The Devil’s Knot Diaries: Day Two
I am in a van with five strangers, one of whom is wearing a straw hat. The van is taking us from basecamp onto location in Decatur, GA.
The van drops us off where catering has been set up. The other rides from the van all rush to grab breakfast, in line with other hungry crew members. This will be the most important part of their day, as well as lunch.
I walk over to our filming location for the entire day, a street filled with old houses. I doubt that there were once farms in this area. Atom Egoyan has also arrived and he greets me with a “Good Morning” — once again, in Armenian.
The crew begins setting up for their first shot of the day. It’s a wide shot of a house, and in the scene, two cops and another man are searching around the area. The crew does a few takes until Atom Egoyan notices the sun peeking through the trees. This grabs his attention and the shot is adjusted so that it will begin on the sun in the trees.
The shot readjusts as Atom Egoyan approaches me and begins talking about working on a film such as this one in comparison to smaller films such as Calendar (1993) and Citadel (2006). It’s not the first time he has brought up Calendar. I mentioned the film over dinner the previous night and it’s a film that he will bring up and make references to numerous times – he is very aware that Devil’s Knot is a much more traditional film. The shot earlier of the sun peeking through the trees was very in-the-moment and spontaneous and how discusses how he keeps an open eye for such shots. In this film, he says, and because of its location in a city like Atlanta, he says there have been a number of times where he has found the right image by being on location and coming across them spontaneously. These moments were more common in other films of his, such as Calendar. That’s a film, he says, that their small crew waited hours for until the sun was in the right location so they could film. It’s a different process, he says — a film such as this one, requires a much larger crew and takes a long amount of time for each shot to be set up, whereas in Calendar, everything happened without intense preparation or planning. I ask which he prefers as a filmmaker and he tells me they’re both exhilarating in different ways.
The crew has moved onto another shot of the house across the street. It’s the same set-up – the cops are knocking around doors and windows, searching. These locations are quite remarkable and because they are actual houses, their textures are much more pronounced.
I see Atom Egoyan speaking with a woman, who I will later discover is a relative of the man who owns the property. I see them taking a picture together after which he approaches me and states, “She’s a fan of Exotica.” The shot of the house is ready to go as he walks up to the camera and yells, “Action!”
The shot is finished, as he once again approaches me, continuing his discussion of the woman. In his opinion, Exotica (1994) is a film that couldn’t be made now, mainly because it’s a product of the 1990s and independent cinema during that time period. The importance of film festivals are also mentioned in this conversation. That’s the great thing about him — he will leave conversations midway, if he is needed for a shot, but he always comes back and finishes his train of thought. In addition, it’s often him who brings up a new conversation.
I am introduced to the property owners of this neighborhood; a man, his family, and the man’s father – interestingly enough, one person owns multiple houses on this street. The family tells us about the house that was used in our first shot. The house was owned by the grandfather of the man, which was originally a barn and later a popular BBQ joint called Holly’s BBQ for the neighborhood. The man tells me he grew up in the barn and boxed with his friends in the middle of the street. The man claims he never thought a production would choose to film in this little town of theirs.
I am introduced to one of the producers of the film, Clark Peterson, who like me, is a native of Glendale and graduated from Glendale High School. In our brief conversation together, he discusses life in Glendale in the 1980s; he estimates 20% of the student population was Armenian. I believe it’s gone up a bit since then. I ask him why he feels Atom Egoyan is the right director for this project and he claims it’s because of his understanding of the human condition.
The crew moves up the street as we begin to attract attention from our neighbors. Colin Firth arrives on set as the crew prepares a point-of-view shot of him driving down the street in a Mercedes. The camera is in the backseat of the car, which is common in Atom Egoyan’s films.
The crew moves onto another shot, a closer shot of him getting out of the car and knocking on the door of the house. The woman who answers the door is Vicki Hutcherson, played by Mireille Enos, who is known for her work on Big Love and The Killing. The actress will also appear in the upcoming Gangster Squad (2012) and World War Z (2013). In the first shot of this scene, the camera is behind Colin Firth. In this shot, we grab a wide shot of Vicki and later move into a closer shot of her.
