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“This Is How We Live”: Conversing with Antonio Campos

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“This Is How We Live”: Conversing with Antonio Campos

Antonio Campos

When you’re young, you absorb pop culture and imagine what it will be like when you grow up, when your contemporaries will be the ones appearing on screens, singing through the radio and winning awards in televised ceremonies. Famous people are always older people and the media speaks to you, not for you. And then one day you get hit by something and you realize that your life is starting to make it into that very same realm of media; your moment in time is starting to crystallize. I was born in 1986. When I saw Antonio Campos’ Afterschool at MoMA toward the end of November, I felt like extremely specific experiences in my own life, extremely specific opinions I hold, had been thrown back at me through the prism of cinema like never before. My ideas about my generation had been vindicated, and Afterschool was the proof. I was watching a serious feature film by a director who began at NYU’s film school a mere two years before I did. My contemporaries were starting to join in the chorus of media that assaults us all.

Campos, who is now 25, worked on the script that became Afterschool throughout college, and had begun it earlier. He has said that it grew along with the times. Indeed. As Mike D’Angelo perhaps famously (time will tell) ended his review of the film, “this is how we live.” Afterschool follows Robert (Ezra Miller), a high schooler at a prep school in (presumably) New England, who unwittingly witnesses and videotapes the death by drug overdose of the school’s most popular girls, a pair of twins. Already having a difficult time at school, Rob is asked to help direct a memorial video to screen at a ceremony for the girls. The entire film is bathed in the glow of consumer-digital-and-video-technology-as-social-inhibitors-and-anomie-machines familiar from key works by Michael Haneke, Atom Egoyan, and David Cronenberg, among others. However, Campos’ presentation of this realm creates a portrait of technology’s relationship to social interaction and the understanding of oneself that resonates more strongly than in the works of the aforementioned filmmakers. This film could only have been made by a 25-year-old, a filmmaker who is among the first generation to truly live and breathe social networking and video-clip websites, as well as the Internet in general, while still in one’s developmental stages.

The following conversation between Campos and myself was conducted with a laptop computer taking up the countertop space between us, imposing itself on our conversation.

Do you feel like we’ve gotten to a place where we’re beginning to screw up all of the technological advances, the easily accessible yet powerful technological tools, that we have created in recent years?

I think it’s just beginning. When you think about where technology is heading—it’s going to keep going, and human beings are going to keep fucking it up. That’s just the natural progression. I really feel like we’re a generation obsessed with ourselves, watching ourselves, watching other people watch themselves and put themselves out there. In some ways, I feel like Afterschool is a present-day sci-fi film. In some ways, you could watch Afterschool as “what’s going on right now,” but at the same time, it doesn’t feel like what’s going on right now. It feels like a weird future. And again, I don’t know where it’s going to go, I just know that I look at things now and it’s troubling. I got caught up in it myself—in the process of researching and making the film I got very obsessed with this stuff. I kind of abandoned certain things—Facebook and MySpace. I don’t do Facebook anymore. I feel good about that. There’s a good deal of time that I would spend during the day doing these things that I don’t do anymore. I think most people just use Facebook to spy on other people. I used it to see what happened to all the girls in high school who I thought were hot. All of these things that don’t amount to anything but take up so much time, and again, it’s just this obsession with creating a celebrity around yourself. Which goes back to YouTube—the fascination with watching ourselves. There’s a difference between watching an action movie that has violence in it, and watching violence for entertainment, when the violence that you’re watching is real. The line between entertainment and reality gets blurry.

Three things come to mind. One. Hegel said that a good portrait of a person looks more like the subject than the person themself. That’s a lot like what you said about this being a sci-fi film—it looks more like today than today looks like today. Slavoj Žižek applied the same reasoning to Children of Men. Secondly, when you talk about Facebook and YouTube and whatnot, us being obsessed with ourselves, it seems tied into an ability these sites give us to revise ourselves, re-present ourselves, to fully control the way in which we present ourselves to our peers, by having total control over our Facebook profile or what videos we post of ourselves online. That is an interesting concept. And third, the idea of blurring the line between violence in cinema and simply footage of “real” violence—distinguishing between those two seems tricky, and I’d like to hear more of your thoughts on that discrepancy.

