At a Chicago screening of the new post-apocalyptic horror film It Comes At Night, writer-director Trey Edward Shults revealed the film’s inspirations. Like his debut movie, 2015’s Krisha, It Comes At Night is a harrowing drama based on a crisis in Shults’ family: “It comes from my dad’s death,” Shults says. “I had a messy relationship with my dad… He battled addiction for a long time, I cut off our relationship, and after 10 years, I saw him on his deathbed, with pancreatic cancer, and he was so full of regret for the life he led. And I was just trying to help him find some peace. It was one of the most traumatic experiences of my life. I’ve never been that close to death.”
It Comes At Night isn’t openly about cancer, the way Krisha was openly about addiction. The film takes place largely around an isolated cabin in the woods, where Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) have holed up after a virulent, grotesque plague started spreading in the cities and society began to disintegrate. Paul takes an aggressive hand toward keeping his family safe, and Travis meekly watches and obeys, but their lives change when a stranger breaks into their house and changes their family dynamic. For Shults, the story was not just about fathers and sons, but about processing grief and exploring regret “and how fear tears us apart.”
Like Krisha, It Comes At Night is about the struggle between accepting and rejecting family members who behave badly. It’s also about tribalism, isolation, and paranoia. But in spite of the marketing, it isn’t about a monster that comes at night, unless you count humanity’s worst impulses as a monster. I sat down with Shults in Chicago to talk about the film’s racial dynamics — Paul is white, and his wife and son are black — and about apocalyptic movies, personal horror, and why Shults hopes mainstream viewers never pick up on the way editing, camera work, and aspect ratios can help tell a compelling story.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Is there a recipe for the perfect film apocalypse?
Oh God! Honestly, I wouldn’t know. I don’t watch a lot of apocalyptic movies. What I’m more drawn to is the personal nature of this stuff, whether that’s Melancholia or Take Shelter, or even Children Of Men or something. I have no idea what the perfect concoction for that is at all. I feel totally out of my depth on that. But I love if that kind of material can stem from a personal place. That excites me.
In Children Of Men especially, you have no idea why people have stopped having children. They just have to deal with it.
You’re thrown into it, and you’re catching up.
And that feeds into some things you said last night, about how what interests you in horror isn’t the monster, or answering the audience’s questions. It’s about what stressful situations do to people.
People fascinate me, and dynamics between people fascinate me. Looking at one of my favorite horror movies, The Thing, I know everyone goes crazy about the monster effects and all of that. It’s dope, but to me, it’s even more exciting what that situation does to the people, what the fear and paranoia instills. I remember the first time I saw The Thing, I was really young. I didn’t quite know who Kurt Russell was. He has this big beard, and I didn’t get that he was sort of the hero. It was like everyone was evil and I couldn’t trust anyone. It was terrifying to me. That blood-test scene! So those dynamics just fascinate me, whether it’s a disease with people trapped in a house, or a relative coming home for Thanksgiving, or whatever. I love people! I’m also terrified of people! So they’re fascinating.
This movie is extremely cynical about people, and about human nature. Is that just an isolated case around this story, or is it your larger commentary on humanity?
It’s probably both. Even if the movie does feel cynical, I also hope you feel love in the movie, that you feel love amongst characters. With this particular film and where it stems from, with my dad — I’ve been reading books on genocide, and thinking about people and our time on this world. Thinking about families, and how they’re like their own tribes, and how people put their tribe first. I think there’s a lot in how we live, where family always comes first. And if we think that way in any circumstance, we’re just going to end up destroying ourselves. It’s inevitable. These cycles of violence keep happening, and they’re like warning signs that we ignore. That’s why I was fascinated with books on genocide, and how this stuff keeps happening. It’s my biggest fear. It terrifies me, so I’m fascinated by it.
The family dynamics in this film are intriguing, especially given the history you’re channeling here. The way Travis quietly watches and judges his father feels like a parallel for some of your feelings about your dad’s life choices. But you show up in the father, too, having to make decisions for someone who can’t judge his own situation. How direct are these metaphors for you?
