In 2015, Trey Edward Shults arrived on the American independent film scene by force with his feature-length debut Krisha. A hellish, fly-on-the-wall tale of a lifelong alcoholic struggling to avoid a relapse during a crowded family Thanksgiving, Shults’ debut was met with enthusiastic reviews and comparisons to the humane discontent of John Cassavetes’ best work. (Here at CoS, we found it to be one of the 10 best films of 2016 upon its release.) The director, who’d previously worked as a film loader and intern on a handful of Terrence Malick features, had arrived as a distinctive new voice in film.
After A24 nabbed Krisha for distribution, they also expressed interest in Shults’ next planned project: a quiet, understated horror film (in a fashion) about a family attempting to survive in a post-apocalyptic landscape ravaged by an unknown, largely unspoken plague. But It Comes at Night isn’t a horror movie by most traditional measures, although it’s thoroughly horrifying. The film follows Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a family living in the woods, who find their meticulously planned safety routines interrupted when Will (Christopher Abbott) ends up at their doorstep, desperate for shelter. He asks for protection for himself, his wife Kim (Riley Keough), and their son, but soon the fragile peace between the two families is called into question when the night falls and the collective fear of infection begins to take over.
Heavily influenced by the filmmaker’s grief in the wake of his father’s passing, It Comes at Night is a chilling piece in a distinctly human way, a film as much about the monsters within ourselves as those lurking in the shadows beyond the edges of the light. As the film ramps up to its release, we had the chance to sit down with Shults and discuss his uncommonly rapid ascent to must-watch status, his approach to horror filmmaking, his stylistic interests, and much more.
Krisha went through a multi-year manifestation, from a short film [of same name] to a feature-length production to its award-winning debut at SXSW to ending up with A24. Can you talk a little bit about that entire journey?
It’s nuts now, to see it in hindsight, because when you’re in it you have no idea what’s going to happen. It started with how personal that story was to me, and how much I believed in it. I tried to make it in the summer of 2012, we shot for five days with $7,000 of my saved money, and I had family members scripted that didn’t show up and I had to cut roles and all this stuff. It was the worst week of my life, because I believed in it so much, but I knew I wasn’t getting the movie, and I had sort of a nervous breakdown behind closed doors. [Laughs.] But I took that footage, and for two years, I turned it into the short. I didn’t know what I had, I knew I didn’t have a feature, so I just started playing with footage and trying to re-think the story and what it could be, and it turned into the short film.
Then, before [the short] premiered at SXSW in 2014, I wrote this script [for It Comes at Night]. After SXSW, realizing that investors didn’t want to give me money for this, I started thinking about Krisha again, and thinking about the feature it was meant to be, and what it could be and how much deeper it could go. Then I got the bug again, and I was like “Shit, I gotta do it the right way,” and after that, I rewrote the feature and took everything I learned in those two years and did a Kickstarter campaign, got the money together, and we did the feature in August 2014. We did it the right way, over nine days with like $35,000. And it was basically a do-over.
We knew when we made it that we had something special. We all loved doing it, we all believed in it, the editing was fast and fun and everything. Luckily we got into SXSW, and I wanted competition because I thought that if we somehow won some award, we’d get extra attention. Then one thing leads to another that you’d never expect. We won the Jury Award, and this publicist came on for free and got reviewers to come see it, and then we got the Audience Award. Next thing I know, I’m getting an agent, and then I talk to A24 on the phone, they love the movie, and they’re like, “What do you want to do next?” And I’m like, “I don’t know, I have this script! It’s sort of a horror movie, do you want to read it?” They’re like, “We love it, and we want to make it! And we want to release Krisha!” That happening at Cannes, my dream festival to play, and everything from the Krisha year … it was the most surreal year of my life. The humbling dream kept coming true. And it was really, really beautiful.
When it comes to working with someone like A24, who’s known for being a little more intuitive as far as the kind of movie they’re putting out, how involved were they and what kind of support did they offer on this film?
