Q&A: Brady Corbet & no philosophy of a “SIMON KILLER”
Both hypnotic and frightening, SIMON KILLER (out April 5 in select theaters and on VOD April 12) is a film I readily refer to as a sociopathic odyssey (see Fango’s review here). The titular college-aged student abroad in Paris is something of a primal, fickle blank slate but, as with most psychologically unsettling characters, there’s something recognizable as well. Lead actor Brady Corbet who, together with director Antonio Campos, shaped the role confirms as much when throughout our conversation about personality traits and soundtrack choices, points to the film as a reaction against the ever aggressive, dissociative and misogynistic world view of today’s young men.
Note: While “spoiler” is a bit much, there are certainly some revealing details throughout. They’ve been appropriately noted.
FANGORIA: You seem to have an interest in artful takes on genre. Did you grow up a horror fan, at all?
BRADY CORBET: Yea, I like horror films. You know, I don’t like “B Movies,” though. Sometimes they’re interesting to look at and to borrow from, but I’m not really interested in B cinema. It hasn’t been a huge inspiration for me. I’m interested in subverting expectations with genre. I think genre is a good place to start from. I think something major I learned from [Michael] Haneke, was that even if you take AMOUR, it’s his take on a genre of films about dying. It’s also his take on a love story. So, I think that you find a simple thing, or a thing that’s generally approached in a simple way and then you tear it apart. The thing that’s nice about genre is that there’s certain things that it leaves you to hold on to, after you’ve deconstructed it. If it starts really getting away from you, the narrative, then it’s something you can return back to.
This was always intended to be a subversive take on a genre film; a noir film. So, you have all the components of a bad cop—or at least he says he’s a cop—or you have a beat up broad, you have all these 1940s noir traditions and yet the way that it’s explored is in a much more banal way. I think Antonio and I are very interested in the sort of banality of evil and sometimes the evil of banality.
FANG: There’s certainly a psychological aspect to this noir that’s reminiscent of Jim Thompson and Georges Simenon.
CORBET: Totally, we were talking about that stuff a lot.
FANG: Music plays a huge part in the film, especially Spectral Display’s “It Takes a Muscle.” Did any of the songs that Simon listens to help you inform the character?
CORBET: Yea, Antonio’s first film has no score and he and I were talking a lot about the sort of expectation that people have of art cinema nowadays; no music, very stark, whatever. So, then we were talking about how interesting it would be if we do a film that has just too many source cues. There’s just like thirty songs! And there are, there’s like twenty eight, or something like that. We thought about using that as a device, or a new way of exploring very uncomfortable territory. The other thing was we thought music was a good indicator of this movie being a sign of the times. This was a movie where we wanted to explore male behavior here and now; male attitudes towards women, how easy it is for a group of guys to refer to their ex-girlfriend as a whore and how dangerous that’s becoming. If you had the racist equivalent of the world whore, it’d be completely socially unacceptable. So, we’ve noticed people have been resting on their laurels a little too much about these attitudes towards women—“You know how girls are,” this kind of thing. Which, all of us at one point or another as men—whether it was just a way of trying to fit in with friends or if it’s something that we truly felt at the time—being that dismissive of a situation and making it about someone’s sex, we wanted to make a movie about that.
Music kind of functioned as a indicator of how dissociative this character is, how easy it is for him it is to ignore his surroundings. He has no peripheral vision. He’s always focused on just what’s in front of him. The two female characters in the movie, they both have problems with their eyes. It’s a big part of the story. One says she’s myopic [nearsighted] and the other has this astigmatism. We had an obsession with these women who couldn’t see him clearly. He was out of focus to them. And then, on the flipside, they were all he was focused on. Most of the film, you have the impression of the character as just staring at his shoes. He’s just walking through the city without really taking it in. He’s in the Louvre and he’s got a set of headphones in. He’s listening to pop music.
