Judging by his two features—2008’s unsettling Afterschool (about a teenager who accidentally films the deaths of two students) and now Simon Killer—it’s clear writer-director Antonio Campos is attracted to the dark side. His latest film follows an aimless college graduate, Simon (Brady Corbet; Melancholia), who flees to Paris after a bad break-up and becomes seriously involved with a prostitute, Victoria (Mati Diop; 35 Shots of Rum).
It isn’t long before the emotionally damaged couple’s troubled relationship leads them down a path of blackmail and betrayal. With its distinctive visual style and raw performances, Simon Killer (which premiered at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival) is a chilling and unforgettable character study.
The film is currently in limited release, and available via VOD. Just before the movie hit theaters, MM chatted with Campos (who also serves as co-founder of Borderline Films and produced the critically acclaimed Martha Marcy May Marlene) to find out more about Simon Killer.
Kyle Rupprecht (MM): Could you tell us about how the script evolved? What inspired the concept?
Antonio Campos (AC): I fell in love with the works of Georges Simenon, not so much his Magritte novels but moreso his Romans Durs (his “hard novels” as he called them). I immersed myself in his work, and I’d also say I had done a similar thing not long before with the books of Jim Thompson. I became fascinated with creating this character, telling a kind of noir fable in present day. I told Brady the basic idea of a young man who goes to Paris after a break-up and graduating college, and eventually falls into a relationship with a prostitute there, weasels his way into her life, and plants the idea of a blackmail scam.
We developed a pretty strict outline and once Mati Diop came on board, we all collaborated together on things. Some scenes were written and complete before shooting, some more written the morning of in a notebook that I showed to my actors, who would help me translate things. Some things were fully improvised, and other scenes were scripted built out of improvisation. It was all a bit of a jigsaw puzzle I had to figure out. But the structure ultimately didn’t change much.
MM: Brady Corbet and Mati Diop, who star in the film, also have “story by” credits, along with you. How did they come to be involved with the project, and what did they bring to the table as actors?
AC: Brady and I met years ago before; we made a film called Two Gates of Sleep that he starred in. We became fast friends. Mati was a fried of a friend of our co-producer Melody Roscher. She was a godsend. We were struggling to find the right person to play Victoria and, one night, Melody mentioned she was having drinks with Mati Diop. Brady and I immediately knew her from 35 Shots of Rum and said we’d love to speak to her. Immediately, we got along and found that we spoke a similar language. The greatest thing about our collaboration was that both Mati and Brady are filmmakers, and very talented ones at that. So I could speak as a director to an actor, and we could also speak objectively as filmmakers. Without them, the film wouldn’t be what it was.
MM: Could you talk a bit about the relationship between the emotionally damaged Simon and Victoria? Why do you think they have such an intense connection?
AC: I think Simon is convinced that he needs to save someone, though she doesn’t necessarily need saving, and Victoria wants to take care of someone. They are both blinded in a way and doing things for the wrong reasons. Simon is attracted to this universe that Victoria inhabits, though, at the end, we see he’s only interested in being a tourist in her life.
MM: How did you achieve the film’s striking, naturalistic yet dream-like visual style?
AC: Slow camera moves, shadows, and lots of neon combined with wonderful performances.
MM: What was it like shooting the film in Paris? As a foreigner, were there any challenges you encountered along the way?
AC: It was really amazing. The French crew was so generous and excited, even though at times there was a mystery to what we were doing since there wasn’t a traditional script. We were half American crew which had come with us from Martha [Marcy May Marlene] and a lot of new people in France. There were two schools of thoughts at work, and somehow, we quickly found a really nice middle ground where we were working on a more relaxed French schedule, with the energy of an American indie.
MM: Both of your films deal with bleak and unsettling subjects. Why do you think you’re drawn to the dark side?
AC: I’ve been asked that a lot and I don’t really have an answer. There is something so removed from me and my characters, and at the same time they’re coming from inside my brain. I have been thinking about this a lot and I feel like part of what’s beautiful about a film is that they are filled with secrets—where things have come from, what really happened on set before and after a shot—all this stuff that is one step removed from you as the creators and performers, and the mystery of those things and where it all comes from is special.
MM: What’s up next for you? (Perhaps a light romantic comedy?)
AC: I would love to do a comedy! If only someone would finally believe I can be funny. At the moment, I’m writing the second draft of a script for Fox Searchlight that I’ve been developing for a long time, and hopefully it will get made this year. It is based on a documentary that I’m very honored to be adapting. Josh Mond is getting ready to make his first feature, which we’re producing and I’m very excited about that, too. Sean [Durkin, director of Martha Marcy…]‘s currently finishing a draft of his next project that we’ll produce. And we’re working with our friends and frequent collaborators, like Andrew Renzi and Babak Jalali, on their projects. All in all, very busy but happy.