The shot wraps – but I notice that after getting Vicki’s close-up, Atom Egoyan went back wide and reshot that shot once more. I ask him about that and about what he is looking for. In his opinion, Vicki’s character is fearful, but instead of presenting that fear, he wanted that emotion to be restrained. The shot readjusts as we get a reverse shot of Colin Firth at the door. The actor once again seamlessly moves in and out of character, after which he wraps and leaves for the day.
The property owners show Atom Egoyan, Paul Harris Boardman (one of the writers and producers of the film) and I their cottage, which was once a chicken house. The tight space is made even more tighter because of its low ceiling. The husband and wife begin discussing their space and also point out that another property of theirs has a cotton gin. This all interests Atom Egoyan, who loves hearing people share their stories with him.
The crew sets up the next shot in the backyard of the house, but breaks for lunch 33 minutes early because they realize they might not get all three of their shots in before lunch. In order to be consistent with the lighting, we break a half hour early.
In this shot, we see Jessie Misskelley, Jr. (played by Kristopher Higgins) mowing Vicki’s lawn. Jessie is the first of the West Memphis Three that has arrived on set today. The dolly tracks are in the backyard of the house.
The shot remains the same, but we move in closer. Atom Egoyan begins discussing Calendar with me and the difference in style. It’s also a moment for him to comment on shooting on digital, as he states the process isn’t any different in terms of lighting and setting up his shots. I ask him about pre-production and he states every shot in the film has been storyboarded, but in several cases, he hasn’t referred to them. In a particular scene, the weather was dreadful that two days worth of shooting had to be compacted into one; for this reason, he came up with a completely different shot altogether. In his opinion, however, a director should always be planned, in one form or another.
This is the shortest and tightest schedule he has worked on, and thus far, it’s been extremely challenging. The biggest day is yet to come, as he points out that tomorrow will be particularly challenging, because we will be shooting outside in the heat in a trailer park.
The shot is now a close-up of Vicki and after a few initial takes, he tells her to emphasize the ending of the sentence. Atom Egoyan stands there, looking at her, rather than the monitor, smiling – he knows it when he sees it. The camera moves onto a close-up of Jessie.
The crew has now moved back to the front of the house. James Hamrick (who plays Damien Echols) and Seth Meriwether (who plays Jason Baldwin) join the production. It’s eerie seeing all three boys together in full costume. In this scene, Jessie knocks on Vicki’s door, along with Damien and Jason, as the camera gets a close shot of Vicki.
The shot is now a reverse shot of the boys. The scene plays out after several takes, until an ending spontaneously presents itself, which Atom Egoyan seems to like. Mireille Enos checks with the script supervisor about her hair in the previous scene, in an effort to preserve continuity. The character she plays, coupled with her performance, are great to watch. In the scene, she gracefully improvises, which Atom Egoyan welcomes. In a discussion with his script supervisor, he tells her which take he prefers, primarily because of a small detail involving one of the characters. This highlights his attention to detail within the frame.
The crew prepares for the final shot of the evening, as they wait for darkness. Atom Egoyan discusses the shot and its evolution. The scene was changed from the screenplay. In this scene, Vicki walks up to a television in front of her, which is playing a scene from Race with the Devil (1975). This makes a connection with the style and tone of the film, as well as its satanic rituals that surrounded her and the boys.
I bring up Xavier Dolan, a fellow Canadian filmmaker as we begin discussing other filmmakers’ styles. Atom Egoyan is not only a friend of his, but a fan as well, as he discusses his visual style and references the work to Pedro Almodóvar.
In our conversation together, he also comments on the fact that he casts based on an actor’s talent, not their existing body of work, which was the case for Mireille Enos and Stephen Moyer.
I begin chatting with Richard Saperstein, another one of the producers of the film, who describes his early career in the film business and one of his earlier films, Se7en (1995). I ask him about finding the director for that film, David Fincher, which transitions us into Atom Egoyan’s work. Richard Saperstein begins discussing his emphasis on story and character, which he believes are qualities that greatly benefit this film, in particular. In our conversation together, he tries to think of other “great storytellers” as Atom Egoyan, but can’t seem to think of any other than him.
Atom Egoyan sits and chats with Mireille Enos about the scene. The shot goes up as we capture a wide shot of the scene. The crew then moves into several closer shots.
The day has wrapped as everyone prepares for a grueling day in the trailer park tomorrow.