Amazing. So, they were involved from the top. They read one of the first [drafts] … I was scared to send them the script, because I was like “Ah, is this even a fully done draft? There’s still more I want to do,” and they were involved from there. And they were amazing, I kept waiting for them to let me down and they didn’t. They gave me the budget this story needed to be told, it’s not a huge movie, it’s a small, contained thing, but it still requires certain elements. They backed that, they never told me not to do stuff. They always gave smart input, and they were just there, and they believed in me and they supported me. They’re backing and releasing this movie, and they let me make the movie I wanted to make. If people don’t like it, it’s not their fault, it’s mine. [Laughs.]
I’ve heard you talk about how this is your take on a horror movie. What about the horror aesthetic grabs you? What are some … not just influences, per se, but some modes of horror that appeal to you?
I think a lot of horror that I love, and that appeals to me, is horror amongst people, and what something does to a group of people or a certain situation. If it’s Night of the Living Dead, it’s not the zombies that I love, it’s the power struggle inside the house. The Thing, one of my favorites, the monsters and the practical effects are amazing, but I personally never loved that aspect as much. I loved the paranoia it instilled in all the people, and the mistrust, and the tension that brought. Same goes for The Shining or whatever else.
With this, I was excited at the idea of taking stuff I loved from horror, but combining that with a family drama and with characters I cared about, and then also trying to use the horror to really say something I really believed in. Trying to make a movie that sticks with you, and you take it home with you and you keep thinking about it.
To that point of family, in both of your films so far, you play around with these little tics and social faux pas, whether it’s the noisy dissonance of the arm wrestling scene in Krisha, or the scene in this film where Paul and Will are drinking together in the study and Will tells what might be a little white lie. And you just see that realization and suspicion pass over Paul’s face. What interests you about those niche, specific family dynamics?
That’s a good question, man. I don’t know why I’m so drawn to that. But I just think family, and people, are infinitely fascinating. And I’m fascinated by those micro-dynamics. That whiskey scene is a great example, because I hope it’s still open to where there’s no one clear way it goes. Just like … seeing what it does to the characters. That’s my jam, I’m so drawn to it. To me, that’s so compelling. Maybe to other people, that can be boring.
You’ve talked about this film coming from an extremely personal place as well, and what I was curious about is, especially with how personal it gets, was there ever a reluctance to dig into such intimate territory?
No, which I don’t know why. But both my mom and my stepdad are therapists, and probably without them raising me, I’d be a mess. But it’s what I’m fascinated toward, and especially with this movie and where it goes, it was always … even when I was writing it, I didn’t 100% know where it was going. But I still did. That’s what it’s about. That’s what I’m drawn to, that’s what I deeply care about. And with this, it started about that, and it stayed about that from beginning to end.
On that same level, there’s this palpable sense of loss hanging over the movie, whether it’s for the loss of people already gone or that fearful anticipation of loss. As far as communicating those feelings, when you were figuring out what the film would look and feel like, how did you go about trying to articulate those emotions?
I know that feeling, and when this script initially spewed out of me, I was in grief. I was grieving, and it was all about loss, and about confronting my own mortality and my own fears. That headspace is what I really wanted to bring through every process of the movie to the final thing. It’s a hard thing to distill into how we did it, per se, but that feeling was brought to every aspect of the filmmaking, from how we shot it to the music.
I wanted to equally hurt your heart and terrify you, and play with that dichotomy. And in how we shot it, I think this movie’s even more patient than something like Krisha in our visual approach. Sometimes there’s an approach of the numbness you can get from grief, and how you experience this stuff.
With Krisha it was a different feeling, but you pick that feeling and that emotion and that’s what I latch onto throughout the entire thing. If people take a different message from the movie, if they like it in a different way, I hope that feeling comes across. Loss was huge for this one. It’s a movie about loss, among other things.
There’s a really interesting nervousness and anxiety to the film’s score. When you were putting it together, did you have sounds in mind that you were looking for, or did you approach it more texturally?
