It Comes at Night: An Interview with Director Trey Shults
It was not a normal Monday night at the Alamo Drafthouse Mueller in Austin. A24 Films and Fons PR had assembled well over one hundred members of the press and regional film movers and shakers to attend a secret screening of It Comes at Night. But the screening wasn’t at the theater.
As twilight descended on the capital city we were loaded onto a handful of yellow school buses lined up outside the theater. Our handlers passed out those plain cotton earloop white masks, not unlike the kind that are worn by the checkers at my local Whole Foods. The guides, however, were wearing heavy-duty military grade gas masks and carrying powerful hand lanterns. Both those props play into the visual motifs in It Comes at Night.
Departing the theater, the buses headed in queue to a woodsy destination. Everyone was bumping up and down in their seats as a dirt road filled with dips and potholes tested the shocks of the buses. Branches from low hanging trees slapped against the sides of the vehicle.
At one point the bus stopped (I was in Bus A, the lead bus) and one of the guides walked up a hill that was only directly illuminated by the bus’ headlights. He disappeared at the top of the hill and I was half expecting his head to come rolling down.
He returned and confirmed that the rural road we were on was indeed correct. As the buses pulled up to what would’ve been an idyllic location in daylight, we were guided down a dirt road, not muddy despite rain earlier in the day, to a red door in the middle of a barbwire fence. A red door also figures prominently in the plot of It Comes at Night.
As the crow flies we couldn’t possibly be that far from Austin. We’d driven in circles and had been mostly on paved roads. However, now we were in pitch darkness in the woods.
Walking the length of a football field, the contingent comes across an outdoor screen and lots of rows of folding seats. There’s plenty of beer in cans, and good craft brew like New Belgium, Sierra Nevada, Real Ale, stashed in a couple of three giant white coolers that are as long as that stubby electric car my Aunt Leica drives.
As the movie progresses I look up, and my eyes accustomed to the dark viewed the Little Dipper directly overhead. After the movie ends, writer/director Trey Edward Shults does a Q&A moderated by Meredith Borders. It Comes at Night had previously had its world premiere at the Overlook Film Festival in late April.
It Comes at Night can be firmly placed in a list of movies that deal with post-apocalyptic events. But Shults knows how to mix genres, so at times the audience wonders if they’re viewing a psychological thriller or a straight-out horror film. A nuclear family lives in a rural area with all the windows bordered and sealed.
Joel Edgerton plays the paterfamilias. His wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and their son, close to adulthood himself, Travis (Kevin Harrison, Jr.), are all seen at the beginning of the movie wearing gas masks. It’s obvious from the get-go that some sort of virus has wiped out humanity and this family survives by keeping wandering survivors away from their property. There’re no zombies – it’s not that kind of movie. Yet any survivors at this point are armed and dangerous until proven otherwise.
The trio are essentially burying one of their own, an old man with festering sores all over his body. It’s a mercy killing with a quick cremation to prevent the spread of disease. The deceased man was the wife’s father. Only after they return to their house do they remove their masks.
Previously, the apocalyptic survival genre was populated by visions of a world destroyed by nuclear weapons. Compare films from a different generation as diverse as Five (1951), The World, the Flesh and the Devil (1959), and Panic in Year Zero! (1962). Planet of the Apes (1968) and A Boy and His Dog (1975) gave the genre sardonic twists. The recent Z for Zachariah (2015) covers the dynamics of a trio of individuals grasping for life after a cataclysmic event, yet that film was playing to the art house crowd by making the drama, well, dramatic.
Things change in It Comes at Night when a man shows up. After a strange kind of quarantine — that really means he was tied to a tree for a few days for virus observation — he (Christopher Abbott as Will) bargains his life with the promise to bring goats and food supplies, along with his wife (Riley Keogh as Kim) and small child (Griffin Robert Faulkner).
