For several years, writer/director Antonio Campos was part of a loose collective of filmmakers (that also included Sean Durkin, maker of this week’s The Nest, and James White director Josh Mond) who would produce each other’s movies and just generally be creatively supportive. The resulting works included Campos’ film Afterschool, Simon Killer, and the extraordinary 2016 work Christine; Durkin’s Martha Marcy May Marlene; and other indie favorites, including The Eyes of My Mother and Piercing. But Campos’ latest, the Netflix Southern Gothic piece The Devil All the Time (based on the novel by Donald Ray Pollock), is his first made outside the collective. It’s a powerful, rich and sometimes horrifying period piece, with an impressive cast that includes Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Bill Skarsgård, Riley Keough, Jason Clarke, Mia Wasikowska, Sebastian Stan and Eliza Scanlen.
The film is now playing in select theaters and on Netflix this weekend, and we had a chance to sit down with Campos earlier this week to discuss his interesting way of making sure the author’s unique voice was not lost in the novel’s transition to film (and I do mean film—the movie was shot on 35mm); the religious aspects of The Devil All the Time; and how Robert Pattinson created his creepy preacher character. We cram a lot into a short amount of time.
I know a lot of times when a book is adapted into a movie, a common criticism is that you lose the author’s voice, but you have done something here that makes that impossible for anyone to say. How did you land on the idea of having Pollock narrate certain parts of the film, and how did you want to execute the idea without it seeming like a gimmick.
Wow, I loved the way that you framed that question. I knew as we were working on this that we would need an element that would unify it all, and that would be the voice of a narrator. And once we started talking about a narrator, there was nobody else but Don to take on that role, and that was it. I’d never seen a film where the author of the book did this. It felt exciting to me—there’s this guy who’s from this place in the world called Knockemstiff, Ohio, this tiny little holler, who only writes stories set in this place, who knows every character and every location and every setting, so who better to guide us through this weird, wild world than Don. Also, Don has a very comforting voice, so it’s a nice contrast or counterpoint to so much of what’s happening in the frame. All of that combined, it made sense to me that Don would play this role in the movie.
And unlike many narrators, yours is not detached from what’s going on. He has opinions.
Yeah, the basis for that, well there are two—the touchstones were Barry Lyndon, which has a voiceover very much in line with this. He’s not the author of the book, but it’s someone who’s not a character in the story but is this omniscient narrator who knows everything and has a sense of humor and an opinion about the characters and what they’re up to. And then there was A Christmas Story, which does have the writer of the book, but he’s having fun with the narration. That was also a guide, not so much the story but that notion of the narrator having fun in the narrating of it.
This is actually two separate movies set a generation apart, and it’s your job to find the connective tissue between the two halves. How do you even begin that process, with two different casts?
You try not to tell different stories in the way that you’re shooting it, be consistent so that you’re not shooting the past one way and the present another way. It has to be all one thing, so it’s all part of the same quilt that you’re weaving. Then tonally, you’re trying to maintain. The script captured this tone throughout, and that unifies it all. Then you direct and kid your actors so that they’re all embracing the world and character of it all. None of these actors were afraid to go to the extreme at times, and part of my job was letting them off the reins and saying “Go with it. You guys are so smart and so committed to this performance that you cannot go wrong. And if you ever go too far, I’m here to rein it in.” You have faith that they’re going to do that, and if everybody has the same mandate and moving in the same direction, you’re going to have something that’s unified.
Watching Arvin [played by Tom Holland] go through this slow and steady corruption is one of the hardest things to watch in this film filled with difficult things to watch. A lot of what corrupts him is based in religion, which may be particular to the region. What do you see the role of religion being in this story?
For me, it was not so much religion as it was the danger of what happens to religion in the hands of either deceptive, manipulative people or in people who are traumatized themselves and deluded. Arvin’s relationship with religion is formed not by religion itself but by his father’s relationship with religion. His relationship with the cross is his father’s relationship with the cross, and his father’s relationship with the cross has nothing to do with Jesus; it has to do with this Marine he saw crucified in the Solomon Islands. The mythologies and the very bloody history that’s at play in the bible starts to manifest in real life and creates this delusion in the minds of people who are traumatized for whatever reason, and that sets off Arvin on this cycle. In a way, Lenora [Arvin’s adopted sister, played by Eliza Scanlen] comes out the other end of it better adjusted.
That scene at the graveyard where the two of them are talking about these bullies, and she says “It wouldn’t hurt you to pray for them and turn the other cheek,” and he’s like “That’s not doing you any good. There are a lot of no-good sons of bitches out there, and it’s my job to deal with them.” There’s forgiveness on the one hand, and there’s revenge and retribution on the other, and those are the two paths that are at play in the movie.
And on the other side, you have Robert Pattinson’s preacher Preston Teagardin, who seems like he’s from another planet in this movie. Did you have him look at certain things as reference in creating that character, or did you have some reference points?
Rob is just pulling from so many different places, and I know he was pulling from preachers at that time, these guys on TV and the radio, and going for it—as well as contemporary preachers. I don’t know what he was tapping into necessarily because the creation of the voice of the character was something he was very protective about. We talked about the character and the feel of the character and how we wanted him to embrace a little bit of the sliminess. We didn’t want to seem like too much of a nice guy; we always wanted you to know there was something up with this guy and that his intentions weren’t so pure.
Rob combined all of these voices and he insisted—he never said it, but I could tell he didn’t want to ever sit down and talk to the dialect coach. He wanted to do his own thing and figure it out on his own. And the dialect coach was really important to make sure everyone sounded like they were part of the same world—people from West Virginia sounded the same, people from Ohio. And Rob was so far outside of that—from Tennessee, a place we never go to—that he could be his own thing and go where he wanted to go with this character, and I was there to guide it in whatever way I needed to to make sure it was all part of the same world.
Antonio, it was great to talk to you. Best of luck.
You too. I really appreciate it. Thanks.
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