Antonio Campos Interviewed

By Mark Stafford

afterschool-antonio-campbell.jpg Afterschool, 2008

A scabrous, troubling look at life in a preppy New York boarding school. Robert (Ezra Miller) an uncool and unliked student accidentally captures a fatal tragedy whilst shooting an afterschool video project. The schools panic-driven reaction is to turn the dead students into angels via memorial events, including a memorial video tasked, by way of half-arsed therapy, to Robert, whilst simultaneously cracking down on the wayward pupils that the school would prefer did not exist, for the sake of appearances. It’s a queasy study in hypocrisy, all the characters have an uncomfortable relationship with the truth, and Robert himself just doesn’t seem capable of thinking in the right way at all. Afterschool is a smart piece of work, a mumblecore/documentary surface covering a tight, sly script and a very deliberate, unnerving visual style.

Mark Stafford: The print that played at the London Film Festival was a good twenty minutes longer than the current release. What did you change?

Antonio Campos: A lot of the stuff that got cut was the credits. They were over 5 minutes long originally so we cut to about two and a half minutes. The majority of stuff that got cut wasn’t entire scenes. It was more heads and tails of scenes. And it was something that I felt like doing after Cannes mainly because I’d never seen the film with an audience until Cannes and I just wanted to tighten it up more. The only scene that did get cut out in its entirety was a scene were the three boys were sitting in their bedroom after the death talking about where they were when they heard. Which was a scene that in retrospect I miss but it I never felt it was the way I felt I wanted it to be, the idea was there but it wasn’t exactly what I wanted.

MS: What intrigues me about the film is that on the surface it appears to be low key, observational and documentary-like but underneath it’s very controlled and tightly structured. How much of the film was on the page before you started?

AC: Everything. Everything.

MS: I was going to ask you: who would win in a fight between Robert Altman and Stanley Kubrick?

AC: (Laughs.) That’s an interesting question because I like both of those guys so much. Kubrick was the man who made me want to be a film-maker, without even thinking about it there’s such a strong impact of his stuff upon me, at the same time I think I have a slightly looser approach to performance than he had which is probably more in line with Altman’s, but not as loose as Altman. I mean, you can tell an Altman performance versus another, there’s this quirky looseness to everything where anything goes. The other really important film-maker was Wiseman ( Campos has pointedly mentioned Fred Wiseman as an influence in the publicity notes, and singles out his documentary High School as a key reference point for Afterschool.) He was a hard filmmaker to actually see his stuff. It’s so good to see his stuff on the big screen if you can because he shoots everything on film and its rare to see a documentarian who still shoots on film. And he still manages to get some of the most intimate moments wherever he is. You can actually go to his website and he sells it now.

MS: Afterschool was all shot in long takes with professional actors. Everyone is so naturalistic that I was barely aware of “performances” at all. There are no non-actors?

AC: You know in the memorial video, the kids that talk? Those are all local kids that were on set everyday as extras.

MS: How many takes did you allow yourself?

AC: We never really went more than eleven takes. But in between every take we would do another rehearsal. I mean we didn’t have the luxury of Stanley Kubrick, I couldn’t do one hundred takes if I wanted to. We really had to be conscious of how much film I was burning and the limit where we got to that point where we had to stop or, y’know , “these next few ones are going to have to be it.” It would really be like, “lets sit down, walk this through and talk this out and really figure out exactly what we want this scene to be.” And then shoot it…

afterschool-antonio-campbell-2.jpgAfterschool, 2008

MS: So there wasn’t any improvisation per se, it was always something you’d thought through?

AC: There’s always a certain modicum of improvisation, more so in the blocking than in the dialogue. A character all of a sudden walking this way as opposed to that way, that was better for me in terms of how organic the scene felt than if they just went on a tangent about things. The scene that was most improvisational was the guidance counsellor scenes, those scenes we definitely tried to make it looser, but I kept coming back to the original scripted version. The one with the two close-ups back and forth, the second time we’re with them? That scene, for part of it I handed each actor cue cards as it was being filmed, when Ezra was being filmed I would write down notes for Gary (Wilmes), who plays the counsellor, hand them over to Gary and then when Gary was being filmed I’d hand some notes over to Ezra.

MS: There are different threads in the film. There’s the whole strand about Robert, his mental state and where he’s actually coming from, which is very dark and ambiguous. Another strand, the reaction of the school establishment seems to be heading more towards broad satire, especially the scenes with the school head. A lot of high school films are taken as a microcosm of America, is there any of that intention in Afterschool?

AC: You could make a read of the film like that for sure. You can read the film anyway you want to read it, and it can exist as a few different things. But with the adult characters, they may seem broader just because they are so much more vocal, certain ideas about the film are vocalised by the adults, they’re always trying to process exactly what’s going on, they have to be the voice of the school, and when they’re voicing what’s going on it becomes somewhat distorted.

