Antonio Campos, Afterschool
To call Antonio Campos a precocious talent would be to understate his abilities. Amazingly, the 26-year-old writer director, a native of New York City, has already spent half of his young life making films. Campos directed his debut short, Puberty (1997), at the age of 13 as part of a New York Film Academy program, and over the course of his teens made numerous shorts – both fiction and documentary – including First Kiss (2001), Pandora (2002) and Who’s Your Daddy? (2004). At 21, he had his short film Buy It Now (2005) play at the Cannes Film Festival Cinefondation (where it won the top prize), and in the process established a longstanding relationship with the festival. He returned to the Croisette two years later with another short, The Last 15, and also in 2007 was selected to take part in the festival’s Residence Program. Along with Josh Mond and Sean Durkin, two former classmates from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts, Campos set up the production company Borderline Films, for whom he has done such work as the pop promo for the Shins’ song “Sleeping Lessons.”
Afterschool, which premiered at Cannes in 2008, is Antonio Campos’ first feature. It tells the story of Rob (Ezra Miller), an introverted teenager at a prep school in upstate New York who witnesses the tragic death of two female classmates one day in a hallway at school. A frequent watcher of internet videos, Rob is a member of the school’s A.V. club and is asked to create a video tribute to the deceased girls, however his unconventional approach to the project causes problems. Afterschool is a dark and damning examination of the YouTube generation, with Campos presenting a socially withdrawn protagonist who is more emotionally engaged by the funny, violent or sexual videos he watches online than by real life. The film has a cold, stark quality reminiscent of Michael Haneke’s work and is remarkably assured, both stylistically and in its tackling of the themes of voyeurism and violence in a post-Columbine world. Indeed Afterschool is so accomplished and powerful a piece of filmmaking that it stands out not only among recent debut features, but also among all American films of the past few years.
Filmmaker spoke to Campos about the personal experiences that fueled the making of Afterschool, secretly recording people’s conversations to plunder for material, and his childhood wish to be a ghostbuster.
Filmmaker: When did you first get the idea for Afterschool?
Campos: About eight years ago when I started high school. The first week of high school, 9/11 happened and that day my best friend’s father died in the towers. It was just a surreal time in general for anybody who lived in New York, but being connected to it in that way had an effect on me. Then at the end of that year an ex-girlfriend and a good friend of mine died in a freak accident traveling in Europe. In both of those cases, there were no bodies; I was very distant from it, but at the same time it had a very profound effect on me. That summer of 2002, the idea came that there was this boy who witnesses two girls die of a drug overdose. Originally, he happened to be in the bathroom with these two girls who’d never really spoken to, who he’d just seen in the hallways, but now he was witnessing them dying. Then over the years, I did a lot of other things, and my perspective changed on it. When I was 23, I got into the Residence, and that’s when it all kind of came together. I had applied once before and got rejected. Bruno Dumont was on the jury, and that was horrible. I didn’t even know who he was at the time, I just knew he was the scariest French person I’d seen in my life. And then I came home and saw his films, and now he’s one of my favorite filmmakers. I went after that and rewrote the treatment, resubmitted the treatment and got in.
Filmmaker: After 9/11, was filmmaking the way that you were consciously trying to process these events?
Campos: I always wanted to be a filmmaker, I always loved movies. Early on, around the age of 10 or 11, I knew I wanted to make movies. I didn’t really know what that entailed, but I just wanted to make them. Then at 13, I saw A Clockwork Orange, and that really made me realize what a director did. I don’t know why, but it. That year, I went to the New York Film Academy and I made my first short film at the Cinema Village. At that time, I’d just started at a prep school, Dwight. It was smaller [than my old school], I didn’t have a set of friends and I was ostracized because I was the new kid, so all these things were happening and I really didn’t have anything else. I became really obsessive about school work, but then I was always writing down ideas of things that I wanted to make. Essentially, I was just writing down the things that were happening to me, but writing them as though they were happening to a character in a film. In that way, it helped me deal with it, and everything that I was dealing with became fodder for film. That was the way that I was processing things.
Filmmaker: Is that now an instinctive process?
Campos: It’s become like everything is preproduction for something. I also got in the habit of recording a lot of conversations. From an early age, I was recording lots of family fights and discussions, and whenever my friends came over I recorded hanging out with them. I was always trying to document as much as possible without anybody knowing that I was documenting. I would record a lot in school. I had a tape recorder in my bag and a microphone stuffed in the edge of the bag so no one would notice it. I tried to record as much as possible, then I would listen to it. There’s still a bunch of tapes that are sitting around that I haven’t listened to in a long time. When I went to France, I brought them all with me in case I needed to listen to them.
Filmmaker: Hearing that stuff about your prep school, it’s tempting to conclude that there’s a lot of you in the character of Rob in Afterschool.
Campos: The first year at my new school was miserable. I was made fun of, I didn’t have any real friends and the friends I did have were the ones that had made fun of me before – it was a strange relationship. But eventually I adapted to the school and I made friends, and by the time high school came around I had been there for a while, so it was slightly different. For me, the character of Rob is a concentration of a lot of my insecurities and my confusion, and in terms of experience there are definitely pieces from my own teenage years. There’s also things from other people’s experiences that I’ve taken, but he’s essentially a very focused, concentrated amount of a certain aspect of me.
Filmmaker: Were those insecurities and confusions ones you had during your teenage years, or more recent?
