by Glenn Lovell
For a guy who grew up in relative comfort ‒ privates schools, successful middle-class parents ‒ Antonio Campos shows an unexpected affinity for society’s walking wounded, the alienated and dejected. Five years ago, he directed the festival favorite “Afterschool,” about a painfully shy prep-school student who spends too much time online, with tragic results. His noir-tinged “Simon Killer” (now in theaters and on PPV) is about a weaselly American in Paris who freeloads off a young prostitute. Again, with tragic results.
Between assignments, Campos, 29, produced the award-winning “Martha Macy May Marlene,” about a young woman adjusting to life after a Manson-like cult. You guessed it ‒ tragic results.
To get to the bottom of this attraction for damaged outsiders, we talked to Campos at San Francisco’s 15th annual IndieFest. He referred to his new film, which was virtually made up by director and stars as they went along (“We sometimes showed up with just lines written on a notebook page”), as a “companion piece” to “Afterschool.” Main literary influences? The brainy mystery novels of Georges Simenon, as well as the more hard-boiled pulps of Jim Thompson.
“Thompson’s ‘The Killer Inside Me’ was a huge turning point; I’d never read anything like that,” Campos said. “How well we could understand that (psychotic sheriff) was kind of a revelation … Simenon deals with very similar characters but in a more opaque way. And somewhere in-between there, Simon was born … “
Campos says he’s always been drawn to the dark side, to everyday monsters lurking just beneath the surface. His second short “Buy It Now” is about a teenager who sells her virginity on eBay. “Why am drawn to dark subjects? I’m not sure. I’ve always been a fan of horror films. Creating horror out of real life is a challenge … You have these ideas, you write them down, and then on the day you have to shoot it, it’s incredibly uncomfortable. You go, ‘Why did I ever think of this? Why am I making my life so difficult?’ ”
There are certainly squirm-worthy scenes in his latest. In one, Simon’s prostitute girlfriend recalls being raped by her husband the moment she starts to go into labor with their first child. He got the story from a woman who worked in a Paris hostess bar. “She was very open and she told me that story and I was pretty shocked by it … After coming out of a very abusive relationship, being a prostitute in Pigalle was, as difficult as it is to believe, somehow liberating.”
Simon, played by co-writer Brady Corbet, has some serious psychological issues. In one scene, he bumps a stranger on the street and the encounter escalates. The guy is like a magnet for trouble.
“I’d say that Simon is manipulative and scared. He’s convinced that he’s doing the right thing and actually he’s jot. I don’t think Simon’s a sociopath. That’s what’s scary about him: It’s harder to pinpoint what it is. For me, the story is not about someone becoming a serial killer, it’s more about someone becoming capable of killing if he needs to.”
Campos grew up in Greenwich Village and, through a scholarship, attended a private school on the Upper West Side. Mingling with the haves and have-nots, witnessing the disparity, proved a turning point. “A lot of what you see in ‘Afterschool’ came from the hypocrisy of that school, the way that certain students got away with certain things and other students didn’t … That made myself and a lot of my friends very cynical because we saw that the way the system worked is if you have money, you have means, you can usually get away with anything … and the rest of us are left to fend for ourselves.”
Campos’s next film may be a murder mystery based on the 2004 documentary “The Staircase.” It’s bound to be dark, brooding.
And then? “I’d love to do a comedy, but … no one thinks I can be funny, unfortunately.”