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Exclusive Interview: Director Antonio Campos on his Southern Gothic “THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME” and the “OMEN” prequel

Wednesday, September 16, 2020 | Interviews

By MICHAEL GINGOLD

Psychological disturbance and religious fervor run through the interwoven stories told in THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME, debuting today on Netflix. Based on Donald Ray Pollock’s celebrated novel, the film was directed by Antonio Campos, who spoke with RUE MORGUE about bringing the book’s dark deeds to the screen.

THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME begins by tracking the way a traumatic experience during WWII impacts on the psyche of Willard Russell (IT’s Bill Skarsgård) and how he raises his son Arvin. Played as a teenager by Tom Holland (the SPIDER-MAN films), Arvin struggles to deal with the violence around him as DEVIL’s narrative also encompasses a serial-killing couple (PET SEMATARY’s Jason Clarke and MAD MAX: FURY ROAD’s Riley Keough) and two different, corrupt preachers (Harry Melling and THE LIGHTHOUSE’s Robert Pattinson). With a cast also including Mia Wasikowska (CRIMSON PEAK), Eliza Scanlen and Haley Bennett, DEVIL blends assorted thriller subgenres, a deep dive into religion and the ways it can be practiced or perverted, and moments of shocking bloodshed. Campos, who scripted DEVIL with his brother Paulo, is no stranger to movies about unbalanced individuals, having prevously helmed AFTERSCHOOL and SIMON KILLER, and was previously attached to a prequel to THE OMEN.

What was it about Pollock’s THE DEVIL ALL THE TIME that inspired you to adapt it?

I was drawn to the generational story at its core, the study of the sins of the father that are passed down to the son, the trauma that Willard experiences in war and his delusional relationship with faith as a result that gets passed down to Arvin. How does his son deal with that, and then how does his son possibly break that cycle? That aspect was the core of it for me, and the way each other story within the book has that generational element.​

Beyond that, it was the genres; I have always been a fan of Southern Gothic and hardboiled fiction, and this book was an amazing marriage of those two genres. I had never read anything like it, so all that was why I really wanted to make this movie.

The movie touches on everything from neo-hoir to horror; how did you approach incorporating all those elements, and did any past films influence you?

I didn’t watch a lot of genre movies in the lead-up to this; I tried to just design the scenes based on what felt real and right for the moment, and create a world that felt like a blend of reality and noir. There was definitely an element of noir that came through, in certain spaces and storylines more than others, like the corrupt sheriff or the serial-killer couple. Those inherently have a classic noir flavor to them. But it wasn’t like I was directly referencing any specific movies of that type; it was just the mood we were all aiming for, that Southern Gothic feeling we were trying to channel every day.

There are also some startlingly violent events in the film; how did you handle those?

If you look at the movie as a whole, there are very specific super-violent moments, and they’re fast and hopefully surprising and impactful, but they’re not super-gory. For me, it was about trying to shoot these heightened scenes the way they might play out in real life, and not putting a magnifying glass on the gore but letting it be part of the bigger frame. The other thing that was important to me in depicting the violence was that there was an emotion behind it, that you felt for the person who was pulling the trigger and the person being shot. You’re able to actually spend time with both, and I wanted to create an emotional truth to each one of these violent scenes.

The book is divided into chapters dealing with each character; what were the challenges of interweaving those stories so the movie has its own narrative flow?

It was trying to maintain the spirit of what Don did in the book in a feature-length runtime. The challenge was to kill our darlings, and be ruthless about the things we really loved in the book, and to capture the essence of each storyline. Once we figured out the overall structure, it was really about sculpting it, and figuring out how to make it all flow as one.

It was a very challenging movie to make in many ways. Creatively, it was just making sure we did justice to the novel, and that we were able to tell these various stories within the bigger story about Willard and Arvin. That’s the thing we’re most proud of that we pulled off. Production-wise, we dealt with a lot of natural elements: a tornado at one point, poison ivy, poison oak, ticks, all kinds of things we came up against in northern Alabama.

