How do you distinguish between a lost young man and a budding sociopath? If you were dating the latter, would you know? Just how clearly can anyone see a descent into madness? These are just a few of the questions raised by the chilling and extremely divisive noir Simon Killer (released by IFC last week), about a seemingly sane young man, played by Brady Corbet, who heads to Paris after a breakup and gets involved with a young prostitute (Mati Diop). The film debuted to cheers and walkouts at the Sundance Film Festival in 2012 and, like director Antonio Campos’s first film, 2008’s Afterschool, has sparked enough hostile comments in subsequent Q&As to be deemed “controversial.” But it also has plenty of vocal adherents, including Jeannette Catsoulis of the New York Times. Jada Yuan spoke to Corbet (and Campos, who was sitting nearby and chimed in occasionally) about graphic sex scenes, misogyny, and loving their moms.
[Editor's note: Campos is part of the Brooklyn collective Borderline Films, which made Martha Marcy May Marlene. Corbet has collaborated with Borderline five times.]
You and Antonio started working on the story for Simon Killer while you were playing a cult member in Martha Marcy May Marlene. How soon after Martha wrapped did you start shooting Simon?
Corbet: Two weeks. Whenever I wasn’t acting in Martha and whenever Antonio wasn’t busy producing Martha, then he and I were in a hotel room discussing Simon. It started off as a kernel of an idea that Antonio had. Some things were written, some things weren’t. We would kind of do these improv rehearsals and then transcribe whatever was working from those rehearsals onto the page. And we had enough faith in each other that we knew that it wasn’t going to end up being some kind of mumblecore bullshit.
What was the initial kernel of an idea?
We knew that we wanted to explore the coming of age of a sociopath, the way that somebody goes from being maybe somewhat of a pathological liar to becoming a full-fledged bad person. And we were also were just like, “Okay, we want to make this film about this kid and his psychosexual affair with a prostitute in Paris.” We were thinking that it would be a Romanian girl and then finally we hired Mati, who is half-Senagalese, because we started realizing that most of the girls at these bars that Antonio and I were going into were black, or from Africa.
You spent a lot of time going to bars in Paris and meeting girls?
Yeah, we went into a ton of hostess bars.
What is a hostess bar, exactly?
Basically, there are some bars in Pigalle that are just hostess bars, where you are paying for their company and that’s it. And then there are some bars where they fuck. So there are some bars where you go in and buy a bottle of Champagne. And if you buy a second bottle of Champagne, they’re like, “Oh, I’ll take you downstairs and suck you off,” or whatever. And so Antonio and I had somewhat of a seedy tour of the entire area, because we wanted to real get a sense of the way that these transactions kind of go down and what people say. I mean, obviously, neither of us were having sex with any of these girls. I value not having hepatitis C. But we’d go in and we’d have long discussions with them.
Were you talking to the girls as customers and then revealing you were filmmakers?
It just depended. The people that we really liked and that we realized could be extremely helpful, we were like, “Yeah, we’re making a movie and it’s about this, and that’s why we’re in here.” But other times we didn’t have to say anything. You kind of have to be the instigator in a big way for things to go further than you want them to. At a certain point, they’re like, “Oh, you’re so cute. Do you want to go downstairs with me? It’s only 150 euros.”
Having worked with Sean Durkin, another member of Borderline, on Martha Marcy May Marlene, what would you say separates him and Antonio as directors?
Antonio doesn’t sleep when he’s shooting. He’s in a totally strange state of mind because he’s literally sleeping for like an hour every night. He’s really stressed, and he just is constantly working. I didn’t sleep either on Simon. He and I were really a mess. And it’s really reflected in the movie. I mean, I just look so spent. But, you know, it kind of works for the movie.
Why weren’t you sleeping?
Because we’d be shooting for twelve hours and we’d go rehearse for the next day’s scenes for four or five hours. And then meanwhile, I was having a lot of personal problems in my life. So I was sleeping, like, two or three hours a night and it went on like that for the duration of the shoot. That was the least amount of sleep I’ve ever had for a consecutive period of time. It was, like, seven weeks where I could barely … I was just so fragile. I was more fragile than I’ve ever been.
