A Conversation With Antonio Campos (SIMON KILLER)

(Simon Killer world premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival and is now available on DVD and at Amazon Instant through MPI Home Video. It was distributed theatrically by IFC Films and opened in New York City on April 5, 2013, and is now available on VOD. Visit the film’s official page at the IFC website to learn more.)

Antonio Campos’ first film, Afterschool, broke actor Ezra Miller and confounded critics upon its release with an unlikely combination of staunch European formalism, minimal dialogue and tech-sploitation. His second feature, Simon Killer, has proven no less contentious, inciting cries of misogyny and worse from audiences and critics in the mode of American Psycho—though Simon Killer is unalloyed as that film was by a tacit acknowledgment of its own absurdity. On top of his directorial output, Campos also produces with his company Borderline Films, presiding over one of 2012’s biggest indie hits, Martha Marcy May Marlene.

When I meet him in a sun-drenched conference room in San Franciso’s South Beach, he looks tired, perhaps more tired than a 29-year-old should be. Perhaps he has a right to be: having completed almost a full festival circuit by the time I saw it at AFI FEST last year and with a release date still uncertain, Killer had pulled Campos out to San Francisco for extra innings during its run at SF’s Indiefest. In many ways, Simon Killer is autobiographical, so his personal history was an easy point of entry to start our conversation about Killer, himself and the state of the industry.

Hammer to Nail: So you left NYU to finish Afterschool. How has that movie done for you?

Antonio Campos: Financially?

H2N: Sure.

AC: We didn’t get rich off it or anything but the film didn’t cost much to make and we sold it for quite a bit. It consistently makes money on demand on Netflix and stuff. I don’t think the investors have quite broken even yet—they will—but it’s a slow process. But it’s a nice thing because with every film, people discover your previous work.

H2N: So you get a little bump from that?

AC: I think so. Some people are different, but you don’t make a film and hope that it doesn’t make money—you want to get the investors their money back. It’s good for you! For you not to feel some sort of responsibility to the person that put up the money for you to make this film is selfish.

H2N: I interviewed Alex Ross Perry, the director of The Color Wheel, who also went to NYU, when he was here. He was so relentlessly negative about everything. When I watched the movie again I thought, wait this is not a character, this is you.

AC: Yeah, that’s right, pretty accurate.

H2N: He said, “I don’t owe anyone anything, it’s just my job to be an auteur and make these movies!”

AC: That’s the way some people see it, but the more you make people’s money back, the more you’re likely to make another film. If everyone is going to make a 20 million dollar film, I’d feel more pressure to make 20 million dollars or 40 million dollars in this case. I think it’s crazy that there are people out there making 20 million dollar films and not recouping, but I’m happy that some of those films exist and I just hope that in the long run movies keep getting made. What you hope for is that if the person putting up money doesn’t get their money back, at least something about the film is special enough to make it worthwhile. That they feel like they actually contributed something. Something like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master… in the long run that’s going to be a film that stays, and I think in the long run that Megan Ellison should be commended for what she does.

H2N: I’m assuming she’s the film’s producer?

AC: She’s the daughter of Larry Ellison. Her company put up money for Zero Dark Thirty, and they paid for Lawless and Killing Them Softly

H2N: That’s a film I really thought would do better than it did.

AC: Yeah me too. I’m surprised it didn’t go anywhere.

H2N: It’s kind of shocking what happens when they put out films with big stars these days—that would have been automatically bankable a very few years ago. Brad Pitt!

AC: And it’s a fun film. It’s very smart, it’s fun, and it’s very self-aware of the genre it’s in. They even cast everyone from that genre: Liotta, Gandolfini, they’re guys you have associations with from other films that they did. And it’s funny! Maybe it’s a little too smart, I don’t know.

H2N: It seems like someone let it die.

AC: It didn’t get pushed.

H2N: As a producer, you’ve produced Martha Marcy May Marlene and a number of other films. Had you been a producer first, or were you directing and producing at the same time?

AC: I was a director; I had directed some shorts as a kid and then when we formed our company together, Borderline Films. We made an agreement that we would produce for one another. So Sean [Durkin] and Josh [Mond] produced Afterschool, Josh and I produced Martha and Sean and I will produce for Josh later this year.

H2N: Tell me more about how you ended up making Simon Killer.

AC: We ended up getting to this place… we were in upstate New York making Martha, and Brady [Corbet] was there, and I was getting really anxious about making another film, because I didn’t know what I was going to do next and I had this idea for a film. Josh recognized and I recognized that I needed to make another film. He was very supportive, pushing me and saying, “Let’s do this, let’s get this done.” At the same time a guy named Matt Palmieri was visiting Martha and we were sort of getting to know each other there and eventually he came in at the 11th hour to help us get through Martha. We needed some money to get through the last week.