So much to talk about. The thing about today being more like today—it’s interesting, because people are always saying, in reaction to the film, “well, this is not what kids are like.” The film neglects this aspect of adolescence, but the film is not a documentary. You’re taking a microscope over one part of adolescent life and heightening the experience of one thing. I think that the film captures something that’s very much part of today, adolescence, coming of age in this kind of world, and it puts blinders onto all of the other stuff, so you can focus on that. I feel that when you strip away all the other stuff, there’s something being shown in the film about the truth of adolescence today, but in real life it’s being diluted by all the other things. It’s funny that you said the thing about Hegel, because Larry David always says that the Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm is much more like Larry David than Larry David is. It’s interesting, because people have criticized the film by saying that the performances are naturalistic, but not real. The thing is, it’s not reality, it’s a heightened sense of reality.

As far as Facebook and editing yourself goes—I think there’s something appealing about shaping yourself and editing yourself and presenting yourself to the world in the way that you want. I think we want to communicate who we are and get these things across quickly. With Facebook, it feels like you can—whether it’s via some bizarre angle of your face, or a photo of something else that represents who you are, and so on. You can choose these details of your life that sum up who you are. A Facebook profile says something about a person, but it doesn’t really say anything about who this person is. It’s interesting for me. I always feel like what we’re trying to do with the Internet is, we’re trying to give it a human element. We’re trying to infuse humanity into it. Trying to find the humanity within all this technology. And showing the footage, the difference in footage—well, there were some people who hadn’t seen the Saddam hanging, and they were really upset with me, that I showed that. They felt like, by coming to the film, I was forcing them to watch it.

Some were intrigued by the idea, saying that they were happy to watch it within the context of the film. And some people were not happy about it, saying that I didn’t have the right to put them in a place—there was one critic who said, does the film merit me being forced to watch this? And her answer was no. That’s interesting to me. On one hand, I assumed everyone had seen this thing because it was all over the Internet, one of the most watched videos - in one sense it was like 9/11, everyone had seen that footage. And this was all over the Internet, and you assume that everyone has seen these things, but they hadn’t. In some ways, I feel like you kind of should see this. I think it’s important to know what is out there. Everyone is seeing this. It’s international. I understand not going out and looking out for the brutal stuff, but something like that, I assumed that everyone had seen and should see. The fact that these things can be seen now is important.

Do you think there’s a difference between watching the video of Saddam hanging on CNN as opposed to watching it on YouTube?

That’s the thing, there isn’t a difference, really. There’s only a difference in perception. You think, oh, I’m seeing it on CNN, it’s in the context of a news story, but you’re still going to have the same reaction. There’s nothing they’re going to fill in to that story that’s going to make it more newsworthy. You’re still just watching someone get hanged. But I think there is a difference for people, still, and I don’t quite understand why. I feel like seeing it outside of CNN is better, without any sort of context.

 

When I was watching the opening of Afterschool, I was thinking about the way that when you have television, you can flip from channel to channel, and that reduces your ability to grasp what you’re watching. That is exponentially stronger with YouTube, when you can flip to any video you’d like at all, like in the beginning of your film, so everything becomes relative to everything you’ve watched just before, and you really lose any semblance of objectivity.

Well, the film was really focusing on the fact that YouTube is this kind of grab bag, and you can look at all of these things side by side. A baby playing, Saddam getting hung, seeing these things within seconds of one another.

Ultimate instant gratification. It’s perfect for the millennials.

Exactly. You always hear stories about how this is fucking up this generation in the workplace—like in that 60 Minutes segment where they talk about how they’re having to re-format the workplace.

Yeah, I saw that. And that point, in the context of your film, reminds me of how Mike D’Angelo noted something along the lines of the fact that this really is the film for this time, this era, about what it’s like to be a member of my generation.

