film

Antonio Campos Tells Rian Johnson About Making The Devil All the Time

Published September 22, 2020

By all intents and purposes, Antonio Campos seems like a happy guy. As the director of art-house gems like Simon Killer and Christine, and one of the creative forces behind the pulpy USA series The Sinner, the 37-year-old New Yorker has succeeded in a field where most don’t. On top of that, he lives part-time in Chile, with his young son and his wife Sofia, who also edits his films. It all sounds very idyllic. Whatever darkness the filmmaker still harbors can be found in his new Netflix movie The Devil All the Time, a punishing gothic thriller about generational trauma and religion run-amok, set against the backdrop of rural West Virginia and Southeast Ohio in the ‘50s and ‘60s. Adapted from Donald Ray Pollock’s novel of the same (the author narrates the film), Campos, who co-wrote the script with his brother Paulo, doesn’t hold back in showing his audience some of the worst that human nature has to offer. Tom Holland, who, as Arvin Russell is the movie’s moral center, leads a sprawling, star-studded cast that features Robert Pattinson as a ghoulish preacher, Jason Clarke and Riley Keough as traveling serial killers, and Sebastian Stan as a corrupt sherrif. Mia Wasikowska, Haley Bennett, and Bill Skarsgård  show up too, as characters not long for the unforgiving world Campos has created. Earlier this month, he connected with the filmmaker Rian Johnson to discuss small towns, killer clowns, and edit-room meltdowns. —BEN BARNA

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RIAN JOHNSON: Was the last time we hung out at that hotel bar?

ANTONIO CAMPOS: Yeah. And you said you had this idea for a movie, but you didn’t tell me much else. It was Knives Out.

JOHNSON: I didn’t want to spoil it.

CAMPOS: You were also in the middle of recording the score for Star Wars: The Last Jedi.

JOHNSON: That seems like a lifetime ago. So you’re in Chile?

CAMPOS: Yeah. We have this tiny apartment we rent in Brooklyn, and we have a house in Chile, where my wife’s from. My wife is the editor of the film, and we set up this place to work and live in. The dream is that people can use this house whenever we’re away, and my wife can work with other directors here. It’s super isolated. We have a barbecue pit and this nice little office to work in, so it’s kind of the dream set-up.

JOHNSON: It sounds like the movie equivalent of where the Stones recorded Exile on Main St.

CAMPOS: Kind of, but fewer drugs.

JOHNSON: I love all your movies, but I really, really loved this one. As I slowly realized what it was doing, I just got more and more enthralled by it. How did you end up finding the book that the movie is based on? 

CAMPOS: I got this book from Randy Poster, who is best known as a music supervisor. He said, “If you like it, I’d love to make this movie with you.” So I read it and I loved it, and I knew that my brother [Paolo, with whom he co-wrote the script] would love it. He’s not a screenwriter, but he and I love the same literature. He turned me onto a lot of stuff when I was younger, so there was that connection. And then I got to know Don[ald Ray] Pollock [the author of the novel on which The Devil All the Time is based] through the process of working on it, and spent a lot of time with him in Knockemstiff and Chillicothe, Ohio.

JOHNSON: Did you guys shoot in that area?

CAMPOS: I spent three years trying to make this in Southern Ohio, and we had everything ready to go, and then an actor’s schedule changed, so we had to go south to get the sun. That’s how we ended up down in northern Alabama, which looks a lot like southern Ohio and West Virginia. It’s coal-mining country, the tip of Appalachia. Everything is shot in Georgia these days, and nobody shoots in Alabama. We came to learn why.

JOHNSON: There’s no infrastructure, I’m guessing. 

CAMPOS: That’s right.

JOHNSON: But what you got on the screen is absolutely stunning. It’s so tied up in the dark, gothic feeling of those forests and those towns.

CAMPOS: The good part about shooting in Alabama is that because no one’s shot there, everything feels fresh on screen. There are so many amazing locations that haven’t been photographed.