H2N: For the shooting?

AC: Yeah. It was very scary, and he came through at the very last minute. Ted Hope was also very helpful in that—Ted introduced us to him and we got along, so we said, “Listen there’s this other film we want to do, and there’s no script, but we want to do it and we want to get out there and get into the shit and make this happen from the ground up in Paris very quickly.” We also mentioned that the budget is not huge, and asked, “Would you be interested?” And he just said, “Alright.” He went with it. So Josh went out there and started doing his thing and taking advantage of all the contacts we’d made over the years there, and trying to lock down the locations that we needed. We’d made a lot of contacts in France over the years, many through Cannes in my time at the residence program. I reached out to some friends and managed to find a fixer in Pigalle who became sort of our lifeline… our in.

H2N: A film fixer?

AC: More like a door guy. A guy that worked in film stunts at some point and now works full-time hustling in Pigalle, and worked at several different bars. He was the dude that got us in, nobody would mess with us when we were around him. And he got us the security that we needed so we could shoot at night there and introduced us to the hostess bar that was eventually the place we shot. He was the guy that vouched for us, he said, “These guys are okay.” He was always there, and he would call up at two in the morning and say, “Hey listen, there’s this girl you should meet to be in the movie,” and that kind of made it all the more real.

H2N: So it ends up being a movie about him in a kind of way.

AC: Everybody that we came across ended up somehow making the movie. We met a lot of wonderful people and really wealthy people and some of the women that we met that worked in these hostess bars were really generous with their time and their stories, and all of that kind of seeped into the movie.

H2N: Did any of the women that you met appear in the film?

AC: Almost all of them. At least all of the women at the bar besides Mati.

H2N: Wow. How did you get involved with Mati Diop? I saw her in 35 Shots of Rum and I really fell in love with her. Did you have a type in mind?

AC: We were looking at all types of women, from all different places. We had looked at a lot of Romanian actresses actually. We looked at this one girl who had done porn at one point in her life, then sort of mainstreamed—she’d done one action movie. She was this character, she showed up dressed for the role and we had a meeting. She showed up to this cafe dressed like a prostitute, and we had such an entertaining, bizarre meeting. But it wasn’t right—she wasn’t the right age, just wasn’t the right vibe. Then we met Mati, and Mati was incredibly strong.

Our co-producer, Melody [Roscher], had said “Oh, I’m meeting a friend of a friend, this girl Mati Diop,” and Brady and I immediately knew who she was and Melody asked if we would want her to mention the film. Of course I said, “Absolutely, just tell her about it,” and luckily Mati was interested in acting again. She’s a filmmaker; she’s made three very good shorts and is making her first feature now. She was very courageous and very smart, and had been fascinated by prostitutes since she was a little girl, so the idea of playing one was actually very exciting for her. There was all this kind of serendipity going on.

H2N: I noticed when I was watching Simon this time around that you, Brady, and Mati all have writing credits.

AC: Brady and I started working on the outline together before we had gone to Paris. I had gone to Brady with the idea and we started collaborating on this outline, and we always knew that when got to Paris, whoever the girl was, we wanted her to be part of that process as well. So the process was collaborative across the board. Even when we have a script, I encourage my actresses and actors to tell me what they want to do. If there’s anything they want to do with the character that’s not in the script—if they want to see the character brush their teeth, or they want to see the character say this or do this thing or interact with this person, we can do it. I always put that out there. This was more clearly collaborative because of the nature of the project.

H2N: I heard you say last night in the Q&A that there wasn’t a script.

AC: There wasn’t a script. There eventually was a script. Not for every scene, but for the key scenes, I felt like I had to script it. The sex scenes were very choreographed. We knew, beat by beat, what was going to happen. The words for some of the sex scenes we would find during the day. Like the scenes with Simon, the one where Simon can’t find a pin and all he can say is, “Mom.” When I told him about it, Brady said, “That’s not scene.” And I said, let’s block off a day so we can shoot this scene. The day comes and Brady says, “Okay, where are the pages?” and I say, “They’re in this notebook,” and it says, ‘All he can say is mom.’ [Both laugh] And we said, “Let’s just sit in a room,” and we all sat in a room, me, Brady, Dutch my AD [Tomas Deckaj], and the photographer [Joe Anderson], we sat in a room and we started throwing ideas around. Eventually what started off as just an idea was a full scene.

