As you know, we love It Comes At Night here on BMD, and we’re so pleased that it’s the Drafthouse Recommends title this month. We’re very honored to have writer/director Trey Edward Shults here to discuss his influences and inspirations behind this remarkable film.
First, there’s the personal. It all started with the personal, and then it stemmed out from there. I had a rough relationship with my dad. He struggled with addiction, and a lot of that inspired Krisha. He went off the rails, and we cut off our relationship for ten years. And then he got pancreatic cancer, rapidly, and I went to him on his deathbed. And he was not ready to let go. He was so full of regret. And I was just trying to help him find some kind of peace. It was the most traumatic moment of my life, and everything changed since that day.
Two months later, I started writing. It just came out of me. In hindsight, I think it was grief, and this was me processing my grief. But I’m a movie guy. I love movies. And all of the emotions, what I was thinking, what I was feeling, came out into this fictional narrative. And that leaked over into reading books on genocide, and just thinking about us, as a society, and humans, and how long we’ve been on earth, and how through a lot of that time there have been tribes. It’s primal, and it’s so ingrained in us. If things continue to go how they’re going, and we continue these cycles of violence, I feel like we’re going to destroy ourselves. It was that fear of the unknown, that fear of the future, and ultimately the fear of death that inspired the film. But even more than that, it was regret.
And that’s when I think I stumbled upon this whole thing with these two families coming together, and the microcosm of this house, their little society within this house. If they fall apart, how far is too far, and what’s worse than death? Is it losing your humanity in the process?
So that’s all of the big, heavy stuff that was going on in my mind as I wrote It Comes At Night, and combined with that, there was a Pieter Bruegel painting that inspired the film. I grew up in my grandparents’ house, which was another inspiration for the film. It was called Pee-Wee Acres, a little ranch in Texas. My grandfather was a prisoner of war from World War II, and he escaped and survived and had a whole life after that. Actually Krisha [Fairchild, Shults’ aunt and star of Krisha] is named after the daughter of the family that hid him during the war. My grandfather’s name was Bud, and he was not a very emotional man. He was pretty internal. But in Pee-Wee Acres, this house where I grew up, he put his internal feelings into that house. Not only were there family photos, there was tons of WWII paraphernalia. There were weapons from different decades all throughout it, even medieval weapons. There was a Nazi luger. And he’d hung Bruegel paintings on the walls. I remember a specific Bruegel painting above the fireplace that’s also in the movie called The Hunters in the Snow.
So I’d seen the timeless house I wanted in the film, and I saw the family that should live in it, but I wasn’t quite sure why. And I had this book on Bruegel, and I stumbled on The Triumph of Death painting, and found out he made it during the Black Death, the bubonic plague, and I was just haunted by it, this vision of skeletons literally pulling people to their graves in a hellscape. I was drawn to it.
And then there’s Lord of the Flies. I was forced to read that book in high school, but it haunted me, it stuck with me. I loved it. It wasn’t a conscious inspiration when I was writing It Comes at Night, but in hindsight, I realized that instead of an island, it’s a house in the middle of nowhere, and instead of choir boys, it’s two families. Just getting down to the essence of what that book is about, in a lot of ways, it’s the same thing this movie’s about.
So there was the painting, there were these books on genocide, there was my dad. But there were also movies that I loved. Even though the first draft just flew out of me in three days in my grief, I still think movie-wise. I knew that all the heavy shit this was coming from, I had to put it into something different that could be a gateway to invite the audience in. I didn’t want to make a horrible, punishing movie that no one will ever see.
So what that led to are my own fears, and that led to horror movies, and the ones that I really love. Like The Thing or The Shining or Night of the Living Dead or The Fly or Don’t Look Now, any number of those classic horror films. And in The Thing, The Shining and Night of the Living Dead, what I personally love is what the monsters or the zombies or the ghosts do to the people in the films. I love the paranoia and the mistrust it instills in them in The Thing. I love the power dynamic shift that goes on in Night of the Living Dead. I love how this family unravels with these ghosts in The Shining.
But I felt like I hadn’t seen a movie in that vein with some outside threat forcing a power shift between characters that was between two families. There’s The Shining, and that’s a family, but it’s really just that one, core family. I hadn’t seen two different families, these two tribes, just stuck in this house together in that context, and that was exciting to me.
That’s my thing. That’s what I love. And that segued into everything else that was going on in my mind: the personal, the paintings, these books, everything I’d been thinking about. And then it just became this timeless house in the woods in the middle of nowhere, where these two families have to coexist, and what happened with that, what fear came out of that. That’s It Comes At Night for me.
It Comes At Night is in theaters now. Get your tickets here.