Once the two families acclimate to the new situation, loyalties shift, visions occur during nightmares and the dog runs off. The main barrier is a red door that acts as a singular opening to the outside world. It’s a big house. Perhaps not oddly, Shults’ previous film Krisha also takes place in a single house.
Shults’ debut film Krisha was a labor of love that Shults shot at his parents’ house in Spring, Texas. Krisha crushed it on the international film festival circuit and got Shults a deal with A24.
“The production budget for Krisha was $35,000,” says Shults the morning after the outdoor screening from his room at a luxury hotel on South Congress Avenue.
Typically movies that are picked up by distributors get a budget boost for post production services like sound mixing and marketing, which can add hundreds of thousands to the eventual bottom line.
“Back when I made Krisha as a short film, the budget was $7,000 of my own money with five days to shoot it. I had a friend who had a Red camera and I asked him to DP so we could use the camera for free,” says Shults. “He was busy but told me if I used Drew [Daniels] I could use the camera. We hit it off; we have the same exact tastes. So he shot Krisha,” adds Shults.
Daniels also shot It Comes at Night, but now the digital camera was the Arri Alexa. Originally Shults and Daniels wanted to use film, but budget concerns as well as the practicality of lighting scenes with flashlight and lanterns made digital photography’s grasp of low light a necessity.
Some of the lanterns had high wattage bulbs or “attachments to the front that you couldn’t see.”
Some of the inspiration for It Comes at Night comes courtesy of Pieter Bruegel’s (1525 – 1569) painting “Triumph of Death,” which hangs on one of the walls of the house. Upon first seeing the painting in the film I immediately though Bosch and another person in the preview audience mentioned Goya. But Bruegel has his own sense of decay.
“The Bruegel painting was a personal thing. I grew up in my grandparent’s house. My grandpa was in World War II and was a prisoner of war. And escaped. He had war paraphernalia on the walls. He had rifles and guns, he had a Nazi Luger and Bruegel paintings. He didn’t have ‘Triumph of Death,’ but he had ‘Hunters in the Snow’ hanging over the fireplace, and another one I can’t remember the name of,” Shults says.
“Crazy story about how he hid out in a house with a friendly family. That’s how my Aunt Krisha got her name because the family had a daughter named Krisha.
“Grandpa wasn’t a talker – he wasn’t an emotional guy, but what was going on with him internally was on his walls.”
When Shults started writing It Comes at Night, influences like the painting added to the recent death of his father, giving the film its bleak view.
Shults also read lots of books dealing with holocausts including American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World by David Stannard and Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide by James Walker. “I also watched the documentary The Act of Killing,” says Shults. “It’s a subject that fascinates me. They’re not monsters, they’re regular people. As a society how do you do this? It was definitely an inspiration for this story.”
The film was shot outside of Woodstock, NY with its small cast and crew using the location house as the practical set and the nearby woods for all outside scenes.
“The closest we got to a set was the red door, we built the frame and the red door in a hallway,” says Shults. “You could say the red door signifies a welcome into Travis’ nightmares.”
Is Travis the main character? In the movie there’s a middle of the night scene where Travis meets Kim in the kitchen. Neither can sleep, but the sequence almost becomes a seduction as Shults changes camera angles on their faces as they talk and the scene changes meaning.
“You never know, in a film like this anything could happen,” says Shults. “I see Travis as the main character; he’s like an observer, too. A lot of the shots are my interpretation of how Travis sees things. His nightmares link the whole movie together. You have this new woman and that affects his hormones, and you have the death of his grandfather, or his own fear of death.”
Talking about editing the movie and putting Travis’ nightmares in order of creepiness Shults admits, “You never know.
“I thought the first dream would be scary but didn’t know if it would be scarier than the last. I’ll say in editing one-hundred percent we felt that the first nightmare was a scare moment. Then you brace yourself each time another dreams occurs. When they happen they become less about the scare and more about what is going on in Travis’ mind.”
It Comes at Night opens in area theaters this weekend.