That’s a great question, and honestly, it’s hard for me to judge. It’s really messy, because it all blurs together. First writing it, I wasn’t consciously like, “Oh, this is how my dad and I are, so I’m doing it this way!” It all just comes out. And then in hindsight, when you have to talk about it, now I certainly see how much it fits. Aspects of my biological dad are in Paul, but also my stepdad. They’re merged in Travis and their relationship, and even in the subtext of the fact that they don’t look like each other. Maybe they’re not even biological father and son. And then the men who ambush them in the woods — Paul takes a second to look at them, and I think they look like father and son. Little things like that are hints into the whole relationship here. I think there’s tension between them. There’s love, but also a tension, and different views on the world. All I know is, when I was writing, it was purely the characters. But then in hindsight, I started seeing where it all came from.
You’ve described yourself as a film-grammar nerd. Was there a point in the filmmaking where the relationships became more defined to you as you had to address how to handle framing and angles, and pick lenses and lighting?
That’s more of an intuitive thing. With this and Krisha, when I was writing, I would experience the scene like I hope an audience would. For me, it’s just always about getting down to “What’s the point of view of this scene?” The single most boring thing to me is just getting standard coverage, like, “Let’s get our wide, let’s get our singles.” Even if we just have a couple of scenes with two people talking at a table, we’re trying to do unconventional coverage, trying to hint at the subtext of the power dynamics going on. To me, that’s just fascinating. And it’s all together. It’s shot so you experience the scene how a character does, or the power dynamics between them.
Why were the different aspect ratios in the film so important to your story?
So the bulk of the movie is in 2.40:1, with spherical lenses. That’s our reality approach. What always interested me in the movie is, along the way, there are these nightmares. Film-grammar-wise, how do you play with that? You could go so many different routes. You could make a full nightmare, just announce it. But once again, taking it to the character, I want to experience it like Travis does. So our film grammar and how we shoot it doesn’t change, and the lighting doesn’t change. But we subtly use different lenses. We use anamorphic lenses for all the nightmares, and we subtly change aspect ratio, either through a fade, or slowly compressing. The bars at the top and bottom close in, and it goes from 2.40:1 to 2.75:1. And the climax is when reality has become a nightmare. The music side, the aspect ratio, and the lenses converge. Over a prolonged sequence, the bars are slowly closing in, getting more and more claustrophobic, until they’re stuck in 3.0:1 for the rest of the movie. We also go handheld as reality truly becomes nightmare, once a certain line has been crossed. We’re handheld, tight in, so it’s nauseous.
More and more filmmakers are playing with aspect ratio to manipulate the audience. Do you think mainstream audiences are coming to a place where they consciously notice these things?
No! And I hope they don’t catch on. We’re film nerds, so we’re going to notice it. It’s interesting, and fun to play with. But it excites me for the people who don’t notice it. When my mom or someone sees a movie, and they have no idea what it’s doing, but they feel it. In Krisha, every change we do is after a dark fade and a good beat. I remember at an Iceland festival, I talked to a lady who recommended her mom to go see the movie. And her mom called her afterward, crying. She was like “Mom, mom, what’s wrong?” “I just loved this movie, it broke my heart!” Which itself was amazing. But she was like, “It felt like I just went on the movie with this character, and the screen molded to her at times!” So she didn’t know why, but she felt it, and that’s the coolest thing to me.
And the same with this. To me, it’s not cool to be like, “Yeah, we’re geniuses! We’re doing aspect-ratio stuff!” That’s not interesting. But if you can subconsciously affect an audience like that, that’s the real power, and the real excitement behind it. A movie like Mommy, where [actor Antoine-Olivier Pilon] literally pushes the aspect-ratio bars away, I still think that’s great. It’s a beautiful moment. But you’ve got to be careful with that stuff. I assume audiences are picking up on it more, but the fun aspect is people who don’t know film grammar at all, and what that can do to them.
You said Night of the Living Dead is one of your major influences here. Did it have an influence on the racial casting?
Not in a — like, I don’t think this movie is about racism. It’s certainly not. But Night of the Living Dead is different. I can’t help but think about that movie because of the casting here, but I didn’t make those choices because of that.