You have a pretty remarkable cast; how did you find the right person for each of the key roles?

It was a long process. I needed a mix of recognizable faces, unknowns, new faces and locals, and I went about it the way I always do: a slow, methodical process of going through lists and auditions. I was very lucky on this film, because a lot of the people in it, I had met by chance along the way. I had a general meeting with Bill Skarsgård a few years earlier, and we got to know each other and really liked each other, so when it came time to start casting, I knew Bill and could go to him. I had met Riley Keough for coffee once, so when we started working on DEVIL, it was like, Riley would be perfect for this.

I was also fortunate to be able to attract some of these actors before they blew up. I think Tom Holland had already shot SPIDER-MAN, but it hadn’t come out by the time we started talking about this, so it was just the right time. And Rob came on just after GOOD TIME had come out, and he really responded to Rev. Teagardin and wanted to play him. I was lucky, too, that these actors stuck by me, because it took a little while to get the film made. Tom, Rob and Mia were attached to the project for a long time, from before we even went to market with it.

DEVIL has a very divided view of religion; it’s a positive force for some characters, and a negative one as practiced by others. Can you talk about your approach to the subject?

Yeah, it was exactly that–to try and understand the relationship each character has with religion. Everybody in the movie has some sort of relationship with faith. I think the scene that encapsulates the two different perspectives is the one in the cemetery between Arvin and his stepsister Lenora [Scanlan], where Arvin has just been beaten up by the bullies who have been harassing Lenora, and tried to fight these three guys at once. Lenora, who’s been picked on, is saying, “Why do you have to fight them? Why don’t you just pray for them?” Basically, “Turn the other cheek, forgive them.” And Arvin is like, “That doesn’t make any sense to me.” He dismisses that perspective; he holds onto things, he looks for revenge. He has the old-school “eye for an eye” way of thinking. So to me, the film presents the darker side of religion, the way that people in power can abuse faith, while also showing the way religion can be a bit of light in a dark time.

Speaking of religion, what were your plans for the OMEN prequel you were involved with a few years back, and what became of that project?

I’m no longer attached to that. Everything was amicable, and I don’t know what’s going on with it. I think David Goyer is still the producer on it. I had a very good experience developing it, and we had a really cool script; the last draft had been done by Gillian Flynn [GONE GIRL]. I don’t know what’s going to happen with it, but I hope they make it. I think it could be a cool movie.

Can you tell us about the storyline?

I don’t think so; I’d like to, but I think they’d get mad!

Other than that project, you haven’t been involved with a true horror film, but all of your movies have had horrific sides to them. Is a pure horror film something you’d still like to do?

Yeah, absolutely. I would be very excited to make a horror movie. Sean Durkin [MARTHA MARCY MAY MARLENE], a director I’ve worked with in the past, is another filmmaker who loves horror; he doesn’t make horror films, but his movies feel almost like ghost stories; they’re haunted. We always talk about the fact that we both make movies that have elements of horror but are not true horror, and I would love to finally find that horror film to make, and dip into the supernatural a little bit.

What do you currently have in the works?

I’m developing a limited series based on the Netflix documentary THE STAIRCASE, and working with a few other writers to do scripts for that. So that’s what’s happening right now.

Michael Gingold
Michael Gingold (RUE MORGUE's Head Writer) has been covering the world of horror cinema for over three decades, and spent 28 years as a writer and editor for FANGORIA magazine and its website. In addition to RUE MORGUE, he currently writes for BIRTH.MOVIES.DEATH, SCREAM, IndieWire.com, TIME OUT, DELIRIUM and others. His book THE FRIGHTFEST GUIDE TO MONSTER MOVIES (FAB Press) is out this fall, and he has contributed liner notes and featurettes to a number of Blu-ray and DVD releases. Among his screenplay credits are SHADOW: DEAD RIOT and LEECHES!, and he is currently working on THE DOLL with director Dante Tomaselli.