It’s been over four years since Antonio Campos’s debut feature, the daring drama Afterschool, hit cinemas, unnerved audiences, and established Campos as one of the strong new voices leading contemporary independent cinema. As one third of Borderline Films—alongside Sean Durkin and Josh Mond—Campos produced Durkin’s Martha Macy May Marelene, just as Durkin had his hand in producing Campos’s latest feature, the brooding and visceral Simon Killer. The film tells the story of a lonely, heartbroken, dangerous, and horny college grad who heads to Paris, where he becomes involved with a prostitute (played wonderfully by Mati Diop), Simon Killer is an entrancing waltz with destructive impulse led by star Brady Corbet. As interesting as he is talented, the 24-year-old gives a haunting performance, playing Simon with utmost complexity—vacillating between evil boldness and desperate vulnerability.
Simon Killer goes deeper into Campos’s affinity for the disturbed male psyche with a film that’s rich in texture, tone, and color. It’s a dance between passionate aggression and emotional isolation that’s primal and fiercely enjoyable in its discomfort. Filled with stunning visual interludes like psychological cues that bring you closer into Simon’s sociopathic, music-fueled, and violently sexual world, the film is an optically and emotionally stimulating character study that packs a punch. No stranger to portraying morally unsound characters that walk the line between tantalizing and creepy, Corbet carries out Campos’s vision with a frightening possession.
Earlier this week, it was my pleasure to sit down with Campos and Corbet at the Crosby Street Hotel to learn how they crafted the world of the film, the sexual narrative arc, and a few tangents on flow charts in between. When Corbet wiped a fallen eyelash off Campos’s nose, it was evident that these two are far more than your usual actor and director duo. As we continued our conversation, the pair displayed an intimate and exuberant dynamic—finishing one another’s sentences and trains of thought and expressing the trademark of two like-minded and close partners whose friendship provides a symbiotic working relationship.
I saw the film twice, which was an odd experience. The first time I was alone in a weird room in the dark and I felt very unsettled but very engrossed. The second time, I was at the theater at Lincoln Center with a million people, and by that point I was getting a real pleasure out of all those moments that were making other people sort of squeamish, so then I felt like I was having an inappropriately happy response.
Brady Corbet: See it enough times and it’s almost a comedy.
Antonio Campos: You’ll laugh the third time.
BC: That should be the tag line.
AC: You’ll laugh the third time!
Well in that first screening, what I enjoyed the most was this very stimulated sense that wasn’t from the content but this general feeling of psychological unease. Was that something you always knew you wanted to permeate the film?
AC: Psychological unease… Well, that’s basically everything I like. I put a camera down and I shoot something and it’s like, oh, this makes me feel uncomfortable, there you go.
There’s something very enjoyable about that.
AC: Oh, I know. But that’s what we’re looking for and feeling for with the character, and part of that is watching someone like Brady. When he’s giving you this performance, you’re just capturing that.
It’s the most mundane moments that feel the most disturbing—when he’s simply walking around or looking at a painting or having a cigarette, that feeling is still there.
AC: The mundane moments are the ones that make you uncomfortable; I don’t know why, but they do. If you really want to make people feel uneasy you just sort of slowly pan left to right.
BC: I think in regards to banality, the most disturbing thing in the world to me—and I think about this all the time—is either when a person has committed a heinous crime or something incredibly traumatic has happened to them, the most interesting period is the first 12 hours after because there’s a first everything. There’s their first meal, their first shower. There’s something about living with what has happened, because the world keeps spinning and you’re forced to go and try and function within it again. I think that whether you’re anticipating that violence or whether its post-violence, those in-between moments are what he and I are really interested in.
AC: There is something about the banality of evil that we kept talking about. That’s why that scene where he’s taking a piss after what’s happened is just so great. It’s him taking a piss, but it’s shrouded in all this stuff and how painful it seems to be—but it’s just a piss. There are moments like that or calling his mother.
Speaking of calling his mother, I thought a lot about whether he was actually this evil person or simply this child who couldn’t control his primal urges and impulses—whether it was violence, sex, lying, etc. The fact that he always called his mother built up this juxtaposition between being totally evil or seeming in denial or guilty.
BC: Here’s the thing, I don’t think he feels guilty. I think he feels really bad about what could happen to him. The thing about Simon is that he yearns to feel guilty. He yearns to function in the way he sees other people functioning—but he doesn’t and he cannot.
AC: It’s about self-preservation. He does something good so that he can feel that he did something good, not because it makes him feel good to do that.