George Romero also says he didn’t cast Duane Jones as his star specifically because he wanted a racial dynamic to the film. He says he was just the best actor available. But then you can’t escape how that casting changes the story dynamic and the optics.
Exactly! Well it’s so interesting that that’s how it came out, because it’s such a product of when it was made. And that ending haunts me like crazy. With this, too, there were a variety of factors. But you can’t help but look at it once it’s onscreen. You need to think about those optics, making a movie today. I think it’s irresponsible not to think about that. So of course that’s on my mind. But the big thing was, I just want great actors and great human beings, no matter the color of their skin. Past that, the movie is not about racism. I think it’s interesting to do post-racial casting, and have it be about the people. No matter their skin color, fear and paranoia and everything else still breaks these people apart, and that’s fascinating. This is a sloppy, messy answer. I’m sure race can’t help but be a part of it, but it was never like, “Oh, I’m going to have this mixed-race couple, and it’s going to be sooooo provocative!” I don’t think it changes the story, personally. I just think it’s interesting to not comment on that, and just let these people be these people.
You’ve also said you were inspired by John Carpenter and older horror in general, but at the same time, this feels of a piece with recent horror movies like The Witch, The Babadook, and Get Out, all these extremely personal visions that focus on the characters’ emotional experiences as much as on outside threats. What’s your feeling on how you fit into the current state of horror cinema?
I wrote this before I saw those movies, but I can’t help but see the parallel — I love those movies. What I’ve noticed is a trend, especially with The Babadook and The Witch — I know Robert [Eggers], who made The Witch. I love that guy. We met on a festival tour. These movies are personal horror stories, and that’s fascinating to me. Babadook too, in particular — just the emotional journey on that movie, and using that monster to create this grief — I really love that movie. I’m sure It Comes At Night falls in line with these films. You want to make your own thing and be unique, but I guess I’m a part of that trend now. It’s weird. But I love those movies.
Being aware of all these movies, how do you feel about where horror cinema is right now?
I think it’s really fascinating to consider: what are the monsters in each of these movies? Where is our world at right now? Horror films have always been a product of the environment they’re made in, and the times they’re made in. To me, that’s really fascinating and exciting. But I wrote this script years ago, before our world was where it is right now. Not that our world was perfect before, but the ideas then were more about how people keep doing this shit, and if we don’t start trying to change, I believe we’re going to destroy each other. I think this is a cautionary tale in ways like that.
There are so many mysteries in this film, particularly about what’s going on in the world, and about some key unresolved details. You leave them out of the film on purpose, but do you have answers for all those questions in your mind?
Totally. When the script spewed out of me, I experienced everything as the characters experienced it. I tried to keep that intact through everything else. When you make a movie, questions like this pop up a million times, and you confront them a lot. But it was always important to me to never be a step ahead of the characters. We’re never going to find something out unless they find it out. I know what happened before the first frame, and how they got to that moment, all the way to what happens later, and certain things that aren’t explained. But the exciting thing to me is treating storytelling through the characters’ point of view, and really living it. And that’s going to frustrate a lot of people.
Are you concerned about the film being marketed as a monster movie? Are you concerned about the frustration people might feel in the theater, when their expectations aren’t met?
Of course! Yeah, there are going to be people who want a monster to come at night. They’re not going to like this movie, and that’s fine. You never want to make something just to piss people off. That’s the last intention ever, especially when you put your heart and soul into something, and you believe it, and you care about it deeply. What I’ve come to, how I feel right now is, I think the movie is going to get out there, way more than something like Krisha did, more than the film could have in a different circumstance. And the important thing is that it reaches the people it’s meant to reach. Whether some love it or hate it, oh well. I just wanted it to reach people it’s meant to reach, so they can connect with it. I’ve seen movies I didn’t love the first time, and then they come back to me, and that’s interesting too. So I don’t know. It’s weird being on my side, seeing the marketing come together. It’s a bizarre thing to be on this side of the chair. It’s interesting. We’ll see.