Exploring The Purpose of the Shot with the Legendary Bruce Davison

We chat with the actor about why he returned for 'Along Came the Devil 2' and how another filmmaking titan, William A. Wellman, guides his choices as an artist.

Bruce Davison Screenshot
DeVan Clan Productions

What’s the purpose? Ask yourself the question before every choice, and you’ll find your story. The trick is getting others to ask the question alongside you. A film is often birthed from a single idea, but to get the blasted thing made, you need to find others to see it through. On a titanic Hollywood production, you are surrounded by thousands of others and thousands upon thousands of differing opinions. Finding the purpose can be challenging, if not impossible.

Bruce Davison has worked on hundreds of film and television sets. He battled blockbuster mutants in X-Men, tortured Demi Moore in The Crucible, and made pals with a rat in Willard. He knows the pains and the pleasures of collaboration, and the further into his career he ventures, the more he wants to work with the independent little guys. In their realm, the question of purpose encounters less interference, and filmmakers are free to plot motivation.

Along Came the Devil 2 looks like a cheap, scrappy horror movie destined to be lost in the void of VOD. Don’t let it. Director Jason DeVan and his family are cranking out nasty, tiny terrors in Georgia. I spoke to him last year, and what I discovered was a DIY movie maniac who delighted in all the same horror films we all do, and refuses to wait around for others to play in the field. His passion is infectious and attracted talent like Davison to partake in a movie that looks on the surface like a wannabe spin on The Exorcist. Sure, it is a bit of that, but it’s also an inspirational jolt that encourages other creatives to pick up their camera and get it done.

I spoke to Davison over the phone about why he returned for the sequel, and the conversation quickly evolved toward his desire for making low-budget, purpose-driven movies. His understanding of film from moment to moment, shot to shot, began from the guidance of another filmmaking legend: William A. Wellman, the director who scored the first Best Picture Academy Award for Wings and lived a life of (no B.S.) danger. The filmmaker’s name was the last one I thought would come up during this discussion, but it was a delight to uncover. Prepare yourself, for a few other surprises as well.

Here is our conversation in full:

I talked to Jason when the first film came out, and he said then that if it did well, then he had a little bit of an idea for a sequel. Was it always a part of the plan for you to return to the sequel?

No. No. It just comes out of nowhere sometimes. I never know when something is going to happen. You throw something against the wall, sometimes it sticks and sometimes it doesn’t. This was a surprise for me too.

So, what was it like returning to Reverend Michael?

Well, first of all, I love the DeVans. They’re just a wonderful family. It’s a real mom-and-pop organization, and I love making films like that. So on an independent level, you got relatives cooking the lunch and shooting in Buford, Georgia. You never know what to expect and I always enjoy that kind of filmmaking. It’s just really so much more fun than the bigger corporate movies. On those, you sit around forever.

What does that approach offer that Hollywood productions don’t?

Well, when I first came to town I got to be friends with William Wellman. I don’t know if you know Wild Bill Wellman –

Oh sure. Heck yeah.

He was one of the founders of Hollywood. But he flew in World War I with the French Foreign Legion in biplanes. He always talked about how that was fun. He would say, “I don’t like taking regular commercial flights anymore. I just think about what it was like flying that Sopwith Camel.” Making independent films is kind of like flying the Sopwith Camel. It’s fun. It’s really fun. You’re not going to have a 747 production of the X-Men. It’s just enjoyable and sometimes it’s successful. Sometimes it’s not, but it’s always a lot more fun. But somebody’s already planning what 25 lawyers want to make. (Laughter)

Sure. Sure. Man, we don’t talk enough about William Wellman today. The Ox-bow Incident is one of my all-time favorite movies. So good. 

Oh God, it was great! Yeah. The first manure ever seen in the street in a film!

Oh man, yes.

I got to tell you a story about him. Can I tell it?

Yeah. Please, do.

He broke Darryl Zanuck’s jaw over that.

Over the manure?