JOHNSON: Did you and your brother grow up religious? So much of what resonates about the movie is America’s relationship to violence and religion.

CAMPOS: I grew up with a very devout mother and a devout grandfather. My father isn’t religious. We didn’t go to church every week, but we did for holidays. He would just kind of leave us at the door and be like, “I’ve been to church enough,” and turn around. So I had these two extremes. That aspect of the book really struck me, because I grew up struggling with it. I became very critical of the Catholic church as I got older, and I was confused by certain things the church would do versus what the tenets of the religion were. From an early age, I had this awareness of the hypocrisy of the church. What was your relationship with religion growing up?

JOHNSON: I was an Orange County Protestant. My parents weren’t full-on hippies, but they came out of that new, young Christianity movement. I grew up very much in a youth group–centered home, and I was really devout. I was very, very triggered by the movie. Even though yours is a much more extreme examplewe weren’t dumping spiders on our headsthe scene with Bill Skarsgård is telling the kid [Michael Banks Repeta], who was fantastic, to pray harder, that scene felt like a dagger going into me. I think it resonates with anyone who’s grown up with faith being something that framed their view of the world.

CAMPOS: But the funniest thing about this kid, in that scene in particular, is that I sat down with him and his mother, and you know how when you’re dealing with a kid in sensitive scenes in a film that the kid would otherwise never see, you try to protect them? His mom was like, “Banks is very mature for his age. He’s not scared of horror movies or anything. He’s a pretty tough kid.” And Banks was like, “Yeah, I’m not scared of monsters or anything. There’s just one thing that I’m kind of scared of and that’s Pennywise.” And I was like, “… Pennywise?” And I looked at the mother right away, and she was like, “Don’t say anything.” He didn’t realize that Bill Skarsgård was the thing that haunted his nightmares. So I was like, “Bill, do not tell this kid that you are the clown.” And Bill is like, “Oh my god. I’m totally going to tell him.” So the day that we were shooting that scene, Bill was like, “They don’t think you can know this, but I know you’re a smart kid. I’m the clown in It.” And Banks was like, “Whoa, that’s crazy. I didn’t know that. Alright.” And I don’t know if this is connected, but in the middle of that scene Banks just burst into tears way before he was supposed to. I think that somehow really got to him.

JOHNSON: And you were lurking behind the camera in a yellow raincoat with a red balloon you raised anytime you needed a reaction out of him.

CAMPOS: [Laughs] What are the chances that the kid’s number-one fear is the clown that was portrayed by the guy playing his father?

JOHNSON: Too perfect. What was the vibe like on set? 

CAMPOS: You know what it’s like. Knives Out had an insane cast. Did you have them all the whole time or were they in and out?

JOHNSON: We had all of them for chunks of time, and then there were chunks of time when people were coming and going, which your movie seems conducive to.

CAMPOS: It was a lot of in and out.

JOHNSON: It’s the Tonight Show thing, where it’s like, “Today’s special guest is…”  

CAMPOS: Totally. We were working with two-week chunks, and there would be some overlap. Tom Holland was the one who touches on every story, so he had the most overlap with different characters. It was one of those scheduling-nightmare kind of shoots, but every actor just fell into place. They were so diligent, they did so much homework, and they came prepared.

JOHNSON: You said you grew up in New York, but you’ve worked a lot in the South, and with this movie, you can feel your visual fascination with that world. What’s your relationship with the American South?

CAMPOS: This film falls into the Southern Gothic category, but it’s southern Ohio and West Virginia, which actually is more Midwestern, so it’s a different flavor. More than the woods and the country, I’m drawn to the little towns. To me, those towns, where everybody knows each other and you can name all the restaurants and bars, there’s always this other side to them. It’s their underbelly that fascinates me.

