Twenty-five-year-old director Antonio Campos’s debut feature Afterschool, set in an elite East Coast boarding school, is not the easiest film to sit through. Long takes, a static camera and the subjective point-of-view shots mean that action and dialogue often take place off-screen. But despite its unconventional, almost documentary-like style (the director cites Frederick Wiseman as an influence), the film is a riveting picture that builds in intensity as Campos captures the adolescent agonies endured by the lead character Robert (Ezra Miller), a misfit dealing with the deaths of two of the school’s most popular girls, which he unwittingly captured on video. A sparse, at times difficult film, it is an original and compelling addition to the high school genre and a strikingly assured directorial debut for Antonio Campos. Sarah Cronin talks to the director about high school myths and YouTube kids.
Sarah Cronin: Like Robert, you also attended an elite prep school. Is there something of you and your experiences in Robert? What inspired the film?
Antonio Campos: Yes, there were elements of my own experiences and the experiences of those around me that made it into the film. What really inspired the film, though, was my last year of high school, which began with 9/11 and the death of my best friend’s father that day; at the end of the year, a close friend died in a freak accident while travelling through Europe. As an 18-year-old at the time, all my previous ideas for movies and all the things that preoccupied my teenage life suddenly seemed very trivial. It was at that time that I had the idea of a boy witnessing the death of two girls by a drug overdose in the bathroom at a person’s party. That was all I had at that point, and over the course of the next four years, the story continued to grow and develop into what the final film is.
Why did you choose to shoot the film primarily using a stationary camera – both film and video – with much of the dialogue and action occurring off-screen or at a distance? Was it a tool to emphasise Robert’s alienation or is there more to it than that? At times you capture his point of view, at other times it’s much more ambiguous.
There were many reasons that were dictating those choices when we were making the film, like the one you pointed out, and thinking back, they make sense. But looking back on the film, I like to not remember them and just let them be part of the film and ultimately part of Robert.
Did you draw on any other films or filmmakers as an inspiration for this technique? And did you worry that the film’s aesthetic might alienate some people in the audience?
There is a scene in The Conversation early on where Gene Hackman walks into his apartment, sits on a chair, gets up and walks off-screenâ€”the camera holds on an empty frame for a few moments and then, as though the man filming had suddenly woken up after falling asleep on the job, the camera pans left to find Hackman sitting on the couch. Then a conversation proceeds where Hackman gets up and is in and out of frame. The idea that the camera is present and someone is watching our character was something that I wanted to convey throughout Afterschool. Fortunately or unfortunately, I never thought about whether that choice would alienate some people; I had a greater hope that people would be excited by something different.
What is behind Robert’s attraction to anonymous, violent porn? In some ways it’s the most disturbing thing about his character.
Most teenagers are exposed to hardcore porn early on. I imagine Robert has seen most of the other porn out there and like he says in the film, the sites he watches don’t seem fake. In a world where it’s so easy for things to be called real but be completely manufactured, Robert seems interested in finding examples of raw emotion and authenticity, though his perception is a bit skewed at times.
Do you think of kids now as part of a YouTube generation? And has YouTube helped de-sensitise kids to violence? In the film’s first clips you show Saddam being hanged and dead American soldiers alongside silly human and pet tricks.
I feel like kids are inundated with images now more than ever, but it just seems like a natural progression in a way â€” just more, more, more of everything, especially in the United States. I imagine one big grab bag and you can stick your hand in and pull out a cute kitten or you can pull out cell phone footage of Saddam hanging; the fact that they all exist side by side changes their significance and how people can perceive them.
Do you think teachers and parents are struggling to keep up with the implications of new technologies? They seem happier to medicate their children than confront reality.
Medicating kids has become a consistent trend in the past couple of decades; I’m not sure if you can connect it directly with the technology. Obviously, in some cases, it is absolutely what is needed, but in many cases, it is like putting a band-aid on the problem and not allowing the person to actually deal with whatever it is that is bothering them. In some cases, it is a total mistake and then you have a kid who was actually fine but now on medication that is chemically altering his brain. Parents and teachers definitely are trying to keep up with the technologies, but the fact is they probably won’t be able to.
Towards the end of the film, after the fight between David and Robert, Robert’s effectively punished by Burke, the headmaster, while the twins and David are referred to as ‘good kids’. Are the adults so easily blinded by good looks and popularity? Is high school nothing more than a popularity contest? In the memorial video, the students all claim that they wanted to be just like the twins, even though they end up dead.
For Burke, the best thing for the school would be to remember the girls as good kids who made a mistake; it makes the school look good and the rich parents of the girls feel better, which in turn will help the school. The popular idea of what a memorial should be is to remember the positive, which is evident with every recent celebrity death. The idea to focus on who the person really was or the complexities of their life gets lost.
The fight between Robert and David ends up on the internet, echoing the cat fight that he watches in the very beginning of the film. Do you think kids are too easily giving up their privacy? That everything, even the deaths of the twins, is in the public domain?
Absolutely. The information that kids are sharing on their Facebook and MySpace accounts or in their blogs is dangerously personal at times. I feel now more than ever kids have become obsessed with watching themselves and their friends, and in their quests to define themselves online, they compromise themselves and their privacy. It’s been proven that the more you embarrass yourself or expose yourself online the more people want to watch; and teenagers in general think in the moment without considering what they’re actually doing.
Is the film’s downbeat view of high school partly a reaction to the idealised portrayal of adolescence in the John Hughes movies, and the high school genre in general? High School Musical and Gossip Girl have proved to be wildly popular.
The film can be seen like that, but for me, it was simply the film I wanted to make. Though the lack of a soundtrack in Afterschool and my other shorts dealing with adolescence was a reaction to the over-use of music in teen films.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing my script for Momma, which deals with a boy and his mother over the course of about 30 years in New York. I’m producing the feature Martha Marcy May Marlene for Sean Durkin, who was one of my producers on Afterschool, along with Josh Mond. And hopefully in the next few months, people will be able to see a film that we produced called Two Gates of Sleep, directed by Alistair Banks Griffin and starring Brady Corbet.
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