For a filmmaker who appreciates what lingers just outside the frame, it wasn’t surprising that during our conversation Antonio Campos’ eyes drifted towards the poster of “Sweet Smell of Success” that was hanging from the wall. At the offices of Falco Ink, the publicity firm that takes its name after the notorious New York press agent at the center of the great 1957 Burt Lancaster-Tony Curtis thriller, Campos couldn’t help but note his admiration.
“That movie is so mysterious in the way that it unfolds, in what the characters’ intentions are, what their true nature is and it resolves in a very strange, ambiguous way,” says Campos. “And that was a Hollywood movie.”
Besides that last part, Campos could have been describing his own potboiler 55 years later. “Simon Killer,” the writer/director’s second feature is a formally audacious yet satisfyingly suspenseful film about an American miscreant (Brady Corbet) not unlike Sidney Falco who travels abroad to recover from a bad breakup and soon finds the trouble he was looking for when he develops a relationship with a Parisian escort (Mati Diop).
Filled with hypnotic interludes of trembling rays of light and gorgeously panoramic shots of the City of Lights with the sights its central characters will never be able to find the joy in for one reason or another, it’s an unshakeable cinematic experience that’s nonetheless affecting as a character study of a would-be con artist whose worst deception is perpetrated against himself. As with his searing first film “Afterschool,” Campos is able to cut through such illusions with a firm voice as a filmmaker, a fact that’s all the more remarkable when you consider he and his collaborators worked off an eight-page outline and were open to changing the film based on who they would cast or what location they could pick up on the day of shooting.
While this may be unusual approach for a director of such exacting skill, Campos has long had such an ethos as one of the three founders of Borderline Films, the Brooklyn-based filmmaking collective that also produced “Martha Marcy May Marlene.” Naturally, when it came to speaking about “Simon Killer,” he was joined by his star Brady Corbet, a featured player in nearly all the Borderline productions, and together, the two spoke about collaboration, the inspiration for “Simon Killer” and Campos’ signature “reinvention of the closeup.”
You’ve mentioned the influence of the novels of Georges Simenon and Joran van der Sloot was in the news as you began work on the film, but I’m wondering whether there’s personal generational roots as well since plenty of American pop culture of the ’80s and ’90s has been geared around a vision of Europe as a sexual playground?
Antonio Campos: There’s something about just the idea of leaving your home, then having that sense of being anybody else you want to be and do anything else you want to do because you’re not under the watchful eye of whoever it is you’re scared of or think is judging you. It was important in this case to start off [Simon’s] journey in a city like Paris because of what you associate with Paris, especially at that age. It’s just a sexually charged city and as a young man getting out of a relationship and starting a journey around Europe, it just made the most sense.
Mati Diop was an outsider to the production in many senses – as a woman, as a Parisian, as someone outside the usual Borderline crew of collaborators – did she really bring a different perspective to what you were doing?
AC: Yeah, she did. Mati is a force of nature and she’s an amazing actress and an incredible filmmaker. She, like the rest of the French cast, brought her own energy. If you like making films, you need to like working with actors and if you like working with actors, it’s because you appreciate that each actor has a different kind of energy and a different approach to what they do. Besides Brady, everybody in my cast was French and they knew that city and we would look to them to make sure we felt like this was authentic. But it was our version of Paris. This wasn’t social realism, some attempt to get into the gritty, dark underworld of Parisian prostitution. That was just part of this noir fairy tale we were telling. On top of that, there was the language. Any time we’d write a scene in English, the actor doing the scene would be the one usually translating it and trying to find the right words for them to use, so there was a great deal that each actor was bringing to the role, not just their performance.
At the AFI Fest screening of the film last fall, Antonio had described a high school project involving a series of interviews that led him as a filmmaker to “reinvent the closeup” by shifting the focus away from the expressions of a person’s face to other parts of their bodies. How has that style evolved over the years?
AC: It’s funny because for me, it’s not so much a style as it is just an interest in the human form and looking other places besides the face for emotion, embracing the fact that the human body is constantly signaling the way that we’re feeling. I don’t know why, but I find it really beautiful when somebody falls on the edge of frame or a piece of their body is just barely seen – whatever is right for the moment. One of the approaches to camera blocking that I’ve always been interested in is setting up a really perfect shot and then allow the actors to make it more interesting by messing up their blocking a little bit. That’s the way of making your frame feel alive to me and in that way, arriving at something more honest or natural. The perception of the frame being this one thing is not what filmmaking is. The possibilities are endless.
Brady, does it change the way you relate to the camera?
BC: The peculiar framing? Yeah, then we’d use that part of our body to try to tell the story more. We knew where the top and the bottom of the frame were. There’s only a few times in the whole film where that actually happens, but it seems quite natural to me, the framing. Contemporary cinema right now has become so perfect and homogenized that an asymmetrical image or something that’s a little bit fucked up in a way is exhilarating. A filmmaker reeling in his precision at certain moments and letting some of it go, it’s a constant process of giving the audience some slack and then pulling it right back. The whole movie gives and takes like that.
Brady, this is a way for me for me to slip in a compliment for your work as an editor because I recently saw “Burma,” which had a nice rhythm to it, and I wonder whether you have a more active role in the post-production on the Borderline films in shaping your performance? So often actors don’t know what happens after the camera stops rolling.
BC: Yeah, I’ve been very present on every film that we’ve made in post-production to a certain degree. We work on everything very, very closely. I’ve never thought so much about them trying to shape my performance. One of the things about Antonio — he’s a phenomenally talented editor and most of the time, he’s cutting right at the spot I think I would cut myself. The only thing in post-production on [“Simon Killer”] that we talked about is what we could afford to lose in terms of getting the run time down to something where we weren’t losing an audience but still maintaining the integrity of the first half of the movie. [We wanted it to] be intentionally a little laborious at times to give the audience the same experience this character is having, feeling so isolated and so lonely, and also so the payoff in the second half of the film is more dramatically successful. You have a more ambient beginning and then in the third act, things start to ramp up. But I’m fairly involved in every part of the process and in the things that I’ve made, they’ve been very involved in the post-production, so it’s a real collaboration.
When you go into a film like this with a pretty sparse outline as I understand it, has the meaning of the film changed for you from its conception to completion?
AC: Making any kind of a piece of art, it’s a strange thing. Like if you’re writing a song, some people start with lyrics, some people start with melody. On this, we started with a melody. We had a feeling, a tone. We were chasing a concept. Honestly, you’re never certain that you’ve actually encapsulated the idea or the concept until you’ve edited the film, so hopefully all of the themes we were talking about exploring are quite apparent. Then you present it to an audience and it’s really left up to them. But you just make the thing and then the poetry comes in their interpretation.
“Simon Killer” is now open at the IFC Center in New York and will open in Los Angeles at the Nuart Theatre on April 12th. It will also become available on demand on April 12th.