The filmmaking collective known as Borderline Films have been responsible for the
dark dramas “Martha Marcy May Marlene” and “Afterschool.” They’re back in
theaters this Friday with their most disturbing (and sure to be
divisive) project to date, “Simon Killer.”
Conceived of by
director Antonio Campos (“Afterschool”) and star Brady Corbet
(“Melancholia”), “Simon Killer” follows Simon (Corbet), an
American college grad who, on the heels of a rough break-up with his
high school sweetheart, decides to visit Paris. Once there, he quickly
falls for a young prostitute (stunning breakout Mati Diop, of “35 Shots Of Rum”). As they become more involved in each others lives, Simon’s true intentions are brought into question.
Indiewire sat down with Campos and Corbet in New York to discuss their extremely personal ties to the material, what their protagonist says about the male gender, and being misunderstood by many at Sundance, where the film world premiered last year.
The press release for “Simon” says that you both were primarily inspired by author Georges Simenon but I have to ask — did a bad breakup factor into the reason you made this film?
AC: Yeah, that was part of it.
BC: But he had just gone through a bad breakup. I was going through the worst breakup during the production.
AC: We were doing the camera tests the day that happened. It was bizarre, because we kept working and shooting and there was the camera test with Alexa. Brady was going through so much stuff, just sitting there quietly.
BC: It was painful to watch. We watched the camera test briefly to show the DP who I was working with on another movie some footage. I look fucking gutted. So we tried to make the character as relatable as possible because we knew the character could only be relatable to an extent, because at a certain point the character has nothing in common with either of our lives.
Which is what makes the film so disturbing. Simon’s kind of an empathetic guy for much of the movie.
BC: For some people, yes he is. He’s a pretty sad, pathetic young man. And then at some point obviously he’s less empathetic.
About both of your personal ties to the material: what was it like working through a breakup while collaborating on a film like this and how did your own personal experiences play into the making of it?
AC: It’s not exactly a direct thing. It’s not like Simon is a reflection of who we are, but he represents a certain aspect of male anxiety, depression, anger, confusion… this very specific part of us as men. It’s something that I think comes out after a breakup. He just goes further than most.
BC: We always knew there was something inherently wrong with this kid. It’s not just nurture, it’s nature too. But we at least wanted to start the character off from a place that was recognizable. It’s funny because, had the film been released last year, I don’t think I would have had the capacity to talk about my personal life in the way that I was still reeling from the situation of this traumatic experience. I lost someone who I was truly in love with and now I’m better. It’s actually hard for me to watch the movie at this point because it is a document of a tremendously emasculating and devastating period of my life.
Simon reveals himself misogynistic as the film progresses. Where did that stem from, this passion to explore that side of man?
BC: We were both very close to our mothers. I have a single mother and Antonio is very close with his mother. Even my first short film I directed four years ago was a film that exploring the male identity in a way. This is something that we are both interested in different aspects of. I think we both find the ease in which men will dismiss their ex-girlfriends as a whore, or the way that men speak about women (that we’ve been privy to for our entire lives) deeply disturbing. It’s something that to me is just as relevant as racism because it’s so a part of culture that no one seems that concerned about. Or they’re concerned with the wrong aspects of it.
AC: ASAP Rocky has a song (and it’s a great song) where the main chorus is “I love bad bitches, that’s my fucking problem. And yeah I like to fuck that’s my fucking problem. If finding somebody real is your fucking problem, bring your girls to the crib maybe we can solve them.” There is an aggression towards women embedded in our culture and as a child I was sort of worried about my mom — anything that would hurt her or any woman that I cared about as a kid. As I got older I recognized this sort of male aggression in myself and wanted to confront it in a way. I think that the film is much more sympathetic to the women in it than the men.
BC: Which people confuse only because the male character is the protagonist.
AC: It’s never glorifying Simon. It’s funny because the film isn’t misogynistic, it’s exploring a certain kind of misogyny. Just because he gets away with it in the end doesn’t mean its okay. We’re saying no, it’s not okay.” It’s funny how people can sort of misinterpret that.
BC: In general I’m not interested in making movies with a message, but I will say that when we first conceived this and first started talking about this, I was interested in how men would feel about themselves after they watch the film, because there are a lot of things this character does — the way he lies about himself to better position himself to a woman, the way that he can speak with such pomposity in certain points in the story. These are all things that hopefully along the rise men are reflecting on the very fine line that they have probably walked throughout their lives, because god knows I have.
I had a single mother who I loved very, very much, but I didn’t have a male figure in my life. And I remember when certain feelings of animosity that I would have with a girlfriend or ex-girlfriend, I wouldn’t know how to process them. I think its important to look at how to not process them and what to avoid. I don’t think the movie is a cautionary tale but I think culturally let’s take a look at our behavior for a minute and look at how quickly it can manifest itself into something really disturbing and horrible.
When I caught the film at Sundance there were quite a few walkouts when things took a turn for the dire. Did you find yourselves having to defend it at screenings?
AC: There were some screamers. It just sucks because people react to the film because of the way it made them feel instead of stopping and exploring why it made them feel the way it did. It’s very easy to see a film like this and just get angry, and I think its fine.
I don’t mind people voicing their anger because at least you can talk about that instead of someone storming out or just being like “I can’t believe I saw that” and getting all upset about that. Because I never react to a film like that. I react more if the filmmaker seems lazy or the filmmaking seems lazy. Or if things seem too easy with the way things play out. That’s what upsets me as opposed to someone challenging me and making me watch something I don’t want to see.
BC: And there are so many movies, and content not just movies, that are really wolves in sheep’s clothing. I think the funny thing about this is that it’s the opposite. In many ways the film’s themes are a sheep in wolves’ clothing. It’s a film that presents itself in a more ferocious way than it actually is. The film is not particularly violent, its no more violent than any film you’d see on television, significantly less even.
Just more sex.
AC: Not really though. You watch HBO, anything on HBO. The film is kind of reflective of what’s going on culturally and what’s accepted culturally, except there is an undercurrent of violence that comes along with this film that makes it slightly more difficult to watch. And there is no attempt to force the eroticism of the shot. It is what it is. And if you find something erotic you can be turned on by it, but the film presents sex in a very direct way. I think people like sex presented in a more flowery, romantic way. They want angles. Everybody wants angles. And sometimes we give them one angle that’s very direct and they say “oh, I want to see more. I want you to make this thing for me as opposed to bodies and bodies.” It’s just bodies having sex and that’s what it would look like, but people want angles.
Are you both inherently dark guys? You’ve both made careers out of hard-hitting thrillers/dramas.
BC: It’s a little bit of a stock answer so forgive me, but the truth is that my personal interest when I’m writing something tends to be an exploration to the darker side of humanity, whether it be a victim or a perpetrator, but the thing is that part of the reason we are probably not dark guys is we exorcise the stuff. I look at headlines sometimes that just make me cry. The only way for me to get through this life in a way is to acknowledge the things that frighten me and face the fears that I have. I think I’m quite the opposite, a really gentle person.
But that’s just on the creative side; on the acting side part of it’s just that it worked out that way. I just chose to work with some of the greatest directors alive (and they chose me as well). For me it was always about the filmmakers and they tend to be interested in exploring darker subject matter because it’s philosophically weightier, it’s meatier. It’s just more compelling, there’s more to explore there. The things that I feel good about in my life I don’t need to talk about very much. I enjoy those things every day.
So filmmaking as therapy in a way.
AC: Yes, filmmaking is absolutely therapy.