“It Comes at Night” is the story of two families brought together by a type of zombie apocalypse, unsure of if they can trust each other. Joel Edgerton’s Paul has established a safe corner of the world with his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), living in a boarded up house in the woods and sticking to a strict regiment in order to not get sick. When Christopher Abbott’s character Will breaks into their house thinking that it is empty, they initially treat him with violence and paranoia, until they believe he’s just trying to help his own wife (Riley Keough) and young son (Griffin Robert Faulkner). Tensions arise in the house as a sinister force keeps the two units in close quarters, and the second film from writer/director Trey Edward Shults, previously of a different kind of family drama with the homemade "Krisha," evolves into a tragedy of an everyday horror.
RogerEbert.com spoke with Shults about the unconventional horror of “It Comes at Night,” how directing Joel Edgerton was different than working with his grandma, the Kanye West biopic he wants to direct and more.
When the idea for this film was born, what were your dreams for it and what it would be?
The spark of the movie was losing my dad, and his death. And like two months after, it spewed out of me. So I guess it started with that. It’s a good question. What was really important to me, is that it came from that deep personal place, even though obviously, it started with that first scene, and the words she says to her dad are the words I said to my dad and everything. Obviously after that, it’s fictional. But I think it comes from that place, and I wrote that probably three years ago. A range of emotions, like crying. And I just hoped that the final film would feel like how I had felt at that time, where at least the people that dig it, that it really moves or touches, would have those feelings that I had when I was the audience member.
We won’t spoil what the movie eventually does with those feelings, but it’s a different movie—
—than what people might be expecting. So were you thinking about conventions and working directly against those, or were you just writing a movie that people might recognize, “Oh, someone’s going downstairs into the darkness”?
I think a little bit of both. I think because it is so personal and it did spew out of me, at the same time it is a fictional narrative I think it’s not a conventional horror movie at all but it’s working in that sphere. For me, it was just horror movies that I love: “Night of the Living Dead,” or “The Thing” or “The Shining” or “Don’t Look Now,” different things I love about those movies. And even with “The Thing,” the creature and the make-up is amazing, but it’s not my personal thing about it. When I was a kid, that scared me but what scared me even more was that I couldn’t trust anyone. The paranoia instilled in everyone. And then with “Night of the Living Dead,” zombies are cool, but zombies didn’t excite me. It was the people in the house! And the power dynamic. And the end of that film.
Yeah, I was thinking about “Night of the Living Dead” when watching your film. Was that film's ending ringing in your head when you were writing this? Especially with characters and interracial relationships?
Probably. I wouldn’t say 100% consciously, but that blew me away the first time I saw it. Or the ending of “Don’t Look Now,” how much that haunted me, or even “The Fly,” it was like a love story and you loved the people in it, and it’s a tragedy. So that stuff excited me, and taking that with a family drama or something. I care way less about the disease the apocalypse or whatever, and more about these people and this house and their dynamics and their microcosm and what it does to them.
This movie is a tragedy, basically.
I think so.
Is that where you started with it?
I don’t know.
Especially with the zombie elements, where it’s leering and then it’s like, “Are they not coming back?”
Yes. Actually, what’s really interesting, I don’t know, how I perceive my movie is really different, because I go on this journey. But I just realized like the past couple of weeks, that I think that as the movie goes on, it gets less and less traditional horror and more about the people and like you said, tragedy. I don’t know, I cry at the end of the movie every time I see it. And the end sort of climax, what happens between those two families in the woods still haunts me. And the screams from one of those characters haunts me. The first time I heard it I started crying. It’s the sound you never want to hear. It’s that guttural … I don’t know. It’s certainly not a conventional horror movie, it’s tragic, it breaks my heart. But I don’t know.
Were you ever prodded to put in more of what is not in the movie?
Not a lot. I think also because it was never meant to be a big budget movie, like just from a practical sense of working with what you have. What you have is a low budget movie in the scheme of things. But not a lot. A24 financed it, and they read the script before they agreed to do it or before they picked up “Krisha,” because I had written it years ago and after “Krisha” premiered at SXSW they saw it and loved it, they said “This isn’t a movie we traditionally release but we’re totally interested.” And then they were like, “What do you want to do next?” And I said, “I don’t know, I have this script, it’s kind of a horror movie, it’s my baby.” And I sent it and they loved it, and it was really just that simple.
And there were times, actually, there are moments, like even the shootout on the road that happens when those guys come, I don’t think that was in the initial draft. Because I think the initial draft was even more stripped down and I thought I would have no money to do it and kind of figured it out.
So they would be in the house the entire time.
