This time last year, “Martha Marcy May Marlene” was the toast of Sundance, an impossibly tense drama that, even by the end of 2011, still stood tall as one of the year’s best films. Last January, “Afterschool” helmer Antonio Campos was in Park City in his capacity as a producer (he’s one third of Borderline Films along with ‘Martha Marcy’ director Sean Durkin and Josh Mond), but twelve months later, he’s back as director, with another intense character study, “Simon Killer.”
This time, ‘Martha Marcy’ co-star Brady Corbet (also featured in “Melancholia” and Michael Haneke‘s “Funny Games“) takes the lead role, as a college grad reeling from a breakup, who heads to Paris and falls into a relationship with a prostitute, played by “35 Shots Of Rum” star Mati Diop, only for a dark secret to gradually come to the surface. The film has been one of the most divisive of this year’s Sundance (with our review leaning mostly toward positive), but whatever you think about it, there’s an awful lot to talk about, and we were lucky enough to discuss the film with Campos, Corbet and Diop earlier in the week. Read on for insights into the creation of the character, how the cast handled the explicit sex scenes, and the filmmakers’ long chase of LCD Soundsystem frontman James Murphy for music rights.
What’s it like for you coming back to Sundance?
ANTONIO: It’s a very interesting place to premiere the film. I don’t think there’s any other film like it, but I think that’s a good thing. The world of the film is so far from here. I hope it’s a satisfying journey. I mean it’s not a fun journey, maybe it is a fun journey, I don’t know. It’s dark, obviously. But it’s so far from here that I think it’s kind of exciting to see a movie that’s a universe away from here.
Did you see it as a continuation of “Afterschool,” or another character that you wanted to study?
ANTONIO: It was another character I wanted to study, but from the same stuff. They went to the same school maybe. Simon was in a different class.
Brady, what was it like for you playing an American in Paris, did you feel like an outsider?
BRADY: I feel really comfortable in Paris, but that’s because over the course of my life I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I have really close, close friends there, so I actually feel pretty at home. When I was younger, I had [some]
“stranger-in-a-strange-land’ experiences. I mean Antonio and I sort of had a similar story in common about being hassled by somebody outside of the subway, that ended up in the film.
When you read the script and you know that what we know about the character is going to be selectively revealed, how did you try to create a full performance, and at the same time not tip your hand too much.
ANTONIO: We started out with an outline and I came to Brady with a pretty good idea of the kind of story and the kind of character and the basic skeleton, and then Brady and I worked very closely in terms of how it would be, we really worked on the outline together and then I started writing from there. A lot of the time, once we knew a theme or a motif that was going to be part of the film, that we would always look for the places where it would naturally fit.
BRADY: We were trying to find him probably in the way that he’s trying to find himself.
ANTONIO: I think since we knew where he was going to go… especially in a scene like when you go to see Mati in the brothel, after what we think is the mugging, we shot that twice, and it’s like how much do you show here? There’s a moment in the original version where she walked away, the expression on her face changed and it was like…is this too much? Is it like “Okay now we’ve shown our hand.”
BRADY: Yeah it uncomplicated the character.
Mati, how do you make your character three dimensional, so that she’s vulnerable, but at the same time you feel like she doesn’t deserve what she has invited into her life? How do you not make this just another hooker with a heart of gold?
MATI: I think this has a lot to do with the writing. I didn’t come up with the character, the character was written by Antonio and Brady. I kind of discovered Victoria as we were shooting and I think I mostly met her at the end of the whole experience, because I met Antonio only ten days before shooting, so I had very little time to work on the background. The basis was there, but some doors were still open. It wasn’t improvisation at all, but we needed to figure out stuff.
What was your collective approach to handling the more sexually explicit things? Did you just have to give in to the character?
ANTONIO: we were very delicate about it. I was very delicate about how I presented things. I didn’t present everything right up front. One of the ways that it worked was because we were all very comfortable with each other, and we knew that everybody was very safe in each other’s hands. And specifically with Brady and Mati. It was discussed, even to the point that when we first discussed the sex with Mati, Brady and I would say, “okay here’s a position and Brady is going to be you and I’m going to be Simon and this is what it’s going to look like.” It was kind of silly but it was good to be silly in a moment when you’re talking about something like that.
BRADY: I feel that we had someone looking over us or something, because if we had not, if it had been anybody other then Mati, the film very well could have been fucked. Because what I wanted to achieve, with the sex scenes in particular, was an incredibly realistic, incredibly frank depiction of sexuality. And we were lucky enough to come across another actor that had the same intention. And I think that this is the first time I ever experienced that, because normally whenever I had sex scenes in films, it’s natural that people are uncomfortable and are just more focused on covering up their nipple in a certain way. And then what’s funny is when people are trying to cover up, then the scene becomes about the nudity, it becomes about the sex. But if you have two people who look quite comfortable you don’t consider it at all.
Did you feel like you could relate to the early ennui that he’s going through, that initially draws the audience in?
BRADY: I always want to be careful about talking about how I relate to the character, because obviously I’m nothing like this in my life whatsoever. But I was going through a really traumatic breakup at the time, and Antonio had also just gone through a breakup that was tough. Even the emails were something that Antonio and I were talking about, the things that we had said to our ex-girlfriends, and what they had said to us.
ANTONIO: There was a guy who went out with a girl, and he started leaving these crazy voicemails over the course of the month, and one of Brady’s friends recorded all of the voicemails, and had a whole string of them put together. It’s like him using different pet names. I always think, you’re making a dark film but the launching point will be familiar. We all know what this feels like, being a visitor in a foreign country, so those things are things that we can latch onto. And the other things are things we’re sort of saying, “Okay, but what if this character felt this way, or he did this, or he was just slightly off in this way?” You can start off from a familiar place and then start visiting unexplored territory in your own mind.
