‘It Comes at Night’ Director Trey Edward Shults on Why This Isn’t a Conventional Horror Movie
Trey Edward Shults’ follow-up to last year’s Krisha is an intimately unnerving post-apocalyptic horror-drama in which the real threat isn’t outside — it’s already lurking within. Even without knowing the story that inspired It Comes at Night, Shults’ latest feels far more personal than his directorial debut and every bit as disquieting. I sat down with Shults the day after a special screening of It Comes at Night, which involved a bus ride out to an undisclosed location in the middle of the woods, and seemed like an elaborate ploy to murder us all.
Obviously, it wasn’t. Instead, we were treated to a beautifully shot, incredibly thoughtful horror film that explores the ill effects of grief through the lens of a post-apocalyptic scenario, with an excellent cast including Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo. As someone who has experienced the painful loss of both parents, I instantly recognized the pain at the heart of It Comes at Night. When I first met Shults, we commiserated over our respective losses and I noted that this wasn’t the sort of thing I’d normally discuss during an interview — but for this film, it felt sort of necessary to begin with the personal stuff:
If you could pinpoint a single scene as the genesis of this story, which would it be?
It was the opening scene. What Sarah was saying to her dad was probably verbatim what I said to mine. My dad actually struggled with addiction for years and it ruined our relationship — we cut off our relationship and I hadn’t talked to him for 10 years. Then he got pancreatic cancer suddenly, and then I was with him on his deathbed, and he was so full of regret and death, fear, my own mortality and his, and doubts, and all this stuff going on. I wrote this movie two months after and I think it was a way of processing grief. It started with that opening scene and what I said to my dad, and then it just spun off into this totally fictional narrative, but I think it’s very much the headspace I was at and the emotions I was dealing with, and all of that. But it is so weird because Krisha was different, because Krisha is not autobiographical but it is much more in that vein. Then this is the total opposite; it’s like starting with that thing and going totally fictional. And I didn’t know if the intent, or at least just the emotion I was feeling would come through in the final movie.
I don’t know the specific emotion you were hoping to convey, but it felt like a very visceral, emotional narrative to me. It does have an elusive quality that keeps the viewer from getting too close to the heart of it. I can never know exactly what’s on your mind, but I can connect with what you made from my own perspective. That’s what you want, right?
That is always intended, I think. It’s also a lot of things that are left unsaid and that’s what I want, and I want different people to take totally different things from it. If that’s the case, that’s amazing.
I walked out and felt completely devastated. There’s all these layers of grief and empathy, and mercy — and what is mercy, anyway? And as it’s digging all these layers it’s burying me underneath them.
[Shults places his hand on his chest and mimes exhaustion]
Yeah, that’s how I felt! So I went home and died, and I don’t know how I’m here right now. You’re talking to my ghost, I guess.
That’s incredible, though! I made the movie for people to feel that.
Was there ever a point where you felt like the script was becoming too personal? Like, “Maybe I need to pull back a little?”
I don’t know. I’d say “no,” since it’s not autobiographical; it’s more of putting those emotions there. It was honestly just almost like, “Where is all this s— coming from?” And how, to me, kind of devastating and bleak and sad the end is, and the direction it goes. I was crying as I was writing it, and afterwards, I was writing at my parents’ house and my mom was like, “What are you working on? What’s it doing?” And I was like, I don’t know, I don’t know where it’s coming from. But I do know that the first draft just spewed out of me in three days, and I was crying throughout.
What was always really important is to retain that as much as possible throughout the entire process, so I kept working on the script and tweaking stuff all throughout. To really keep the essence of what came through, hopefully, in the final film as much as I could.
Was your intention to define this as a horror film from the outset?
No. After the fact, I go, “What is this? How do I label this?” For me, what I started staying was that this was my version of a horror movie. I just don’t know, because I tell everyone to not expect a conventional horror movie. Not at all.
No. It’s an emotional horror movie.
There you go. So, I don’t know. I’m the wrong person to say what it is. But I wasn’t, at the time, saying “Yeah this is my horror thing.” It was just what spewed out of me and then sort of after the fact figuring out what it is.” Even to this moment I’m still wrapping my head around it.
The score really enhances the horror aspects. There’s that great, drum-heavy bit early on that feels like — you know when you get scared and your heart is pounding in your throat?
I actually felt that through the music, like it mimicked the feeling of my heart pounding in my body.
Who did that to me?!
Brian McOmber, who did the Krisha score as well. And who did the score for the Krisha short film. He and I have done everything together so far.
It’s really good.
I love it. And it also sounds like — did you only see it at the screening last night?
See it in a theater, too. I think the score sounds even better in a theater. But the experience last night was one of a kind. So cool you got to check it out. But if you dig the score, see it in a theater, too.
How do you collaborate on the score? I know some filmmakers will only hand over a script, while others share actual footage along the way. Does Brian work with you in production?
To my detriment, I use temp music like crazy, so when I’m editing, flow and rhythm is so important to me in movies. There’s so much about how something flows. I love music. I don’t know anything about it, technically, like I do filmmaking. I love that, and I love music, so going into it there’s that. But then Brian wants to get away from temp as much as possible, so we go into it very fresh. We start messing with approaches and then the whole vision just starts to come together, and the cool thing that happens, too, is that nightmares and reality have different approaches and themes. Then by the end of the movie they come together where nightmare and reality are one. That’s how I see the end of the movie, too. We do the same thing with cinematography and aspect ratio and how we shoot everything in lenses versus spherical and, blah blah. I can go on and on [laughs]. But I love Brian. He’s amazing.
I always love to know which soundtracks filmmakers use for their temp scores.
For temp it was all the great film scores in the past decade. There Will Be Blood, Under the Skin.
You sort of alluded to it a moment ago, but I overheard you saying that your next film is musically driven — sort of like Baby Driver, maybe?
Yeah. I haven’t seen it yet, but it might be, though.
It’s not a musical in the conventional sense, sort of like how It Comes at Night isn’t a horror film in the conventional sense. It is a narrative driven entirely by music.
Totally. That’s my next movie, too!
Well, there you go.
I’m sure it’s going to be totally different. It’s like, kids in high school and stuff, but it’s in the vein of Boogie Nights or Goodfellas. You know what I mean? Dazed and Confused. That’s how it flows.
We’ve seen a lot of directors who move from one or two indie films directly to a giant blockbuster franchise project. Is that a path that interests you at all?
My agents were literally like, “Can we pitch you on selling out for a second?” They’re amazing. They don’t really mean it that way [laughs]. My thing is, I’m not going to waste anyone’s time and I’m never going to do anything that I don’t believe in with all my heart and soul. So if that happens to be a big blockbuster franchise thing, that’d be amazing, but that seems very rare. But look at Christopher Nolan doing stuff he loves at a huge level — that’s awesome.
I don’t know. All I know is I just want to make stuff I love with my heart. I’m not interested in going and doing a Hollywood movie unless there was the right story at some big level that made sense and everything came together. But, I don’t know. One step at a time, you know?
It Comes at Night opens in theaters on June 9.