Well, no. He had that shot of Henry Fonda reading the letter at the end of The Ox-bow Incident. And he said they had them sitting down on a long length of the bar and Harry Morgan‘s hat was blocking his face and all you see are Fonda’s lips and the letter, and he’s like reading. Zanuck wanted a close up of Fonda, with one of the tears coming down his eyes and everything. And Wellman said, “I really was so grateful to Fonda, never to go back and shoot that again, to do that because it’s not about that. It’s about the letter.” Filmmakers need to follow the bouncing ball. What’s essential to a shot? The letter is essential to the shot, not some reaction the father is having.

I love hearing stories like that. An artist must know their film, but films are also essentially collaborative, and everybody has an opinion. But someone has to come down on what the shot is and what the shot isn’t. What’s the emotion of the shot? 

Well, that’s the trick. The best directors, I’ve always found, are the ones that collaborate with other artists and are open to possibilities of what makes the essential. What is the essential moment? And Wellman used to say, “It’s like that little cartoon where the bouncing ball follows the line.” He said, “It’s follow the bouncing ball. It’s not master shot over the shoulder, over the shoulder, close up, close up, done by lunch, move onto the next. It’s follow the bouncing ball. What is the scene about? What’s the essential message of this image?”

You’re making a lot of movies right now. I’m basking in the glory of your IMDb page. Are you applying that philosophy in every role? Did you follow the bouncing ball with Reverend Michael?

It’s like fingerprints. Movies – every single one is different. Some people have a very strong vision. Other people are more collaborative about things. You never know. There are more opportunities in independent films to be collaborative because you’re not just a cog in the wheel in the big-budget movie or series or whatever it is. That’s why I like the smaller ones. You do have that opportunity to collaborate and sometimes that works. Sometimes it doesn’t, but you’re at least part of something creative.

With a chance like this, where you’re back on the sequel, you get to further explore a character. What’s that like? How is it to come back and fill those shoes again?

I have a hope and a tendency that this is all part of a big thing that’s going on within the reverend’s mind.  Maybe he’s a little more twisted. And the DeVans will go on with the next one. We’ll see what happens from there.

Is that a realm of thought you enjoy exploring? Are you a horror movie watcher?

Oh, yeah. Vincent Price has always been a big hero. He had those great opportunities within the genre and I got a bunch of them now. I’ve got a spider movie called Itsy Bitsy. It’s out now and another really creepy one called Alone and we’ll see. But you know, it’s either that or Christmas movies! (Laughter_

What’s the key to a good scary movie? What did Vincent Price do that others did not?

Well, we only have a certain amount of stories. We always tell the same stories over and over, but I’ll take whatever surprises me. Something that is interesting or is a character journey. Lots of times I like psychological films too because it gives an opportunity for you to care about a character. You have to care about the characters and the journey that they’re on so that they can take you on that funhouse ride wherever it’s going to go. You want to be there with them.

So, why Along Came the Devil? Was is the surprises in the script or the DeVans and their community of filmmakers?

Well, there’s a very simple answer to that. It’s both.

Yeah?

You read one thing and you’re always trying to mess with it and figure out what’s coming next and what we can do, what lies around the corner. So all of the above.

With a film like Along Came the Devil, you certainly can’t watch it without thinking about the ultimate version of this film – 1973’s The Excorcist.

Certainly.

When you’re crafting your character are you thinking about where his story falls in a cinematic context?

No.

No? Not at all?

No. No, I don’t. I don’t try to be in the middle of cinema. You’re in the middle of it. You can’t see it anyway. I just keep it a lot simpler than that. What’s this character doing? What’s his motivation? Where am I going? How’s it going to be? Because there’s only a couple of stories anywhere. Or what do they say, there are two stories. One is the quest and the other is stranger comes to town. You’re always working within the context of something and you’re always going to be compared to what came before. The thing is to be new and original and come up with the something that’s fun to enjoy it’s surprising.


Along Came the Devil 2 is now available on VOD and Digital HD.

Trekkie, Not Trekker. Weekly Columnist for Film School Rejects, co-host of the In The Mouth of Dorkness Podcast.