Filmmaker Antonio Campos (Afterschool) directs one of the most intriguing films of the year with the independent drama, Simon Killer. Brady Corbet, who co-wrote the film with Campos, stars as an American who travels to Paris to try and recover from a break-up. There, he hooks up with a prostitute (Mati Diop) and begins a twisted relationship that ultimately spirals out of control.
In my exclusive interview with writer/director Antonio Campos and writer/actor Brady Corbet (Martha Marcy May Marlene), the Simon Killer creative team discussed their collaborative process and the freedom of working off an outline that allowed for improvisation.
Brady Corbet and Antonio Campos Exclusive Interview
How difficult was it to put this story together and not have the audience automatically judge this guy 10 minutes into the movie?
Antonio Campos: “It was tricky in some ways. We thought all about that. We made sure that when we cover the story that the majority of what he’s doing and saying is not that unrelatable or unacceptable or inaccessible. We knew the turning point. The tricky part was ‘are we giving away too much? Is Simon giving away too much?’ Then we’d pull back.
There was one shot in particular outside the brothel when he comes back after being beaten to see Victoria, and we had shot it one way from outside. There was a moment when she steps back inside where you see his face shift and you know he’s lying. In that scene, when we reviewed it, we went back and we said we have to reshoot this because this is not the film that we made. There were things like that, but very few. We knew pretty much all along the kind of character he was and at what point he’d really turn or people would really turn on him.”
It really is a fine line you have to walk with this film to not show your hand completely, but to give the audience enough so that we know what we’re following and what the story is. And it’s my understanding this was mostly improvisation – how did that work?
Antonio Campos: “There was a great deal of improvisation. I think if you were going to compare it it’d be probably more along the lines of like the Mike Leigh approach to improv, but in a looser sense maybe. We were incorporating a lot of different techniques to make it. Essentially, Brady and I wrote this detailed outline based on my concept, and then throughout the process there was improvisation. There were scenes that were fully written. There were scenes that were built out of improvisation. There were scenes that were written the morning of shooting in a notebook. There was an amalgamation of approaches to writing the dialogue, but the story and the structure was always the same.”
If you’re playing it a little loosely, how difficult is it just logistically for you to shoot the film?
Antonio Campos: “Well, that’s a very tricky thing, but luckily our AD was able to decipher the outline enough and break it down in a way that even a sentence can be a scene, you know? That can be a five minute scene out of a sentence so our AD made a schedule breakdown based on the outline.
For instance, there’d be a scene where he goes to a bar, or there’s a scene where he gets in bed with her. That scene wasn’t necessarily scripted, but it was planned. When the time came to shoot it, we were aware of what we had already shot and what we needed, and so we could take advantage of the sort of moment that we had scheduled and figure out exactly what in the story we were going to accomplish or anything new that we had that we wanted to implement into the story. It’s like this moving jigsaw puzzle we were trying to put together all the time.”
It sounds complex. Did you actually challenge yourself even more than you initially thought you were going to be challenging yourself with this film?
Antonio Campos: “I think any time you go into a movie you’re challenging yourself more than you think you’re going to be challenged. The things that are even the hardest on the page could actually be the easiest and then vice versa. It’s just a matter of, with any film that you make, being as prepared as possible and being open to anything that’s better than what you had imagined.”
How does the co-writing aspect work? Are you both pitching ideas for the story?
Antonio Campos: “It was a very collaborative thing. If Brady or Mattie wanted to see something or do something or add something then that would just be what it was. We’d figure out how to do it. We were always talking about the script together. We were always talking about the story together and the characters. The thing is an actor is always basically creating the character, even when there’s a script. In this scenario, everybody was intricately involved in the process of designing the character and the way they would sound and the way they would think and their intent and everything.”
Brady, do you think as someone who’s actually doing the writing, too, along with acting you were actually writing things that are more difficult for you and challenged yourself more than if somebody else had written it? They might not have pushed you so far.
Brady Corbet: “Yes, for sure. The thing is, is I’ve gotten to a point in my life where acting has become really boring unless I’m doing something that’s radical. For me, I want to take it to places like a performance artist. If I’m going to continue to do this and find something special in it … like the thing about the moaning in the film, it’s more performance art than it is what you see in a sort of narrative feature. It’s just like trying to find new ways of expressing something. Something I’m really interested in, I directed a short film a few years back called Protect You + Me and it was at Sundance in 2009. There’s a moment when a man is being aggressed on the street and he follows his aggressor down the street. One time he says, ‘Don’t walk away from me,’ and then he said it again, ‘Don’t walk away from me,’ and then again, ‘Don’t walk away from me. Don’t walk away from me. Don’t walk away from me.’ And the thing is is I’m interested in that place in cinema where you transcend realism. You start off in a fairly realistic place, but then you transcend it into something that’s more like hyper-real so that it takes on an operatic quality. It becomes more of an expressionist work of art. That’s the only way that I can get excited about acting because otherwise you’re just playing roles with people who feel bad about themselves in living rooms or something. I don’t care about that kind of cinema.”
