Exclusive: It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Shults makes horror personal

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Jun 8, 2017, 5:46 PM EDT (Updated)

In 2015, writer/director Trey Edward Shults made quite the debut splash in the indie film world with tragicomedy Krisha. A personal meditation about what happens when a long-absent daughter returns to her familial fold, Krisha won Shults 16 prestigious awards, including the SXSW Film Festival Audience Award and the New York Film Critics Circle Award for Best First Film.

And now Shults is back with It Comes at Night, another deeply personal film, framed this time in the horror milieu. To clarify: not the Saw or Paranormal Activity kind of horror, but the new breed, A24 style of psychological horror expertly executed in cousin films like Jonathan Glazer's Under the Skin or Robert Eggers' The Witch.

Shults' narrative takes place in a nondescript, post-apocalyptic near future where a virus is wiping out humans and causing survivors to hole up in sealed homes hoping to hide away from the infected. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, the patriarch of one such family, who resides in the woods with his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their 17-year-old son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). The death of Sarah's father, Bud (David Pendleton), from the virus kicks off the film with a devastating loss that impacts each family member very differently, especially young Travis.

A tense, exploration of paranoia, death, loss and guilt, It Comes at Night is already a critical darling for its excellent performances and intimate, creepy claustrophobia. In an exclusive interview with Shults, the director talks about how the script was shaped from his own personal loss and whether he's nervous about offering filmgoers an alternate style of horror storytelling.

I read this script came out of the experience of losing your own father. Was writing it about sharing that experience with others, or working out your own reaction to death?

Trey Edward Shults: I think when I did it, it wasn't so intellectual, or that I even had it figured out. It just spewed out of me. It started with the opening scene, where what Sarah says to her dad is what I said to mine. Then I just continued writing, and in three days I wrote the first draft on this fictional story that had all the emotions I was going through. In hindsight now, when I think on everything, I think it was certainly dealing with my grief, my headspace and where I was at, and processing my fears.

The character of Paul represents an increasingly popular survivalist mentality of family first and that's it. You lived that with a family member of your own who subscribed to that philosophy, so what did you want to explore about that point of view in the movie?

Well, that point of view is not my point of view on things, but it can't help but trickle off. That line that Joel says in the movie, "You can't trust anyone but family," is something my stepdad has told me his entire life. He's a very paranoid guy. You can't help but think about that stuff and have leak onto you. I think clearly is did on me, because it's all in this movie. (Laughs) But it's funny, I think for myself I have more of the perspective and see things the way Travis does, and this is my way of exploring that, which is interesting.

There's a great quote in the film when a character says, "I feel like it's inevitable that we’re going to destroy ourselves," which really gets to the heart of any exploration of virus outbreaks or zombie apocalypses, in that we end up becoming our own worst enemies as our paranoia goes into overdrive and we go after one another to survive.

Certainly. Just that line, "You can't trust anyone but family," I've always rebelled against that. I know it's naive to think you can trust everyone, obviously, and you should be on your guard, I guess. But the huge thing this boiled down to was those ideas of prepared mentality and doing everything for family that leaped over into everything this movie is about. That stuff was why I was reading books about genocide, because it got me thinking about cycles of violence and us as a society and that we come from violence and keep going through these cycles. The thing with losing my dad ... regret is the word that's haunted me, and I brought that into this too. I see the two families in this house as two tribes.

It's like two worldviews under one roof.

Exactly. What are our families? Our families are our tribes and where we come from. So if we don't progress and evolve, and we let fear tear us apart, putting us or our families above everything -- always -- no matter the situation, it's inevitable that we're going to destroy ourselves. It's what the movie is about in that there are worse things than death, and worse than death is losing your humanity in the process. That I care a lot about.

The film really evokes so much tension because of the close quarters the two families share under one roof. What inspired the space you created?

I have an incredible production designer with Karen Murphy. She's amazing. I love her. She's a hell of a woman. A lot of what we talked about first was just the house. Why this house? Whose house is this? It's not Paul and Sarah's house. It's Bud's house, who is Sarah's father. The house is very much inspired by my pretty much childhood home which was my grandparent's house in the country in Texas in the middle of nowhere. After my parents split up, my mom took me there a lot so I did a lot of childhood growing up there.

What's really interesting is that my grandfather, whose name was Bud, was a prisoner of WWII and he escaped. He was not a super-emotional, talky guy. But if you looked at his walls, he had weapons everywhere. He had a whole room dedicated to WWII paraphernalia. He had a Nazi luger. He had a Breughel painting, "Hunters in the Snow," hanging above the fireplace with medieval weapons on opposite sides. He was clearly hanging the things that were going on in his mind, and literally putting it throughout his house. It became fascinating to me. When I was writing this, I started thinking about the paintings, the family photos and the weapons. I got obsessed with the house caught in this timelessness. It feels like it could be something in the past too. So that's what my production designer and I talked about a lot and that's what she drew from.

When did the title of the film present itself?

I believe the title came a little while after I had written the script. Clearly the title is not literal. I think it would be dope if it meant different things for different people. But for me, to give you context, I had a nightmare a week ago where I had cancer and I was going to die in the dream. I fully believed it. And then I woke up and had to convince myself that I wasn't. So that combined with me not being able to sleep at night and when my brain goes crazy and when I start processing things about my fears, so the title for this film felt very appropriate, thematically, and not in a literal sense. I mean you can take it to a literal sense when Will (Christopher Abbott) breaks in, but it was never about that, and it wasn't about 'monsters.' It's really about what the film is about.

It Comes at Night is shot and scored like a horror film but overall it's a non-traditional approach to the genre. Not trying to sound highfalutin, but do you hope this film and others like it from Get Out to The Invitation, are helping to expand the realm of horror for audiences? And are you worried about its reception?

Clearly, I care about it because I made a movie in that vein. But when you're in it and just making the movie, or writing, it's just one step at a time making something you care about. But now I'm thinking people are actually going to see this movie and it's going to get out there. I will say that what I think connects a lot of these films we've seen lately is that they're personal. Whether it's The Witch, or Get Out, or The Babadook, they're personal horror and they have something on their mind and that's really exciting to me. It's the stuff I dig, so I don't know.

To me it's like one step at a time. At the end of the day, one movie will never be for everyone. In the horror community, if it divides and some people love it and some people hate it, then so be it. All I can do is say this is something I believe in with all my heart and put a lot of heart and a lot of care into so I hope people can come at it with an open mind as much as possible.

It Comes at Night opens on June 9.