By Becky Miller
The night of the tree lighting—a glamorous Columbia tradition where the whole university gathers on College Walk to watch someone flip a switch—Fergus Campbell, CC ’22, put on a show of his own. Capitalizing on the foot traffic near Low Steps, Campbell and his friends set up a projector and streamed previews of his experimental web series “Sankyo Stream” onto an unobstructed stone wall. They passed out “Sankyo Stream” stickers to tree-obsessed spectators. The stickers came free with a shameless advertisement: “Come watch all seven episodes of ‘Sankyo Stream’ in Dodge 511 at 8 p.m. tonight! Bring your friends!”
At 8 p.m. inside Dodge 511, a small student theater that a professor of Campbell’s had lent him for the night, every seat was filled with friends, fans, and film geeks (I belonged somewhere in between those three categories). As the writer, director, editor, and creator of the project on-screen, Campbell, clad in the “Sankyo Stream” t-shirt handmade by a friend, gave brief opening remarks before the lights dimmed. Campbell thanked the viewers, his extensive network of Columbia student collaborators, and his creatively involved roommates and companions. After a round of topical trivia (in which no player could name all three Haim sisters), seven consecutive episodes of Campbell’s precise, beautiful, and evocative mind-map unfurled before the audience. The theater was dark and lively with human reactions, just as a true cinematic experience should be. (Campbell told me later that he hasn’t watched a movie on a laptop in ages because it’s impossible to simulate the undivided attention one gives to a film in a theater.) I remember thinking in Dodge that this Columbia audience was particularly attentive, present, spirited—I immediately fell in line and cheered, laughed, and marveled with the cool seniors. There was no other way to react to a Fergus Campbell screening.
Campbell began making “Sankyo Stream of Consciousness” as a freshman. His vision was clear: He’d venture on an experimental, interview-based quest to find and interview Paul Thomas Anderson. The final product is an adventure narrative, interspersed with dream sequences and preluded by an iconic title-sequence homage to New York. Campbell shoots about a quarter of the show with a Sankyo MF-606 camera, a retro brand of Super 8 film cameras which acts as the namesake for both the show and Campbell’s main character.
Campbell uses the character of Sankyo—a refracted version of himself—to explore obsession, motivations, desires, and “how something can be about someone and at the same time have nothing to do with them, how the subject can be central and at the same time, completely marginal.” The show is a collaboration between artists of all kinds at Columbia and beyond—the original music, dialogue, acting, dancing, choreography, and design are all contributions Campbell’s friends and peers make for free. He admits his college-long project “masquerades as a club.” He spearheads the organization with stylized visions of cowboy vogue, fish guts, faux French film noir sequences, ballet numbers, live student concerts, animated rebirth, and cityscapes in tow.
Paul Thomas Anderson was the obvious choice for the prize of Sankyo’s treasure hunt—since the show is simultaneously dead serious and completely parodical, the stereotypical “favorite director” of film kids simply had to be Sankyo’s ultimate get. Campbell himself only truly idolizes two of PTA’s movies (Phantom Thread and Punch Drunk Love, three if you count Licorice Pizza as an afterthought), but he adopts PTA’s directorial precision and ideological depth like someone who can quote Tom Cruise’s deranged on-stage monologue in Magnolia word for word. The difference is that Campbell has opinions, and Magnolia does not do it for him.
Campbell loves Oliver (he was cast as Fagan in high school); he is a pop music devotee and religiously listens to Lana Del Rey (on Apple Music, of course); he is bored by the role of Maria in West Side Story (although the Spielberg remake was gorgeous); he’s a big fan of The Weeknd’s new album Dawn FM (but does not find its radio-show gimmick original). Campbell is so self-aware that these takes hold no element of bullshit or appeal to popularity—he’s happy to advocate for cool shit and uncool shit, and even cool shit that’s so overdone it becomes uncool. If he’s into it, he’s into it uncompromisingly.
Campbell’s easy self-possession leads to aiming high and usually scoring. On a whim, he cold-called The New Yorker’s Michael Schulman asking if he could help him out in any way. Now he’s fact-checking Schulman’s book about the Oscars and working as his assistant. In Episode Seven of “Sankyo Stream,” Campbell snagged interviews with a MoMA film curator, mayoral candidate and New York personality Paperboy Prince, and the founders of a queer surfing collective. “People are mostly down to give creative support,” he told me, sipping on a beer at Max Caffe. “It’s also luck,” he added, mentioning the recording studio near his hometown in Northern California that he and a friend borrowed from their high school English teacher to record a forthcoming EP.
With a knack for uncovering the small-but-special underbelly of every place he goes, Campbell’s style is distinct and cohesive across his music, his web series, his animations, and his photographs. A short film he wrote and animated mid-quarantine, Telling George, leaps out at you with the style of a Wes Anderson movie; but its languid rhythm, satisfying sentences, and imagined location (a sunny cave-mansion) are entirely Fergus Campbell. His on-brand, unreleased EP is dedicated to the idea of places: The lyrics are “observational, diaristic, but mundane.” His already-public songs, “Sister” and “Californiana” (both written and sung by Campbell with Vimeo music videos), contain strikingly short, detail-laden lyrics, clearly written by someone who expertly captures moments with a camera; listening to his lyrics feels like watching vivid, intentional vignettes flick across your mind, a measured slideshow that Campbell is controlling.
After the last two “Sankyo Stream” episodes come out this spring and summer, Campbell plans to use other avenues to fulfill his visual urges: filming a docuseries about his friend and pop star Maude Latour, writing a feature film, squeezing songs and words and images out of the places he can’t stop thinking about—Marfa, Texas; Argenton, France; his beloved New York.
When I asked him over a dry chicken sandwich if the country accent he adopts for a song about Texas on the EP was supposed to be funny, he explained, “It’s a little bit pastiche but I’m also completely serious about it.” As with everything Campbell creates, even if it isn’t dead serious, some part of it is in fact absolutely dead serious, which is what makes it both so magnetic and so fun. As an auteur, he is at once central and marginal; as a senior at Columbia, he is at once remarkably talented and refreshingly unpretentious. People can’t help freak out about the guy—he is so singular and visionary that it doesn’t even matter that he doesn’t like Magnolia.