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How the author behind 'Knock at the Cabin' turned his book into an M. Night Shyamalan movie
Learn how The Cabin at the End of the World became a major motion picture from M. Night Shyamalan.
The story of M. Night Shyamalan's new film Knock at the Cabin (out in theaters everywhere next week) began on a fortuitous flight back from Los Angeles about half a decade ago. Author Paul Tremblay had just pitched a book idea to his editor that neither of them was very enthusiastic about. While in the air, the award-winning novelist began to doodle in his notebook.
"I wasn't even paying attention and I drew a cabin," he recalls during a Zoom conversation with SYFY WIRE. "Looking at a cabin made me think about horror, [which] made me think of the home invasion sub-genre — which is definitely not my favorite sub-genre of horror, mostly because I find those stories really disturbing and they really get to me. So I was like, ‘Oh!’ I was interested in the challenge. ‘How would I write a home invasion story that I would want to sit through?’
"I've never written a play, but I did try to make myself feel like, ‘Hey, this could be a stage play,’" he continues. "I didn't see the limited setting as a drawback. For a horror story, I thought it would be especially easy to make it more claustrophobic."
The result of that absentminded scrawl became 2018's The Cabin at the End of the World. Set at a remote cabin in the New Hampshire wilderness, the novel centers around Andrew, Eric, and their 8-year-old daughter Wen trying to enjoy a lakeside gateway.
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Their rest and relaxation is suddenly interrupted by the appearance of four strangers: Leonard, Redmond, Sabrina, and Adriene. Wielding bizarre weapons made out of common gardening tools, they break into the cabin and tie up Eric and Andrew, explaining that if the parents do not willingly choose to sacrifice a member of their family, all of humankind will perish. Leonard goes on to explain that every refusal to make a choice will result in tragedy somewhere out in the world (like the tsunami glimpsed in the movie's official trailer).
To go any further than that would be to give away all of the twists and turns of the plot that grabbed Shyamalan's attention in the first place, but needless to say, Eric and Andrew don't believe a word of it. Like any rational people would do, the couple brands Leonard and his ragtag crew as religious (and potentially homophobic) fanatics, who have lost all touch with reality.
"When I was a younger writer in the 2000s, so many of my short stories were ... pre-apocalyptic and apocalyptic," Tremblay explains. "As a child of the ‘80s, who has always feared dying in nuclear war, those kinds of fears are usually the first that pop into my head. And so, this was the first novel-length version of exploring those anxieties and fears."
In addition to that leftover Cold War angst, the author also sought to channel the mass uncertainty of where the United States was heading in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. "I purposely wanted that book to feel like the anxieties that so many of us were feeling with the clouds of 'Trumplandia' approaching," he adds.
Published on June 26, 2018, The Cabin at the End of the World nabbed the author his second Bram Stoker Award and racked up a slew of glowing reviews from Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, and the preeminent master of literary horror — Stephen King — who called it "thought-provoking and terrifying" (you can find that particular blurb on the front cover).
Tremblay was lucky enough to strike up a genial email correspondence with the creator of Pennywise and Roland Deschain after King randomly praised Tremblay's 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts, tweeting that it scared him out of his wits. "I'm just so damn lucky that he reads most of my stuff now. I’d sent him Cabin and he really enjoyed it," Tremblay says. When an earthquake occurred off of the Aleutian Islands in 2018, eerily recalling a scene from the novel, King sent along a brief warning: "Quick! Sacrifice somebody!’"
FilmNation optioned the movie rights to the book in late 2017, eventually hiring Steve Desmond and Michael Sherman to pen a script that ended up on the 2019 Black List — a collection of the best unproduced scripts each year. By the summer of that year, several drafts had already been submitted, FilmNation was on the hunt for a director, and M. Night Shyamalan began to show early interest in the project.
"He started showing up on the periphery and the director team mentioned that they had a talk with him and he was thinking of maybe producing it," Tremblay recalls. "Then months went by — maybe even a year plus — then it became, ‘Oh, he’s still interested and now he actually wants to direct it.’ And once that started happening, it felt like, ‘Oh, this might happen’ because M. Night has a film deal in hand with Universal. It became like a, 'Well, if he wants to make it, it will get made' kind of thing. [But] had to wait for him to make Old first."
What really appealed to Shyamalan was "the idea of the choice itself," Tremblay muses. "What would you choose: to save humanity or save your family? You can see it plastered on the [marketing materials]. I think that's the part of the story that really resonated with him."
Knock at the Cabin was officially announced as Shyamalan's next big screen effort in October 2021. The Sixth Sense and Glass director then did a rewrite on Desmond and Sherman's screenplay before principal photography kicked off last spring in and around the director's beloved home of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. "I love that he likes putting his stories in his region," Tremblay says when we bring up the fact that the movie changes Eric, Andrew, and Wen's hometown of Boston to the City of Brotherly Love. "I do the same thing. I think every novel I’ve written is set in New England, so I totally get that part of it."
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Jonathan Groff (Frozen) and Ben Aldridge (Pennyworth) were cast as Eric and Andrew, respectively. Dave Bautista (Guardians of the Galaxy) boarded the film as the lead apocalyptic acolyte, Leonard, with Rupert Grint (Harry Potter and Shyanmalan's Apple TV+ series Servant), Nikki Amuka-Bird (Old), and Abby Quinn (Mad About You) playing Remond, Sabrina, and Adriene. Rounding out the limited ensemble was newcomer Kristen Cui as Wen. "I think they 100 percent nailed the casting, especially after going to visit the set and getting to see filming for two days," Tremblay says.
His trip to the set took him just outside of Philly, where the crew had built the interior of the cabin on a soundstage. "It was like, ‘There's Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge tied to chairs! and ‘Here's David Bautista, and Nikki Amuka-Bird!’ and ‘There’s M. Night!’ So it was wild. It wasn’t like, ‘This is exactly what I saw in my head.’ However, it definitely felt totally like, ‘Oh, this is the book! It’s being told and portrayed by different people, but they really connected with the emotional core of the story.'"
While on set, Tremblay got to chat at length with members of the cast, pretty much all of whom had read the book ahead of time. "That was really amazing. They asked some really cool questions about the book and things like that. They could have very easily been like, ‘Oh, sorry, I have to work on my lines' or '[I need to] decompress,’ but they were very giving of their time and it was super nice of them."
Knock at the Cabin arrives on the big screen on Friday, Feb. 1, by way of Universal Pictures. Click here to pre-order tickets now. While Tremblay has not yet seen the finished film, he is confident that it matches the intensity of his book. "I think what you’re going to see is gonna be super intense and gorgeously shot — and I think the actors really nail it, too."
Catch Knock at the Cabin in theaters on Feb. 1.