After gaining attention for his intimately dark debut, "Afterschool" (2008), which examines the obsession with YouTube from the vantage point of a group of preppy private school kids, Antonio Campos’ sophomore effort "Simon Killer" shows his evolution as a filmmaker with this disturbing yet hypnotic character study of a recent college grad who travels to Paris.
Brady Corbet plays the title character, a shy, reclusive, manipulative American in the City of Light who befriends a prostitute (Mati Diop) and seems to be falling for her as he integrates himself into her life … until another girl catches his eye.
"Simon Killer" is just the latest in a growing slate of strikingly dark films Campos and his fellow producing partners at Borderline Films enjoy to make (you may recall Sean Durkin turning heads in his 2011 debut feature "Martha Marcy May Marlene"). We chatted with the writer-director earlier this week on discovering a New York ‘70s nostalgia while filming on the streets of Paris, how they pulled off shooting in the Lourve and why he compares Simon to Joran van der Sloot.
Jason Guerrasio: What's the reaction you're getting so far from the film?
Antonio Campos: The reactions are so different.
JG: More so than "Afterschool"?
AC: Yeah, I think also. With "Afterschool" there's a certain kind of excitement around your first feature and then that excitement carries over to your second feature but there's an expectation that comes with it and so I think "Simon" for certain people it lives up to that but for others they expected something different. I think some people are excited by the progression and others are turned off by it. I don't know. The film works for me as "Simon "is a negative image of "Afterschool," they fit over each other. The color palette of both, the intentional avoidance of monitors that was so prevalent in "Afterschool." There's never a close up of a monitor. Simon looks at porn in one scene but we never see the screen, there's the use of cell phones but you don't see that, you hear it. So I just didn't want to shoot another computer screen. It wasn't that movie. Technology was part of that but not the focus. So there's all those things that I'm interested in but explored in a different way.
JG: Did Brady come to you with the idea for the story?
AC: No, it was me coming to Brady but knowing we wanted to do something together and knowing Brady was game to go down this road. Brady and I developed this story together and then when Mati came in we collaborated with Mati and all the actors really.
JG: Was the idea always to go to Paris?
AC: Yeah. Always.
JG: Were you fluent in French?
AC: Brady and I both spoke conversational French. I had lived there for five months writing "Afterschool" and during that time I had a French tutor so there was a comfort that I had in France. I knew the area very well because I had lived in that area. I knew the streets, I knew where I wanted to shoot. The actual hostess bar we shot in we had to find but that came with time and [producer] Josh [Mond] really embedded himself there and used all the contacts we had. It was exciting to shoot a film in Paris. It was exciting to go to a foreign country to shoot there.
JG: And it's funny because the way you shot it, a lot of the streets you were on could be mistaken as streets in New York.
AC: One of the things that attracted us to the neighborhoods we shot in, in Pigalle, it looks like how Times Square looked in "Taxi Driver". That really excited us. It set the tone that we felt like we were shooting a New York movie in Paris. We had the approach like it was a New York '70s movie and that's what we embraced. We made the decision for people not to look into the camera, but we wanted that life. So we did a lot of shots across the street looking into the cafe, we kind of let life play out.
JG: How were you able to shoot at the Louvre?
AC: That was set up because we had this relationship with this guy who helps a lot of American productions in France and Paris. He was instrumental in getting us in front of the right people and everybody was very supportive of it. They were very down with a small production coming in.
JG: Was it during operating hours?
AC: No. It was the days off. We shot for six hours. And we brought in some extras and we had to be specific on where we wanted to shoot, we didn't have free reign. Obviously security is very high.
JG: Did that come up early that you wanted to shoot there?
AC: Yes. That process started a month before we got there. And we didn't want to shoot it with a 5D and hide it, we wanted to do it properly.
JG: What led to you using the flairs of color at certain points in the movie?
AC: It's about giving the camera a character and the visual interludes were an attempt to go inside the mind's eye, go inside Simon's brain. The editor, Zac Stuart-Pontier and I spent a lot time discussing what it meant and we played with it in different places and how we got into it and out of it and we were very economic in how we used it, but trying to figure out when we cut to it that it made sense to us in our rational.
JG: The music tracks and original score are the major things I took away from the film. How early on in production do you think about it?
AC: The score came about because the composer, Saunder Jurriaans, was really insistent in trying something because there wasn't a score besides the soundtrack [originally] but I realized at a certain point there was a need for a counter point to the soundtrack and Saunder wanted to try some things and I had this idea that it should be primal and raw to do against how produced and pop the soundtrack is so that's the direction we took.
JG: And cutting the song in mid beat?
AC: That was the approach that I also had to the scene. When a shot is done it's done and so it would just be a sting. We found it very jarring, very visceral to just kind of cut in and cut out of a piece of a song.
JG: When you premiered the film at Sundance in 2012 you mentioned in your post screening Q&As that there was a relation to Simon and Joran van der Sloot. Can you go into that?
AC: We didn't start the process off knowing there was a Joran van der Sloot connection, we kind of discovered it as we were talking about the character. Looking at who in real life could this match up to and Joran became a focus to us. Looking at the Natalee Holloway story and looking at what he had just done in Peru, it fit the profile and we were interested in playing with things he would say and do. So the lion line in the film comes from Joran van der Sloot.
JG: It seems there's some deep-seeded issues Simon has with his mother. Did you give her much of a backstory?
AC: Not really. But he definitely has more of a relationship with his mother than his father. Simon definitely comes from a universe that the kids from "Afterschool" came from, the Upper West Side family. He's not super rich but he's upper middle class and someone who if he needed to get out of a jam he would go to his mom.
JG: I see Simon as a Tom Ripley, someone who will never stop, who will only grow more confident in his ability to manipulate. Would you and Brady ever return to this character?
AC: I don't know. If anyone ever let us do another one maybe. I had thought of if we called this "Simon in Paris" there could be "Simon in Bangkok" or "Simon in Buenos Aires," it's like he would come to a city and weasel his way into someone's life and then when things got too hot he'd get out by any means necessary. So there's this inkling of an idea that it keeps going.
JG: So basically you guys just come up with the exotic places you want to shoot at and put the story there.
AC: Yeah, exactly.
Simon Killer hits theaters on Friday, April 5 from IFC Films.