And it’s about a fourteen year old boy. Fourteen year olds, twelve year olds, thirty-four year olds, fifty, everyone’s on Facebook. It is sort of touching on an aspect of this generation, but that term has gotten so broad. I don’t know what generation means anymore.

Was it a conscious decision, not to incorporate Facebook into the film?

I thought about doing something similar to what I did with Buy It Now. But there’s a limited amount of time I had, and I had to choose my focus. I felt like what I was doing with the videos—you could connect it to everything else. Rob has this obsession with watching himself, which you can tie back to Facebook. Facebook is a different beast, though. There wasn’t a way for me to deal with Facebook without it getting too sensational, trying to tell a story about what Facebook is. I really wanted to tell a story about the moving image, watching clips of ourselves. One could delve into Facebook in a different film.

I thought it was telling, where Rob says that the clips he watches are “little clips of things that seems real.” Reality is elsewhere for these kids, they live at this fantasy camp of a boarding school. Did you feel like the characters—Rob especially—were trying to feel something real? How did you view their struggle to reach reality?

The fact that you can see yourself doing these things—does that make it more real? The idea of the masturbation came from a friend of mine who told me that he masturbates in front of his camera. It was more about the idea that, if these things exist in video, does that make it more real? And Rob’s obsession with studying himself, and his obsession with feeling. A lot of the film was about him trying to feel the things that he sees in these videos in real life, whether it be death, sex, et cetera. I think he’s just trying to feel something. The idea of reality—reality just doesn’t seem real enough. The videos he watches seem realer, I think, than his own life. That’s part of why we’re obsessed with YouTube. Life has all of these moments, you know? It’s so complicated and long and the moments come and go, but you can go online and see these things, a baby laughing, it’s so heightened. I see my nephew laugh all the time, and it’s adorable, but there’s something so focused about seeing it in a 30 second clip.

That’s a very interesting way that I could describe Afterschool itself. I felt like it was a very heightened film. Perhaps because of it’s detachment. It’s so detached—not many camera movements, shallow depth of field, negative space dominates, so many static shots—and yet the film is extremely tense, living in a place of heightened tension.

You know, you have to trust in your script, and trust that if you allow the scenes to play out in a way that isn’t forced, that the pacing at which things are unraveling, which might be slow, but feels natural to me—natural, but a heightened sense of natural—the pacing is going to keep people on edge a bit. The negative space I think helps a lot. It was an idea that I started playing with in certain things I shot in high school. One critic called it “dismembering.” The idea of a wide close-up where the subject is such a tiny portion of the frame, and you have so much negative space. There’s something about holding back and taking your time and allowing things to exist outside the frame, and that creates a certain tension. And then the rest of the body comes in. It’s all about revealing, taking your time to let things unfold. When you’re telling a story, you always have to keep the bigger picture in your mind. You have to constantly remind people of what just happened. That has to set the tone. I really relied a lot on the actors to set the tone as well. And by shooting the film in a very particular way where we’re always watching—we’re often behind the action, or to the side, and when you’re watching, you feel like you might get caught watching. I feel like taking your time is a better way of creating tension than lots of cutting and moving quickly through story.

It is a very pronounced style, that you employ in the film, something in the realm of Michael Haneke and Bruno Dumont. Did you ever, in the editing process, question if perhaps you were pushing it a bit too hard?

Well, it’s a trial and error process, how long a shot can go on for. I’m aware of what’s going on, what is challenging. There were questions about, is this going on too long, am I losing momentum? But I wanted to hold, often, because I wanted to get to a certain action. Like a shot for a while where nothing happens, and then someone does something that’s great. When you’re doing this, letting scenes linger for so long, you have to be very selective in what you let linger and what you don’t, because the more you let linger, the more it dilutes the power of the lingering. In some films, it’s all about that, a film like Jeanne Dielman. But that is a different approach. Because there’s a lot of story in this film. And I want to be able to get to my story points, and get to them in a natural way, and have those points stick. I think Haneke is a master of that. Bruno Dumont relies a lot more on editing.

