A new instalment in my indie horror interviews series, although I’m not sure this really qualifies as horror. Simon Killer is a Paris-set psychological thriller by Antonio Campos, the director of Afterschool and producer of Martha Marcy May Marlene, which I loved. It stars Brady Corbet, from MMMM and also Michael Haneke’s own US remake of Funny Games. As Campos explains, that’s possibly not the only Haneke link.
Originally at Empire Online, but now no longer there following the migration to the new website. So here’s the interview in full.
Antonio Campos directed his first feature, the chilly Afterschool, when he was still a student at NYU. Since then he’s acted as a producer on last year’s excellent Martha Marcy May Marlene, and has now reunited with that film’s Brady Corbet, for the psychological thriller Simon Killer. Also starring Mati Diop and Constance Rousseau, the film finds the titular sociopath apparently shaking off a bad break-up with an extended post-graduate sojourn in Paris. But as Campos explains to Empire, things may not be what they seem.
[This interview contains some spoilers.]
OW: Your use of Paris is interesting: you avoid any of the obvious tourist bits and yet somehow it still couldn’t be anywhere else.
AC: That was intentional. We chose our environment very specifically. We made a point of avoiding landmarks, and when we did shoot a landmark, we tried to approach it in an interesting way, in the distance or at the edge of the frame. In a way it could be anywhere, but it also couldn’t! There’s something about Paris that just feels very special, and if you look out of window over the rooftops, you just know it’s Paris. From a height, it couldn’t be anywhere else. There’s a lot that’s iconic, but in a way I wanted to treat the landmarks in the same way I treated the adults in Afterschool. They’re in the background but they’re not in focus.
The other beautiful thing about Paris, from a shooting standpoint, is that there’s light everywhere, which makes it easy to shoot at night. In fact it’s too easy, and you have to try hard to find streets that have a little more contrast and shadow, because the streets are so over-lit! You have to cast your streets cleverly.
Simon tells people that his thesis was on the relationship between the eye and the brain. Is that a clue that the film is all about perception? There’s an eye on the poster too.
Yes, we were always looking for ways in which the characters’ eyes would play roles in themselves, and looking at ways in which they see and don’t see. We cast Constance (Rousseau) almost sight unseen. Brady knew her and had tried to cast her in a short film he was doing years ago, and he told me this girl had this ‘thing’ with her eyes [Constance has Nystagmus, which means her eyes constantly move]. In other films they would close-cut around her because her eyes are so distracting, but I thought she’d be perfect for us!
You’re constantly shooting away from faces in the film: a lot of the dialogue is offscreen, for example, and there’s a dance scene where you only shoot midriffs. What’s the thinking behind that?
I have the shots of their faces, but they’re just not as interesting! The other thing was that we always tried to shoot Victoria (Mati Diop) from behind, or without her face in the frame, and Constance the opposite, in a way that reflects the ways in which Simon (Brady Corbet) sees and treats the girls differently. The dance scene you’re talking about is the one between Brady and Mati, for example, but there’s one later with Brady and Constance, and it’s shot from the chest up. When he goes to the Brothel to see Mati, he turns her around. When he tries to do that with Constance, she won’t allow it. There’s always that sort of play between how we’re shooting them and how Simon is viewing them.
Is it significant that both women are physically flawed in some way: Constance with her eyes and Mati with her scar?
Yes, because it’s something in both cases that Simon can pick on. In the beginning it seems like Simon is more interested in Constance’s very pretty blonde friend, but he ends up seizing on the girl who has this one thing that makes her slightly different and odd. He finds the detail or whatever the character is insecure about, and knows how to play with it a bit, and take advantage of it.
How did you settle on the title? It seems to set up an expectation of something that isn’t really delivered.