The entire time. And then Paul leaves and we figure out what happens until he comes back. There were small things added, but it was never like, “Let’s explore this whole world.” It wasn’t about that, and I think they were excited that what we’re talking about, that it does turn more into a tragedy and less of a conventional horror, they got that part and dug it.
Thinking about A24 movie “The Witch,” or something like “It Follows,” there's an idea about different villains, or how challenging what a villain is. Or “Get Out” has a different idea of a villain.
Exactly. And what’s the traditional monster in “Get Out”? I think it’s a new kind of horror thing. And it’s not just horror, either. It’s marketed as horror, but it is horror, it’s also satire, it’s also “social thriller” as he calls it. And I’m a movie guy, I loved “The Witch,” I loved “It Follows,” I loved “Get Out,” I really dug “Raw” this year. And I can’t help but see and notice those movies. But I did write this years ago before I saw any of those so they weren’t at the forefront in the creation of it.
But it’s interesting, you can talk about these personal tragedies of people. Whether it’s the STDs of “It Follows” or the racism of “Get Out" ...
What I think is interesting is that all of these movies, I think they’re personal to the filmmakers. I think it’s clear how personal “Get Out” can be. And “The Babadook,” and “The Witch.” They’re all personal films put into that horror sphere, so I hopefully something unique comes out of it. I think they do.
How much time was there between “Who is this guy?” with "Krisha"'s SXSW 2015 debut and then you making this? Did you have time to get rusty?
A little bit. We shot in August 2016. To my taste, it was too long in between, and I hopefully don’t take as long with my next one [laughs].
Was this a boot camp for you, working with name actors and so forth?
To me it wasn’t a big jump. Obviously [with] “Krisha” my family is in it, but my aunt’s an actual actress, she has craft. A lot of the camera stuff we do, she has to hit her marks, but at the same time we’ll do a scene with my grandma where she doesn’t even know we’re making a movie and it’s like a documentary. It’s like every film has its own challenge but for me, my big thing for this was that my family can’t be in it and I got to work with people I don’t know, and the actors and the whole new challenge. But the important thing was like, to get people that I felt were good humans, that I loved their work but I also felt like good people and they were excited about the project, they seemed to dig each other, and we still tried to build a family even though we’re not. And that meant everyone in the crew to everyone in the cast. I feel like we did, and by the end of the first week it didn’t feel that different from “Krisha.” It felt like “Krisha” just on a bigger scale. Joel would be between takes sweating his ass off in the hallway like, “Let’s do another one, it will be amazing!” I wanted everyone, I wanted the dolly grip, I wanted the PAs, everyone to just be excited about what they’re doing. Even though the subject matter is dark, let’s have fun doing it and feeling good. That was really important to me.
That set mentality seems like a good value for you to have as a director, especially if you go to bigger movies.
Totally. Well, that will be interesting. I don’t know if you can do that on a Hollywood movie. It would be good to try! [Laughs]
“That was a nice thing that Trey did.”
“He tried, and he failed.” [Laughs]
So you didn’t really have any nerves of directing Joel Edgerton …
Well, I did.
I’m curious about that. Your aunt is definitely a great actress, but working with someone like Joel Edgerton, you’re putting a lot more on your shoulders.
And I don’t really know him. We meet before and we talk a bunch, but I don’t know him like I know my aunt [laughs]. So, it’s different. And yeah, especially the drives to set the first week, leading up to that, it’s all of your insecurities. And I’m a night owl, so you stay up and think about all of this stuff and you can’t help but think like, “Do I know what am I doing? Am I going to fuck this up?” That stuff totally comes. But then pretty much once you’re on set making a movie, whether it’s a $30,000 at your mom’s house or this movie, I think, at least so far, that stuff falls away and you’re making a movie. And you’re all on the same endeavor and you’re trying to tell this story. Each movie has its own challenges. But you’re still in the trenches making the movie. Once it gets going, you feel good. But leading up to it you can’t feel nervous. If you latch onto that you’re going to screw everything else up, and waste time and money and everything else.
The actor who played Travis—Kelvin Harrison Jr. How did you audition him?
So I have an amazing casting director, and she sent me audition tapes of kids. And Kelvin was in that, and I remember it came down to two kids. And I think what I latch onto, because these kids wouldn’t even get the script they’d get a scene, and I think they had two scenes, Stanley’s sad scene in the hallway with Joel and the kitchen scene with Riley. They don’t have context of the script so it could be anything, but it’s a charming sweet scene and every kid played it charming and sweet, but Kelvin did that and there was also another layer and you could see in his eyes and read in his face that there’s a lot of hurt there and there’s stuff going on. To me that was Travis. I Skyped with him and I met him. I love him so much, I want to do more movies with him.
