It Comes at Night is taking the horror world by storm and splitting audiences left, right and centre. We’re on the positive side and believe this to be one of the greatest horror films of the year. It’s unsettling, original and unpredictable and will certainly leave a lasting impression on those who delve into its bleak and tragic storyline.
SCREAM’s Jessy Williams recently caught up with the film’s writer-director Trey Edward Shults to discuss It Comes at Night’s slow-burning style, whether he was anticipating the mixed response and the surprising influence of Terence Malick.
SCREAM: What films do you recommend people watch before they see It Comes at Night?
Trey: Ooh, that’s a cool question. In a horror sense, the three I go to are Night of the Living Dead, The Shining and The Thing. Then it would go to general films that I love like The Fly and Don’t Look Now. Then it’s probably a hodge podge of different things, like There Will Be Blood to Cassavetes and Bergman’s movies. Also, stuff like Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. I just love movies!
You worked as an intern on a few of Terrence Malick’s projects. Do you think this experience influenced your own film-making style?
Yeah. Working on his films changed the course of my life. I love his movies and I studied him. No one can make a movie like Terry, except Terry, so why try? But what I took from it, is how you can approach things in an unorthodox way and the creative search they’re on when they’re making their movies. To just be inspired.
It Comes at Night is an extremely unsettling slow-burner of a horror film. Is that the type of horror that you prefer personally?
Yeah, I think I do. I wouldn’t call myself a horror expert by any means, I just love movies. I think horror films can be as great as any other film, you know? I’ve already talked about the ones I love, but it’s definitely the type I prefer. That being said, there are other movies that I love like Evil Dead and stuff in that vein can be amazing as well.
I think it’s important – and difficult – to get that balance of pure horror and cinematic beauty; It Comes at Night manages to be scary, but gorgeous to look at. How did you work with your cinematographer Drew Daniels to ensure the film’s mood was extended in to the visuals?
Drew’s my boy and we’re buddies. I’ve done almost all my films with him so far. The biggest thing we talked about from the start was “night” and how we really wanted to feel it. It’s in the title, but what it’s about– without getting too pretentious – is the fear of the unknown, how it feels to walk through your house at night, with all the lights off, just one flash light and how scary that black void around you can feel. It’s as simple as that. Just feeling that black void around you was huge to us. Daniels is my prime collaborator and I was so impressed with what he did on this.
The amount of long takes in the film is particularly impressive. They really built up the tension and kept you on the edge of your seat. Was this something you were keen to execute?
Definitely. I’m a huge fan of the long take and how you can utilise that. Like you said, it’s the tension of not cutting. To me, creates a subconscious tension, because you’re used to that glamour of cutting and flow. This was sort of subtle patience that we hoped would help to create this tension and unease, helping to envelop you in it.
The praise for the film has been pretty overwhelming and it seems like critics and horror fans love the relentless bleak tone and focus on atmosphere. Do you worry that more general audiences and those that prefer narratively driven genre films will be less favourable?
Definitely. It’s already come out in the States and from my point of view, most mainstream audiences hate it. It’s a big bummer, but I think they’ve marketed the movie to make it look like a standard horror movie and it certainly is not. I never designed it to be for mass consumption and I didn’t expect it to have a wide release like that. It’s weird for me and to be in my shoes, but I’m just trying to make peace with it. I can’t control these things, but I am glad that I made the movie that I set out to make.
Whatever happens it’s given you two for two on your films. Do you feel like there’s an added pressure for your third to be even better?
*laughs* Thanks! Personally, no. I feel almost liberated to get past the second movie. It’s a deeply personal movie and it was hard for me. The editing phase was tough and I kind of killed myself on the movie. I haven’t stopped working since before the shoot last August. Currently I just feel relieved to be on the other end.
Did you have to draw on personal experiences when writing the film? Especially with regards to the complex family dynamic?
It’s a weird one, because I know how close it is to me with all this stuff. It started with my dad’s death. That was a very traumatic thing for me and two months after that I wrote this. It started with that opening scene and what Sarah says to her dad, is what I said to mine. Then it set off this whole fictional story, but I can see so much of myself in Travis and so much of my dad and step dad in Paul. The house is like my grandparent’s house where I grew up. What the movie is about is what I’m fascinated by. Everything always starts with the personal for me, so we’ll see if that keeps happening.
