Oct 20, 2008

Interview: Antonio Campos, Afterschool

Today the IFP announced the nominees for its yearly Gotham Awards. I've had the great privilege of sitting on the jury for one of the prizes, "The Best Film Not Playing at a Theater Near You" for the past two years. I can say unequivocally that all five films are terrific, proof once again of the resiliency and creative spirit of America's independent filmmakers, but also proof that some, if not most, of our best, homegrown cinema is not reaching nearly enough eyes. One of those five films is Antonio Campos' startling Afterschool, the tale of a young man at an elite prep school who witnesses many terrible things, some simulated, some not, and who like many of his generation, is coming of age in a time when the internet, that great level playing field of high culture and smut, the useful and the disposable, is shaping the sexual and moral identity of young people in radically new ways. I caught up with the mid twentysomething Campos to discuss his film, the upbringing which informed it, the effect the internet is having on all of us, and the cinematic influences which have shaped his filmmaking oeuvre.

CEC: Tell me alittle bit about how your life experiences have informed Afterschool? You attended the Dwight School in Manhattan - How much can we read into the school depicted in your film as a surrogate for DS? What is the lasting impression of young, wealthy teenagers that Afterschool is supposed to leave you with?

AC: I did go to The Dwight School. It was honestly a positive experience in a lot of ways; there were some wonderful teachers who gave me a lot. But it was also an experience that left my friends and I a bit cynical about life. There were groups of kids who were rich, heirs to fortunes, and then there were those from middle class families whose families were working hard to pay for their child to go to this school, and there were those who were on scholarship, either academic or athletic. And what you saw very often was that there was a favoritism towards those kids with a lot of money, whose families did give a lot back to the school. It was something that didn't only bother the students, but annoyed many of the faculty there also. As for the lasting impression, I'll leave that up to the viewer.

CEC: Do you feel that as online media, especially in the form of short, disposable, uncontextualized video clips, is shaping the identities of young people, especially when it comes to their sexual development? Can the concept of dignity and privacy still be relevant in such an world?

AC: Of course, dignity and privacy are relevant and what I think what most people desire, but the fact is that there is a camera on every phone and on every computer now. The fact is that there will most likely be a camera there to capture you at your most vulnerable moment. What's interesting though is that a lot of what is released on the internet is material that people have filmed of themselves that they want to share with the world, for better or worse. We're making a choice to compromise that privacy. I think the problem I have with certain kinds of short form video is that it offers real moments, whether they be violent or sexual, sweet or funny, as entertainment and images that can just be consumed in passing. It works to desensitize viewers.

CEC: How did you go about financing the film, especially with no stars in such a cast contingent film financing environment?

ac: It was difficult, but luckily, my producers are very good and managed to take the limited budget that we did have (all private) and stretch it as much as possible. And luckily, our executive producers believed in the film and believed in us and gave us complete freedom, which is pretty rare I think. In addition, they spent a lot of time going to and pleading with vendors who ultimately were very generous and made the idea of shooting 35mm anamorphic on such a limited budget a reality.

CEC: Several critics have discussed the similarities between your aesthetic preoccupations and those of Michael Haneke and late period Gus Van Sant. Do you consider those men influences? I was especially reminded of Benny's Video and Elephant while watching your film.