It was a lot less challenging for me to watch Afterschool than a slower Haneke film, or a Dumont film, and I think perhaps part of that is due to the fact that the first American filmmaker who takes a lot from Haneke and Dumont also brings a stronger sense of narrative to his film, which is appropriate, because strong narrative is such an American device. And I was wondering what your thoughts were on that, the way you used narrative.

I grew up on narrative cinema. Story is important to me. It’s become less and less complicated—the plot points are very simple—but you need the story. My favorite Haneke films are the ones that have a strong narrative—Code Unknown, Time of the Wolf, The Piano Teacher. Dumont—his stories are so simple. I think the extreme of this is Liverpool, by Lisandro Alonso. He’s against sex, against violence. His stories—it seems like it’s going to build up to something brutal, but it doesn’t get to that. It just kind of lingers. The film just lingers. Nothing happens. No climax. And it didn’t hit me until the next day. It’s a hypnotic film. I felt like I had dreamed it. My favorite filmmaker is Stanley Kubrick, and I feel like story is very important to him, but he deals with story in a very economic way, especially in his later work. The experience of seeing the film trumps the story in a lot of ways. The story brings you through, but the real meat of the film is what you experience.

I call it “Trojan-horse narrative.”

Yeah, that’s a good term.

The narrative is just a means to an end. Moving on. The film is so pregnant with theme and potential meanings, and yet it never came across as didactic to me, mainly, I think, because of just how detached the style is. But did you ever take into consideration fears that perhaps someone might see the film and make a reductive statement like, it’s bad for young people to use the Internet so much because it alienates them? I mean, something of that is there, but it’s much more complicated, and the film isn’t judgmental in that way.

I didn’t feel like I was being didactic in the way I was telling the story because I was so ambiguous about certain things, so restrained, that it wouldn’t come across like that, and I didn’t want it to. My interest is more about presenting something, presenting it the way that I see it, and then letting you come up with your own interpretation. Wiseman was important for me in that way, because he has an opinion about the things that he’s documenting, obviously, but he’s just letting you see them. You’ll leave, and have a very clear idea of what his feelings are about it, but because he’s presented it in such a broad and restrained kind of way, you feel what he’s feeling. I think you can watch Afterschool and feel what I’m feeling about the subject, or you can feel a different way. Particularly, the character of Robert—you can feel sympathetic for him, or leave being disgusted by him, or a combination of both. That’s always been my idea. That was my goal, to leave everything open-ended. All I presented was—kids watching these clips, becoming obsessed with these clips, and in one instance, in a pathetic way, Robert tries to re-enact one of the things he sees. I don’t think that’s so sensational.

Where have you gotten that the film is sensationalistic?

Well, there have been a lot of people whose reactions are, Antonio, I get it, I get it.

That’s interesting. I didn’t feel that way, but I asked the question because I was wondering if you were worried that people would feel like it was judgmental in that way.

I didn’t worry about that when I was writing it, or making it, but I am aware that some people react in that way. I read the discussion that’s happened on Like Anna Karina’s Sweater, and the review. He really tore into it, and then in the discussion, everyone was going at each other. There was someone who said, “in Elephant, Gus Van Sant showed this, but he was saying, we’re so ridiculous that we would accept any one of these things as an explanation of why Columbine happened. But then, in Afterschool, Antonio Campos is trying to do the kind of thing Van Sant criticizes.” And the difference is that Gus Van Sant gets the benefit of the doubt, because he’s Gus Van Sant and I’m a first-time filmmaker who doesn’t know what he’s doing. I find that to be interesting. I wonder if the perception of Afterschool will be different three films later, if critics will come back to it and view it differently.

 

Let’s talk about the final scene for a moment. To me, it felt like the omnipresence of video, like you were manifesting that in a very clever manner. Is that part of what you were thinking about with that very clear decision, to have the cellphone video shot of Rob?

