With It Comes at Night, writer-director Trey Edward Shults has created a compelling family story set to the backdrop of an apocalypse.
The psychological horror film centers on a family living in a secluded home in the woods. They are led by family patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton), with the pic opening as Paul’s father-in-law Bud (David Pendleton) is in his final moments, dying of a mysterious disease. Bud’s breathing is labored, and he’s clearly not long for this Earth. Paul’s wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) tells her father it’s okay, that he can let go. It’s a very human moment that signals the film is not just about scares. For this emotional moment, Shults took direct inspiration from his own words to his father, who died of cancer.
A24’s It Comes at Night, which opens Friday, follows Shults‘ 2015 debut feature, Krisha, which starred his family and was greeted with critical acclaim.
In a conversation with Heat Vision, Shults reveals the personal memories he put into his film and the unlikely way Edgerton ended up finally saying yes to the role.
You wrote it after your father’s death, and have said the lines in the first scene were influenced by that. What else from your life did you put in It Comes at Night?
It started with that first scene. It started out that I lost my dad to cancer, after we had a rough relationship and I hadn’t talked to him in 10 years. And he was full of regret and all this heavy and traumatic stuff. I wrote it two months after that. In hindsight, I see it was a way of me dealing with my grief. There’s so much in there, like Joel’s character is definitely a combination of my dad and my step-dad. I see Travis [Kelvin Harrison, Jr.] as me, and my Grandpa was Bud. The house that you see in the movie was very much inspired by my grandparents’ house that I sort of grew up in. After my parents split up, my mom took us there all the time.
It was like my childhood house. There’s literally all that stuff in there, but then, what it was, I think, was really making a fictional narrative that represented the emotions I was going through. Coming right after my dad, it was death and it was fear and it was regret and family. And all of that kind of bubbled up and boiled together into what this movie is.
We don’t learn much about the outside world in this movie. How much of it did you create just for your own knowledge?
The first time I wrote this, the first draft spewed out of me in three days. It was a gibberish mess and I typed it and made it better, which so far is how I’ve done stuff. It started with that opening scene and being dropped into this world and feeling it and figuring it out as they do. It was very immediate like that. It spewed out of me. I felt intrigued and scared when they were and sobbed and cried writing it and all this crazy stuff. After that, it’s not like you make the movie immediately. I had years to think about it. Then I started thinking more about the world leading up. In my mind, I know everything that lead up to this family’s particular situation. I don’t know the particulars of the disease and how it works, because they don’t. I do know stuff I don’t reveal, story beats.
How did you go about casting Joel Edgerton? Did you always know you would have someone of that caliber?
I had no idea. My first movie, I made with my family. It was important to me that my second movie not be with my family and be a whole new challenge and be different. But I’m naive. It was my first time casting or anything like that. At first, I really hated it and I just got a taste of how annoying the casting process could be. With this, our strategy was to cast Paul’s role first, Joel. Joel was always at the top of that list, but he’s a busy guy because he’s great and he works a lot. He was booked. So I spent a lot of time sending a script to an actor, waiting a month to hear feedback. Then it’s like, “Oh yeah, he liked it. He’s interested.” Then you never know. Just a lot of that crap. Basically Joel’s schedule opened up and I told my buddy Jeff Nichols that I was going to him and Jeff texted Joel and said, “Take this kid seriously.” And Joel read the script and then he got it. He gave feedback the next day. He watched Krisha. He met me the following Monday and said he wanted to do the film the next day. The first time I met him, Chris Abbott [who plays Will in the movie] was around the corner, and he brought Chris by at the end of the meeting just so we could all hang out. It was the most beautiful, cut through the bullshit, just great thing ever. After that it was so easy and smooth and great.
Had you already sent the script to Chris? Or did Joel sort of cast Chris?
I had already met Chris, because I thought he was extraordinary in James White. When I had written the script initially, Will’s character was older. I thought Chris was too old to play Travis and too young to pay Will, until Joel put him in my mind. Then I started thinking, this is interesting, and we all hung out together and it was too right to pass up. I cast Chris and changed the ages and made them younger, and it worked out perfectly. That led to [casting] Riley [Keough] and everything else.
What were some of the big challenges you faced on this movie?
One thing that proved itself challenging was getting the balance right of fluctuating with reality and nightmares. The goal was always that you could balance that and do different approaches with that, with your film grammar. Nightmare has its own look and a different aspect ratio and anamorphic lenses. It’s subtly different. And then a different sonic-scape. The sound is a little different and the score we do a different instrumentation with the nightmares. All that stuff collides to where nightmare and reality are one, because reality has become so bad it is a nightmare.
When making a movie, do you think about marketing at all? The nightmare aspect of this is sold in the trailers.
No, not marketing. You can’t help but think, “What’s the commercial potential, at all, with a movie in terms of what kind of budget you can get? And can you realistically get a movie made?” There’s no way you don’t think of that. I initially wrote this before I made Krisha. After I wrote it, it started from processing grief and all of that. After I wrote it, this is not a conventional horror movie. It’s sort of a horror psychological thriller thing. Maybe I’ll have a better shot at getting it made. But I, at least so far, with the scale of the movies I’m doing, I don’t think, “What’s the marketing potential of this?”
It Comes at Night is in theaters now.