The film’s frightening in a classic horror sense, but the drama between the two families and their moral and personal struggles can really be felt.
Thank you, I hope so.
Was it difficult to shoot the film in such a claustrophobic space?
It varied. We had a lot of scenes in that hallway that were actually tough, because I felt like it was smaller in real life that it looked in the movie. We had days where people would be sweating and hot; it was tough to shoot. Overall, it was really lovely because the house was very big. My DP and I loved taking advantage of a space like that; trying to find every nook and cranny and explore it visually. It did get grating when you’re carrying heavy materials though and, right now, I’m just excited to not do a single location movie again. *laughs*
How much free reign did the actors have with their characters?
I’m huge on collaboration and I want them to push it further or bring new ideas to me. I think we all intuitively dug the script, so adjusting it here and there was our approach. I tried to let every actor bring their own thing to their character.
Did you find it difficult to cast the film or were Joel Edgerton etc., on-board with the style from the get-go? Did they need much convincing?
Our strategy was to cast Paul’s character first and then build the casting around him. There was a period where it was tough to do that, because I’d only made one movie and it was a movie that not a lot of people saw. It took people a while to read my script and then consider it. When things happened with Joel it was so meant to be and so beautiful. He read it the night he got it and met with me the following week and said he was in. From there, it all spiralled beautifully. I was a fan of everyone in the movie’s work, so I was excited to meet them and make a creative family.
You have a great trio of actors in there. My personal favourite must be Kelvin Harrison Jr., he was just incredible.
The poor kid goes through a lot! I was so proud of Kelvin. This was his first lead role I think. He took it so seriously. He dug into every nightmare and what they meant, and what they meant to Travis’ journey and each of his relationships. He had notecards everywhere! I want to make a lot more movies with him, too.
Without spoiling, it’s safe to say the film ends with a few unanswered questions. Did you feel it was risky not to tie a neat little bow around the film’s events or was it always your intention to leave some things up to the audience?
It was always my intention and honestly, it probably sounds naïve, but I didn’t think it was that risky. *laughs* Because I believed in it. I just thought, first off, that that was the kind of movie that I liked. Past that, storytelling and where it ends up is what the story is about and it sort of had to be that way. Now, I’ve seen people very frustrated and who have hated it. That’s a bummer. I didn’t anticipate that as much as I should have. But, I stand by it.
A film like this is challenging, but I enjoy it when a film lets you bring your own interpretation. I think the not knowing made it even scarier and your confidence in not explaining everything is a good thing.
I love seeing a movie alone and not being able to get it out of my head, and then revisiting the movie and seeing new things. Or seeing it friends and it doesn’t sum everything up, so you can go and talk about it. I hope that people get that. I like it when movies make you think.
You mention that you didn’t anticipate people being frustrated, but did you anticipate that It Comes at Night would garner so much praise, too?
Honestly, I didn’t know. I felt like it could go either way. We premiered the movie at a secret screening at a festival before it was even done, so I didn’t even have time to perceive anything. I just made the movie I believed in and hoped that people could dig it and appreciate it. I feel very blessed and happy about the positive reaction.
Would you be willing to direct a sequel if it were offered to you?
*laughs* I don’t think anyone is going to offer that to me. If they did, I certainly wouldn’t do it. Everything that I intended has been said for it. That being said, I think it would be hilarious if someone made a sequel. I don’t know where you’d go with it.
Take the Evil Dead route and make it funny!
*laughs* That would be amazing, I would pay to see that.
Me too! If you’re not working on It Comes at Night 2, then what are you working on next?
I’m trying to write in my spare time. It’s totally different from It Comes at Night; it’s kids in high school and a family over a year. There’s a brother and a sister linked with a tragedy in the middle. This movie is more about love and life. I don’t know, I always talk about stuff in abstract terms when I’m trying to write. I care about it deeply, so I hope that’s next.
I look forward to seeing it and wish you all the luck with It Comes at Night.
T: Of course, thank you so much. It was great talking.
Be sure to catch It Comes at Night from today (Friday 7th July) 2017.
Words: Jessy Williams (@JessyCritical)