Don't let the trailers fool you: It Comes at Night is not a horror movie, and Trey Edward Shults wants you to know that. "I'm happy to call it a horror movie if you want, but I never approached it as, 'This is a horror movie," the 28-year-old director explains with a good-natured smile while discussing his second feature film over coffee in Manhattan's West Village. "It's so weird that it's being presented as straight-up horror, but the good thing is that horror sells. People are going to go to it, and a lot of people will not like what it is—but I hope it makes them think."
Indeed, it's nearly impossible to walk away from It Comes at Night without having a lot on your mind. An impeccably assembled thriller cloaked in post-apocalyptic dread, Shults's follow-up to last year's astounding Krisha zeroes in on a family's attempts to survive against a faceless and unstoppable threat, doing anything they can to keep the darkness outside their home. After patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) catches Will (Christopher Abbott) breaking into their home to search for supplies, he reluctantly agrees to offer Will's family shelter in his own family's home. Spoiler alert: things don't go well.
In the end, It Comes at Night isn't so much about the terrors we face from the outside world as it is about the lengths we go to as human beings in order to offer protection to our own flesh and blood. It's a film about, above all else, family—a subject that has loomed large over Shults's life and career thus far.
Raised in Spring, Texas, a suburban area on the outskirts of Houston, Shults's birth parents split up following "a traumatic thing" that occurred during his childhood; he stayed with his mother and stepfather in Spring and occasionally visited his birth father at his new home in Austin. At a family reunion, he received a camcorder as a gift, which he used to make amateur "cops and robbers" short films with his friends: "My parents would watch them and freak out." One of the shorts featured Shults as the subject of a dramatic death scene, scored to audio of rapper DMX praying; another featured a head in a box, a touch inspired by seeing David Fincher's crime thriller Se7en for the first time.
As Shults grew older, however, he met some resistance from his parents when expressing a desire to turn his childhood hobby into a full-fledged artistic career: "It was seen as absurd to think you could make movies for a living. My parents were always like, 'Let's be realistic.'" A series of brief distractions from the movie biz followed: in high school, he became "obsessed" with working out before a serious shoulder tear sidelined him from physical activity for a spell; eventually, he ended up at Texas State University as a freshman business major. "I wasn't very happy," he admits. "I had movies in my head."
After his first year at TSU, Shults spent a summer in Hawaii interning on commercials—an opportunity seized by working contacts from his aunt, actress Krisha Fairchild (who later starred in the title role of Krisha). In the process, he landed what many aspiring filmmakers would call a dream gig: working as an intern with legendary filmmaker Terrence Malick, on his 2016 IMAX nature film Voyage of Time. "I did okay, and they asked me, 'Do you want to come on some more of these? Aren't you supposed to go back to school?' So I took the semester off."
The sabbatical from school eventually became permanent, as Shults decided to drop out of TSU and eventually continued working with Malick—on Voyage of Time, as well as 2015's Knight of Cups and this year's Song to Song. But the money wasn't exactly rolling in, and after his work on Voyage of Time concluded, Shults ended up broke and living with his parents. He got by helping with administrative duties for his stepfather's therapist practice, and there was a brief stint attending flight attendant school where he was kicked out for alleged misbehaviour ("She snuck in my room and we drank champagne...you know, kids' stuff").
During this period of time, Shults made several short films starring Fairchild, including 2014's Krisha—a practical blueprint for the feature of the same name that came about after a failed first attempt at making a full-length film. Both Krishas, which center around the titular character's disastrous attempt to reconcile with her family at Thanksgiving while battling her own substance addictions, were drawn from Shults's real life family experience: "There was a family reunion where my cousin came back and we thought she was sober. She wasn't, and she relapsed even further. Two months later, she overdosed and passed away. It brought back a lot of stuff with me and my dad—I remember the dread in my stomach. I felt like I was in a plane crash or something."
While editing the Krisha short, Shults's birth father passed away of pancreatic cancer. He'd been largely estranged from his father since childhood, but visiting him on his deathbed caused him to approach their relationship from a different perspective. "He was so full of regret for everything, and he didn't want to let go—I was trying to help him find peace," he states with sincerity. "It changed the way I see things."
It was this period of tragedy that inspired the script for It Comes at Night, which was written during a two-week period of fitful creativity before Shults showed the Krisha short at SXSW in 2014. "I was in grief, holed up in my room reading books on genocide, thinking about regret and death. How far is too far? Where's our future? All this shit kind of came out—I had to get it out." His plan was to head to the Austin-based festival with the draft and use the Krisha short as a springboard for getting It Comes at Night funded as his first feature film, but in Shults's words, "No one cared at all."
That wasn't entirely true: Shults had an early supporter in Jeff Nichols, who put eyes on the Krisha short while Shults served as the camera PA on Nichols's 2016 sci-fi actioner Midnight Special. (Nichols later lent a hand in Shults's casting of frequent Nichols collaborator Joel Edgerton in It Comes at Night, too.) His creative drive refueled, Shults launched a successful Kickstarter campaign to make a feature-length version of Krisha, which he brought back to SXSW in 2015. This time, a few more people cared: the film won the festival's Grand Jury Prize, and it was swiftly picked up by indie distribution powerhouse A24, who released the film last year and swiftly optioned the script for It Comes at Night, too. "It was mind-boggling," Shults says with more than a trace of humility.
Even though It Comes at Night finds Shults returning to the complicated dynamics of the family unit that he so brutally mined in Krisha, he drew inspiration from mining his own obsession over what might seem like an unexpected concept: genocide. "I was reading these books and I just started thinking about our time on this earth. Where we come from is really primal. I just became fascinated by the idea that history looping around in these cycles of violence—these genocides that keep happening. Ordinary people conduct them, and it's groups of people on groups of people."
To Shults, the horrific act is translated on-screen through the dynamic between the two families living under one roof. Will they learn to get along, or will they succumb to the same primal instinct that's defined human nature for centuries? "There's worse things than death—like losing your humanity in the process," Shults ruminates on what was going through his mind during the creative process of It Comes at Night. "If we always put family first and we start to lose that humanity, it's going to be a slippery path and we're going to destroy ourselves."
If that sounds portentous and dark, you're not alone—and when it comes to what's next for Shults, he's hoping to latch onto a different mindset, kind of. "I'm trying to write a family drama [centered around] a kid in high school," he outlines. "The first half is this downward spiral tragedy, but it comes with light and love. Hopefully, I can figure out how to loop it all together and make that sometime soon, because it's my new baby." After all, there's nothing that says "family" more than the miracle of life.
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