After playing in official selection in Cannes, Berlin, SXSW and NYFF last year, Antonio Campos’s film “Afterschool” is arriving in theaters. Campos’ directorial debut – the film was honored with two Gotham Award nominations and the Independent Spirit Award for Best First Feature. The film follows Robert, a young American student at an elite East Coast preparatory school. When he accidentally captures on camera the horrific death of two girls, he’s tasked with memorializing their lives in a film meant to help speed up the school’s healing process. For some, this exercise only deepens the trauma. indieWIRE spoke to Campos about the film, which opens today, October 2nd, at the Cinema Village in New York.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career.
I always loved films. At first I was attracted to adventure/fantasy films — “Indiana Jones,” “Back to the Future,” “Goonies,” “Ghostbusters” — then eventually coming-of-age stories like “Stand by Me” and “The 400 Blows.” At home, movies were the one thing my whole family could talk about. At first I watched movies because it was an escape, and then eventually I became interested in stories that i could connect to more personally. I then took a 6 week course at the New York Film Academy when I was 13.
At the time there was no teen program, so I spent a summer lying about my age and saying I was 16. I actually shot a big scene for that film in the theater where “Afterschool” is screening, the Cinema Village. The short was called “Puberty,” which was essentially all i knew about at the time.
Obviously, as I got older I started watching more and more films and my tastes became more refined, and as my interest in more challenging films grew, I became more interested in challenging myself as a filmmaker.
Please discuss how the idea for “Afterschool” came about.
I grew up in New York and have lived here my whole life. In my last year of high school, 9/11 happened. My best friend lost his father in one of the towers that day, and the end of that school year, a close friend of mine died in a freak accident while traveling through Europe.
It was already intense enough being in New York during 9/11, but experiencing these two things in that year really affected me. I think a lot of people felt a certain insignicance at the time- and as a filmmaker all the things I wanted to make films about seemed really petty and trivial. I had this idea at the time to tell a story about a boy who witnesses the death o f these two beautiful sisters who he has never actually spoken to up until the moments before their death. The idea being that he felt incredibly connected and disconnected to their death and that was the conflict. As the years went on and I got further and further away from that 9/11 and that year, the world changed and my perspective became more complex. And I think I also grew a lot as a filmmaker. When I entered the Cannes Residence where I wrote the script over the course of 4 and a half months in Paris, the story really came together. I spend a lot of time watching Frederick Wiseman films and the idea of the boy being in an audio video class came to me. And once that happened the framework and approach to the film came very quickly.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film, including your influences (if any), as well as your overall goals for the project?
I wanted to approach the scenes as though they were being filmed by a surveillance camera, that the camera was in a fixed place and when people entered the frame it wasn’t a mark they were hitting to make a perfect frame, but just where they were ending up. I like long takes, i like people living out moments completely without me interfering as the filmmaker. It’s more exciting for me as a filmmaker to watch the actors live out a scene as opposed to covering it from multiple angles and creating the right tone in the editing.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
It’s difficult to raise money for an independent film, but luckily while I was in Paris writing the script my producers Sean Durkin and Josh Mond were here working on securing financiers as well as working out deals with for the camera and lenses and 35MM stock that would allow us to shoot the film on 35 anamorphic on such a limited budget.
Because of the success of my shorts and the connection the script had to Cannes, it didn’t make it easy necessarily, but it opened a lot of doors. Distribution took a long time to secure in the US, while we pretty much had all our international distributors set by the end of Cannes. It’s a cinematic film, and it was important for all of us that it be seen in a theatre. And we fought to make sure that the film got the chance to be seen that way outside of the festival circuit here.
How did the financing and/or casting for the film come together?
I had two great casting directors, Susan Shopmaker and Randi Glass, who we’ve worked with on a lot of projects. They both are familiar with so many great New York actors. Michael Stuhlbarg was one of the first adults I saw for the headmaster, and I knew immediately he was perfect and was excited to work with him. And there were a few of the adult r oles which had been written for some great actors I had worked with on my shorts like Gary Wilmes, Rosemarie Dewitt and Chris McCann. The kids were a bit more difficult because I only wanted to work with kids who were at least roughly around the age of the kids in the film and also whose parents were comfortable with the material. There were only a few that were strong, and I can safely say I can’t imagine another cast of kids other than the ones in the film.
Finding the twins was another big challenge. We looked everywhere, we even saw a set of singing, dancing triplets. With twins, you end up seeing a lot of people that feel like they’re part of a novelty act or that look like they’re porn stars in the making. We started the film and we didn’t have them. Then out of nowhere, at the end of the first week, someone on the crew said “Oh, i know a couple twins; they’re not actors, but they’re super cool and would love to do it.” And it just so happened that they were exactly what I had imagined originally.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
Michael Haneke is by far my favorite contemporary filmmaker. His approach to video in film has been huge influential on me, and the restraint in his films is something I admire and have studied endlessly. Frederick Wiseman’s films are really important to me, especially with “Afterschool.” His film s are basically studies of people within different institutions, and that’s exactly what “Afterschool” is.
I had the transcript for his film “High School” on my desk throughout the entire writing process and constantly would pick it up just to go through the dialogue between administrators and students to help me find my characters’ voices. And Kubrick has been the greatest influence on me. “A Clockwork Orange” was the film that made me realize what a director does and made me realize that I wanted to be a director, and from then on I watched every one of his films over and over and read everything I could do about him. Some people view him as very clinical and cold, but I feel like there are only a handful of directors who reached the level of perfection he reached technically and even fewer who had such a profound concern for and understanding of humanity and where we are heading as human beings.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker? What is your next project?
I would like to do a western one day. The script I’m writing now is a more personal story about a boy and his mother in New York, entitled MOMMA. Josh Mond, my producer on AFTERSCHOOL, and I are also producing a film for one of my producers on “Afterschool,” Sean Durkin. (Sean, Josh and I have a production company Borderline Films, and rotate to support one another’s projects.) It’ll be Sean’s first feature, and we’re planning on shooting next summer.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
Independent filmmaking has always been around and will always be around; it’s just that people have given it a name in the past 20 years. But guys like Sam Fuller and King Vidor were making independent films long before anyone knew what an indie movie was. It really doesn’t have to do with budget, style, cast, etc. It’s simply making a film that is wholly you a filmmaker and is either not playing by any rules or playing the rules that you’ve set up yourself without a concern for anything but the story and the film. Independent film has become popularly seen as a certain thing now which really isn’t in line with. If a film has certain actors, is a small story and is quirky yet seemingly serious enough, a film is classified independent. It’s become almost a genre in of itself.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
To continue to experiment and do things that you would normally not do.
I think film school was great for me to play around because at the end of the day, if it didn’t work, it didn’t really matter. And if it did, you have one more tool to work with and that you felt comfortable with.
I think the only way to find something original and to find your voice is to just continue to experiment and play.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
“Afterschool” playing at the Ziegfeld for the New York Film Festival. I had come to accept that the only way I’d ever have a film there was if I was directing “Harry Potter 10” or “High School Musical 5.”