The film is basically projecting that this guy is a killer, but it’s funny: some people seem to be really unsatisfied with how much killing he does [laughs]! It doesn’t deliver to any sort of blood thirst, but for me, I felt that the film has such an undercurrent of violence that it’s uncomfortable enough anyway. It’s psychologically violent: it’s always kind of brewing and stewing. I was more interested in the sexuality than the violence, which is why the most violent moment in the film is at the very end. It’s really only a punch, but it’s awful enough, and it kind of is really all you need to know, because you’ve been privy to what’s in Simon’s mind and under his skin for so long.
What does the fox emblem signify?
It actually sort of came from a quote we read by [convicted murderer] Joran van der Sloot. He said that if his mother described him as an animal, she’d say he was a snake, but that he’d like to be lion and one day he would be. The snake seemed like too obvious an association though, and Brady had this fox pin that his mother had given him, and there was just something about the fox: it’s kind of clever and sneaky and dangerous, but not as much of a predator as a wolf or a lion. It hides when it needs to. It was just one of those little things: we needed an association, Brady had this pin, and from a story point of view we needed something that Brady would leave in Mati’s apartment – a piece of himself in a way – that he’d be devastated to lose.
The film was written for and with Brady. Where did Mati come in?
We were struggling to find an actress for that character, and we just couldn’t find someone who was good enough, or who was committed to the idea of playing a certain way. We needed an actress who would take some big leaps, because there was going to be a lot of improvising. I was having drinks with a friend of a friend of hers, and I’d seen 35 Shots of Rum, which Mati is brilliant in, so I met with her and she was amazing, wonderful. In general I prefer not to do like a normal casting session where you watch a thousand people. I’ve just done a commercial short where I had to audition 300 people in five days! I much prefer working with people that I trust, and having them say, ‘Here are five people that I like!’ and you just have coffee with them all or watch their previous work and just know what they’ll be like. I find that a much more human process.
Mati is a brilliant filmmaker too, in her own right. She’s mad at me right now because I haven’t kept in touch enough after the film! You spend so long editing a film that you feel like you’re still seeing the cast every day, and then you realise you haven’t spoken to them in person, in reality, for ever.
Do you have more of an ongoing dialogue with Brady?
Yeah, we live in the same city and we were best friends before we made this film. We hang out all the time. It would be great to have a commune of people I worked with all the time. I wish Mati lived here! She really has the potential for a career in English-speaking films as well as at home, because her English is so good. She’s very sexy, in a non-traditional way, and very powerful. She could do anything.
You mentioned that there was a lot of improvisation. How was the screenplay written?
There was a very specific structure, but some of the individual scenes were not scripted at all. Others were scripted days before shooting, or during shooting, or weeks before shooting. Some were shot and then re-shot, and then others were just created in the moment.
Are we supposed to infer at the end that Simon is moving from scenario to scenario, borrowing other people’s histories, and we haven’t actually known any ‘truths’ about him at all?
Yeah, I really wanted you to doubt everything by the end. That’s just throwing one more wrench in there.
That’s a little like Funny Games (the American version of which also starred Brady): the idea that they’re moving on to start again at the end. You’ve said in the past that Haneke is a great influence on you, but do you now regret admitting that? Do you find that people are now just looking for Haneke in your films?
Yeah, there are all these associations that people make between me and Haneke, and they’re not necessarily fair, because our films are so different. I mean, Haneke is Haneke. He’s a great director, in my opinion. I think my inspirations and influences from Haneke were more overt in Afterschool: my love for his work and they way his films moved me came across more there. I respond to his work in a very specific way. He and Kubrick and Delon, these great filmmakers, their work seeps into what we do, but in the same way, other great filmmakers’ work seeped into what they did too. Bresson is all over Haneke; Ophuls is all over Kubrick; John Ford and Howard Hawks are all over Scorsese. As a filmmaker you watch films and respond, like you just heard a language for the first time that you somehow understand, and then you try to learn how to speak it and it comes out a different way. That’s what makes your own language different from the filmmakers that inspired you.
Simon Killer is available now from Eureka.