MS: They have to stick to the schools version of events even when it’s bullshit and plainly self-contradictory. No-one seems especially interested in the truth apart from Robert, though probably for unhealthy reasons. The two memorial videos are the films within the film. The schools version is one of the most appallingly hilarious things in recent cinema. I’m assuming Robert’s video was the hardest part of the film to get right, it’s the closest we get to knowing him. Was it hard to get the tone right, or did it come easy?

AC: No it wasn’t easy, nothing ever comes easy. The memorial videos were very challenging to make. All the video stuff was challenging in a sense because it might be looking too good. My DP and I were always arguing about whether or not this was too good for high school students, and we were always trying to make it look shittier because the shittier it looked the more real it looked. When we got to the day before the memorial video had got to be shown… we had scheduled the film so that the memorial video screening was toward the end so that all the video elements existed. And I just had to go back to when I was a teenager making high school movies in high school and didn’t know exactly how things should cut together, there’s a certain awkward lingering on things for an awkward amount of time while also at the same time feeling that things had to fit into some kind of structure. That’s why at the beginning of the memorial video it says “memorial video” because you had to have a title for your video, and that would be what this is. It was not an easy video to put together, there were an awful lot of last minute decisions. That video did get trimmed quite a bit in this last cut, but again, to make it more focussed. I also made it in a strange state of mind between nine p.m. and five a.m. before the day of shooting so I didn’t sleep, I only slept for about 30 minutes when I called my assistant director in to look at it and start making notes about it. So he came in and I laid down with one eye open saying “no, I like that, don’t touch that… nah, the second one” and so on. And there was another video which never made it to either cut of the film which was the school promotional video. We have that, it still exists.

MS: DVD extra?

AC: Yeah it’s like, pure cheese. We got the best stock pieces of music, it has all the teachers talking. It really helped the actors, I think. Every single one of them had to do an interview for the promotional video, or for the memorial video and all those little things that don’t have to actually go into the project are good. All the stuff you shoot but you don’t use you can look at in retrospect and think, “oh, man, we could have saved a day, or a few thousand dollars by not shooting that,” but at the end of the day there’s a value to the more time you can give actors in that space.

MS: Is your own work?

AC: Nastycumholes (a disturbing internet porn site visited by Robert at the beginning of the film) was a joint effort between my art director Bill, Ezra and myself.. We sat around a laptop, I’d given Bill a few references to start creating the page, the stars and the way it should block out with the penetration shots, and then we sat around and tried to come up with names for porn sites. But we couldn’t come up with something that didn’t already exist, no matter how filthy we got, and then Ezra starts throwing out some really horrible things, and he said “nasty cum orifices”. We said “orifices is a bit too…. it’s got to be simpler,” so I said “holes”. That seemed like a porn site that should exist, but it didn’t, so we immediately bought it and used it. That was one of the bigger art challenges: to come up with a porn site that doesn’t exist because every porn site is already out there.

MS: Even stuff that you wouldn’t think is filthy now is. How much is Afterschool a heartfelt plea for censorship in our time?

AC: (Laughs.) Well ever since I was thirteen with my very first film I’ve been censored. I made a film called Puberty, about a boy going through puberty, about ten minutes long. First thing that happens is that he goes to a news stand, with magazines and he goes to the porn section looking at the covers, and one of them is a magazine with two women naked embracing each other. The first film festival I showed a film at was my high school film festival. And they didn’t mind the other covers but they didn’t like that one because it implied a gay relationship. The two naked women embracing troubled them so they cut that out. And after that all of my films weren’t allowed to be shown in my high school while I was there, there was always something, no matter how small that was troubling for them, whether someone said something about a blowjob or anything. There was always something. But I grew up in a household where nothing was censored and nothing was off-limits for the most part. My father’s Brazilian, and though we were in New York it felt like more of a Brazilian household than it did an American one. And so I never fully understood why things were censored. Never understood why things were cut and why kids when I was eleven couldn’t go and see films I could go and see. I never thought it would damage them to go see what I could. I was about eight or nine when I saw The Crying Game, it was confusing but I could still process it. I saw Pulp Fiction when I was eleven, and y’know, mom still covered my eyes during the gimp scene…But there’s a tendency to say that if you censor these things then the kids won’t turn out as fucked up. But the fact is that the things that get censored in movies are so absurd., because any kid can go on Google and type in any filthy word they want to type in, and whatever horrific image they want to look at, they’ll find it and no-one will stop them. I don’t see the point of censorship any more when everything else is immediately available via search engine. And part of the reason that these things have such an effect on people is because they seem so naughty and so censored. There’s more of an allure.

MS: You’ve already mentioned the visual style of Afterschool, halfway between amateur video and a very deliberate disaffected gaze. There are strange decisions, for instance there isn’t an exterior shot of the school until about forty minutes in. Whereas in Roberts memorial video it’s right there at the beginning. Was this all thought through beforehand, did it arise in editing?

