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Afterschool Director Antonio Campos on Absorbing Internet Criticism and the ‘Unbearable’ NYC Prep

There’s a reason why 26-year-old Antonio Campos’s debut feature, Afterschool, which opens at the Cinema Village today, has the remarkable stylistic assurance of a veteran filmmaker. Because New York native Campos is a veteran filmmaker — he’s been making films since the age of 13. Afterschool is a controversial and not-at-all standard look at how two grisly deaths affect an elite East Coast boarding school and, in particular, the film’s alienated, introverted young protagonist (Ezra Miller). Campos’s film has already tossed numerous critics into opposing corners. Luckily, the director is eager to talk about his film — indeed, he will be participating in numerous Q&As at the Cinema Village this week, answering questions after the film’s 7:20 p.m show pretty much every night except October 7. And if you come to a show and he’s not doing a Q&A or an intro, never fear: Inquire at the Cinema Village box office and Antonio Campos will meet you for coffee to talk about his film. (We are not making this up.) He met Vulture for coffee this week, as well, to talk about being a precocious young filmmaker, NYC Prep, and the harrowing experience of reading his own reviews.

So, what possessed you to become a filmmaker at age 13?
I had always loved movies, of course. Early on, I was really obsessed with movies like Ghostbusters and Indiana Jones. My mother would never hire a babysitter, and she’d take me to the movies no matter what it was. So I saw Pulp Fiction when I was something like 10 years old. She just covered my eyes during certain scenes. One summer I saw A Clockwork Orange, which made me realize what a director did — that there was this one person who was responsible for the way a film looked, the way it sounded. The next year, I saw an ad for the New York Film Academy. It wasn’t easy to get in — I had to lie about my age. Fortunately for me, I have Sicilian and Brazilian blood, and I had started shaving when I was like 9! So it wasn’t too hard convincing them I was older.

Did you attend a school like the one in Afterschool?
I didn’t go to a boarding school. I first went to the U.N. School over on the East Side. My sister had gone there from K-12. I had to leave after six years due to some confusion with the bill — I guess we hadn’t paid it on time or something. I ended up at Dwight. It was a weird experience being the new kid and not having many friends. It was the first time I was really aware of money — of what kids had it and what kids didn’t. I was from a middle-class family; all my friends for the most part had to commute uptown. My parents were working hard to pay this absurd tuition. And you saw this disparity between really rich kids and middle-class kids and working-class kids who were on full tuition. The school in Afterschool has a lot of that experience in it, of course. The only real difference is that it’s a boarding school, so it’s almost like you’re trapped. But the relationships between students and teachers, for example, isn’t that different from Dwight.

It’s interesting that Afterschool is coming out at a time when the East Coast prep-school scene has become a focus of television, with the success of Gossip Girl and NYC Prep.
Yeah, it is interesting. I’ve never watched Gossip Girl. I did watch two episodes of NYC Prep, and it was unbearable. A couple of those kids go to Dwight. It was unbearable because it was so focused on the rich kids. And that can be interesting if you really focus on their lives, their families, that sort of thing. But the show seems to be more interested in glorifying and sensationalizing that lifestyle than actually presenting us with anything resembling reality. You don’t really see anybody who doesn’t come from that kind of privileged background. Afterschool is obviously very different from those shows, in terms of the characters, the story, and the style.

A number of people who’ve written about the film have noted the influence of Michael Haneke and documentarian Frederic Wiseman, as well.
Yes, Michael Haneke’s films, where watching everything unfold slowly created all this tension, were also very important to me. And I had watched a lot of Frederic Wiseman’s films when I was in Paris writing. I loved how he could give us these extended moments in his documentaries, and he’d just let these scenes go on. So I began to see Afterschool as some sort of documentary. I even shot a bunch of scenes that I knew wouldn’t make it into the film, just to give the actors those moments to have lived through. As a director, I get some of the biggest pleasure from watching something unfold. And I liked the idea of finding a composition that was right, and then allowing my actors to dirty it up.

It sounds like you gave your actors a lot of freedom. How scripted is the film?
It’s about 92.5 percent scripted. [Laughs] The actors improvised a little bit during one of the therapy scenes, and some of the stuff in the videos that they shoot were improvised. I was constantly rewriting during the shoot as well. So maybe it’s 95 percent scripted.

After its New York Film Festival screening last year, Afterschool prompted raging online debates between a number of critics, some of whom loved the film and others who absolutely despised it. Did you follow that at all?
I did follow that debate. And to be honest with you, it sometimes made me feel like shit. I mean, people get really personal with these things. When they’re being really scathing, it’s hard to read, but also kind of funny. There were some reviews that addressed me directly: “We get it, Campos, we get it!” that sort of thing. But I couldn’t get through the podcast that they did. Hearing their voices, I realized I couldn’t do it. It’s nice to know that there are people out there defending the film. And the fact that there are people out there who totally hate it is also good — it’s good that it’s provoked that kind of debate. To be honest, I’m kind of hoping the debate gets stirred up a bit again, now that the film is finally coming out. Hearing that someone loved the film is obviously great, but hearing that someone totally hated it is kind of good, too. The worst are the middle-of-the-road reviews.

If you want to know more about Antonio Campos, check out his short, The Last 15, in the Vulture Picture Palace.

Photo: Getty Images