I think that if you get enough smart people in the room, there’s nothing to really worry about. You’ll find your answer, you’ll find a version of it at least. The key is always to not get overwhelmed at a point when it’s very easy to. I don’t think I could have done this on my first film, because it’s a lot of pressure. There are a lot of people looking at you that believe in you, and you see the looks, wondering are you…

H2N: Are you going to deliver.

AC: Yeah. Is this going to go anywhere. You have to get through those first two or three takes, because those will be rough. Let’s go again, let’s go again. Then by take three something starts happening, take four it’s like… There are only a few times where I think that “go again, go again, go again” method works. Like the moaning scene in the bathroom. That was me off the screen going, “Mmm, no more like Mhmmm, more mmmmMMM.” [AC laughs]

H2N: That was a weird scene for me because that’s a sound I used to make as a kid and so it made me very uncomfortable. A lot of the movie was very uncomfortable for me because I came of age in New York too and it all seems eerily familiar. Let’s not talk about me though. [both laugh] Let’s talk about the unspoken background details in Simon Killer, and maybe the connection to your previous film Afterschool and to a certain kind of New York upbringing.

AC: Sure. We had a sense that what everything we needed to know about Simon we knew—it was almost like we “felt” Simon in a way. Even some of the backstory, we didn’t have to go write his dissertation or his final paper—we knew what that was, and we knew that he was probably overselling something that wasn’t that much. He was holding onto something, just like he was holding onto this relationship from college. And even that was called into question.

Basically, I think sometimes with a character like Simon, you’re always asking questions about him. It’s just figuring out the right questions to ask. A lot of times it’s also about letting the actor make certain decisions, and the mystery of it is kind of what’s driving you, as the viewer and also the writer. We knew where Simon was coming from, we knew the guy that was heartbroken, but also felt wronged and confused about himself, we knew that. And we knew the guy that didn’t know where he was going with his life, and trying to find the next step, and wanting to get lost, wanting to do something meaningful, wanting to save the girl that he’s with, wanting to be this person, the voice of reason. We knew that guy.

H2N: But you did something really awful with him. He has this terrible streak of self-sympathy that tends to remind one of their absolute worst moments.

AC: That’s the thing: Simon is the absolute worst moments. It’s all concentrated into one guy. He’s incredibly self-indulgent, and he’s also delusional in a lot of ways and pretends that he’s doing something good, where it’s really very selfish. At the end of the day, it’s all about him. When people say the film was misogynistic, which is happening quite a bit, I’d say it’s much more critical of the male figure than anything.

H2N: I’ve read those criticisms of it. I didn’t find it misogynistic at all. I found it very masculine in how dripping with a particular masculine insecurity it was. I also found it strange that Mati doesn’t balance that energy out somehow, she accentuates it. It seems crazy.

AC: I think that’s partially because Mati is who she is, she can’t hide that. She’s very strong, and in the scenes where she confronts Simon, those were the scenes where I felt that… some of the sex scenes were very difficult for Mati, and she knew that she would get her moment, like she said, “I’m going to get the thumb,” and that she was going to get to tell Simon who he really is and how she sees him—those were very key moments. At the same time, Mati’s character is one that’s incredibly lonely, who’s experienced loss and that finds comfort in this guy that apparently needs her, or seems to need her at the time, and that’s what drives her. That’s what allows her to let him into his life. And meeting some of these women out there, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they would fall for someone, especially someone who was so puppy dog-ish. These women are very lonely and have gone through a lot of pain and loss and the idea of someone needing them like that seems kind of attractive. Someone so foreign and different from their world, and Simon, Simon wants the prostitute and he also wants the angelic little girl.

H2N: Was the second love interest, the one played by Constance Rousseau, specifically intended as the opposite of Mati’s character? They have kind of a Madonna/whore dichotomy going on.

AC: Definitely, even the way that we shot her. The dance scene with Mati is shot from chest down, the dance scene with her is shot from chest up. When Brady sits down at the brothel with Mati and turns her around, we don’t get a closeup of the top, with her, we do get the closeup with the top. She just falls in a different light—she’s in very cool light, Mati’s in very warm light. And just, the idea of that is Simon sort of bringing this other energy. By the end of the film, Victoria’s apartment is cool and dark and depressing, whereas it started off very warm and cozy. There’s this kind of cloud that Simon brings into her life.

H2N: That shows in their scenes, definitely. I was reading a New York Times interview with you where the reporter was very impressed by your “European” sensibility, which I thought was a little silly, but there is a lot of sort of typically un-American friendliness with experimentation that you bring to your films. Do you think making a film outside of the US lent that to Simon Killer?

