‘The Devil All the Time’ Director Antonio Campos on Netflix Drama’s Disturbing Violence, Religious Themes

The Devil All the Time Director
Courtesy of Glen Wilson/Netflix

“The Devil All the Time,” debuting Sept. 16 on Netflix, plunges viewers into the darkest recesses of damaged souls. There are blood sacrifices and serial killers, sexual deviants and false prophets, deranged fathers and murderous sons. Think Flannery O’Connor with a much higher body count. Director Antonio Campos, the acclaimed auteur behind “Christine,” returns with a cast of heavy hitters that includes Tom Holland as an orphan who can’t seem to escape his family’s violent past; Sebastian Stan as a cop on the take; Riley Keough and Jason Clarke as a couple with a sadistic hobby; and Robert Pattinson as a perverse priest. Campos spoke with Variety about why he adapted Donald Ray Pollock’s novel and what he’s missing about the movie business in the age of COVID-19.

What attracted you to “The Devil All the Time”? When I read the book, it had all the elements I loved of a Flannery O’Connor story and a Jim Thompson novel like “The Killer Inside Me” or “The Grifters.” It was like Southern Gothic and hardboiled noir all mixed together in a stew.

The film unfolds in rural Ohio and West Virginia and the backroads between. How important was it to give viewers a sense of the geography? Very important. There’s a map that starts the film, and we refer to it as like the map of Middle Earth in “Lord of the Rings,” except in our film there are no fairies and no hobbits. The towns are characters in the film, as are the roads, which serve as arteries and byways for bad things to travel.

What made you think of Tom Holland and Robert Pattinson for this project? They seem to have been cast against type.  When I first met Tom he had just been cast as Spider-Man, but I hadn’t seen him as Spider-Man. I’d seen his work on “The Impossible.” But in talking with him,  I felt he had a wonderful energy and was such a clever, soulful person. He had the right spunk to him. I got to know Rob through a mutual friend Brady Corbet, who had worked with him on his [directorial debut] “The Childhood of a Leader.” Rob was the first person I gave the script to and he came back and was desperate to play Rev. Teagardin. I was shocked, but he had this sense that the character was complicated and he wanted to be the villain in a movie.

The film has some disturbing scenes. How do you approach violence as a director? In “The Devil,” you get some really shocking gunshots and moments where something violent happens, but the camera doesn’t dwell on the gore. You get the sudden impact of it, and then we deal with the emotional aftershocks. As upsetting as some of the violent scenes are in the films that I’ve made, I think they’re relatively tame in terms of what you’re seeing. But they’re emotionally impactful because you care about the characters.

What point are you trying to make about organized religion with the film? It’s a film in which everyone is talking to God, but he doesn’t seem to be there. I’ve always been interested in observing fanatical behavior and the anxiety that comes with the absence of God as opposed to the presence of God. I wanted to explore how some people of faith abuse their power. So many of the tenets of Christianity are good, and many of the characters represent that, but there’s another side.

At the same time the structure of the story and the interconnectedness of the characters allude to some larger force at play. The film’s relationship with religion probably captures my own struggle with trying to figure it all out. I don’t know what it is, but I think there’s something out there.

What’s the status of the prequel to “The Omen” that you were going to direct? It’s still happening, but I left the project. It was amicable. I think it’s a cool and radical idea, and I’m excited to see how it comes out.

“The Devil All the Time” is being released on Netflix. Do you prefer having it launch on streaming or in theaters? I fear for the future of theatrical, and I think it’s important that we as filmmakers keep pushing for theatrical to keep it relevant. But I feel very lucky to be with Netflix, which is the most filmmaker-friendly company that I’ve ever worked with. With this film, which is so cinematic in a way and which we shot on 35mm, I hoped for some theatrical component. I think we might get that. But the thing I’m most disappointed about is that I was excited to go to film festivals. I hadn’t been to one in four years since “Christine,” and I was excited to show the film and to hang out with critics and filmmakers and film lovers and participate in a dialogue. That’s what I’m most sad about. 

Things You Didn’t Know About Antonio Campos

Age: 37 Birthplace: New York City Personal Best: An avid runner, he competes in marathons and half marathons. Going Indy: Harrison Ford will collaborate with the director on a scripted TV show based on docu-series “Staircase,” repping the “Indiana Jones” star’s first small-screen role.