AC: The exterior shot happening where it happened was in the script, but it was more thought through in the editing. In the script there was one in between thingy where you see Robert and Amy walking through a courtyard together. But it didn’t feel right. I shot things of people walking from one place to another, and the thing you learn in film, a thing I think I learned from Suzuki, you know Suzuki? Branded to Kill. Yeah, this idea, he said that there was no grammar in film. That essentially you can go from being in a hotel room in London to being in a restaurant in New York from one scene to the next and if the logic of the story makes it work then you don’t have to say “I left the room, I checked out, I got into a cab I got to the airport .I checked in at the airport. Got on a plane. Got a cab to my house, and walked up to a restaurant…” The way the brain processes information that’s all understood. So, going from one place to another was like, well. They’re here, they’re there. They’re making a video. If they’re here making a video together I don’t have to explain how they got here.

afterschool-antonio-campbell-3.jpgAfterschool, 2008

MS: I wish someone would explain this to the people who make British television drama, especially the two hour ITV crime shows, There seem to be endless shots of people walking up drive ways, closing car doors, putting down phones, getting out of cars, getting into cars…

AC: Yeah, you know this shit, it’s just filler in everything that you see. People don’t value film as much as I think they should. Because time is so precious and we only have x amount of it. Why not use every moment you can to do something that’s valuable as opposed to saying “ok, let’s do a montage of doors closing and throw that piece of music over it, that’ll kill, like two minutes.” Why not let another scene go on a little longer where you can let the performances just linger a little longer and get a more natural scene and nix all that other shit. I mean, eighties montages are great but they’re completely delusional and nothing happens like that. They are their own little beast. But I think that television for the most part, say, a show like CSI, just offers an abundance of shots that are just there to kill fucking time. Shots looking at phones, looking at things, cutting to “so, this is the answer,” now that you’ve gone through the montage.

MS: What are you working on now?

AC: My partners (Josh Mond and Sean Durkin) and I work in a little production company in New York. There are three of us and we’re all directors and producers. When one directs the other two produce and when one of us is writing something the other two are working on something else. (Borderline films. The idea of the company is that each one of us is helping the others sustain themselves and make the films they want to make so right now one of the guys who helped produce Afterschool for me, I’m working to produce his film that he’s writing and directing. And Ted Hope is going to be executive producer on that. Ted’s a successful producer of great films in the US (The Savages, Happiness, American Splendour) and hopefully we’ll make that next year, and I’m working on one original thing, trying to adapt a documentary into a feature. So those are the things I’m trying to do right now. Then in between trying to do some commercial work…

MS: You shot a Shins video?

AC: Yeah I did a Shins video, I’ve done a Citibank commercial. The last thing I did was for Bloomingdales, the store, a short film I did for them. As a company we’ve done a couple things for Citibank., for the Shins and a bunch of different bands. A whole lot of promo pieces and things. There’s a value to it. I mean if it’s not something that’s particularly challenging from a narrative sense, or structurally, at least it’s a chance to play with some new toys. Play with a new camera or use a digital colour correcting system. There’s always something new to be gained on somebody else’s dime. I sometimes try to do things in commercials that I won’t do in my own features both because I can and because it’s a bit of a break.

afterschool-antonio-campbell-4.jpgAfterschool, 2008

MS: You get more money to spend on them as well?

AC: Usually I don’t.

MS: The heyday of massive advertising budgets has gone?

AC: Advertising budgets for guys like David Fincher are still very nice, but budgets for the young ones, the upstarts? Those are pretty limited. The Citibank commercials? Those were decent budgets, but we weren’t getting the budgets the guy shooting the commercial in Norway is. It’s weird, a thirty second spot ends up costing you one tenth or one fifth of what your whole film cost. Y’know, holy shit.

MS: The advertising side of the industry went to hell about ten years back when flash animation came in, clients suddenly expected two or three people to produce for a few grand what dozens of people used to create for much much more. They still expected the full Disney look though. What they got was crap.

AC: That’s what we have to tell people, whenever we go to work with someone. We’ve been very lucky to make certain things on a limited budget, but that can only last for so long. It’s also something that you don’t want to do for too long because you start to go crazy. You don’t want to be pulling favours forever or people will stop doing favours for you after a certain point. And you have to explain this to people when they come to you and say “we like this commercial, can you make it look like this?” and you go ”yeah, but you do realise you’re giving us eight hundred thousand dollars less than that guy got to make that” So y’know, “we’re gonna do our best, but…” Sometimes it’s best if you’re going to make something cheaply to not try to make it look expensive.

MS: Your budget is your aesthetic?

AC: Yeah. Keep the story simple. Don’t do something that’ll require all that.

Thanks to Luciano and Maxim of Network Releasing for setting up the interview.

Mark Stafford is a cartoonist, film critic and broadcaster.