BC: He’s the guy before the company goes down transferring all his funds to a Swiss bank account in the Cayman Islands.
You two have worked together before and are obviously very close and like-minded. How did you decide that you wanted to make something together, and how far into the process did you begin collaborating?
AC: We knew we wanted to do something together. We had done three other things together where I was serving as a producer, but we always wanted to collaborate. And then this idea was brewing, and I just went to Brady and said, "Here’s this idea, what do you think of it?" Then we started collaborating and really did the first outline together and collaborated throughout the process—the pre-production, the improvising, constantly talking about what we were going to shoot. We always talked about how things were going to be shot. Brady is a filmmaker himself, so he understands that language and can jump between that.
And Mati [Diop] is a filmmaker as well. Do you enjoy working with actors who have such a keen knowledge of narrative and character?
AC: Well, that was the first time I really ever worked with an actor like that, and I did really like it because they could let go of it. There was a lot of trust, so it wasn’t like trying to sell them on something as much as it was just—
BC: Trying to figure out the best way to achieve everything. Madi was cast about a few days before we started principal photography, and the fact that we ended up with her was this unbelievable blessing because we could have ended up with someone who was a filmmaker or wanted to be a filmmaker or had made some stuff that was shitty. It could have been a nightmare. But instead, we were all of a very like-mind and sensibility, and that’s not surprising. Her previous film was with Claire Denis—35 Shots of Rum—and we were all clearly cut from the same cloth a little bit. We all have our own private obsessions and the things we want to make movies about, but stylistically and in terms of taste we’re pretty simpatico, the three of us. So it was not a very difficult experience; it was a very natural one. But I don’t think we can ever try to recreate it unless we do it together again. I don’t think it’s something you seek out.
AC: The process of making this film was really exhausting because it was a constant jigsaw puzzle that we were trying to figure out. It was really exciting because we felt an immediacy to the writing process because we were seeing the setup and payoff in front of us. There were moments where we knew we had certain devices—like the fox pin he wears or the emails he writes—and we had all of these things we could play with all the time.
BC: And boomerang back into the narrative. We were all aware of those key elements; we were aware of five or six key themes and then probably ten key narrative points. There was a constant discussion: "Is this the right place? Is this too early? Let’s think about roughly where this would be in the movie. Is this 45 minutes into the movie? Is this an hour and twenty minutes into the movie?"
AC: And then we could play around with it, too. Something might be there in the beginning of a scene and ultimately that scene gets cut, and so at the end of the day part of my job was to review everything and see what was actually going to make it into the movie. If something wasn’t going to make it into the movie but there was a key piece of information, I’d figure out where to put that piece in and look at the schedule of blank scenes and be like, "Ok, that thing could go there." It was sort of a flow chart or whatever you call it. There was the outline of everything and then a schedule.
BC: I just want it to go on record that Antonio Campos works with flow charts. [Laughs]
AC: Pie charts, flow charts, demographics… I don’t even know what a flow chart is. It just flowed. What does a flow chart even look like? Is it like a circle?
Um, I think it flows down.
AC: And then there’s those ones that cross over.
AC: Yes, we could have done that—we did that some times.
BC: We absolutely did.
AC: Venn diagram-based films.
BC: It looked like Einstein’s basement in your office.
AC: Just pictures of Brady and charts.
Speaking of visuals, what struck me right away about the film were these "light shows" as you call them. These colors and the way they radiated felt like psychological cues through the story that moved it forward and were touchstones to go back on. And if you’re talking pretty literally, they’re like the colors you see when you press down on your eyes. Why did you choose to put that in there?
BC: I say this as an audience member and the way I interpret it now more than anything, because things take on more meaning after the fact. As a viewer, the thing is that the way Antonio shoots is as if he has an objective camera but he’s always telling very subjective stories. He’s always finding unique ways to put you in the mindset of the character without having to do something as cheap and literal as a subjective POV. The camera always maintains some distance to maintain the banality and an objectivity. If he started using subjective camera, if he tred to make the experience too thrilling in a way, it would be exploitative. We had to find new and unique ways to put you in the brain space of Simon.
One might expect, going into the film, that it’s a thriller, but it’s much more psychological than action-based, and really about just getting into Simon’s head.
