The Devil All The Time in a new film coming to Netflix this week, and it includes a stellar cast of actors and is based off an award-winning novel of the same name by Donald Ray Pollock. The film’s director, Antonio Campos, recently sat down for a chat on turning this complicated book into a movie, the dark themes that both explore, and what it was like working with author.
The novel The Devil All The Time tells a non-linear story that bounces around various characters and even various time periods, and yet it all comes together neatly at the end. Pollock masterfully juggled these various plots, while still keeping his narrative moving forward. But for a film, some of the luxuries that Pollock had required some changes. Campos addressed some of the changes from the book to the movie.
“Well one I’ll tell you about specifically that it was really kind of, I think it turned into my favorite scene in the movie,” Campos said. “In the end there’s a confrontation that happens between Arvin, Tom Holland’s character, and Rob Pattinson, who plays Teagardin, and in the book it happens in this kind in this one remote little corner where Teagardin takes his victims, and we switched it into the church and we changed the dynamic so that you almost start the scene off as though this young guy has come in to confess to this preacher, and then you realize that the intention is way more dangerous than that.
“That was it was one example of how we took a note from Don (Pollock) and then just played with it and sort of kept the essence of the scene the same, but just kind of made it a little bit more dynamic and cinematic, in a way.”
Religion plays a huge role in both the novel and the film. Star Bill Skarsgard (IT), who plays Willard Russell, recently commented that the film is not trying to be anti-religious, but more commentary on how religion can be warped in the wrong hands. Campos explained that it was not their intention to take on religion itself.
“I mean, I think that’s beautifully articulated by Bill, who is such a wise, wonderful soul,” he began. “You know, it really is not, the movie is about extreme believers in religion, in their faith and the dangers of that. Because, you know, all these characters are screaming to the heavens looking for answers and what they get in return is silence. And in that void they fill it with an answer themselves, and if it is a person is traumatized or delusional, they can fill it with a dangerous answer. So the film is exploring the dangers of extreme religion, and how people in power can take advantage of people’s faith and manipulate them.
“And so, that’s what we’re exploring. The film isn’t anti-religion. It is more comment on the dangers of religion in the wrong hands.”
To say the events that transpire in The Devil All The Time are dark is an understatement. The film pulls no punches as it takes characters of questionable morals through various situations that often end up violently. Campos’ previous projects, like Christine, a film based on the true account of a TV newscaster who committed suicide on air, are uncomfortable to some. What about these dark themes draws him to projects like this.
“I think it is the challenge of making these dark, complicated characters accessible and trying to understand what drives them and what motivates some of their bad choices,” Campos explained. “And I think that exploring the darkness in books and art and movies, that’s a safe place to explore those themes, and to understand that side of the coin informs the way that we perceive.
“I kind of like to try and understand why some people make the choices they make, and to see if there’s a humanity in them. It’s part of being human, and so that’s what drives me is try to understand why these characters — these people — do what they do, and at the end of the day if we can find any humanity in them.”
The novel has a great many characters, each with their own storylines — and time periods — and yet they all end up intersecting with each other in unique and sometimes violent ways. The film keeps much of that intact, and that means Campos had to shepherd a massive stable of actors, which could have been disastrous. Luckily, he pulled it off — but it wasn’t easy.
“It’s definitely a challenge juggling this many characters,” he admits. “What we had to do with this movie was to introduce characters in the periphery and let them be known by the audience, so that when they come back, you’re like ready to go with them. And that’s kind of why you have to cast some of these actors with recognizable faces, because if you go, ‘Oh that’s Jason Clarke; oh that’s Riley Keogh,’ you’re like, ‘Oh, they’re gonna be in this movie again.’
“There’s just something subconsciously that’s happening when you’re watching that go down, so without doing very much like, ‘Oh, that’s a character that’s gonna be part of the movie,’ and then when they come back you’re ready for it.
“So, it’s about how do you kind of like pepper the other characters in before their storylines sort of take over, and then also making sure you cast them with someone that’s either gonna be memorable or someone that you are familiar with that, you know is going to come back.”
The cast of The Devil All The Time is top-notch, and includes Tom Holland, Robert Pattinson, Sebastian Stan, Bill Skarsgard, Jason Clarke, and Riley Keough, among many others. One actor elevates his game from that crowd of talent, as Pattinson turns in a role so steeped in darkness that the audience almost roots for his comeuppance. How did Pattinson’s Reverend Teagardin develop into the alpha monster in a film full of monsters? And in a film full of actors known for playing heroes, how did they find the darkness of these characters?
“We always wanted Teagardin (Pattinson) to have like this other worldly quality, like a big entrance, like he’s designed to come into the movie and shake it up,” Campos said. “When Teagardin comes in you’re like, okay, there’s this, you know, you’re settling into this other storyline with Tom Holland’s character and Eliza Scanlen’s character. And then you’re like what’s gonna where is the danger, and then Teagardin shows up so we always knew that Teagardin was like this force that kind of shakes up the rest of the movie.
