As you've probably noticed, we're big fans of Trey Edward Shults' It Comes At Night. The film - which we recently screened deep in the woods outside of Austin, Texas - is one of the year's most potent, interesting thrillers, a movie that really gets under your skin and stays there. As such, it was my distinct pleasure to sit down with Shults recently to discuss the movie, the various films and people which inspired it, and...the apocalypse.
Here's how that went.
How ya doing?
Doing good, man.
Do you like doing (junket) interviews?
Well, honestly, I haven't done that many. I did a few for Krisha, but for this one - I mean, we only finished the movie two weeks ago. And now it's coming out on June 9th, so...
Right. You've got an interview blitzkrieg to look forward to.
Totally. And, y'know, talk to me on the other end of it and we'll see how I feel!
I ask this question of everyone I interview. If I were you, this would drive me crazy, sitting around answering the same questions all day. I'm fascinated by it.
So far, the questions have been pretty different, but this is also my first real day of doing press for the movie, so...
Three months from now we're gonna reconvene and you're gonna be like, "Yeah, I'm gonna go work in construction now."
Hahaha, right? "I'm never doing press again!"
I guess it's gotta be exciting, though, coming from Krisha to this, where we're sitting in a hotel room, and you've got posters for your movie up all over the place...
It's very surreal! I don't think I can fully process stuff like this. The really surreal part, though, is that the movie's about to be out there. People are gonna see it! Some of 'em are gonna love it, some of 'em won't.
Without spoiling anything, does that mean you're expecting the movie to be divisive?
And you're alright with that?
I will say this - and I'm not in control of marketing or anything else - I made the movie, it means a lot to me. I think a lot of people are going to have...different expectations. If they're wanting a monster movie or more of a straight-up horror movie, it's not gonna be their jam. But there will be people who connect with it, and that's great! I wasn't trying to be a jackass, making a movie just to push people's buttons. From my perspective, it's a really personal movie to me, I put my heart and soul into making it, I'm extremely proud of it, and I'm happy it's getting out there.
I think it'll be divisive. I also think that, if I were you, I'd think: I made this movie for my dad. I made the movie I wanted to make. Screw 'em.
Can you talk a little bit about that, about how your relationship with your father informed the movie?
Well, it started with that opening scene. What Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) is saying to her father in that scene is what I said to mine when he was on his death bed. I had a tough relationship with my dad. He inspired a lot of the stuff in Krisha. He battled addiction for a long time, and eventually we cut off our relationship for about ten years. And then, all of a sudden, he had pancreatic cancer, and the next time I saw him was when he was on his death bed. Combined with the type of relationship I had with my dad...I mean, that's the closest I'd ever been to death. All I could do was try to help him find peace before he went.
Ever since that day, my life has been different. And two months later, I started writing, starting with that scene and then transitioning into this totally fictional narrative. It comes from deeply, deeply personal stuff, and eventually became a movie about fear, and fear of the unknown. And what's the ultimate unknown? Death.
You mentioned during the Q&A last night that you also did a lot of research about genocide. I'm curious why that was something you wanted to explore in the wake of your father's death.
I mean, was it just the bleakness of the emotions you were feeling, or...?
I would say...what linked that emotion was regret. The big thing, first off, was confronting mortality. Past that, it was regret with mortality. And past that, I've always been fascinated by...well, in genocide. Or even just murder. Like, how do normal people get to that point? And thinking about genocide, too, and how, inherently, humans on this planet have been in tribes longer than we've been in civilized society. That's ingrained in our subconscious, y'know? I'm fascinated by that. But I just got drawn to it, wondering "How far is too far?" And the idea that losing your humanity is even worse than death. It all just gravitated towards that. And I love the book Lord Of The Flies...
Lord Of The Flies was an influence on this?
It actually was! And not like I was reading the book as I was writing or anything, but it was a book I was forced to read in high school, and that one just blew my mind. Spoke very true to me. And now in hindsight, I'm like, "Well, instead of an island, it's a house. And instead of choir boys, it's two families." I became fascinated with that, and treating the house like a microcosm of society, and seeing how their fear destroys them. Anyway, to me, this is all interwined. But the core thing is regret, and that's what I spun the narrative out from.
Were there specific films you watched before this, anything else that influenced the direction or writing?
Totally! Lots of different things in lots of different ways. From a more horror angle, it'd be The Shining and The Thing. The Fly. Rosemary's Baby. Horror movies that hit me in an emotional way. But beyond that, there was a war movie called Come And See, and family dramas, even the family interactions in Tree Of Life (were an influence). Totally different things, all combined. They all brewed into (It Comes At Night).
Changing gears here: if the movie's going to be divisive, it'll be divisive because it's withholding of certain key pieces of information.
I'm curious why you'd take that approach. Like - and I'm talking around spoilers here - but a really innocuous example I can give is, we aren't given much information about the disease itself or what has happened to everyone else.
Well, I guess that's just the kind of storytelling I like. I like being thrown into a situation and having to play catch-up. Past that, how many movies have we seen where they explain "the disease" right off the bat, or they explain how things fell apart? Why do we need that? We've seen it a million times. We get it - it's a disease, and now these people are in danger. What's it do to the people? That's the interesting part to me. And then it goes into some other stuff that, y'know, remains unresolved by the end of the film, and for me that speaks to what the movie's about: fear of the unknown. If the characters don't know, why should the audience know?
I mean, I know the answers. I can explain everything in a perfectly logical way. But I wanted the audience to be thrown into that sense of the unknown just like the characters are.
Do you still think about genocide and the apocalypse?
I do. I do. Especially...especially...
With everything going on, I mean, how do you not?
Do you have a plan? Like, if the shit went down right now, do you know what your approach would be, for surviving?
Well, yeah. My stepdad's a prepper.
Where does he live?
He lives in Texas. He's not, like, a hardcore prepper - he doesn't have a bunker or anything - but he's buying, like, guns and food and ammunition and he's got it saved throughout the house. And so of course this movie also comes from that stuff. But that's the first place I'd go.
Go to the person who was actually ready for this.
Exactly! I mean, I'm not a prepper at all. I live one day at a time, I'm not into war.
I know some people like that. They live on a compound out in the middle of nowhere. That's where I'm going if the apocalypse happens, because those folks have everything. All I have at my place is some beer and half a jar of mustard.
Something else I wanted to ask you about: have you read a book called Bird Box?
I have not, but I've read the script. They're trying to make it into a movie.
I've got the script but I haven't read it yet. I have read the book, though--
Did you like it?
Yeah, I mostly liked it. I didn't like the ending.
That's kinda how I felt about the script. I think they sent it to me because I've sorta made a movie in that realm, so they figured...
There are no real narrative similarities, but while watching It Comes At Night I kept thinking, "Y'know, this is what a Bird Box movie would look like."
Yeah, with the boarded up windows and everything, I can see that. But I wanna do something different (next).
Do you know what your next project's going to be?
Well, I need to finish writing something that's really personal. It's a little Krisha, a little It Comes At Night...
Not at all. It's, like, kids in high school. And a family. It's a two-part narrative that's sort of about love and hate. The tension that's in Krisha would be...I hope would be in this. But in a totally different context. It's something entirely new.
Final question: what do you want people to know about It Comes At Night before they see it?
It's not your typical horror movie. It's not a monster movie. It's about people.
It Comes At Night arrives in theaters this weekend. You should see it.