Antonio Campos discusses new film Simon Killer

Director Antonio Campos. Picture: Getty
Director Antonio Campos. Picture: Getty
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WHAT makes a killer? That’s the question Antonio Campos seeks to answer in his new film, writes Alistair Harkness

ANTONIO Campos wants to get one thing straight. “Just because you make a film where a character likes a finger up his butt doesn’t mean you like a finger up your butt.” The 30-year-old director of the acclaimed festival hit Afterschool – and founding member of the radical New York production company Borderline Films (Martha Marcy May Marlene) – is making this particularly colourful analogy with a sex scene from his new film Simon Killer in order to illustrate the parameters that need to come into play whenever someone assumes he follows the old write-what-you-know edict to the letter. “You always begin an original story from a starting point that’s personal,” he says. “But then it becomes something waaaaaay different from what it started out as.”

Given that Simon Killer is: a) a disturbing portrait of an American student who begins indulging in transgressive sociopathic behaviour while on a sabbatical to Paris to get over a break-up and b) disturbing precisely because of how stark and real it feels, it is important to reiterate Campos’s last statement lest anyone read too much into the fact that, yes, he was going through his own break-up when he first came up with the idea.

“I was in a depressed state,” he says, but he’s not willing to indulge that thing he’s noticed happening at Q&A sessions where certain audience members feel the need to project everything that’s in the story onto everyone that made it.

“I understand why people do it, but it’s an unfair assessment.”

Actually, if anything, Simon Killer’s antihero, played by 25-year-old Brady Corbet, was inspired as much by the work of prolific Belgian crime novelist Georges Simenon. “Antonio and I both love Georges Simenon,” says Corbet, who is credited – alongside Campos and fellow star Mati Diop – as one of the co-writers of the largely improvised film. “Simenon’s stories are usually centered around a man having a midlife crisis: you meet him at a fork in the road and they’re sort of immoral tales. Antonio was like, ‘What would happen if you put a younger person in that scenario and you subvert the expectations of a coming-of-age story?’ That’s when we started talking about this as a story of someone who comes of age in a really terrible way.”

That happens in the film when the angelic-looking Simon becomes fixated on a young hostess (played by Diop) working in the city’s red-light district. “Little by little he’s getting to a place where he could commit murder,” says Campos. “Whether or not you think he’s committed a crime at the end of the film, you know he’s capable of killing. It’s an act of self-preservation in some ways. If he gets to a place where murder is an option in order to protect himself, he’ll do it.”

“I think that’s the way most violence plays out,” adds Corbet, best known for playing one of the benign-seeming killers in Michael Haneke’s American remake of Funny Games. “Some people have a certain aptitude for violence and their circumstances push them one way or the other.”

The seedier side of Paris proved an ideal location in this respect. The film is set in and around the brothel-lined streets bordered by the 9th and the 18th arrondissements – an anomalous area in centre of Paris that Campos knew relatively well having read about it in Simenon’s novels and lived on its fringes while studying at the Cannes-affiliated filmmakers lab, the Cinéfondation.

“There’s just something very sexual in the air in Paris – something that would especially affect a young American graduate student like Simon who is trying to figure himself out. The mistake he makes is to bum around Paris a little too long. He gets desperate and starts going down the wrong path.”

It’s a side of the city one might expect local filmmaking authorities would be keen to avoid showcasing, but Campos found them very accommodating, not just when he wanted to shoot in Paris’s dodgier districts, but also when he wanted to film in the Musée d’Orsay.

“That’s what I love about France,” says Campos. “They’re very aware of the bigger picture. They’ll make a lot of money off big-budget stuff, then help the smaller budget films like ours.”

It perhaps helps that Campos has a very European outlook to filmmaking. Indeed, there’s a bit of a Nouvelle Vague vibe about Borderline, the collaborative production company he formed with Marcy Martha May Marlene director Sean Durkin and producer Sean Mond after meeting as film students in his native New York a decade ago.

“We’re young filmmakers, but we want to treat cinema with a certain degree of reverence,” says Campos of their decision to collectively make very raw, very experimental and very formal films that eschew the sloppy guerilla tactics favoured by many low-budget indie filmmakers.

That’s certainly something that attracted Corbet to the group. Simon Killer marks their third feature collaboration (after 2010’s Two Gates of Sleep and Martha Marcy May Marlene).

“It’s rare to find people in American cinema making films in such a formal way,” says Corbet. “What’s really nice is that while they make difficult films, they’re not difficult people. They’re really kind and we’re all really good friends.”

Given some of the extreme things Corbet had to do in Simon Killer (see the first paragraph) that must have been an advantage.

“Because we’re so close, it’s very comfortable,” confirms Campos. “We can have honest conversations about things and we feel safe around one another. And that’s important when we’re doing something risky like this.”

• Simon Killer is on selected release from 14 April.