Afterschool: Interview with Director Antonio Campos

Cannes Film Fest 2008–Antonio Campos is the director of “Afterschool,” which world-premiered at the Festival de Cannes, where the following interview took place.

Visual Style

I made a short film in 2004 called BUY IT NOW, which was about a teenage girl who sells her virginity on eBay. It was about the internet and kids taking drugs and not communicating with their parents and ultimately paying a certain price for their carelessness and apathy. There were a few MTV-style teen films out at the time that were about similar kind of characters in similar environments’and I absolutely hated every one of them. The only thing I liked was the performances. But there was so much rapid cutting and too much music on the soundtrack; it took away from the experience because it felt so cluttered. I decided to make a film about teenagers and do everything in the opposite manner. As opposed to a lot of cutting and a heavy score to try to communicate the sense of confusion of adolescence, I decided to watch a confused adolescent in a room, watch two kids talk, observe a conversation between a mother and daughter uninterrupted. And I liked it. I liked watching people. During production I was inspired by not hurrying a performance or moving my camera around multiple times in order to get a different angle. There was this beauty in watching people simply exist in a frame without interference.

I’ve always been interested in creating a scenario and allowing my actors to live in that scenario–it’s simply a matter of finding the right angle for the scene and the giving my actors the tie and luxury to arrive at something authentic and truthful. There’s the feeling that if the camera is always shaking and things are sloppy, there’s more of a sense of realism, it’s what we associate with documentary filmmaking. But I’ve never related to that. In documentary, you’re for the most part using handheld cameras to give you freedom to catch everything going on in a space; the form in which you’re working dictates hat style. I’ve always felt a static frame is closer to how I actually see the world.

Setting

I wasn’t really interested in making some general comment on American schools simply because AFTERSCHOOL is set in the prep school environment. I can only comment on my personal experience, and that was in an international private school. It wasn’t a boarding school, but it was a prep school. It was pretty diverse because it was international and there were a lot of kids on scholarships, like myself. But there was a great deal of hypocrisy within the administration’you always felt as though there were certain kids who were treated differently because of their families’ status. Most of my friends left that environment with a pretty cynical outlook on life.

The Internet

I don’t blame the Internet for our social ills. I blame people. I don’t think it’s wrong to observe images like the viral videos that appear online on YouTube and other web sites’I think these videos can be quite revealing. All you’re doing by watching viral videos on YouTube is observing humans interacting. If people have the ability to be objective they’re fascinated by it because they’re watching themselves.

POV

The point of view in the film is technically my P.O.V. but in some ways it’s also Robert’s P.O.V. A film is a film; there is always someone behind the camera, even when yo udon’t see that person. You see these viral videos on the Internet and the last thing that occurs to you is: who is the person holding that cell phone during that girlfight Why didn’t they step in and stop the fight At what point did they thin, I need to record this What we’re interested in with these videos is the action’not the circumstances of production. In AFTERSCHOOL, by contrast, I grappled with P.O.V. Sometimes it was Robert looking at the teacher’s legs, but it was also me because I’m the director. Other times it was myself deciding to look at some place, with a certain regard but I was well aware that Robert would do the same thing if he could.

Teen Angst

I feel like if I went in with the intention of making an existentialist teen film it wouldn’t have worked. But during the editing of the film I realized how much an effect the ideas of existentialism and the writing of Sartre and Camus’ the Stranger had on me. For the past ten years I’ve been making short films about adolescence’beginning with my short film PUBERTY, I’ve dealt almost exclusively with adolescent characters and concerns. I’ve found that I like building stories around a character still in the process of figuring out who he is or what he wants from life.

This is interesting to me as a filmmaker because I went through the making of AFTERSCHOOL still trying to grapple with who Robert was. As I was editing I was trying to figure this out. Even now, putting the final touches on the film, I don’t know if I will ever really understand him. I know there is a lot of me in him and vice versa. He is like a human Rorschach test, open to interpretation. I wasn’t trying to make a film about death. I feel like if Bergman couldn’t come to terms with it after all his years then I wasn’t going to have an answer my first time out either. I was more interested in a film about how people deal with death. Not the death of a family member or someone you were close to but rather someone you maybe saw from time to time or you knew of but weren’t close friends with. The loss is shocking and sad but you’re not quite sure why this is yet. You feel something, but you’re not quite sure what

Frederick Wiseman

I saw a Wiseman retrospective in Paris, where I tried to watch every single on of his films. I love how there are so many characters in his films-‘at the end of any given sequence you feel like you know Wiseman’s subjects but he tends not to come back to them or stay with them for too long, except for a follow-up shot here or there. In my own life, I enjoy watching people interact and seeing how institutions function’and how people exist within institutions and are shaped by them.

Wiseman’s HIGH SCHOOL was very important to me while I wrote the treatment for AFTERSCHOOL-‘the name of the audio–visual teacher in my film was named after Wiseman and in some ways I feel like I shot AFTERSCHOOL like a documentary. I noticed the way teachers talked to the kids in HIGH SCHOOL, the way they reprimanded them and the way they infused their speech with the morality of the day and the values of the school. I loved how the film was just full of conversations’but at that the same time no one really seemed to be communicating. The adults would rattle on and on and the kids would try and speak up and then just shut up so they could take their punishment and leave. No one was getting through to each other. Wiseman’s film NEAR DEATH was crucial for me because it was a great document on how people talk about death’the colloquialisms and clichd phrases that appear over and over when people grapple with mortality and loss.

Casting

We looked at a lot of kids for the film. And they were all professional actors, which in some ways is more of a challenge because I wasn’t interested in teen actors in the traditional sense. It’s important to mention my casting directors, Susan Shopmaker and Randi Glass, who both have a very good eye and know so many talented New York actors. Casting AFTERSCHOOL was a long process, but it wasn’t hard in some ways because I was seeing so many great people. In general I look for actors who I think are close to what these characters embody, or who at least will appear that way in front of a camera. Ezra Miller, the actor who plays Robert, is a professional actor, but this was his first film. Many of the adults in the film I had worked with for previous projects. The rest I just found’somehow. One of the hardest things with the young cast members was finding parents who were mature enough to see that I wasn’t trying to exploit their kids with some of the material in the script. Many parents prefer to remain ignorant about what their kids are doing and can’t handle them being in a film where kids are doing drugs, having sex, or even masturbating (because obviously, teenage boys do not masturbate.)

 

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