At last year's London Film Festival, we had a coffee with a filmmaker we’ve been hyped on ever since we caught his debut film, Afterschool (starring a young Ezra Miller). His name is Antonio Campos and he’s delivered the goods yet again with Simon Killer, a Paris-set drama about an American graduate who develops a relationship with a French prostitute.
Campos is part of the Borderline Films group, which comprises Sean Durkin (Martha Marcy May Marlene), Josh Mond and Campos himself. They all work on each other’s films, swapping roles in accordance with their cycle. And it just so happened that, after Durkin’s Martha Marcy, it was Campos’ turn to plump himself down in the director’s chair.
GFW: You must need a lot of coffee to keep you going through all these interviews.
Antonio Campos: No actually, this is my first cup of the day! When I was in Paris, I was doing like, six espressos, two packs of cigarettes a day...
When in Paris. So how did this Parisian story come about?
I think probably through, well, I was reading a lot of Georges Simenon books and I got obsessed with him. I knew I didn’t want to do an adaptation; I was really inspired by his narratives and his themes. A lot of it is classic noir kinda stuff. Jim Thompson’s ‘The Killer Inside Me’ was also a huge influence on me… And then, I really wanted to do something with Brady Corbet, with this kind of classic noir story told in a very contemporary way, with pop music and minimalist filmmaking.
Whenever I mention Simon Killer to people they presume it’s a full-on horror movie. What’s the deal with the title?
We wanted to be a little bit punk about what we were doing. The film is arguably very European, that’s the way I end up making films. But I’m also American and there is something different about the way I make films, I think, because of what kind of films I grew up with. So we wanted aspects of the film to be very in-your-face, and the title was that. It’s a title that can make you cringe or excite you.
It’s also very catchy.
Brady Corbet as Simon.
Your Paris is a long way from Woody Allen’s. Did you have a specific idea of how you wanted to paint the city?
Yeah, I don’t think this is a real Paris, I’m not saying this is a gritty, seedy underside of Paris, it’s almost like Simon’s version of Paris. It’s a certain kind of seediness. We were looking at Paris very much like New York looked to us in the 70s films like Taxi Driver and The Panic in Needle Park – the colours and the texture of the streets. So we romanticised that 70s New York, and the New Hollywood films of that period too.
And were there any Paris-set films that influenced this?
Well, Last Tango [in Paris] was definitely a reference and, um, we were watching the dance scene from Beau Travail at the time, so…
And that uses pop music in an interesting way, too.
Exactly, yeah. We also looked at Cruising a lot, mostly American cinema, and then Performance we also looked at.
Like Robert in Afterschool, Simon is not the easiest character to empathise with. What is it about this kind of character that interests you?
I understand the way people perceive characters and that dynamic between an audience and their lead, and I think my next film will be a very different kind of film. I think what would be more shocking now would be to create a very likable character.
Mati Diop and Brady Corbet.
Like a Gene Kelly musical?
Yeah, a Gene Kelly musical, exactly. Or to find the heart in the character more. I’m just fascinated by characters that I myself am struggling to understand. And characters that don’t really understand themselves and are in periods of transition.
The film takes more risks than most. What challenges did you face making this film?
For me, the sex was very hard to film. I don’t like shooting sex, even though I’ve done it – I sometimes peek though my hands. We write these scenes on paper and then we’re like, “Woah, we have to actually do this.” And it’s very scary and I’m very sensitive to how my actors feel.
Were they reluctant at all?
Luckily the French are much more open-minded about these things and Mati [Diop] was very brave, she’s a filmmaker herself, but being put in these kind of compromising positions, I mean, she was brave but it wasn’t easy for her, it wasn’t easy for Brady. It’s not an easy thing to do but you do it because you believe in what you’re doing, and as a filmmaker it’s very touching when your actors are willing to do takes that deep; you have to treat it with a great deal of reverence.
Do you think there are any similarities with Martha Marcy, the film you produced with Sean Durkin?
Someone pointed out that there was some kind of dark character trilogy between Afterschool, Martha Marcy and Simon Killer. Brady and I were working on Simon together while we were on Martha, whenever he wasn’t shooting, but I think there’s something tonally connecting all of the stuff that we’ve done but it’s not the same, I mean, Sean’s a very different filmmaker to me, but at the same time we speak the same language, we get exactly what the other is trying to do.
From left: Campos, Sean Durkin and Josh Mond.
One of the things that struck me about the film was the songs, particularly Spectral Display’s ‘It Takes a Muscle to Fall in Love’. How did you choose those?
Yeah, Spectral came on. Brady has a great knowledge of weird indie music, of experimental music, so he was always throwing things at me and then, Spectral Display for example, we were at a bar in Paris and I said to the DJ who was there: “What would you play to get the crowd started?” and he said Spectral Display. So I heard it there for the first time; it’s one of those songs that feels like an 80s song but it also feels very contemporary. And then later on I learnt how much James Murphy [from LCD Soundsystem] loves Spectral Display.
And did you ask him personally for the LCD track in the film?
Well, we spent a year trying to get to LCD. We got shot down a couple times. That song in particular [‘Dance Yourself Clean’] was very difficult but he was very generous. We got to him and my producer Josh really helped make this connection between us. It was a song that was very close to him and they didn’t give it to us for free but they gave us permission... I’ll probably release a list of tracks. Someone had tweeted: “where do I have to stick my thumb to get a Simon Killer soundtrack?” and I was gonna say: “Brady’s butt!” [laughs] There are a couple of tracks that are really obscure, random things that we found.
What filmmakers inspire you at the moment?
I think Paul Thomas Anderson is the greatest living American director and the ballsiest. And then Michael Haneke, um, [Rainer Werner] Fassbinder was a huge influence on me.
Would you like to make more films in Europe?
I would. I don’t think I’m gonna go down the Woody Allen path, a different city every year, but my next film will be in the States. The biggest challenge for me is when I’m gonna make my New York City film, because that, for me, is a bigger responsibility, being born and raised in New York. If I do it, I’ve gotta do it right.
So what is next?
We [Borderline Films] are producing Josh’s script, he’s up next in the cycle, and Sean’s got a script that we’re producing, and I’ve got a script that I’m doing for Fox [Searchlight] also.
'Simon Killer' is released on 5 April in Canada and 12 April in the UK.