One on One: Mark Webber & Antonio Campos Discuss the Perils and Pleasures of Working without a Script
"With Simon, at the end you get this moment that’s sad, pathetic, but also very human. You see he’s just a boy." -Antonio Campos, director, Simon Killer
On the surface, films couldn’t be more different than Mark Webber’s The End of Love and Antonio Campos’s Simon Killer. Whereas Webber’s film is a warm, handmade portrait of a young single father struggling to make ends meet (both emotionally and financially) as he raises his 3 year-old son (played by Webber’s own son, Isaac). Campos’s film, on the other hand, is a stylishly composed, bone-chilling look at a young man’s slow descent into criminality and violence. Yet they have one major thing in common: both films were produced without a conventional script. In each case, dialogue was often improvised and many sequences only came together on set. Webber and Campos sat down with us during the Festival to compare notes, pick each other’s brains about how they balanced chaos and control on set, and confess how much they secretly identified with each other’s protagonists.
Were the non-scripted aspects of your films essential to the projects from day one, or did they evolve through developing your ideas?
Mark Webber: For me it was essential. The whole movie was built around my son, who is not acting in the film. So it was the only way we could really do it. It was interesting because when I brought in the other actors they kind of had to match up to what my son was doing.
Antonio Campos: It’s a pretty tough act to follow, actually. It’s harder to do it when someone’s so seamless, because they don’t even know what a camera is, they’re being. So everyone else has to be. Was everything very outlined in terms of, ok, this is when I’m going to wake up in the morning and give him breakfast?
Mark Webber: The outline was very concrete. It was like, here’s the emotional beats we need to hit within our routine, and here’s the plot points that need to happen. It was concrete so that the stakes were right going in, and whatever Isaac and I did would be right.
Antonio Campos: We had an 8-page outline going in. I had an idea of what this was going to be—a guy moves to Paris, etc., a basic skeleton. And then I started talking to Brady [Corbet] about it, knowing he would play Simon, and we had a really tight structure before going in to shoot. So the outline was pretty straightforward. There was some very basic dialogue, and then the way it worked was that when I went to Paris I started writing scenes out that I had in my head. When more actors came along we started rehearsing and sometimes I’d say, ok, these are the emotional beats of the scene, and then figure out the dialogue, which I’d go and write down. There were a few scenes that were purely improvised. We’d do it once, then several times, then we started shooting, and by the time we got to the third or fourth take, though we’d started off improvised we ended up scripted.
Mark Webber: I love that, I love working like that.
Antonio Campos: It’s really satisfying. You have to be on your toes the whole time, though. One of the things I had to do was make sure to review the dailies every day in order to know what I’d gotten and what I needed to get.
Mark Webber: Yeah, that’s what I had to do. Every day we’d dump the footage off into the drive and sit with my DP and watch it, and make sure we got what we needed. And if we didn’t we’d attempt to get it the next day. It’s crucial when you’re making films the way we’re making them—you need to constantly be reviewing it.
Antonio Campos: You’re so much more sensitive. Because every day is going to be even more of a whirlwind than a film set already is. I don’t know if I could do it again right away, though, because it’s so exhausting.
Mark Webber: It’s crazy exhausting working like that, man. I have a question about the music. Did you know that that’s the music you were going to be using?
It’s interesting how each of you approach music in your films. Simon Killer has very important instances of source music as well as a subtle moody score, while The End of Love doesn’t have a score at all. Do you feel that with the organic way these films are put together that a traditional score makes less sense?
Antonio Campos: We added a score pretty late in the game. I was going with no score for a long time, and then Saunder [Jurriaans], who did the music for Martha Marcy May Marlene and another film of ours called Two Gates of Sleep, kept asking: let me do something, I can do something. I was like, ok, let’s try something that’s really minimal, and let’s try something that plays against the pop. We found that the music was organic, it had a kind of primal quality. In that case, I felt we found a reason for the music. But normally I wouldn’t have used music.
Mark Webber: I played around with trying to have a score, but then it became another movie. It started to feel like something else.
Antonio Campos: You don’t need it. The emotions of the scene are so strong the way they are, that you don’t need to augment it with music. And then playing against what’s going on in the scene wouldn’t be right for your movie.