The other thing was, we liked the idea of the soundtrack being really, really seductive with a character who for the most part is pathetic and desperate. We thought about how interesting it is for the audience [Spoiler] where Mati’s [Diop] character is brutalized at a certain point and that night he goes out and he parties. It’s seven minutes of the film that we’re in this club. The dancing is three and a half, or four, minutes and then there’s the other stuff. That we would live in that world for so long, or that environment, that people would forget about what’s back at home. They’d be so intoxicated by the lighting and the sound that it would implicate the audience more in the character’s mindset.
FANG: And it’s a very playful film with how it tries to draw you in and out. His use of the word “whore” in that first scene is a perfect example. He’s empathetic, and then says it so harshly that you’re snapped out of it. Was it a complicated process shaping how back and forth and fickle he is?
CORBET: No, I mean I felt like in some way Antonio and I had instincts about who this guy was. We didn’t have to talk about his motivation too much because in my mind he’s a character without motivation. I think to have motivation implies you have empathy and I don’t think he’s a character that has any empathy. I don’t think he’s a character that does bad things or good things, he just does things. We were very true to the character moment by moment. If he was being attacked, then he was someone sympathetic. This moment where the guy asks to shake his hand; in that moment he’s a victim. An hour later in the film, he’s no longer a victim, he’s a victimizer. So, it was a very, very close collaboration between me and Victoria and Mati, who played Victoria and is a filmmaker and a brilliant, lovely woman. We’d only seen her in 35 SHOTS OF RUM, which is what compelled us to work with her. All three of us would sit down at the end of every day and figure out what the next day’s scenes would be. We had a rough idea, a rough sketch of what everything was supposed to be, but usually the next day’s scenes wouldn’t be written until the night before. There was just a very short outline that Antonio and I had fleshed out together. Antonio and I had spoken a lot and then he wrote this treatment and through a combination of improvised rehearsals, he would transcribe whatever text was working from those rehearsals and that would be our pages for the next day.
FANG: You brought up the world dissociative. Since the dawn of adolescence and twenty-something, there’s always been angst and dissociation growing up, but do you think Simon is indicative of young men being more dissociative now than ever before?
CORBET: Absolutely. Almost no question in my mind. I think there’s a lot of good things that men are now that they weren’t before also, but I think it’s amazing in this day and age if you talk to a nine or ten year-old kid, how much more they know than when I was nine or ten years old—and I knew that people felt that way about me when I was that age. So, I think that the internet has been a wonderful, beautiful thing for the culture and advancing mankind in terms of Nietzsche’s sort of ideal. In a lot of ways, unfortunately with intelligence comes cynicism as well, and cynicism is something that’s important to protect ourselves, but it’s something prickly that you don’t want to become cynical to the point of life becoming totally meaningless. It’s dangerous to have no philosophy about this life, and I think this is a character that has no moral compass and has no philosophy, other than facts when he’s talking about what he studies. So, he seems to be well educated, and he seems to be knowledgeable, or at least knowledgeable enough to act knowledgeable.
FANG: Once he gets around to the second or third time, explaining what he studies, it sounds rehearsed more than anything.
CORBET: Absolutely. Antonio and I spoke a lot before that scene. We decided to keep his little monologue about what he studies totally rehearsed for two reasons. First of all, for you to question whether any of it is true, because by the time we get to the end of the movie and they ask him what he studied in Paris, he changes his story. We also just have these rehearsed sort of sound bites in our life. Somebody asks, “where do you live in the city? What do you do in the city?” We have these sound bites that we communicate in, and so we found that that was something that both of us at certain times in our life, have of course been guilty of. We found that that made the character relatable in some way, but also deeply disturbing.
FANG: Finally, there were reports not too long ago that you were to work with CALVAIRE and VINYAN director Fabrice du Welz on a film called MORE. It seemed like a great collaboration, what happened?
CORBET: The movie just fell apart. It was me and Felicity Jones, and Fabrice and I are still great friends. We get a real kick out of each other, he’s a great guy. They were just having some problems with the script and nobody could seem to quite get it right. It was kind of based on this artist’s Brock Enright’s kind of designer kidnappings; these art projects he was doing and the movie was about something gets out of hand. I think they just had a hard time finding a balance of something that was very believable that was also entertaining and engrossing. We’ll see if it ever happens. Right now, Fabrice is doing all sorts of shit.