Campos: Those things always stay with you. I’m always dealing with that transition I made when I was 11, going to this new school. Somehow I’ve always been upset about it, but at the same time it’s the thing that drove me to make movies, so I can’t be too angry about it. Those insecurities are always with you in a way, I think, and they just get processed differently or you’re able to be more objective about them. High school is a very strange time because it seems like the end of the world, but when you get to the real world you can deal with these things and move on. I think those things are always with me, it’s just that I’ve grown up and I can deal with them differently. Or if I’m not exactly feeling those things, I can intellectually look at them and understand them and go back to them when I need to.
Filmmaker: Do you still have an outsider’s perspective?
Campos: I guess I’ve always felt more comfortable outside than I did inside. I always felt comfortable being the one just observing. I guess that’s why I make movies, because I can be behind the camera. When I’m making a movie about something, I can completely disconnect from it. And, for me, confronting things in films has always been the most therapeutic thing to do, because it forces you not to be emotionally involved necessarily. I guess from my first film, Puberty, which I made when I was 13 and going through puberty, everything has been dealing with something that I’m experiencing or have experienced, or feelings that I’ve had. It’s finally getting them out. It’s also the best way for me to have dialogue with people. There are some things that I couldn’t say to my family or friends, but in movies I can say it all, and don’t have to say anything.
Filmmaker: You mentioned getting emotionally detached in order to make films, and this film itself is about emotionally detached viewers.
Campos: For me, Robert wasn’t a character who didn’t feel emotion, it was that he was filled with so many emotions he didn’t know how to deal with them. Somehow watching these clips fulfilled that experience, but was from a safe distance. I think that this generation more than any other has been overexposed to images, and to get a rise out of them you need to get more disgusting, funnier – you’re always waiting, and there’s this momentary excitement about it. Robert’s an extreme case of someone who I think most teenagers can find some sort of connection to.
Filmmaker: Afterschool seems to also be about both the voyeurism of cinema and the voyeurism of modern life.
Campos: I think so. One of the things that fascinated me about everything on YouTube was that it was just a lot of videos of people filming themselves or filming their friends. There was this obsession with just watching ourselves and then watching it back. How many times do we take a picture and then right there look at the picture as though it’s happened a week ago or a year ago: “Whoa, that was amazing!” There’s this constant desire to capture and to own, to distribute and to share. The film for me is about this obsession with watching, and it was just as much about the obsession of watching at my end as it was about watching at the boys’ end.
Filmmaker: When people talk about the film, they mention Gus Van Sant and Michael Haneke a lot as comparisons. Were those two filmmakers a major influence on Afterschool?
Campos: Gus Van Sant was someone I knew the film would be compared to. He made a high school film, but my goal wasn’t to make a Gus Van Sant high school film. I think a lot of the things that Gus Van Sant took from radical European cinema are the things that influenced and inspired me. We both watched Jeanne Dielman a couple of times. Michael Haneke has had a much more profound effect on me as a filmmaker. When I saw Code Unknown, it was like watching A Clockwork Orange: it was something that I’d never seen before, but a language that I could understand somehow and that I wanted to learn. Haneke was using video way before other people started looking at video and media that. I always think that Sex, Lies and Videotape is provocative, but Benny’s Video is profound. The restraint and the amount of tension he’s able to raise with nothing. And also the performances: Haneke is an actor’s director. Before that, Bergman and Fassbinder and Kubrick were the others. Kubrick before anybody else.
Filmmaker: Where do you feel you are right now as a filmmaker?
Campos: The only way you can figure yourself out as filmmaker is to keep making films. At this moment, I’ve been making films for 13 years. I’ve been actively making films throughout my teenage years; not all of them were good, probably most of them sucked. I constantly consume as many movies as I can, constantly try to do as many things as I can to try and figure out who I am and what I do like and don’t like. And the only way to do that when you’re not making movies is by watching movies. There’s so many things that you can learn as a filmmaker from watching films, and also watching a filmmaker’s back catalogue. Watch everything by Fassbinder: see where he started, see where he went, and then try and work out why all of sudden he went from making Love is Colder Than Death to Ali: Fear Eats the Soul. And then go back and watch Douglas Sirk movies. You watch Haneke and you’ve never seen anything like that before, but then you watch L’Argent by Bresson, and you go “Oh, fuck!” You watch something by Dumont, and then you watch Mouchette. And The White Ribbon seems like Haneke’s tribute to Bergman, in a way. It’s all connected.
Filmmaker: What was the first film you ever saw?
Campos: The most vivid early movie memories were in my room with VHS literally watching Ghostbusters and Ghostbusters II three times in a row back-to-back. My mom would be like, “What the hell are you doing? Get out of your room!” “No, it’s amazing – I want to be a Ghostbuster!” The next big memory was going to see The Crying Game when I was 10 years old. My father had taken my to see Johnny Stecchino the week before, and I’d loved it, thought it was hilarious. So he said, “So this is it, enough of this Hollywood crap, we’re only going to see foreign and independent movies now.” And when [the twist was revealed], I got really excited because I had figured it. I’d said, “There’s something wrong with this woman – she is not a woman.”
Filmmaker: Should a director always take risks?
Campos: Yeah, I think so. Seriously, what’s the point of making a movie if you don’t take risks? There are those calculated risks where you think, “This could blow up in my face, but this could also be brilliant.”
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?
Campos: A ghostbuster. Or an archaeologist, because of Indiana Jones. But then someone said, “Archaeology isn’t that fun, it’s not really like that.” So then I wanted to be a ghostbuster, but that didn’t really exist. And then I wanted to be a filmmaker.