Some of the ghastliest experiences in life are rooted in nightmares that are both literal and figurative. The new post-apocalyptic horror film, ‘It Comes at Night,’ is powerfully deceptive in the way it shifts from reality to illusion, and unravels as a living nightmare for all of its characters.
In the stunning drama, writer-director Trey Edward Shults naturally crafted versatile and complex characters, who at times, aren’t clearly defined protagonists or antagonists. The characters must continuously contend with their new reality of living in a world that’s becoming dominated by a fatal plague. The devastating illness is changing the dynamics of all of the characters’ lives, which is contributing to their mindsets becoming unpredictable.
A24 is set to release the thought-provoking ‘It Comes at Night,’ which stunningly explores how a menacing situation can alter people’s psyche, in theaters on Friday. The theatrical distribution comes after the psychological horror movie had its world premiere at The Overlook Film Festival on April 29.
‘It Comes at Night’ follows the quiet but capably observant 17-year-old Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who’s forced to contend with the continuous threat of death before he’s had the chance to truly live. His family is struggling to survive in a seemingly post-apocalyptic world, as America has become overridden with a life-threatening and mysterious illness. His parents, the peaceful Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and at-times domineering Paul (Joel Edgerton), decide to their dismay that in order to protect themselves, they must perform a mercy killing on her father (David Pendleton), who has begun showing the signs of the fatal disease.
After the death of his grandfather, Travis experiences one of his chronic nightmares, just before his family’s rural and secured home is invaded by a stranger, Will (Christopher Abbott). Will informs the family that he has traveled 50 miles in search of water and food for his wife, Kim (Riley Keough), and their very young son, Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). But Paul is initially hesitant to trust the stranger. As Paul tries to determine if his new guest is telling the truth, they’re surprised to encounter several other survivors in the vicinity.
Growing increasingly concerned for her family’s well-being, Sarah convinces Paul that Will, Kim and Andrew should move in with them. Unless they join forces with Will’s family, Sarah insists they’ll be targets by the other survivors. After Paul decides Sarah is right, and allows Will, Kim and Andrew to move into his family’s home, the group learns how to co-inhabit together. Travis, who was affected the hardest by his grandfather’s death, initially begins to feel connected with other people again after Will’s family moves in. But the things he begins to see and overhear amongst his family’s new house guests eventually set off feelings of increased mistrust, and one last epic confrontation between the adults.
Shults generously took the time recently to sit down to talk about writing and directing ‘It Comes at Night’ during an exclusive interview at the Crosby Street Hotel in New York City. Among other things, the filmmaker discussed how he was partially inspired to pen the script for the horror movie after he spent time contemplating, and contending with, his strained relationship with his father. The director also spoke about how he was always inspired to tell the story through Travis’ point-of-view, as he views the world more innocently than his parents do.
ShockYa (SY): You penned the script for the new horror film, ‘It Comes at Night.’ Where did you come up with the idea for the story, and what was the writing process like for the screenplay?
Trey Edward Shults (TES): It started from a personal experience. I had a weird relationship with my dad. I hadn’t seen him in over 10 years when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But I was with him on his deathbed, and he was so full of regret. That was the first time I had confronted death like that, so every day of my life since then was been changed.
Two months after that, I just started writing, and I began with the first scene of the movie, when Sarah says goodby to her father. That’s what I was essentially saying to my dad. Then this entirely fictional narrative sprang forth, and came out of me.
Now, as I watch it, I see the movie is so much of my head space. It’s where my head was at, not only in grief, but everything I was thinking about, including how one of my ultimate fears is death. But even more than death, my biggest fear is regret, and thinking about us as a society and all of the violence we keep doing. If we keep going where that’s going, that may destroy us. There are worse things than death-there is that regret of losing your humanity. I was remembering that as I was working on the script. So besides that and my dad, I’m also a film guy, and I love movies. So those ideas came into the script.
The initial development process took three days, and then I took a few weeks to refine what initially spewed out onto my notepad. That was in 2014, and I finally shot the movie last year.
SY: Speaking of incorporating the violence into the story, what was the process of deciding how much of the physical struggle between the two families you would show in the film, and balancing it with the characters’ backstories and emotional arcs?
TES: Well, figuring out how much story to include, and what to leave out, is part of the storytelling. I like to just be dropped into a world with the characters, and experience everything with them as they would. If something happens that they don’t understand or know about, then I don’t know it, since I’m always with that character.