Well, there was a version of a film without the reverse shot, the shot where you see that there’s no one behind Rob. Someone said, one is psychological, and one is a mystery, and I didn’t entirely agree with that, but I thought it was an interesting way of looking at it. It only occurred to me very late in watching YouTube videos that I never knew who shot the videos. I never once thought, well, someone has to take out their camera, or phone, click video, click record, point, shoot, and stand there while this happens. You never think about the person behind the camera. It’s amazing to me. In news stories—no one ever talks about who shot the footage. That someone just decided to videotape this and put it on the Internet. There was always this question on the set—who shot this video? Who’s making these videos? In the end, it didn’t matter to me. It doesn’t really matter. Someone is—and someone isn’t. My theory was, well, if this can be anybody, if anyone has a cellphone with a camera on it, then it’s really nobody.

It’s as if video is at this extremely high level of being, and then to think about who is shooting the video just dirties it, makes it impure and brings it down to a lower level. The camera has so much power. The only scene where we really see Rob be assertive is the scene in the music room with Amy, where he tries to strangle her, but only after having grabbed the video camera. Video is power.

I think any filmmaker can relate to the idea that your camera is your safety net. Filmmakers in general are not the most secure people. There’s a reason why we’re kind of doing this thing, which is ridiculous, when we stop and think about it. There’s a safety behind the camera, and a power, and you are invisible. For that moment, you’re doing something which is bigger than yourself, and it empowers you. It gives you—it gives me this reason. And a purpose. That purpose allows me to become somebody else when I’m directing. The time I’m happiest is when I’m making a film. I think that the camera can be used as this way of making you invisible. And I think a lot of the people who get into video want to step out, want to become invisible. And I think Robert is empowered by having a camera.

The memorial video that Rob makes was interesting to me. What was going through your head when you put that video together?

I made that video. I edited it over the course of one night when I didn’t sleep. At 6 AM I grabbed my assistant director, who is also an editor. And Sean [Durkin, one of the producers] came in and we started going back and forth about it. It was—going back and forth to the stuff I was doing in high school—we were purposefully making it as if the person who made it had never used video software before. But the person making it, there’s also something off in the way he views the world. And there’s also an honesty there that you don’t find in the video that the school makes. In addition, it was an extension of the thing that Robert says in that therapy session—he likes things that seem real, that aren’t fake, and he’s obsessed with capturing these moments of authenticity.

Did you think Robert was trying to consciously send up the headmaster in some way?

I think so. But it’s funny, because I still feel like I’m trying to figure out Robert, to understand Robert in some way. I feel like by that point, there’s something brewing in him that’s just ready to explode. And this little moment he captures, where he sees this guy being a phony, he just has to put in there. It’s very passive-aggressive. It seemed like the kind of thing Robert would pick up on. But like I said, there’s a part of me still trying to figure out this kid, in the same way that I can’t figure myself out, why I do certain things. Actually, Bruno Dumont was the president of the jury for the Cannes Residence program the first time I submitted the script, and he rejected it. I had just finished the treatment, and I was in the semifinals. The question he asked me really stumped me—who is Robert? I didn’t know who Bruno Dumont was at the time, I just thought he was some angry French guy. And he asked me that question so early in the process, and I left that meeting, and I said, I don’t know who Robert is. Why do I need to know who Robert is? By the end of this film, I’ll be closer to figuring it out. But I don’t even know who I am. It was all so early in the game. That was the worst meeting of my life. I got in the next year. If I was just confident enough to say, I don’t know who he is, but maybe by the end of my writing here I’ll be closer to figuring that out—the minute I figured out Robert was in a video class, I had a better idea of who he was, what he was interested in. Who is someone is such a broad, unanswerable question.

He’s just a kid. He’s like any other kid. What’s interesting about him isn’t so much who he is as what it’s like to live in his world.

Exactly. In that last shot, when he’s looking at the camera, some people feel like it was the director wagging his finger at us. But for me, that shot, it’s the most human that boy has ever looked, the most vulnerable that he’s ever looked. I look at it and I go, he’s just a kid. No one around him seems to know what the hell’s going on. There’s no moral compass that makes any sense. In the end of all these films I’ve done about teenagers, it ends with the idea that these kids are just kids. A girl selling her virginity—they seem so mature, they seem like they know everything—The Last 15 is the same thing—it’s just this confused kid.