How did you cultivate the soundtrack? I think it’s pretty great. It creates a certain mood of the mentality.
ANTONIO: Yeah there was very much an awesome process of playing the music for one another. Then there were certain songs when we got into post that we were very married to, and those were the ones we focused on getting. Like LCD Soundsystem (whose song “Dance Yrself Clean” features significantly in the film), we had to get LCD, which took a year.
BRADY: To get that song was super hard. It’s funny because we thought LCD, they’re our neighbors. These Brooklyn guys and then it ended up being like trying to get Madonna.
ANTONIO: We met him in December, three weeks before the festival.
BRADY: Not because James Murphy or their team were being divas about it at all. It’s because he really protects his work, and he does not license that song in particular to anybody, is what we were told. And so the first phone call was just “nope.” And it wasn’t until just about a month ago that Antonio and Josh, our producer, were in the same room with him, and Josh made that happen, and we finally went up and pleaded our case.
MATI: Has he seen the movie?
ANTONIO: He’s seen the clips and he liked it. Then when he heard the rest of the soundtrack, specifically that Spectral Display was in it, and that song in particular, he liked that. We had a limited budget on music so there was a bit of a balancing act. It was like “These are the songs that really matter, and then what songs do we only have for 15 seconds that we need to find other options for.” And then the music for the closing shots. That was a process of just endless listening. I listened to probably 1,000 songs in the course of a month or two, and all I was looking for was ten seconds. I just want ten seconds of good. Actually if you listen to the soundtrack all of the way through it would be a fun listen. There’s a lot of good stuff in there. There were a few temp tracks we had in there, but I think we found good options for them.
BRADY: I was also going to talk about the score. Because I think the score is really amazing. It’s kind of interesting because our composer, Saunder [Jurriaans], we didn’t conceive the film to have any score. We were thinking pop songs or just living in these living rooms or this bar. Then our composer who did “Martha Marcy May Marlene” really insisted. And what he did was so undeniable. And Antonio went in there, and really started working with him, because he had these great ideas of deconstructing some of the rhythms of pop songs and just, just getting them to their percussive essence. And the piece that plays over the end credits, it walks this amazing line of combining the score and turning it into something of a song.
ANTONIO: The whole idea was let’s take the melody out and keep the rhythm and that’s what we did. We also felt that the music is so poppy and produced, this needs to sound almost primal in a way, and stripped down raw. The end credits, that piece is a combination of the elements, a lot of elements from the songs that are in the film. Not directly but sort of the idea of them. The vocals and things like that.
BRADY: And the last thing to note about the quality of the score was that Saunder was smart enough to, when he was recording the percussion, there’s no stock beats, there’s nothing that was just in the data bank. Every single thing, the hand claps are hand claps. It has this much more organic sound that was very important for us to have, even before we knew it was important for us to have.
What are each of you doing next?
MATI: I’m a director too, so I direct my next short film this winter and I’m writing my first feature.
ANTONIO: You mentioned your next short is in Rotterdam and your last short was in Venice.
BRADY: She’s not doing so bad is she?
ANTONIO: Didn’t you win the Rotterdam prize for your first short?
MATI: A few years ago, for “Atlantiques.” There’s a film that’s going to come out I acted in this summer. It’s for TV but it’s a very interesting period film.
BRADY: I don’t know what I’m doing next, because I spent [my time] not even reading bad scripts as much as just looking and staring… going “I don’t want to read this piece of shit.” It’s very difficult because the previous year I got spoiled. I worked with Lars Von Trier, Sean Durkin on ‘Martha,’ and then Antonio back to back, and so it was kind of a hard thing for me to follow up. I never work just to work. I’ve been acting my whole life, since I was a child, and I don’t derive that much pleasure from seeing myself on screen anymore. It was exciting when I was a kid, but now I only care about the movie. I have to find somebody that I actually want to serve. Hopefully this year I’m going to spend some time working on something to direct as well, because Antonio and I really met the year that I had my short film here. I remember we had only known each other for a few days, but when my short film won a prize here, Antonio was the first person I called. I think that says something about the nature of our friendship. It’s something automatic and easy and instantaneous.
ANTONIO: The script for “Mama” [a coming-of-age tale set in New York] exists, but I don’t know, there’s one thing that may happen, but we’ll see. The other thing I’m actively thinking about something else right now; a different kind of character, a different kind of man to explore, it will be a complete trilogy of complicated men, but I’m thinking of something.
As you mentioned before the premiere your mother wants to see you make comedies, and you tend to take on a lot of dramatically intense roles.
ANTONIO: We’ll do a romantic comedy for you two! It will just be you two falling in love and nothing bad happens. “Simon Lover,” “Simon Kisser.”
Do you feel more drawn to these kinds of characters and studies or is it just a matter of what the project’s about?
BRADY: I don’t look for those kinds of characters at all, but I am completely fascinated by them. Antonio and I both are extremely interested in true crime.
ANTONIO: It’s interesting because I think dark characters are fun to explore in films. And the reality is we want to make these movies. We’re having fun making them. Some scenes are fucking hard and uncomfortable, but most of the time between we’re having a really good time making them. It’s interesting exploring scary characters, they’re so far away from you, but they’re still human. Trying to find monsters among us in that kind of way, but people that are seemingly normal. We’re all kind of drawn to that kind of character.
“Simon Killer” is still seeking U.S. distribution. — Interview conducted by William Goss