But I do go through the scenes and think about how they got to a certain point. Then I create all of the backstory. When I’m working on the story, I like to spread everything out for the final version of the film. I just recently watched the film all the way through again, after I got some distance from it. I paid attention to everything, from the relationships to the plot. It was important for me to focus on the thematic elements.
SY: In addition to crafting the screenplay, you also directed ‘It Comes at Night.’ How did writing the story influence your helming duties once you arrived on the set and began filming the drama? How would you describe your directorial style on the movie?
TES: It’s been a long journey. As a filmmaker thus far, I’ve been focused more on the visual side as I write. I don’t see the whole movie when I write, but I’ll visualize certain scenes, and how they should be shot.
I made my first feature, ‘Krisha,’ in the same way. So it starts there, as well as with my DP (Director of Photography, Drew Daniels, who worked on both films). I have a weird relationship with that aspect of filmmaking, because of the headspace it puts me in. But often times I go back and think, I love what Drew did there.
But we did have a strict shot list that we used for the entire movie, and we went over it. We discussed what each scene means, whose point-of-view it’s from and what we’re doing it.
That being said, if we were inspired by something that happened on the location, I was free enough to pursue it. There was less of that on this movie than with ‘Krisha,’ just because of the elements of this story. It’s focused on the family’s rules and what they’re doing with what they have. ‘Krisha’ was looser, as it’s a family reunion, so we get that looser feeling on screen. But with ‘It Comes at Night,’ there was more precision, but there was some spontaneity.
SY: Speaking of working with Drew Daniels, what was the overall collaboration process like with him specifically on ‘It Comes at Night’-did you both feel it was vital to have a specific shot list for every scene?
TES: We never do an actual storyboard, but we did do a shot list. Like I said before, we knew a lot of what we were shooting in advance. I think this is Travis’ story, and it’s told through his eyes. So we always tried to subtly use his point-of-view, even if he wasn’t in a scene. We’d think about how he would view the world, even if he wasn’t around to see something.
We also had to consider the reality in filmmaking that nothing ever goes perfectly. Things go wrong and you have to be open to it. I remember being on set, and the dog we had (who plays Travis’ dog) was too old to run. We had this whole planned sequence of how he’s going to get away, so we had to problem-solve for that scene. So we found a running dog to stand in for him.
SY: The story is told through Travis’ point-of-view, like you mentioned. Why did you feel it was beneficial for the overall story to continuously stick to the teenager’s perspective?
TES: I was always drawn to Travis because he’s 17, and shouldn’t be in this world, and dealing with what he’s dealing with. There’s not just an innocence in him, but also a purity. He doesn’t see things the way his mom and dad do. So I was drawn to show him in this world, through his own eyes, and how he’s influenced by those struggles. If things go badly for him, it would break my heart. The movie is about his journey, which I was pretty fascinated by while I was working on the film.
SY: ‘It Comes at Night’ features a diverse group of actors, including Joel Edgerton, Riley Keough, Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. What was the casting process like-how did you decide which actors you wanted to cast in the drama?
TES: Well, ‘Krisha’ was made at my mom’s house with a lot of family and friends. But with this film, I said, “I have to challenge myself; I need to get actors I don’t know.” Besides that, I wanted great actors, and I also wanted them to be great human beings.
So the casting process started with Joel. I met with him, and he was amazing. He read the script the night he received it. I met him the following Monday, and I just loved him from the moment I met him. I had also already met Chris, and thought he was too young to play the role he plays in the movie. But now I think his age makes his role more interesting.
Joel, Chris and I then sat down together, and it was great. We all became friends. They both liked the script, and we all saw eye-to-eye on it, so we all thought, let’s do it. That’s what I needed.
From there, the rest of the casting was quick. I had seen Carmen in ‘Selma’ and Riley in ‘The Girlfriend Experiment’ and ‘American Honey.’ I thought they were great actresses, and then when I met them, I thought they were also great people. They have a true energy, excitement and genuineness.
I found Kelvin through my casting director, Avy Kaufman. I received audition tapes of various kids who were trying out for the role of Travis. The kids were great, but they played the character as purely innocent. But in his audition, Kelvin played Travis’ hurt. Then once we began filming, even if he was in a charming scene, you can see a layer of hurt. You can see in his eyes that this kid is conflicted, and something’s going on internally. I felt that from the first time I saw Kelvin on tape, and he brought that pain through the shoot. We also talked about every scene, and questioned what every nightmare means.