“And because Teagardin is so far outside the realm of the the movie, like so far outside of West Virginia and Ohio, he had so much freedom to kind of like just run with that character and go, and I really was like, ‘Go, just go. Just go as far as you want to go. Just swing for the fences. If we have to rein it in we will,’ but I just love performances like that.
“That was really sort of the mandate across the board. I think everybody in this film pushes themselves into places that they might not have gone before. I think Sebastian Stan’s Bodecker is like, it’s just amazing. I mean, he’s doing stuff that is really swinging for the fences, and he transforms his body and everything. I tried to imbue everybody with a sense of freedom to go and have fun with their characters.”
Every director has their favorite scene in a movie, whether they admit it or not. The Devil All The Time is chock full of scenes that could easily qualify, but one scene in particular stood out as Campos’ favorite.
“It’s simple, for me, it’s one scene that I just think is my favorite one of my favorite things that I’ve directed, which is the face-off in the church between Tom and Rob,” Campos explained. “From the moment that we wrote it, to just every step of the way of shooting it, of directing the actors, because it was like theater, you know, it’s just two people sitting there looking at each other having a conversation.
“And making sure that we design you know when you have these kind of very simple setup you really kind of spend so much time designing it so that every every shot, every moment just kind of feels really rich. And then in that scene, my wife is the editor, and we worked on that in some way like every day for eight months.
“I went to bed thinking about that scene. I woke up and thinking about that scene. It was like this obsession. And then in the sound mix we were like obsessed with every detail, of like them sitting with the sound of the chair, their clothes, the rattle of the gun. And then the score just really nailing the score. and the kind of ride that the music takes you on through that scene.
“So, that is the scene that I think is the most complex in terms of its design, and in some in some ways the simplest in terms of its setup, so I really love that scene. I think that’ll be one of my favorite scenes that I’ve ever made, or have been a part of making.
Campos wrote the screenplay for The Devil All The Time with his brother, Paulo, and the duo did an outstanding job adapting such a complicated narrative into a two hour film. He explained the good and the bad of working with a co-writer that he knows so well.
“Oh man, writing with my brother was a great experience,” the director revealed. “I mean, he’s my older brother so there’s already a dynamic there. Before we got started, you know, and a lot of ways my brother was the guy that introduced me to so many different books and movies and music when I was a kid, so much of the reason why I love these genres is because my brother turned them on to me.
“There was this kind of inherent connection over the material that we both had, and this love for the material that we both had, and we just worked really closely. We would go work way, way into the night like sometimes like when we had to get a draft done, we would be working together until five or six in the morning.
“You have some of the biggest fights you’ll ever have with someone when you work with them that closely, and you’ll also get closer to them in a way that you’ll never get without that sort of experience, so it’s got its pros and cons, but ultimately I think it’s made my brother and me you have an even closer relationship.
Arguably the most important part of this film is the narration, and Campos cast the book’s author, Donald Ray Pollack, to give voice to his most famous work. Pollock’s voice is perfect for this story and he gives it a timeless quality that haunts the viewer as the scenes unfold. The director addressed how Pollock’s involvement came about and how it affected the filmmaking process.
“Well my brother I talked about narration from the beginning, but we didn’t include it until the second draft,” Campos explained. “We talked about it, but we just wanted to get through the draft without it to see where we needed it. And from the moment we started implementing narration, there was no other person in my mind than Don Ray Pollock.
“I knew his voice was perfect, and he was a voice that was born and raised and Knockemstiff, Ohio, so like what actor are you gonna be able to get that can replicate the feel of that specific place? It’s just so specific, that sound of southern Ohio is very specific, and the sound of Knockemstiff is very specific, so Don had that — he knew the world, he knew the characters, he created the world and the characters, so it was just it was just like there was nobody else.
“I hadn’t heard of any author narrate his own adaptation, so it just felt it felt fresh in a way and exciting. I loved the challenge of working with someone who’s not an actor, because it’s just like you get a kind of performance that doesn’t feel like a performance, but just the just someone talking to you.
“When Don agreed to do it, he recorded all the scripted narration we used. We assembled the movie as we shot it, and then as my wife and I were editing the movie, we would get like an idea for a piece of voiceover here or there and then I would email Don right away and Don would shoot it back pretty much immediately. He’d give me different reads on it and also sometimes give me an alt-take and add a little bit of spice to it in a way that I hadn’t thought about.
“So it was a really great collaborative process. His voice was so important to the book, and I was happy that we figured out a way of incorporating it literally in the movie.”
The Devil All The Time is rated R and premieres on Netflix on Wednesday, September 16.