It’s funny. I was so depressed while we were shooting that to get to sleep I would listen to these panic-attack videos on YouTube that are basically these 30-minute meditations. There’s this thing called the Whisper Community, which is people whispering to each other, basically. It’s just like [whispers], “Hello, my name is Lillian Candiden. I’m 27. Tonight, I’m going to guide you through the forest.” That kind of shit. [Laughs.] And I need that shit to go to sleep! I can’t really go to sleep without it. I listened to these videos every single night. So, naturally, Antonio decided to put this scene in the movie where I’m listening to one of these panic-attack videos. But it didn’t make the final cut.
This movie has a lot of pretty graphic sex, that you were shooting in a room with one of your best friends directing you. What was that like?
We’re pretty frank about everything. We were just kind of like, “Okay, this is the part where I put my face in your pussy.” You know, it is what it is. There’s no reason to dress it up after a while. The two girls that I had these explicit sex scenes with in the film, they didn’t sweat it. Not to say that it wasn’t difficult for all of us. It was. It was uncomfortable. But it was fine. There’s harder things to do than to pretend to hump somebody.
What were you going through personally that was causing all that sleeplessness?
My relationship of many years was falling apart in a very painful way, and so I was dealing with that. I was 22 years old at the time. Not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things when you don’t have any kids and you’re not married, but I was pretty devastated. This is somebody that I was very much in love with who was kind of slipping away from me in a very painful way. So whenever I wasn’t shooting, then I was going home and dealing with that, which is another reason I wasn’t sleeping a lot. I’d go home to my significant other at the time, who decided to come to Paris. [Laughs.] And, uh, try and figure shit out, and then we would be up all night crying and arguing, and then I’d get up and go back to work the next day.
When you watch the movie, does all of that come back?
Fuck yeah, it does. With a vengeance. It was such a fucking awful, awful experience.
Were you in the angry stage of the breakup at that point?
I was … beyond … I was everything! I felt I’d been really betrayed, but the biggest thing was that I just lost someone that I thought might be the love of my life, and, um, that’s hard for anyone to accept.
The breakup was happening during filming, not before?
Campos: It happened and then it kept going.
Corbet: It happened, and then she came to Paris. [Laughs.] So …
Campos: With the dog.
Corbet: … with our dog.
There’s a funny part in the movie where Simon calls his mom and pretends like he’s not falling apart.
Antonio had the actress use my real mom’s name, so when I called, the voice goes, “This is Mary.” [Laughs.] Sounds just like her voice, too. It’s so fucking weird.
He’s an unreliable narrator, and he’s unreliably narrating his life to his mom.
Campos: Not too far off from reality, for either of us. [Laughs.]
Corbet: “Hey, mom.” “How was last night?” “It was … you know … watched a movie.” [Laughs.] “In bed by ten.’
Just hiding as much as you can.
Everything in the movie is a really radical example of something that we were capable of ourselves — except the most horrific parts of the character which, obviously, we have nothing in common with.
I think that Simon is a really great sort of study of misogyny and how a person like that kind of develops. Antonio and I, we’re both very close to our mothers, and we both really love women very much. And I think that we’re both really like open books. We really wear our hearts on our sleeves. And I think that we’ve been fascinated by the men that we’ve known in our life that were not kind to women, because when you’re man-to-man, men very frequently feel very comfortable saying things to you or in front of you just because they assume you’re on their side. And just spout off about what a whore this person is or that person is or whatever. Both he and I find that kind of behavior pretty reprehensible.
Were you trying to explore a fear of having a misogynistic side in yourself?
Campos: I think there was definitely that. It was a recognition of these things in us and the potential for things if you were to not check yourself, if you were to not let your conscience get the better of you.
Corbet: Yeah, I have no fear of misogyny in myself … for the record. [Laughs.]
Yeah, you guys love your moms.
Corbet: We love women. It’s totally true. We’re serial monogamists. There are a lot of women circling around us, and they are definitely the glue. Both Antonio’s mom and my mother have seen Simon, and I think they’re a little worried for us. You know what’s cool? That we both have mothers that can watch a movie like that and they can both go, “I’m so proud of you,” which is so sweet. But we can do no wrong in their eyes. At least we always have our moms.