AC: No, not necessarily. I definitely didn’t say, “Oh we have to shoot a film outside of the US.” It was more like it just happened naturally. It was kind of inevitable, I felt a lot of support coming out of Paris, and it just made sense. There is sort of a blatant European quality in my movies I guess, which is strange because I was born and raised in America, and because I have more Latin in me than European. My father is Brazilian, and I was raised in a very Brazilian home—my parents spoke Portuguese. But there’s something about European cinema that spoke to me—you can’t control what speaks to you. I also watched a lot of Hollywood films and there’s always this sort of struggle in my films where I’m riding between those kinds of cinema, and I’m a little tired of what’s considered the European “art house” aesthetic. Simon is kind of a reaction to that, in a sense that it does deviate from certain tropes of that that genre or whatever you want to call it. It’s a bit punk-ish about certain things like music, and performance on camera, and even the title is a little aggressive.

H2N: Who do you think of as “typical European cinema” these days?

AC: [Bruno] Dumont, I think, is there. The Dardennes. What’s coming out of Romania now, and… the turning point to me was Dogtooth. Because as much as I respect that film, and that filmmaker, Dogtooth was a realization that… it was like Wes Anderson meets Bruno Dumont; when “European art house” became sort of an aesthetic.

H2N: That’s exactly how I felt about it. That moment when it stopped being that thing and became an imitation of a thing.

AC: Right. It didn’t feel right. Whereas Haneke and Dumont, and their predecessors, like Bresson, it was just: this is how they speak, and this is how it works for them; this is how they see the world. But then what it’s become is what you said—it’s a style. I think Afterschool, much more than Simon, falls into that. But saying that, the way that I told that story felt like the way I had to tell it, and there were very specific choices made in order to combat that genre that I was working in. No music and long takes, and those [qualities] weren’t traditional for a high school movie.

Then, when it came to Simon, I was like, let’s have music, and let’s have loud, poppy music. Let’s make this as saturated as we can, again, letting the universe dictate how far we can go. Because if I went desaturated with everything it would be dishonest and go against the environment I was in. I was in Pigalle, you couldn’t get away from color. There were neon blues and reds and yellows—everything. It’s grimy and it’s weird. I try to be as instinctual as possible with the story and my state of mind and the world that I’m in, and let that dictate the way that I do things.

H2N: Let’s talk for a second about the music. The music is super bombastic, but it never appears outside of Simon’s headphones, except in that one dancing scene, where it’s totally un-synched. They’re obviously not dancing to LCD Soundsystem.

AC: They absolutely are. We spent a year trying to get that **** track. That song is like [makes mouth sounds]. It’s a rhythm that you don’t hear very much in pop music. We spent a year and Josh finally figured out exactly how to get us in front of James Murphy. We just couldn’t get it done by any other route.

H2N: I hear he’s great once you finally get ahold of him.

AC: You’ve heard that? [AC laughs] Yes. You have to get in front of him, and once we did he was like, “You know what? Sounds good. You got me on the right day, because I’m trying to get music for my film and it’s a nightmare, and you know, we’ll make it work.”

H2N: Just like that.

AC: Just like that. But it took a year to get there and at the time I thought, “I don’t have a home, I’m sleeping on a couch and this is all I have, please!” So we pleaded and he was very, very nice about it. But yeah, that’s a weird track—it’s just slightly off from what it was, so it feels out of the moment, and in the moment… I don’t know. It is such a specific kind of dance track, it’s not like any other. It’s ten minutes long.

H2N: There are a lot of strange rhythms in the music that you chose, and it kind of bears out through the Japanese sounding song at the end of the film. The gong!

AC: GONG! [both laugh]

H2N: Yeah, what are those sounds—how did those end up in there?

AC: Cowbells. Cowbell. The music guy kept saying “Please let me do music, please let me do music,” and I said “Okay, do something percussive.” We started listening to Steve Reich, and some atonal stuff, and then he found this cowbell sound, and some African drums, and the woodblock and the [bangs table] “cluck,” and the claps. He blistered his hands, he went nuts. The direction was… there’s an element that sounds like Kobayashi or old samurai cinema, or the old Japanese ghost stories, Kawa…

H2N: Kwaidan?

AC: That one. So the idea was: let’s go as stripped down as possible, let’s get away from this overly produced pop music. The end titles, the idea behind the final credits was some sort of amalgamation of both approaches, those sort of tribal rhythmic things and the more poppy sounds.

H2N: Did he write the song for the end? That song is amazing, that’s an excellent feather.

AC: Yep. It was great. I had so much fun in the studio that they took the drums away from me. Like a little kid. We had these drums in the studio where he worked, and I came back the next day and they were just gone. [both laugh]

— Jackson Scarlett

HTN Tool Belt: