But you can’t pray away the image of Melling’s devout Roy Laferty showing his new congregation his absolute faith in God by pouring a container of crawling spiders over his face during a sermon in the new Netflix drama (streaming Wednesday).
Yes, those hairy-legged Orb-weaver spiders are real, as are the shocked looks on the faces of his congregants, who include Bill Skarsgård’s Willard Russell and Mia Wasikowska’s Helen Hatton.
“They were live spiders. I was told beforehand they don’t bite. But I mean, who knows? I took it in good faith,” says Melling, who played Dudley Dursley in the “Harry Potter” film series. “There was a bucket of them under a chair. We tried to keep it quiet because we didn’t want everyone to know this was how it was going to unfold.”
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The filmmakers had only one take to get this scene, literally months in the planning. They had to find the right spiders and seek a permit proving they could perform the scene safely. Not to ensure Melling’s safety, but the spiders’.
“Nobody was worried about Harry,” says director Antonio Campos. “We first had to get permission showing we had a safe way (to shoot) for the spiders themselves, that they wouldn’t get hurt. They’re very delicate creatures.”
On the day of the filming at a small real church in Montgomery, Alabama, the star cast waited in the pews. The spiders were the last ones brought onto the set by specially hired wranglers, with members of the Humane Society monitoring that none were injured.
“The spiders dictated the day,” says Campos. “We had to wait for the spiders to come out of the trailer because they were tired.”
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But once ready, Melling was set to perform the powerful preaching scene in one moving take. He insists his thoughts were focused on whipping up the congregation with his energy and dead-on regional accent rather than arachnid fears.
“You’d think dumping a load of spiders on your head would be the worry of the day. But it really was the secondary concern,” says Melling. “It was so important that this little church was alive with the energy, that people were reaching the frenzy of where Roy was at.”
Neither spiders nor human were harmed. Melling quickly learned that the spiders indeed did not bite and that they tend to weave together into a ball.
“You can see a clump of spiders sort of just smash into my face,” says Melling. “Then another concern came up, which I hadn’t thought through. Once they’re on your face, how do you talk? You don’t want to be swallowing a spider mid-conversation.”
The answer: very carefully. Even after the spiders were taken away, Melling had to dramatically switch gears in the scene, speaking to Wasikowska’s entranced Helen, who becomes Roy’s tragic bride.
“It was only when I was in the car going home afterward that I thought, ‘Wait a minute, did I really do that?’ ” says Melling. “I did. It’s there for everyone to see.”
Pattinson’s preacher Preston Teagardin presents his own level of creepiness, with his insidious preacher serial-prowling on his young flock. Campos gave the British actor a look at an early draft of the screenplay and offered any part. Pattinson was “drawn” to the complicated, highly flawed preacher and owned it.
Teagardin’s wicked behavior comes to a reckoning in a confrontation with Tom Holland’s revenge-seeking Arvin Russell. The emotionally charged moment, which has behind-the-scenes superhero implications for Spider-Man (Holland) and the Caped Crusader (Pattinson), is Campos’ favorite scene in the whole movie.
It begins with Russell pretending to confess to the crimes for which Teagardin is guilty.
“It was like doing a piece of theater. We focused on every single line, every single moment,” says Campos. “And then I thought about that scene every day for eight months of editing. It was my obsession to nail every moment. And I’m so proud of it.”
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