With his second feature, It Comes At Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults offers a harrowing vision of life at the end of the world. While the details on what preceded the story are sparse, he delivers a nuanced look at how one family tries to come to terms with their new reality. In his first film, Krisha, Shults created a tense, uncertain atmosphere located almost entirely in a single home over the course of one Thanksgiving. With his follow-up, he raises the stakes for his characters significantly, while exploring the notion that there’s much worse things to come after the apocalypse. We got the chance to sit down with Shultz after a screening of his movie held (appropriately) in the woods east of Austin, Texas, to talk about his films and his “less-is-more” approach to storytelling.
This seemed like a really lived-in idea. Where did it come from originally?
It started with my dad’s death. I think I wrote it two months after I lost [him]. My dad battled with addiction for a long time, we cut off our relationship, I hadn’t seen him in 10 years. Then he got pancreatic cancer suddenly, and I was with him on his deathbed. It was the closest I’ve come to death, and ever since that day my life has changed and it was one of the most dramatic things I’ve gone through, and I think this movie was sort of me, in grief, processing that.
I had images for the movie for years. I didn’t know why, because I don’t even watch that many post-apocalyptic movies or anything, and I’m not a huge horror guy. I love certain horror movies, but for whatever [reasons] I had it, I didn’t know why. But there was some story [that] I didn’t know what it was. And I lost my dad, and I started writing the opening scene where Sarah’s (Carmen Ejogo) talking to her dad, and it was exactly what I said to mine. And so that was all real, but then this whole fictional narrative burst out. In, like, three days I wrote it. It spewed out of me.
And then I think that event, the death, it also went to regret because my dad was so full of regret for the way he lived his life. I was just trying to help him find some peace, and regret kind of led to this other idea of thinking about my own mortality, thinking about the world we’re living in, and cycles of violence and everything that we go through, and how there’s worse things than death.
Because all of this violence, all this stuff, stems from fear. My idea is fear of the unknown, and ultimately fear of death. But then, I think there’s worse things than that, and worse than that is losing your humanity in the process. So that went to me reading books on genocide, and then this fictional narrative came out of all that stuff.
There’s a lot that gets told through not telling. Was that always deliberately vague, or did stuff keep getting pushed out as the story evolved?
Well, actually, no. Different stuff would change, like nightmares would be tweaked more, placement of stuff, and maybe little character stuff. But really that part of it stuck through from the beginning, and I think what it was is I think so much the movie was about fear of the unknown, without sounding too pretentious.
But that’s kinda the thing, and so that led into the storytelling to where intentionally not revealing how certain things happen is to put you in the same mind frame as the characters. If they don’t know, we’re not gonna know and you need to be totally in step with them. That just felt right to this story, and what it was about.
Both your movies seem to come from a similar place. What was it like here working with actors like Joel Edgerton and Christopher Abbott in this film, vs. your first film, Krisha, which you made with friends and family?
It was amazing. At first, I was… I wasn’t nervous, but it was always important to me that with the next movie after Krisha, I knew it was this because I actually wrote this before I even made Krisha. It was so personal. It was like sort of a demon movie I had to make before I could do other stuff, like the dark beast in me. And it was always important to me that it’s all professional actors, not family. It’s a new movie, it’s a new challenge.
The big thing with me is that I wanted to feel camaraderie with all of them and feel like they’re great people, and just feel their passion and feel their humanity. But just feel good people. Talented, good people. Just getting down to that, and it started with Joel. I was so lucky his schedule opened up, and he dug the movie, and he got cast and the casting built around him. I always say that by the end of the first week of shooting it felt like Krisha. We felt like a family from cast to crew.
We’d be down in that hallway sweating our asses off, and Joel was sweating profusely, and he’s like, “Let’s do another one. This is gonna be amazing!” It was just really beautiful, and it was bigger. It’s still a small movie compared to [others], and it was always important for me to keep that family vibe into this. Let us become a family while making it.
Between your first two movies, I feel like I have a real distinct sense of your style, especially with these uncomfortably long takes. Do those change during the filming, with input from the actors or whatnot?
I think with the long takes, [and] it’s the same thing with Krisha, where once we got it that was it. Then, it was really just about fluctuation of performance throughout them.
Like that tree scene, for example, it was first getting our groundings and like “How are we gonna do this? We have reflections in gas masks. We put a boom operator in the tree.” So, all the practicalities of it. But then, it was like for that particular scene I think it was an eight page scene or something, and the steady cam operator, who is my buddy, had to understand the sub-textual beats of the scene. So it’s like just figuring out that timing, but it was a lot of rehearsal. Once we got that done we’d just do numerous takes playing with performance.
How many houses did you look at before you found the one in the film?
We actually didn’t go to a lot in person, per se. A lot of it was hunting; going through lists and lists of houses and like “Could this have potential?” I got a little scared for a minute there because I actually wrote the house for how my grandparents house was that I sort of grew up at. I literally had written in the screenplay how to diagram that house, and of course you’re not gonna find that exact thing, unless you built it.
We didn’t have the budget to build it, so I started getting worried, and at first we went to Canada because we thought we’d have to shoot there. It was between Canada or New York. Toronto would have been even cheaper, but it was a nightmare to get it to work, because we had to shoot outside the city, I was gonna have to try to combine three different houses into one. It would have been insane. And then, [we] hunted in upstate New York, finally we found it, and when we found it, it was like…
Was it immediate?
Well, it’s funny, because when I first, it wasn’t… I was like “This house is incredible, but it’s almost feels like a compound, not a house. I don’t know if this would work.” But, just going through it with my DP, we were already seeing all these shots and everything. And then we went to some more houses and came back and it was like “Nope. This is the house. We gotta go.” Luckily, we got it and it was all good.
It’s almost the film’s main character.
Totally, totally. Like Krisha, too, with the single location, that so much is different. The house is so unique, and the wood everywhere, and the production design, and how we use the lighting and stuff. It’s 100% another character. So important.