Borderline-Nuts: Antonio Campos and Brady Corbet on Simon Killer

The Skinny speaks to Antonio Campos and Brady Corbet, the director and star of Simon Killer, a twisted psychological odyssey set in a nightmarish Paris

Feature by Jamie Dunn | 05 Apr 2013

Antonio Campos doesn’t go in for feel-good. The Afterschool director’s second feature, Simon Killer, focuses on a young American in Paris who falls for a local lass, but, as its on-the-nose title suggests, this is no Before Sunrise. Simon, played with a beguiling mix of vulnerability and dead-eyed psychosis by Brady Corbet, doesn’t romance his new object of affection Victoria (Mati Diop, star of 35 Shots of Rum); he insinuates himself into her life like a parasite. Some guys use pithy one-liners to chat-up women, Simon reels them in using pity.

Initially their relationship is professional: Victoria works as a prostitute and, after one particularly lonely night wandering the Pigalle quarter, Simon stumbles into the brothel in which she works and quickly becomes one of her regulars. Before she knows it he’s wormed his way into her apartment and then into her bed. As onscreen relationships go, this one’s up there with Taxi Driver’s Travis (Robert De Niro) and Betsy (Cybill Shepherd) in the toe-curling stakes.

Poisonous male protagonists are very much Campos’ MO. It’s what links Simon Killer to the disquieting Afterschool, which centred on Robert (Ezra Miller), a misfit teen whose chief hobby, like Simon’s, is developing unhealthy attitudes towards the opposite sex. In many ways this new work seems like that earlier high-school-set film’s unofficial sequel: these could be Robert’s college years. When I meet Campos and his star, Corbet, in a plush suite at The May Fair hotel during last year’s London Film Festival, they’re quick to reassure me that’s not the case.

“You could make a link between Simon and Robert, but they are very different in a lot of ways. I like to think Robert is doing okay now,” chuckles Campos, laughing a little too hard, inferring there’s little credence to his statement. "Yeah," adds Corbet while munching on a pink medallion of salmon sushi, “weirdly I think he moved on.”

The suggestion of a sequel to Simon Killer is clearly appealing, though. Campos reveals we could see Simon on more adventures, rampaging through other exotic locations like a less charming Tom Ripley: “We had talked about this once or twice: we could do Simon as a series.” (The ‘Man with No Shame’ would be an appropriate moniker.) “We’d have a Simon in London, Simon in Buenos Aires, a Simon in Bangkok.”

“Maybe we’ll just go and make a film over a long weekend?” suggests Corbet. “It’d be fun – we’ll go to Bangkok and make a film in four days on an iPhone.”

Corbet is joking, but this off-the-cuff mode of filmmaking isn't a million miles away from Simon Killer’s actual production. When Campos assembled his crew in Paris there wasn’t much meat on the bones of his script. “I went to Brady and said, ‘this is my idea, and this is what I was thinking, and this is where it comes from,’ and then we started talking right away about the story and we wrote a treatment for it together,” the director reveals. “There were pages and there were scenes written, but it was only an outline. Brady and Mati did most of the heavy lifting.”

“I don’t mean to sound at all sycophantic,” says Corbet, “but there aren't many people I would've ever signed up to work with in this way. If anyone other than Antonio told me they were going to make a movie with no script and an eight-page treatment I would have been like, ‘Well clearly the film's going to be a sloppy mess.’ But I know what a stylist he is and I knew that was just impossible; I knew that it would be a formally rigorous experience to watch.”

That it is. Simon Killer may have been largely improvised but there isn’t an image or camera move that doesn’t feel like it hasn't been chewed over; every edit, music cue and gesture by the performers seems to be there for a reason. Shot mostly in long takes using a hand-held camera, we follow Simon around the seediest streets in Paris and become immersed in his twisted psychological odyssey. Those familiar with Campos’ earlier feature and shorts, which trade in cold, meticulously framed wide shots, might be surprised with this more virtuosic, but no less fastidious style.

“Just because I make a film about a guy who likes to have a finger put up his ass it doesn’t mean I do” – Antonio Campos

“The camera, for me, has to be reflective of the character itself,” says Campos when I ask about his apparent shift in technique for Simon Killer. “Afterschool is very much about a boy who’s interested in observing the world and so a lot of times I would think about a shot in the way that Robert would see the shot. In Simon it’s about a character that’s not paying attention to the world around him, and that’s what you sort of see.”

“He’s deeply internalised,” adds Corbet. “He’s always got his headphones on and the world is out of focus. I mean, he’s in one of the most beautiful cities in the world and he doesn’t look up – he’s not even listening to it.” As a result we see Paris through Simon's blinkered, hateful eyes. Against our better judgment we become his ally; it becomes difficult not to root for the little perv.

What’s so refreshing about Simon Killer is that Campos refrains from letting his protagonist, and by extension the audience, off the hook for his behaviour. So often in mainstream cinema, when confronted with a morally ambiguous character, you don’t need to wait too long for the flashback to an earlier trauma to explain their dysfunction. These backstories act as a narrative balm: they say, 'Don’t worry about feeling sympathy for this wretched character, they’re a victim too.' “It’s important that he doesn’t come from some fucked-up home or anything,” explains Campos. “There are probably problems at home, like any family, but there’s a lot of love too.” By not signposting the source of his psychosis this haunting character study turns into a kind of mystery. Trying to figure out why there’s so much anger and bitterness in the character becomes part of its appeal.

Simon Killer continues an impressive run of features from its production company Borderline Films. The New York outfit, comprised of producer Josh Mond, Martha Marcy May Marlene director Sean Durkin and Campos, seems to have found its niche in mining the dark underbelly of America. And in Corbet, who’s now starred in three Borderline productions (Martha Marcy May Marlene, the yet to be released in the UK Two Gates of Sleep and Simon Killer), they’ve found their talisman.

Corbet’s fascinating career has taken him from pretty-boy lead in 2004's asinine Thunderbirds movie to collaborating with some of the most interesting and subversive directors currently working – filmmakers like Gregg Araki (Mysterious Skin), Michael Haneke (Funny Games U.S.) and Lars von Trier (Melancholia). I ask the gently-spoken actor why he thinks he's found so much success at playing outsiders and creeps. His response is pleasingly straightforward: “I feel like the majority of the acting process is just saying the words as convincingly as possible, and if the character has to say something really violent or unpleasant you just say it like you mean it – that’s all. It’s a bit like a dance, it’s like punk rock: you just scream.”

Campos puts it more concisely when I ask him the same question: “Just because I make a film about a guy who likes to have a finger put up his ass [as Simon does] it doesn’t mean I do.”

Simon Killer is released in the UK 12 Apr by Eureka Entertainment

Borderline Films will receive its first full retrospective at this year's Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, 28 Jun-6 Jul