BC: And those colors are derived from that. The flashing lights, particularly the white flashing lights, are derived from the same color palette as the laptop, and the reds are derived from the club, I mean, it’s all—
AC: Born out of the world of the film. In script form, it was just referred to as "a visual interlude." We had an idea of what that would be, but we didn’t know until it appeared to us in a very organic way. We were downstairs in the brothel and the lens was off and these Christmas lights moved past it, and we said, "Oh, that’s it!" And then we explored it and it was a really organic way of doing it because it’s painting with light, literally—you’re taking a Christmas light and moving it front of a lens or exposed sensor.
Brady, I remember at the screening someone came up to you and asked if you thought the film was pornographic.
AC: Someone asked that?
I was thinking that for all the sex that’s explicitly shown in the movie, there wasn’t any eroticism to it and it’s very cold.
BC: Oh I remember! It was at Lincoln Center, but it wasn’t at the Q&A. Hillary and I were talking, and this woman—she seemed bizarrely excited by the question—said, "Would you call this film pornographic?" And I was like, "I don’t know. Do you see it as pornographic?"
AC: Some reporter went to great detail about how turned-on he was. He said he hadn’t been that turned on by a sex scene.
Probably because it was so frankly realistic.
AC: That’s the thing: there’s nothing directly erotic about it, but if what you enjoy about sex scenes is how direct they are, then it’s titillating or whatever.
BC: I don’t have a problem with the potentially pornographic aspect of the film. I don’t have a problem if someone finds it very unattractive or unappealing. It just is what it is. If people find sex pornographic, then sure, it’s pornographic.
The sexual dynamic between Simon and Victoria was something I really enjoyed. In the beginning she’s so passive, but then there’s that scene when she takes control over him and he allows it. From that moment on she’s so much more intimate and open with him, and I really liked watching that shift.
AC: We were trying to map out the relationship through the way that the sex played out.
BC: And her character’s too smart not to have that moment. Even what she goes along with it in the beginning, she seems at that point to be under a bit of a spell with the guy—it’s not because she’s stupid. The thing is, I think most people reflect on the history of their bad relationships—myself included. I think back to some things I was doing three or four years ago, and it’s like, what the hell was I thinking? But some people are consciously manipulative, and this is a character that’s quite poisonous and capable of taking this very smart woman along for a ride. And she also seems to be someone who is deeply unhappy in a lot of ways.
AC: She wants to take care of someone.
Yeah, like the second her shell started withering away around Simon, she bought him a shirt.
AC: There’s something absent in her life and you realize what it is. And it was interesting meeting these women because there was always this question like, are we creating like a hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold narrative? We met the women that work in these bars and, for the most part, they were very nurturing and seemed very lonely. I remember at one some point thinking that one of these women would want to take care of this boy and it wouldn’t necessarily be a sexual thing. There would be this companionship, like, "Someone needs me in this world and it isn’t just for sex."
Music plays an enormous role in the film. Not only does it bring you into Simon’s mental world, but even the sound design resonates something about the characters and the story.
AC: We knew we wanted this very brash, loud soundtrack to the movie and it was part it from the beginning—it was always going to have these musical interludes following Simon. Then the score came about when we felt like the soundtrack needed a counterpoint—something more primal and stripped down, whereas the soundtrack was so spruced and poppy. Design-wise, we do this quite a bit: getting tones that capture something about the character. We tried to give those visual interludes a sound that was more of a frequency or a pulse. But it was all, again, a way to get closer or inside Simon’s mind without every directly saying it.
Do you see this as a continuation of Afterschool? Not in character, but in tone, and telling these disturbed-male stories?
AC: Yeah, I think there’s some trilogy of disturbed men—I don’t know exactly what, though. I was thinking about this film as sort of the inverse of Afterschool; if you lie them over each other—the way they look, the way they’re paced, everything—they would sort of fit over each other.
BC: It’s like the negative image.
As an actor, Brady, you play a lot of dark, complex roles. Do you enjoy taking on darker characters? I imagine it’s a lot of fun as an actor to be able really get into someone like that.
BC: I’ve never thought of it in terms of characters, but I am attracted to darker cinema. It just tends to have more to sink your teeth into. I mean, I think that I find it to be a very cathartic and perversely therapeutic experience when a film drags me through the mud a little bit.
AC: And in making it, too, there’s that catharsis. You shed this junk by going to these places as a filmmaker and actor.
BC: Absolutely. It’s all those things. You feel a little reborn when you’re done. With this film, and the very, very dark places this film took me to… I felt rejuvenated when I was done.
My friend recently went on a date with someone, and I remember her saying that the guy was awkward and nervous but also very forward, and I found that combination exceedingly creepy. I thought of Simon.
BC: …was it me?
AC: A date with Brady Corbet!