Do you care about what the audience thinks?
Brady Corbet: “When people are really mean and aggressive about me, sure I care. Literally, there have been reviews that have literally just attacked my physical appearance. Literally, people can’t separate me from the character and they just find the character to be so despicable that they’re just like, ‘I don’t even know why anybody would f–king have sex with this guy. He’s ugly.’ They’re just like, ‘I hate him. I f–king hate him.’
To be in the crosshairs of vitriolic rage is not the funnest place to be. However, when I’m making a film, I don’t care. After the fact you know you’re sensitive, but when you’re actually in production, I only care about being true to what it is that we’re trying to achieve. We knew that some people would love this film and we knew that some people would hate this film, and we knew that some people thought that we were just trying to f–k with them and that other people would see the value in what we were trying to explore. The thing is is that it’s punk rock and if it’s not punk rock then what’s the point? You have to try and transcend those barriers because otherwise everything is going to just be homogenized, mediocre, Academy Award-nominated bulls–t for the rest of time.”
You’re talking about how people passionately reacted to you and it’s very negative in some ways, but isn’t it also gratifying because it means you’re actually getting to them instead of the audience just sitting there and letting the film flow over them? A t least you’re getting a reaction?
Brady Corbet: “For sure. The thing is, of course, especially when somebody comes totally unhinged and you see that there’s really no basis for their argument. Then we get sort of tickled by them, and we can’t help but just be quietly amused. But the thing is Antonio and I – we’re sensitive people and so of course we don’t enjoy being misunderstood. We don’t make a point of being misunderstood. Every film that we make we’re inching closer and closer, I hope, to a more universal understanding.”
You know what I would like? I would like to see a short film that’s just a backstory of Simon.
Antonio Campos: “Maybe we’ll do that for you.”
Brady Corbet: [Laughing] “Give me a shave and I’ll lose about 15 pounds. Then we’ll age me backwards a little bit.”
I’d really appreciate if you could do that because I would actually like to know even more about what made this guy who he is.
Antonio Campos: “Right, yes, that’s the mystery.”
It is fascinating. I love the fact that it’s a mystery, but I would also like to know the answers.
Antonio Campos: “The answer is there’s something that’s chemically off that’s never been properly dealt with. There’s a great deal of coddling. All the clues for what went wrong are there. The beat-by-beat of what led Simon to be who he is is unclear. I think that to give it away would be disingenuous. I think to try to think how someone gets the thought and to try and do that here in this conversation would be wrong. It would take a little bit more going back and thinking about it because I’m so far away from it. I know, generally, what went wrong with his past. The beat-by-beat of what it was … the things that happened with his ex-girlfriend, the specific moments with his mother where she just kind of reinforced some bad behavior, those kind of things are difficult to get into right now.
We see where he is – we want to know how he got there. I think that there is something about the idea that when we’re here, we’re here. We’re just dealing with the right now. Everything that’s happening is informed by years of moments and experience and positive or negative reinforcement. I guess it would only be right to go into at some point in the future in some other film to explore characters’ origin. But maybe I’d say if you want to see an origin story for Simon, you might try to watch Afterschool. It might be something that could give an idea of how Simon came to be who he is.”
How close was the final cut to how you initially pictured the story playing out?
Antonio Campos: “No, but no film ever does. Every film ideally gets better through each step closer. But I would say that the film ultimately became the thing that we wanted to make. You have a very abstract idea. I compare it to you see an image in your head, but it’s through a haze, you know? You’re trying to get to that place where you go, ‘Oh, that’s what I’ve been looking at,’ or ‘That’s what I’ve been thinking about.’ The final product is what our intentions were. I think that’s the closest you can get. As long as you’re clear about your intentions from the beginning then I guess the feeling you had when you first started the project, those things change so the film was what we intended it to be.”
Is the character Simon the same as when he first popped into your head?
Antonio Campos: “You know what? Simon, I don’t know. He might have been. That’s a really good question. Simon just popped in my head. I think he was just as much a mystery to me when he first entered my head as to when I see him now.”
Are you two going to work together on another project?
Antonio Campos: “I hope so. Brady’s going into his directorial debut and so I’m hoping he brings me along to act in it.”
Brady Corbet: “Unfortunately, I read the most current draft of my screenplay last week, and I was like, ‘Holy sh-t. There’s no f–king. There’s no violence. There’s no bad language… And it’s funny because it’s an incredibly upsetting and disturbing little fable.
The film takes place in 1919, very restrained. I might have a part for Antonio to play an economist or a cartographer or something because it all takes place during the Paris Peace Conference. Unfortunately, I’m not going to be able to get him naked. I’m going to write a short film and I’m going to call it Don’t Feed the Wrong Wolves. I don’t know what it’s about, but I’m going to figure out something horrible for Antonio to have to do.”
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Simon Killer is now available on VOD and expanding its theatrical release throughout April 2013.
-By Rebecca Murray
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