In his sophomore feature, It Comes At Night, Texas-born filmmaker Trey Edward Shults makes his first foray into horror—sort of. Not only was his debut, the similarly devastating family drama Krisha, shot like a horror movie, but It Comes At Night stubbornly refuses to define itself by any conventional horror metric. Instead, the movie takes events from Shults’ personal experience and translates them into imagery that’s symbolically loaded yet open to interpretation, anchored by the primal fear of the dark.
We spoke to Shults over the phone a few weeks after seeing It Comes At Night at the Overlook Film Festival, where it premiered as a much-hyped secret screening. We talked about the raw emotions that fueled the writing of the movie, the influences that contributed to its grim vision, and why he’s so into long, dark hallways.
The A.V. Club: One thing about this film that stuck out to me is how intense it is, both in terms of physical violence and in its emotional aspects. As a director, did you approach those two things differently?
Trey Edward Shults: I don’t think I approach them differently. It just depends, from situation to situation. I will say this is my first time doing something with physical violence, and my approach was always, “I want this to be real, and I want to feel it.” I guess it’s the same, though, if we’re dealing with an emotion or something that the characters are going through. I want you to feel it like they do, and I want it to feel immersive.
AVC: On that note, did you sit down with the intention of making a horror movie, or did it just kind of happen that way?
TES: I think it just spewed out. It just happened. As I said [at the Overlook Film Festival], it comes from a personal place with my dead’s death and everything, and in hindsight I think part of my grieving process was writing this movie. I was dealing with the emotions I was going through by combining them with what I love, which is movies. So of course my therapeutic way of dealing with [death] is writing this movie. It’s after the fact, when you actually have to make a movie, and sell people on it, and talk about it, when you put labels on it. Where I stand now is that I don’t think it’s a conventional horror movie at all. But it could fall under horror. I think I’m probably the wrong person to label it. [Laughs.]
AVC: It’s always an interesting question, what makes something a “horror” movie. If it makes you uncomfortable, does that count, or…?
TES: Exactly. Some people thought my last movie, Krisha, was a horror movie, and there’s no monsters or anything in that either.
AVC: Did you write It Comes At Night quickly, given that it was this cathartic experience?
TES: I did. The first draft spewed out of me in three days. But if anyone outside read that, it would look like gibberish. It was handwritten, scribbled on notebook pages. Actually typing that up and refining it was about two weeks, I think, and then I didn’t make the movie for several more years [after that], so I would return to it and tweak it and change certain things throughout. But it was always really important to me to retain that initial three days, and those emotions. That was the most cathartic experience, just being in it with the characters and experiencing it like the characters and crying and doing all this stuff, and everything from those initial three days was important to retain in the final film as best as I could.
AVC: Did that affect the way you cast the movie, having that emotional connection to the characters?
TES: I think for casting it just came down to who was the best for these characters. It was just that simple. But we wanted to cast Paul and then build the cast around him, so we cast Joel [Edgerton] first. And I’m just very grateful we got him for the movie because I think he’s brilliant.
AVC: Was this one of those situations where having him on board helped the movie move forward?
TES: One-hundred percent. Once we got Joel on board, everything just shot forward and fell into place. He had an opening in his schedule, and we needed to meet that opening if we wanted to have him in the film. So everyone was like, “Okay let’s do it, let’s go for it,” and we went for it. The rest of the casting fell into place so easily, and it just fell so right. Joel came also on as an EP, so he was involved creatively.
AVC: I loved the actor who played Travis, Kelvin Harrison Jr.
TES: Oh, he’s amazing.
AVC: He’s so great! But having these characters who are people of color trapped in this house being besieged by outside forces, it was very Night Of The Living Dead to me. Was that in the script? Did you intentionally cast people of color, or was it colorblind casting?
TES: It was probably a bit of both. I’ll say in my first pass on the script, I wasn’t thinking about color or race. I was just thinking about people, and the dynamics between these people. Then as things progress and you start casting and all that, you have to be conscious of it. It was exciting to me, too, almost like the idea that this movie is post-racial. It’s not about race. It’s about people, but it’s not about race. That just felt right to me. So we got Joel, and we got Carmen [Ejogo], and everything just fell into place and it felt awesome. But I love Night Of The Living Dead. The end of that movie, it just hit me, you know?