And his face is so expressive, especially as the eyes and ears of the house. And your camera is certainly giving a lot of focus to him.
He doesn’t say a lot. But the camera favors him.
It’s almost his perspective.
100%. I kept saying, “The camera is Travis! The camera needs to feel like Travis does.” We did the same thing, with “Krisha” it was even more honed in, just because it was a little more of an ensemble than “Krisha” was just because it’s about her. And at times we break away from Travis’ point of view, like when they go on the road. But even the way we shot it, we shot it the way I think Travis would imagine that, you know what I mean? And even the scene where Paul is interrogating Will in the tree, Travis is actually watching all of that and you can hear all of that because he’s right in the house, looking through the peephole. But even the way we shot it and felt it out, we would do it as to how Travis was kind of doing it. And if it wasn’t Travis, it would be Paul.
With “Krisha,” would you say you were more loose or more intense going into it as your second movie?
This was less loose than “Krisha” and as a script, it was more scripted. “Krisha” would have passages I would just be like, “OK, grandma is going to come and we’re going to see what happens.” But with this, we would do stuff when we could, whether it was just Joel and Carmen in bed late at night, or if it was Chris and Riley in bed, or Ben chopping wood or something. We would do some techniques that we did with “Krisha” where we would just roll for 10 minutes and see what happens. So that stuff is a blast, but certainly less crazy and rogue as “Krisha,” and a little more patient and refined. But it’s not a huge departure.
There are a lot of interesting similarities with the story and "Krisha."
I think so. They come around the same time and I wrote this before I rewrote the feature for “Krisha” and shot that, they’re all intermeshed. But I also wanted to push myself in different ways and flex different muscles and have different challenges with this.
Were you thinking about “Krisha” when you were directing this, about what it means?
Totally, and you can’t help but, I’ve only made two movies and this is my second movie and you can’t help but think about the last thing that you did. It was like, yes, it was on my mind, but it was also conscious for my DP and myself that we’d be pushing ourselves and doing something different. Like, lighting on this was way more of a challenge than something like “Krisha.” But it's all intermingled, and what we wanted was to once again something that we all cared about, but we also just wanted to push ourselves.
What makes you want to base your movies on the stakes of family? Like with this movie, you have to really feel that family to get the whole picture.
Totally. Well, a family is infinitely fascinating. There are so many things you can explore in a family, clearly I care about family because I’ve made two films kind of about family. I think that love and hate in a family is fascinating, if that makes sense. I feel like you can be just more real with your family. They can drive you crazy and you can hate them or you can love them more than anything and you can especially if it’s sons and parents. I can talk to my mom and dad like I would never talk to anyone else if we’re fighting or something. That’s fascinating to me. And with me, I was fascinated with thinking of family as a tribe, of us humans how long we’ve been on this earth, and I think a majority of that time has been tribes. And only recently, in the scheme of things we’ve had civilized societies. I just was fascinated by the idea of that we’re pushed to, we don’t know everything that’s going on in the world, it’s a terrible place, it's a microcosm, and there are these two families, and we can see how they can coexist, and see how fear effects them, and see how fear tears them apart, and that power shift. But that’s just one aspect of families and I feel like “Krisha” had totally different things. And the next thing that I feel like I want to do that I’m trying to write is totally abut family. And I just know I’m infinitely fascinated and exploring in different ways. Think about “Boogie Nights.” It’s like porn stars, they’re family! You just explore family in a million ways, and they're universal movies.
I like your Life of Pablo hat, by the way. You should make a horror movie with Kanye West.
I actually want … my dream movie is a Kanye West biopic. That’s my dream movie.
OK, do it—
If I can do it, I’ll do it.
—do it like “Steve Jobs,” about the creation of The Life of Pablo or My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Well, I’m trying to nail down what’s the most fascinating aspect to focus on.
Why did we not talk about this 20 minutes ago?!
[Laughs] But honestly, my dream is to like, get Kanye’s permission and pick his mind apart in all aspects of his life and put a story together and then make a biopic like you’ve never seen before.
[Ellen, trusty publicist]: He would definitely star in it.
Would you want him to star in his own biopic?
I don’t know, that would be fascinating! It would be super meta.
And his family would be interesting.
Yeah, totally. There are so many aspects of that dude’s life. Personally, I think he’s a musical genius. And I think he’s misunderstood. I also think he’s crazy. Like, look at the song on Yeezus, “Blood on the Leaves.” That song and that cautionary tale that he’s telling in it, I think he’s fallen and trapped to it in his life as well. I pray that I could make that film.