Mark Webber: The reason I think the music and score in your movie works so well is aesthetically the way your film is shot and composed it lends itself to hearing a score. Visually, your movie is stunning. Whereas my movie is very stripped down. It feels almost at moments like a documentary in a way.
Your film looks more documentary-like and improvisational, but I’m sure that those were also conceived shots to some degree. Can you talk about how crucial that is, that considering how open things are in terms of action, actually capturing it needs to be controlled?
Mark Webber: My whole mantra was “Prepare to let go.” There’s so much preparation required in order to just let things be. My cinematographer kind of lived with me for a month. Almost like having a reality crew follow you around. We were able to see what works when you do that, and develop this telepathy about when to move the camera and how to make adjustments.
Antonio, I’m really fascinated by your referring to your film as a controlled, stylized improvisational film. The clash of those seemingly contradictory impulses really defines the film.
Antonio Campos: A lot of times there’s a documentary quality to my films, except I don’t necessarily move the camera to catch what’s going on. What I really like is giving the performers the freedom to move, but keeping the camera controlled. Saying: if they’re out of frame for this moment, then they’re out of frame. You set up a perfect frame to fuck it up a little. It’s the unpredictability, the sloppiness that sometimes makes it feel more alive.
Subject matter aside, did you feel, while watching Mark’s film, that you liked the idea of having a three-year-old running around on set?
Antonio Campos: Yeah, I did. It’s funny because I’ve been talking about what to do next, and I’ve been thinking about a story about a father and son. Because I saw a film recently that I had never seen before by a director I love named King Vidor, called The Champ. That film made me cry so much. About this boxer who used to be the heavyweight champion of the world, but now he’s down and out. He’s got a little kid who idolizes him, but the dad is such a drunk, keeps screwing up. And in both cases… not that you fuck up in your film, but the father’s kind of a fuck-up. He’s doing his best, and the kid loves him so much—that’s all he sees, his dad. I don’t think your film could be any other way. I had a question though about the end. It’s interesting when you do an improvised movie that you still have an idea of what the end’s going to be. Did you have that end, or did you find it along the way?
Mark Webber: We had that end. From the beginning I knew I wanted to make it that way. I always knew I wanted to have a guy in that situation, to try and address things and be messy. I needed that anchor with the beginning and the end specifically in order to feel that all the exploration was going to work. What about you?
Antonio Campos: We knew the beginning. That the film would open with this monologue that would set the stage for everything. That the film was going to open up with this story about his ex-girlfriend, where he’s coming from, and I knew that it would end the way it did.
These are very, very different films, but they’re both honest portraits of men, of aspects of manhood that we usually don’t get a chance to see on film. The challenges of struggling to get by as a single father in The End of Love, and in Simon Killer there’s this very revealing portrait of the deep neediness that can lead to violence and possession. Did you recognize these portraits in each other’s films?
Mark Webber: Totally. After his screening, I felt a little fucked up about how much I identified with Brady’s character. Seriously. Almost to the point that I didn’t want to share that information with the people I was around. And that’s what I think is so unbelievable about the film. It’s very honest about these big, broad issues of vulnerability and possession, and what it means to be a man in a certain respect. And obviously in my film I’m showing a certain version of that as well.
Antonio Campos: I tend to start at the dregs of where I could go, and then dig my way up and hopefully get to the humanity. Brady and I aren’t aggressive men in any way—we both have very good relationships with the women in our lives. But we both recognize something in all of us that’s questionable. There are certain things that Simon does that are very relatable, then he just goes to the extreme. But it’s a very gradual progression to the extreme, bit by bit, chipping away at all the things holding him back.
Your character is very flawed, but the flaws are what make a character human. It would be very boring to watch a film about the greatest dad in the world. I think that the way you went about it was very subtle—little screwups, little negligent things. Your film ends on a more hopeful note than Simon. I don’t know why I’m attracted to these dark bastards. But they’re fascinating to watch. With Simon, at the end you get this moment that’s sad, pathetic, but also very human. You see he’s just a boy. These are two characters that are supposed to be grownups, or mature, but they’re just…
Mark Webber: Boys. Little boys.