Interview: Antonio Campos – Simon Killer – Part 1
In Simon Killer, director Antonio Campos weaves a tale of the evolution of loneliness and isolation into madness. The titular hero is a recent college grad who, hurting from a bad breakup, takes a trip to Paris, disconcertedly seeking out love to mend his wounds. He meets Victoria, a prostitute with a kind heart, who begins to fall for him. Gradually, she discovers that there is something dark and dangerous buried deep beneath Simon’s unassuming demeanor. Something deadly.
Campos had major critical success with his first feature film, the haunting Afterschool, and produced the amazing Martha Marcy May Marlene. Simon Killer, Campos’ sophomore feature film (on which he used a lot of the same crew from Martha), is a deeply disturbing, sensual experience. It’s as fascinating as it its frightening, and is a must-see (it was my favorite film of SF Indiefest 2013.) Mr. Campos sat with Way Too Indie for an interview, which is a perfect complement to the film (which, as I said, you must see.) There are a couple of very minor spoilers, but they will not affect your experience with the film.
In part one of our interview, Mr. Campos discusses creating the character of Simon, his working relationship with star Brady Corbet (Martha Marcy May Marlene), making a movie without a script, shooting Paris like New York, and the differences between the lighting in Afterschool and Simon Killer.
Simon seems innocent enough at the beginning of the film, but there was a certain point where it dawned on me that he’s, in fact, a pretty despicable person. That turning point seems to vary depending on who watches the film. Was your intention to test what people’s breaking point with Simon would be?
Yeah, it’s interesting. I find that women seem to go with him as far as the point when he seems to be making the moves to cheat on (Victoria). In some ways, he lays it all out in the first five minutes (of the film) with his speech about his ex girlfriend. He says “Whatever. She’s a whore. I’d like to meet somebody new.”, and you kind of see where this character is going based on where he’s been. The whole point was to see how long it would take for you to turn on him. And even then, you’re still kind of in it with him (because you’ve) been in it with him for so long.
Simon seems to go through a transformation throughout the film. Was he an awful person to begin with, or does he become an awful person as the film progresses?
He’s not an awful person in the beginning. He’s capable of being that person. Each relationship (he’s had) has pushed him closer to that. The film is the final part of (the) transformation of someone who is capable of doing something horrible.
You and Brady are really tight. Can you explain your relationship with him and how you two work together?
We became friends on a film called Two Gates of Sleep. That was the only film Brady had done so far. We immediately got along. We had very similar sensibilities, very similar sense(s) of humor, and he’s just a very easy person to work with. He’s a very smart filmmaker himself. You can talk to him like a director to an actor, and you can also talk to him as a fellow filmmaker. He knows where the camera is…sometimes better than you do. He’s just been doing it for so long. He’s courageous, and that’s what you want in an actor, someone who is collaborative, trusts you, and is willing to go certain places.
It’s interesting you mention trust, because there’s no script for the film. How important is trust in your crew and your cast?
The cast was incredibly open to this process. I think people are more and more open to the idea of things being unscripted and improvised. Some people aren’t. I’ve definitely met actors who say “Um, I don’t know how to improvise.” And I’m like, “You don’t know how to talk?” (laughs) This (interview) is basically one big improv. You’re having a conversation and reacting to things, and that’s what you’re asking (the actors) to do. It’s just a lot more pressure when there’s someone recording you the whole time. (The actors) weren’t scared of it and were excited by the idea.
I’d say “This is an improvised film. Whatever you want to bring to it, you can. If you have an idea for a scene, we can do it.” (I tried) to give over a lot of control and ownership to the actors. It’s got to feel collaborative, (and) that excites actors. At times it got difficult, since we were doing scenes in both English and French, but it was a challenge everybody was up for.
Because there was no script and the film was improvised, Brady must have been semi-fluent in French, right?
Yeah, semi-fluent. He can get through that. I had my old French teacher (help Brady) for a few days and give him some pointers.
Why did you choose not to write a script?
We really felt that we were going to find the film as we went. We knew what the story was, we knew the structure. The structure, for me, is the most important thing. Dialogue is something that comes naturally in the moment. Or, you know the scene, so you know you’ll get the dialogue. We knew we were going to find it. Brady and I collaborated on the outline, then Mati (Diop, who plays Victoria in the film) came in for part of that process. The outline really laid out the structure. Leading up to the first day of shooting, I was writing and I had written some key scenes. Every time an actor would come on, we would improvise something, and that improvisation would lead to a (structure).
Without a script, it was incredibly scary. Every day was a new challenge. Every night I would review the footage to see what worked and what didn’t work. But there was something liberating about it. Things present themselves. Every time you do a scene, you have a checklist of all the themes and devices in the film, and every time you do something, you know roughly where (it) falls in the story and you start seeing the connections. Brady was very good about keeping his character in check and sort of knowing where each scene fell in his arc. For me, that was (very helpful).
I have trouble imagining this story take place anywhere other than Paris…
The guy before you just said he could see it taking place, like, somewhere in Nebraska or someplace really different. He said the opposite, which is interesting. I agree with you, I couldn’t see it anywhere else but Paris.
You shot Paris like it was New York.
Yeah, absolutely. Joe (Anderson, cinematographer on Simon Killer) and I were always looking at it like we were shooting New York…in the 70’s. We looked at a lot of 70’s movies.
Yeah, we looked at Taxi Driver (and Mean Streets). We looked at Panic in Needle Park, Cruising, and Scarecrow. We looked at some older Anthony Mann films. There were certain kinds of zooms, camera moves, things that made it feel like we were shooting something without control of the environment we were in.
One scene that struck me was the one where Simon meets Victoria for the first time. They walk into a room, and the whole room is flooded with this violent red light coming from hanging Christmas lights. At the conclusion of the scene, the red light washes over the camera lens in a very interesting effect that I’ve never seen before.
Everything in Afterschool is low-con (low contrast) and there’s very little saturation. The cold, boarding school setting led to that institutional, clinical, sterile look. (Simon Killer) is grimy and colorful, and we didn’t fight it. If we had gone the other way and tried to de-saturate things and give it a weird, fluorescent tone, it would…it would be dishonest. Those places are very low-lit by a specific kind of lights. Usually, it’s like, a shitty practical light, or it’s a shitty lamp in the corner, or Christmas lights. That’s part of the world. It’s a night movie, in that way. I always knew that I wanted to…put you in Simon’s mind’s eye, something that was just pure light without shape or form. The introduction to the movie is Paris with that color scheme, and we see that red when Simon’s head goes into his hands, and (the red) is what Simon sees with his eyes closed. It’s abstract and ambiguous enough to be right for Simon, I think.