The way Brian [McOmber, the film’s composer] likes to work is to start from scratch, and start playing with stuff. To my detriment, I use too much music [laughs], because I love music and I can’t just edit without music, at least so far. I have to have it, because the flow of a movie is so important to me, and the music is huge to that. We started there, and we talked about things like whether I’d want synths or strings, and where that plays. But we were always conscious about pushing ourselves, and doing something unique and different. So we start from the ground up, and we approach each scene around equals the emotion conveyed, and who’s the point of view and how do we experience it, and that leads to different things.
What we ended up discovering with this that’s certainly different from Krisha, is that the movie has themes that recur throughout it. And it has a different sound for nightmares versus reality, and one thing that we discovered was important was saving certain instruments and approaches for those nightmares and saving different things for reality, and as the movie goes on they blend together. By the climax, we always saw it as reality becoming a nightmare, so those things converge. We do the same thing with aspect ratio and how we shoot it. The climax combines all the intensity of the reality scenes with nightmare sounds, meshed together, for what I think is an awesome, horrendous sound. And at the very, very end, we sort of bring back our Travis theme. It opens the movie, and it comes back at the very end again.
To your mention of aspect ratios, there’s a bit of a revival going on in film right now where directors are starting to really play with the space of the screen itself again. What do those stylistic changes offer you?
To me, it’s another tool. We played with it in Krisha in a totally different way, and with this, if you’re having these nightmares throughout in this reality, I wanted a subtly different approach to a nightmare. I don’t want a huge “oh, you’re in a nightmare!”, but I want to be enveloped in it like Travis is, and experience it like he does. So I start thinking how that can be different. And it started with … if we’re shooting 2:40:1, why don’t we go spherical for reality and anamorphic for nightmares?
Past that, it goes on to, “What if we literally bring the bars and enclose it and make it more claustrophobic?” But I wanted to do that subtly, either over fades or super slow over time, so people don’t notice it but they feel it. To me, it’s fascinating. And so far, I think I’ve been using it as a subjective way to feel it like the character does. With Krisha, any aspect change is motivated by her mental state, and where she’s at. With Night, it’s really for Travis and his nightmares and reality and how they converge in the end. You have all those tools, and if you can think of exciting ways to do that, that’s so fun.
In both this film and Krisha, you open on these patient, steely gazes into the camera. What do you like about the gaze as a recurring motif?
An entire life and a world can be conveyed in a face and eyes, and it fascinates me. I’m obsessed with faces, and how you shoot faces. I can’t even intellectualize exactly why, but for Krisha, it distilled what the movie was about, with this woman. With Night, that first image in my head, I saw it as death staring back at you, with this man on the verge of death. And to just feel that weight in his face and his eyes, and what the movie’s about, literally staring back at you with this first frame. And then we go on to this fictional narrative. But all of this narrative is really about that. I’m sure I’ll do it some more, I’m obsessed with faces.
To close on a broader question, more and more indie filmmakers (especially those who have a “hit” or two to their name) are being snapped up to direct these mega-budget franchise entries early in their careers. Is that something you’d be interested in getting into down the line?
Only if it was the right thing and could be made in the right way. I have movies of mine that I’d love to do that would cost way more and be way bigger. My only thing is I don’t want to make anything I don’t believe in with all my heart and soul. I didn’t make Night to be able to go make a big-budget horror movie or a Star Wars movie or something. That’s not interesting to me. I just want to make movies I totally believe in, and if that happens to be big and you can make it in the right way, that’d be dope.
Like, I’m really excited for Dunkirk, I think Christopher Nolan’s great, he’s making huge-scale movies with original stories and he’s one of the only guys doing it. That’s awesome, but then as much as I love that, I’m just as excited to see A Ghost Story next month. I love stories of all sizes and scales, so I’m excited to do whatever, but I’m certainly not interested in making stuff just to go make a big movie.
I know that what I think I want to do next is not a huge thing. It’s more ambitious than this and Krisha in terms of scale and timeframe, but I think we can do it in a small way.
It Comes at Night opens on June 9th nationwide.