigalle, and I had always wanted to shoot something there. I had been reading a lot of George Simenon books, some of which take place around where I lived. I fell in love with this kind of seedy side of Paris, which reminded me of how I romanticised New York in the 70s from movies. From the story perspective, if you’re telling the story of a college graduate who is going on his first European trip on his own, Paris is the natural place to start. It is also a sexually charged city, and for this story, that was exactly what we needed as a backdrop.”
There is a certain style in the film, in the way that the camera moves; despite the characters, it is non judgmental but very exploratory. I wondered how the way Campos shot the film affect the characters and what did it mean? During Simon Killer, why do we follow behind Simon as a recurring motif throughout?
“I try to let the characters in some way dictate the way the camera is used. That was the case with Robert in AFTERSCHOOL and with Simon in this. In both these cases, I did not want the audience to forget that we were watching someone in a voyeuristic way. Sometimes that means sneaking up behind them, sometimes that means your perspective is obstructed. I’d say that in AFTERSCHOOL Robert controlled the camera more, while in this Simon controls the soundtrack.“
One brilliant analogy for me during Simon Killer was that of distance and lack thereof. Simon repeats categorically throughout the film that he has just graduated and that he spent his time studying the relationship between the eyes and the brain and yet Simon virtually never looks directly into the eyes of the audience. This gives the appearance of distance between Simon and the audience, almost alienating them from the character. Campos was interested in talking briefly, telling me that, “Simon is interested in how the brain and eye connect, but in some ways, the film is exploring the way the two don’t connect and what is in front of us and cannot be seen.”
One of things, which really stood out in both Simon Killer and AFTERSCHOOL, was the use of violence, sex and specifically pornography. Both Simon and Robert seem tormented by the very act of sex and everything that it brings. Violence seems bourn out of their sexual instincts; I wanted to know whether this was something Campos felt and something, which isn’t clearly recognised in cinema today?
“I think there is some perversion of sexuality in mainstream cinema and some sort of celebration of violence. I think this confuses things for a lot of people, especially in a puritanical society such as ours.”
Another element of Simon Killer, which stands out is both the music and the use of sound. The sound is highly manipulated throughout the film, and becomes very affecting, particularly highlighting sounds, which would otherwise have been ignored. As well as this, the music used is unforgettable; ranging such a large selection of genres and featuring songs, which don’t automatically seem appropriate. I wanted to know what the process for the sound design was and how was the music chosen? (PS. I particularly love It Takes A Muscle To Fall In Love)
“We were trying to create a very dynamic universe of sound– the film could be incredibly quiet and then immediately loud. We wanted the music and sound to work on a visceral level before anything else. Brady has an amazing knowledge of music, particularly indie, pop and avant garde, and we were constantly playing songs for each other. Then our music supervisor Josh Kessler was great with bringing me options to replace the tracks we couldn’t afford, but there was a great deal of sifting through stuff that just didn’t work. Even when I was just looking for the right 10 seconds of music for a moment like Simon standing in front of Olympia. In retrospect, it was hard process. Some stuff like “It Takes A Muscle” just kind of appeared. We were shooting at Le Baron and asked the DJ what track do you use to start the night, and she said “It Takes A Muscle” and we immediately knew it had to be in the film.”
Simon’s relationship with Victoria (Mati Diop) ultimately is haunted from the very start of the film. Despite the ending of the film, I wondered whether Campos thought they were good for each other and made each other stronger, or did they only strengthen their own reasons to hate?
“I see Simon as thinking he brings the best out in people, but ultimately, he is so toxic he does the opposite. Victoria needed someone to take care of, and Simon was a perfect candidate. The relationship is sort of doomed from the start.”
Both Simon and Robert have very fragile relationships with women and it appears that they use women for their own exploits. Despite Victoria’s strength in the first half of Simon Killer, she becomes weak during the second half. I asked, how would Campos react to someone suggesting his use of women was quite misogynistic?
“I would say it’s quite the opposite! Regardless of what the male figures do or don’t do, I find the women in both these films quite strong. Victoria by the end calls Simon out for who he really is. Marianne (Constance Rousseau’s character) won’t fall for his tricks. If I was glorifying the behavior of these men then someone could make that case, but I’m not in anyway.”
Whilst I was watching Simon Killer, I found elements of the film extremely surreal and there were several
moments when I felt like I was recalling scenes from David Lynch films like Blue Velvet (Lynch, 1986) or Mulholland Drive (Lynch, 2001). Were there conscious decisions to create this sort of atmosphere?
“Somehow Lynch’s nightmarish atmosphere creep into my films, and it is honestly not a conscious thing. His language, hisflourishes, the kind of performance he brings out of people- all of it- make a lot of sense to me and different elements of his work always seep into what I’m doing. He is a genius.”
Lastly, I wanted to know what is next for Campos.
“I am working on an adaptation of The Staircase documentary for Fox Searchlight, which I’m incredibly excited about. It has been a long gestating project and a story that never ceases to fascinate and challenge me. Josh Mond, my producer and business partner since we started Borderline Films in film school, is going to be shooting his first feature this summer that Sean Durkin and I are producers on, and we’re very excited for people to hear Josh’s voice as a filmmaker. Sean will be making another film at the end of the year that we’ll be producing. And I would really love to make a comedy if someone will let me damnit!“
Follow Ollie on Twitter @olliecharles
Check out my FIVE STAR review of Simon Killer, here.