SY: Once the actors were cast, were you able to have any rehearsal time with them, in order to build their characters’ emotions, motives and relationships?
TES: We didn’t have legitimate rehearsal time. But the actors would get together without me if there was a big physical scene coming up. Also, they wold all get together if there were big dialogue sequences. They would go over them together, so they would feel good about them.
But what we all did do together was small preparation stuff. When we were in pre-production in Upstate New York, Kelvin, Carmen and I would spend time together. Kelvin and Chris would also chop wood together. They would also cook on a fire outside, and we would all go inside and eat by candlelight. We would do little things like that to get in the mindset of the characters and story.
Joel also showed Kelvin how to shoot a BB gun. It was funny, because it reminded me of my dad. So Joel became Papa Joel to me, and watching that part of the movie was very meta.
SY: Speaking of the more physical scenes of the drama, what was the process of also working with the actors on their physicality? Did they perform their stunts practically while you were filming?
TES: There were a few things where we had a stunt double, but the actors primarily did mos of their own stunts. They just went for it, whether it was Riley falling over, or Chris and Joel were fighting. Chris actually pinched a nerve in his neck the night before we had to film most of his physical stuff. You may notice that throughout those scenes, his neck was like this. (Shults tilts his head to his right.)
That was great, because Will gets hit in the head a few times, so Chris’ injury plays into that aspect of the film. Chris probably had it the worst-he was tied to a tree, and had a bag over his head, for a day. But the actors were all great in that sense. That helped this lower budget, scrappy physical film, and that excited them.
SY: What was the experience of shooting ‘It Comes at Night’ independently? Did the process influence the creativity on the set?
TES: Yes, I think so, for sure. I also think when you have that many creative people in one location for that amount of time, you’ll jive. Filmmaking is a big collaboration between the actors and the crew. We loved the experience.
On ‘Krisha,’ we filmed in a similar way-it was all in my mom’s house. With this film, there were more people, but we were all contained. We weren’t in the city-we were all in Upstate New York, and we couldn’t get away from each other. We were all staying in the same hotel, and it was really fun.
SY: Speaking of shooting ‘It Comes at Night’ in Upstate New York, what was the experience like of determining where you wanted to film the horror movie? How does shooting in real locations also influence the mood on the set, and how you can approach the filming process?
TES: I’m just happy we found (the house). There was awhile wen we were worried that we wouldn’t be able to find a place to film. We had to stay under a certain budget, so we had to use tax incentives for that.
We thought at first we would film in Toronto. So we went to Canada to get our rebates, but we discovered while we were there that we would have to had shoot 40 minutes outside of the city. Maybe this type of house exists there, but couldn’t find it.
My production designer (Karen Murphy) and production manager (Mary Beth Minthorn) then found the house we ended up using outside of Woodstock. It’s a writer’s retreat, so no one actually lives in the house. There’s so much history to it…there are even peasant quarters. I thought, you can’t build a better movie set, so I was very grateful that we found the house. The woods around it are also so great, and what we needed.
SY: In addition to writing and directing ‘It Comes at Night,’ you also co-edited the horror film with Matthew Hannam. What was the process of determining the final version of the movie?
TES: The editing process took longer than I anticipated. It was just me for a bit; I think I edited alone from August through January, and then I brought in my co-editor, Matthew, because i was going insane. The material’s dark, so it’s draining on a person to sit with it all of the time. A lot of times, it’s easy to disconnect from the material that you shoot, but there are certain elements that put a strain on you.
What was tricky with this was getting the pace to a place we both thought felt right. We had to find a balance between the nightmares and reality. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it was always about what happens at the end between the families. So I had to figure out how to take us out after that. I’m very happy with how it wound up.
SY: The tension and emotion in genre movies like this one are not only driven by the visual effects, but also the music. What was the process of creating the score for the drama?
TES: I love the score for this film. It was created by my buddy, Brian (McOmber), who also scored ‘Krisha.’ The scores he creates are always great, but the one he created for this movie takes a subtly different approach. We wanted to so something that’s subtly different, and not say, “Boom, look at us.” It’s subtle in how it helps create the story’s themes and scares, and how it also shows the difference between the nightmares and reality. The scores for each of the scenes are just different enough to converge in a unique way.