AC: I don't hide Haneke's influence on me as a filmmaker. From the moment I saw Code Unknown, I felt a connection to his work and his way of filmmaking. He was exploring video and its role in our lives before anyone else. You could argue Soderbergh came before him but I think that Soderbergh was being provocative with Sex, Lies & Videotape. There is something profound in Benny's Video. Besides being interested in the way he uses video within the context of the narrative, I think I was particularly affected by his restraint and how much tension he was able to create by holding back. But the fact is there have been two major experiences where a director or directors have completely changed my perception of cinema. The first was when I was thirteen and I saw A Clockwork Orange for the first time. I had never seen anything like it, and it was the first time I felt like I understood what a director did, how much he had to know and to control in order to make something as powerful as that film. I quickly became obsessed with Kubrick and studied him and his films for the next few years, still am. Then when I was 19 or 20, there were 3 retrospectives going on almost simultaneously in New York- Bergman at Film Forum and Ozu and Fassbinder at BAM. It was liberating to see their films, to see how they dealt with their actors, how they could hold on a face or a scene and allow their actors to exist on screen, particularly Bergman who I hadn't know that well at that point. With Fassbinder, I felt this sense of anything can happen, you can push your performers to the limit and as long as they are believing what they're doing, it works. My entire perception of what I wanted to explore in cinema changed. Then discovering Haneke, Dumont, Wiseman, Chantal Ackerman and others over the next few years was a continuation of that initial transformation. I think Van Sant was moved by the same European cinema I was, and it has had a similar effect on us as filmmakers. I'm a huge fan of his recent films, though i haven't seen Paranoid Park. But to see an American filmmaker push the boundaries in that way was inspiring. I was aware that there was going to be an immediate comparison to Elephant even before anyone even saw the film, and there was part of me that was conscious of avoiding choices that would be similar to his, at least visually. Elephant was made and there was no need to remake it. I would really love to get Afterschool to Gus Van Sant somehow to hear what he thinks.

CEC: Does emotionally involvement concern you as a filmmaker? Some might find your film cold, detached, without empathy for the milieu or psychological struggles of your characters, much like a Haneke or a Bela Tarr.

AC: I think that it all depends on the viewer. I think emotional involvement is something that I would prefer you felt or didn't, not something that I would force onto you. There are people that walk out of Afterschool crying and there are those that walk out dry-eyed but affected in some way and then there are those that hate it. I feel like that reaction is something that comes more from a person's connection to the ideas or story of the film, and less from me forcing an emotion onto them. I care very much about my characters, but I am more interested in how you feel about them as an audience without me telling you how to feel.

CEC: Are you seeking the career of a stylist - someone whose films reflect the same aesthetic preoccupations over and over, regardless of subject matter - or do you see yourself as someone who may develop into more of a craftsman, approaching the aesthetic of each f ilm on its own terms, principally informed by the subject matter?

AC: My experience thus far has been that each film is its own being. And I come into each one learning something from the previous. I want everything I do to be personal in some way, but I have no particular visual restrictions that I have to abide by. There are things that I like and things I don't like, and if you watch the shorts and then Afterschool in chronological order I think you'd see a growth, a continued exploration of similar themes and visual choices. But I don't think it's realistic or the best idea to make a prediction about something like what my future will look like. I can't think about it too much.

CEC: What has the experience of screening the film in your hometown of New York at the NYFF been like?

AC: It's been great. It's been great to have friends and family actually get to see the film on a big screen, especially at the Ziegfeld as part of something as prestigious as NYFF. It's also helped get people's attention here, which was harder to get at Cannes where the US media and buyers were more interested in the bigger films and stars.

CEC: What are the current distribution prospects for the film? Does DIY distribution over the internet, given the subject matter of the film, interest you? Or does the cinematic ambition and widescreen aesthetic of the piece make that less appealing? Many seem to think its a natural fit for IFC.

AC: We're still working on distribution, and it seems close. Distribution on the internet, specifically with Afterschool, doesn't interest me much because we made the film to be viewed in a theatre. It's meant to be a cinematic experience. Obviously, we knew it would get screened on people's televisions and computer screens and would eventually be available for download, but the reason for making the film the way we did was to go against the kind of media we consume on the internet, which tends to be short and sweet and play towards a shorter attention span. The film offers those kind of videos early on to bring you into the world the boy is consuming and to also create a stark contrast between the "real" world as depicted in film and the world depicted in these viral videos in the beginning which offers only isolated, uncontextualized as you put it, pieces of reality.

CEC: What's next for you?

AC: We're planning to produce my producing partner's first feature script that he'll direct sometime in the spring, and I'm hoping to finish writing my next script sometime before the end of the year, with the goal of shooting it by the end of next year. It'll be about a boy and his mother living in New York, over a period of about 30 years.