Antonio Campos’s Afterschool takes place in that familiar cauldron of adolescent turmoil, the boarding school. But the 25-year-old filmmaker’s austere and ominous debut feature feels more like Michael Haneke than John Hughes. “I love high school movies,” says Campos, whose film makes its local debut this weekend with two screenings in AFI Fest. (And he means it: Campos has a poster of the Corey Haim classic License to Drive on his wall.) “But my love for high school films is trumped by my love for cinema,” he adds, referring to such inspirations as Bruno Dumont, Ingmar Bergman, Rainer Werner Fassbinder and, of course, the Austrian provocateur Haneke, whose chilling voyeuristic influence is most apparent in Afterschool.
Set in a Connecticut private school, the movie observes Robert, a Web-obsessed recluse who likes to watch NastyCumHoles.com. When Robert gets the chance to channel his habit in a video class, he ends up inadvertently recording the school’s queen bees — the Talbert twins — suffering a drug overdose. Not exactly Pretty in Pink.
Campos and his crew shot on 35mm film with an anamorphic lens, its extreme wide screen used to dislocating effect. Picture lots of cutoff body parts. “I like when someone’s eyeball or hand is the only thing in the left side of the frame,” he says. “It’s almost like a wide close-up.”
The pristine wide-screen celluloid also contrasts starkly with the film’s use of pixilated video images, ranging from YouTube clips to DV-camera footage. “I always knew I wanted the video to appear in center frame, and that jump to anamorphic was important,” Campos says — because, as a result, “the universe and scope of the film [become] bigger than just a high school teen film.”
Born and raised in Manhattan, Campos turned 24 during production and hasn’t finished university yet — he still needs 17 credits at NYU film school, which he doesn’t plan to fulfill. But he’s already been to Cannes three times: first, in 2005 with the prize-winning two-part short (one part pseudo-documentary, one part fiction) Buy It Now, about a high school girl selling her virginity on eBay; in 2007, with another short, The Last 15, which opens with a college student blowing his brains out at the family dinner table; and earlier this year, with Afterschool.
Surprisingly, the idea for Afterschool originated with the attacks of September 11. “Like most people, I had been existing in my very safe little world,” says Campos, who was starting his senior year of high school at the time. A friend’s father was killed in the towers; another close friend died in a freak accident that same year. “I felt very close and far away from both these incidents,” he says. “I had come up with the story of a boy who witnesses a twin’s death, who he doesn’t know and has only seen from a distance.”
But the story changed considerably after Campos attended Cannes’ Cinefoundation residency in Paris. There, in addition to obsessively viewing a retrospective of documentary filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose 1968 chronicle of conformity, HighSchool, provided Campos with an essential template for capturing said institution, he also had a eureka moment about the film’s use of video. “It put everything in perspective, because Robert became a watcher.” This allowed Campos to explore the character’s tension between “experiencing something that feels like reality through the videos he watches” and “what it’s like when he confronts those things in real life.”
As a graduate of the Upper West Side’s elite Dwight School (alumni include Truman Capote, Roy Lichtenstein and dropout Paris Hilton), Campos admits that the film also deals, in part, with his own high school anxieties. “In some ways, Robert’s issues are a purer manifestation of all the things I was going through,” he says. As for online porn, Campos admits with a laugh: “It’s kind of silly to say that you didn’t watch porn in high school.”
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Campos and his filmmaking partners, Sean Durkin, 25, and Josh Mond, 26, may barely be out of college, but Afterschool’s Cannes premiere opened their eyes to the cruel realities of the business as the reviews in the Hollywood trades. While European critics praised the film — Libération dubbed it “one of the best” of the fest — Variety declared: “Ice-cold downer will be a tough sell beyond fests and the most adventurous of indie distribs.”
For its screenings at the New York Film Festival and AFI Fest, Campos cut 15 minutes and now he and his producers hope these screenings will give the film a boost. In the meantime, Campos plans to start a pair of new features: the first, about a boy and his mother in New York, the other, about a boy and his father in Brazil — ”slightly autobiographical,” he admits. (His mother is Rose Ganguzza, a movie producer and former manager of soccer star Pelé; his father is Lucas Mendes, a Brazilian TV journalist.)
“For me, film is a cathartic process,” Campos says. “It’s about putting things up on the screen that you’d only talk about with your closest friends or with your shrink.”
Though the young filmmaker admits he still talks to his own therapist about his high school years, “Now,” he says, “I feel like moving on.”