JOHNSON: It’s such a contrast from where you grew up. This movie goes to extremes. There’s a lot of grotesqueness, a lot of violence, but there’s never a lack of humanity. With a filmmaker who was less interested in humanity, it could have been ghoulish or exploitative. You have such a sensitive touch that it always feels the opposite of that—the audience feels like we’ve been led through this really difficult thing, but that it was worth it because you still have your foot on the essential humanity of every single action in the movie. That’s really something. There’s something about having an outsider’s eye to a place, like Sergio Leone with the Old West or a documentarian coming into an unfamiliar place. You can feel that in this movie with you.

CAMPOS: I haven’t made my New York movie yet, but with each one of the films I’ve made, I’ve immersed myself in a world that is foreign. And through the process of making it, I feel like I’m making some sort of documentary, in the sense that I’m using the process of developing the movie or the pre-production period as a way of getting to know people and collecting stories and even collecting people. With Simon Killer [2012], we found a fixer who had worked in Pigalle and vouched for us so that we could start talking to the people who owned these hostess bars and worked on the streets there. And in that process, Mati Diop, Brady Corbet, and I really got to learn how things operated, and got to know so many of the women there. Through that process, they told me so many wonderful, fascinating, shocking stories. Some of those stories made it into the movie.

JOHNSON: What’s it like putting out a movie right now?

CAMPOS: I’m lucky to be at Netflix.

JOHNSON: Did you make this movie with Netflix, or did they pick it up after the fact?

CAMPOS: Netflix made it. We didn’t develop it there, but we went there and they picked it up and financed it. I don’t know if you know the people who work there, but they’re really supportive of filmmakers. But the saddest part about this for me is that I wanted to go to film festivals again. And with this cast, can you imagine how much fun that would be?

JOHNSON: You guys would have had a blast, man. That’s heartbreaking.

CAMPOS: And this movie has been so hard to make. While we were making it, Randy Poster and I were always like, “Man, we’re going to celebrate when this movie’s done.” And then it was like, “No. No you’re not. This is The Devil All the Time, and there’s no room for celebration.”

JOHNSON: What’s it like working with your wife?  Where’s the church and state there?

CAMPOS: She draws the line. I do my best to cross it, in terms of wanting to talk about the project all the time. I want to eat dinner and talk about it. I want to change our baby’s diaper and talk about it. I want to go to bed and talk about it. I want to wake up at four in the morning and nudge her to talk about it. But my wife is great at saying, “Let’s take a step back.” I try my best to do that. It’s hard. It doesn’t always work, but at the end of the day, there are way more pros than cons.

JOHNSON: That’s the type of working relationship you want to have. It’s tough, especially with the editing process. I have a really good relationship with my editor, Bob Ducsay. You can feel so vulnerable during that part of the process, whereas on set, you have to kind of be the captain, put on a brave face and forge forward. In the edit room, you have a little more freedom to emotionally collapse.

CAMPOS: Yes. Yes. Yes.

JOHNSON: My editor gets the worst of me.

CAMPOS: That’s exactly what my wife is like: “Why do I get this guy? You’re the coolest guy on set and everybody loves you. You’re so funny and nice. And then I get this sad sack.”

JOHNSON: What are you working on next?

CAMPOS: I’ve been developing a limited series that’s based on The Staircase [about the 2001 trial of Michael Peterson, who was convicted of murdering his wife, Kathleen Peterson]. I have it set up at HBO Max, and Harrison Ford is attached. What are you working on?

JOHNSON: I’m actually writing another Knives Out. It’s been such a mindfuck, because I sat on the idea for the first one for 10 years. And with this one, I’m starting with a blank page. It’s not really a Knives Out sequel. I need to come up with a title for it so I can stop calling it The Knives Out Sequel because it’s just Daniel Craig as the same detective with a totally new cast.

CAMPOS: It’s so cool that you created this character from such a deep love for those kinds of movies, and that you can take him on other adventures.

JOHNSON: I don’t know when you and I will ever get to adventures again, but I look forward to it.

CAMPOS: I really look forward to it, too.

JOHNSON: We may be knocking your door down in Chile.

CAMPOS: You could come. Seriously. If you make the journey, you’ll be treated like a king.

JOHNSON: Be careful: you’re writing a check you don’t think I’ll cash.