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‘The Devil All The Time’ director Antonio Campos: ‘Nothing was taboo’ at family dinner table

“The Devil All the Time” is one of Netflix’s most anticipated original movies, and it premieres Wednesday with a blockbuster cast, including Tom Holland (Spider-Man), Robert Pattinson (the new Batman) and Bill Skarsgård (Stephen King’s creepy clown Pennywise). But before the award-winning director Antonio Campos set out to take viewers on this dark psychological thriller in the heartland of America, he learned how to craft his stories in a New York City apartment that felt very much like Brazil.

“Nothing was really taboo to talk about at the dinner table,” he told NBC News. “That kind of made me more inclined to tell the stories that I tell, to not be scared of going to the places I go to creatively.”

Campos’ father is Brazilian and his mother is Italian American. Growing up, his family often spoke Portuguese at the dinner table. And the director, who identifies culturally as Brazilian American, says that his mom’s tenacity of “pushing through no matter what” and his dad’s curiosity for telling stories about where people are coming from shaped his career as a filmmaker.

“The Devil All the Time” is based on a novel by Donald Ray Pollock, and it follows different characters from the rural town of Knockemstiff, and surrounding backwoods in southeastern Ohio and West Virginia—a preacher (Pattinson), a couple (Jason Clarke and Riley Keough), and a sheriff (Sebastian Stan), among others—that converge unexpectedly around Arvin Russell (Holland), who is trying to protect his family.

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Campos explained that the movie at its core tells a story about the things that one generation passes down to another. And specifically on screen, viewers will see how religious beliefs and a violent sense of justice get passed down from World War II veteran Willard Russell (Skarsgård) to his young son, Arvin.

Pollock fans might compare “The Devil All the Time” with Sherwood Anderson’s American heartland classic “Winesburg, Ohio,” a composite novel made up of short stories that follow another Willard — George Willard — from childhood until he leaves the small fictional town.

Like “Winesburg, Ohio,” Pollock’s novel depicts a dark portrait about empty rural life. And the countryside plays an important part in understanding who and where the characters come from.

In 1920, just one year after Sherwood published his book, only about more than half of the U.S. population was living in suburbs and cities. By comparison in 2016, five years after Pollock published his novel, just over 14 percent of Americans (46 million) lived in rural counties.

“If you’re in a car driving around southern Ohio and West Virginia, you can drive through a hollow [pronounced “holler”] like Knockemstiff and you may not know that you just drove through a community,” Paulo Campos, the director’s brother, who co-wrote the movie script, said. “Homes are spread out. Everyone knows each other. But the town is not planned like a suburb.”

At first glance, the characters on screen seem disconnected or spread out, like the homes in Knockemstiff. And the Campos brothers inserted a narrator — voiced by the author himself — to unify everything.

“There was nobody else that could capture the sound of that specific place,” the director said. “The narrator was this kind of omniscient presence, and he was ‘the creator of the world’.”

While there are many dark and violent twists on screen, “The Devil All the Time” is positively driven by a close family experience behind camera. The director’s Chilean wife, Sofía Subercaseaux, edits the movie. And their son Emilio also appears on film as baby Arvin.

Campos wanted to recreate that family energy for everyone working on the film.

“You want that feeling of family when you come onto the set,” the director said. “You want everybody to feel like you’re all in it together. And for the time that you are working on this thing, it feels like there’s nobody else in the world that you are closer to.”

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Arturo Conde

Arturo Conde is an editor and a bilingual freelance journalist. He writes for La Opinión A Coruña and has been published in Fusion, Univision and City Limits.  

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