AVC: Speaking of, from the trailers, you might assume that this is a zombie movie. Was that something you had in mind when you were conceiving the film?
TES: When I’m writing or making a movie, I have no idea how they’re going to market it. But I will say that I love Night Of The Living Dead, and that was one of the influences on the movie. But Night Of The Living Dead, in my opinion, isn’t really about the zombies. It’s about what the zombies do to the people inside the house and the dynamics between those people. That’s what I love. So for me, when I was doing this, it wasn’t about the disease, it was about what the disease does to the people.
And one thing that was always really important to me was that my favorite movies are movies that latch onto you and stick with you and stay in your head. I always hoped that this could be that kind of movie, at least for the people who really dug it. It would stay with them. And it was intentional to leave certain things unanswered, and to stay in the point of view of the characters. And as you said, in the marketing of the film, you can say the title and everything else, but you don’t know how people are going to interpret it. Are people going to think it’s a monster movie or a zombie movie or something? But for me, the title’s not literal. It speaks to what the movie’s about thematically.
AVC: I thought that maybe the “it” is just fear. The fear that possesses them is worse at night, because of their isolation.
TES: I love that, and from my point of view you’re not far off. It’s everything, you know? Think about Travis’ nightmares, and what those mean. Those are a way of seeing how he processes this fear, and what it leads to… I could ramble on about this forever. [Laughs.]
AVC: Well, here’s something else I was hoping to talk about—doomsday preppers. How did that influence the movie?
TES: Okay, so, it also goes back to when the first ideas and images for the movie were coming through. A family member of mine is a prepper and I was working for them, and I was building a fence in the backyard and pushing a wheelbarrow. There are safes in the house with guns and food, and that’s my stepdad’s mentality. He’s told me my entire life what Paul says in the film, “You can’t trust anyone but family.” And certainly all that stuff is what led to this. But I think I see things more through Travis’ eyes. I also love other stuff that has to do with that [aesthetic], but I don’t watch a ton of post-apocalyptic movies, I don’t think.
AVC: What other stuff?
TES: I love The Last Of Us, the video game. I wrote this [movie] before I ever played the game, but certain imagery from the game definitely stuck with me and made it into the final movie. In that realm, I love Children Of Men. And you know what else I love?
TES: I love Take Shelter and Melancholia, and movies where it’s about an emotion. Those movies are sort of about the end of the world, but they use an emotion to lead off that narrative. That was really fascinating to me.
AVC: You were talking about imagery from the film just coming to you… when I talk to directors I’m always interested to find out how stories come together for them. Do you come up with a plot, and then images, or do the images precede the story?
TES: I think actually with me it’s images and emotion first, and I can be led to that through different things. A lot of times with me it’s listening to music, and that creates different scenes or images or emotions, and those lead to a story. Before I lost my dad I had images in my head, like the wheelbarrow or the gun safe, things I was literally around. And those led to the situation. Thinking about my grandparents’ house I grew up in in the middle of the woods, I saw this family living there and another family living there, but I didn’t know why or what that was about. But those images and that situation were in my mind for years, but I didn’t know what they were for or what they led to. But then I lost my dad and I started writing and all those things collided into this narrative.
AVC: One more question then, speaking of imagery: What feeling comes up for you when you see a long dark hallway? Because that seems to be a running theme in your movies.
TES: Well. [Laughs.] For some reason I’m obsessed with hallways, I don’t know why. I will say this: the image of the hallway that’s in the teaser trailer, I really love that shot. And visually, that one shot sums up what the movie is. You see that Bruegel painting and the hellscape with skeleton figures literally trying to kill people and pull them down. And then you pan over and you see this long hallway, and in this hallway are family photos and everything, and at the end of it is this red door. And this red door, to me, is a portal to confrontation and confronting fears. But also, in the movie, that door literally leads toward the outside of the house. It leads to the unknown, which I think is another thing in the subtext of the movie. The movie is about the fear of the unknown, and the greatest unknown is death, so there’s that mortality and the fear it instills in us. I don’t know, man, there’s something with hallways and family photos in my subconscious, I don’t know why but it’s definitely there.