Whether It Comes at Night is a horror film or a family drama is dependent on your vantage point. Much the same can be said of Trey Edward Shults’s 2016 feature debut, Krisha, a film that hinges on the emotional scars and spiritual wounds inflicted via family. But with It Comes at Night, Shults takes a declarative step into the path of genre, setting his film in an alternate America under siege by a nameless and unidentified pandemic; his characters all hunker down in a remote and rundown farmhouse, leaving only in pairs, only as necessary, and only during the daytime unless emergency circumstances dictate otherwise. But they aren’t truly safe, especially when they open their door to a family of strangers in desperate need of shelter.
If Krisha is about what happens when a family is at odds with itself, then It Comes at Night is about what happens when two families end up at odds with each other. Shults wrote the film in 2014, and despite the passage of time it feels doubly relevant now as it may have three years ago. The Texas-born filmmaker recently sat down with me to talk about It Comes at Night’s theme of family formation and the film as an unwitting product of its moment.
Krisha is a family movie with horror at the edges, and It Comes At Night feels like a horror movie with family drama at the edges. What did you learn, or bring, from Krisha into that perspective swap, making It Comes at Night?
A lot of it is that we wanted to flex different muscles and do something new, and I think a lot of that was patience and subtlety, especially with what we were doing with our camera, all the way to music and playing with themes. A lot of it was that, trying to jump into a new thing with new challenges. That being said, you do all sorts of stuff, and we played with aspect ratios again, but in a new way, as we do all the nightmares with the anamorphic lenses. I don’t know what the movie would have been if I hadn’t made Krisha before it.
Talking about challenges, when you worked on Krisha, you worked with friends and family, if I recall?
So on It Comes at Night, you worked with Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Was that a challenge for you, working with people you aren’t familiar with?
It was an intentional challenge. I want to push myself. I can’t do another movie with family and friends. You’ve gotta try it a new way. My big thing, though, was that I wanted to make sure they were good people—that they got the script, got Krisha, got what I was trying to do, and that they were just good people that I liked being around. So the first couple of days, there’s a learning curve, and there’s a little bit of just getting used to that. But by the end of the first week, even from the cast to the crew, it didn’t feel that different.
I was trying to build a creative family, and that’s what we did. My mom and Krisha [Fairchild] are my family and they’re amazing actors. And even though my mom’s not a professional actress, she’s amazing. So it wasn’t that different. You would think it would be more different, but it wasn’t. The big thing, too, is that it’s a collaboration. I wanted them to bring everything they could to it, and that would inform another thing, you know what I mean?
Yeah. And I like the phrase “creative family.” I feel like, with film being such a collaborative experience, that must be a natural dynamic of any movie, even one that’s not necessarily informed by family politics.
Totally. 100%. That’s all I want to do: keep the creative family going.
What’s the horror of family? There’s the sanctity of family, family being a safety net, but there’s something inherently terrifying about family, too.
Clearly I’m fascinated by families! The next one I’m starting to write is sort of that as well. You can explore them in a hundred different ways. For It Comes at Night in particular, what I was fascinated by was thinking of families as tribes, you know, and where we come from, and how long we’ve been on this Earth, and how we were tribes before civilized society, if you want to call it civilized. So that was fascinating. And thinking about just the simple thing of putting family first, and what if that goes too far. Have we really evolved? Are we really that civilized, or if things fall apart are we going to fall back into tribes, where it’s always one or the other? In that sense, the movie became a cautionary tale. I don’t know why I keep concentrating on the dark sides of families! I hope there’s love in the movie, too, and that that comes through.
I think there is, yeah.
Another thing about it is that both my stepdad and my mom are therapists. I think I would be a mess without them, but I think I’m fascinated by the idea of confrontation, whether that’s inside yourself, whether that’s facing your own demons, or a character facing their own demons like in Krisha, or if that’s more in a timely manner and thinking about us as a society. You know what I mean? I’m fascinated by that aspect, and I keep getting drawn to dark stuff.
Even if you make a light family comedy, there’s going to be an “oh shit” sobering moment of confrontation in it, isn’t there?
I can’t imagine there not being, you know? It’s tough for me to imagine.
I feel like that’s emblematic of the era that we live in. Not to look down at my own navel or anything, but it feels like that’s where we’re at. We have become so much more tribal as a culture.
I wrote this back in 2014, and I think where we’re at right now is worse than where we were there. But in general, we go in cycles. I’m fascinated by that.
And it’s sad to say that things have gotten worse since then, but the question I ask all the time of horror filmmakers is: “Why horror?” And I think this movie answers that question nicely. It’s something that, whether intentionally or not, reflects the pulse of the moment.
Exactly. You look at all those horror movies and they’re always a product of the time that they’re made in. And it keeps happening!
I guess the movies will always inevitably reflect the things that frighten us on a cultural, societal level.
For me, it stems from the personal, but that leaked over into that too.
I think the personal gives your movies a lot of ballast though.
I hope so!
How did you decide on these actors to populate the movie? I think they all work really well, because as much as this is a movie about tribalism, it is also, for me, a movie about family being what you make it, and they do come together to form one cohesive family until the third act.
I wanted actors I didn’t know and people I was a fan of, but also good people, and it started with Joel. We cast him first. I always wanted him, but he’s a busy guy and his schedule was booked, and it didn’t look like it was possible for a while. I was on the hunt trying to find an actor, and then Joel’s schedule opened back up. I sent him the script and I told Jeff Nichols that I sent it to him, and Jeff put in a good word, and Joel read it right away, met me the following Monday, and brought Chris [Abbott] into that meeting. Chris and I had already met. I think he’s amazing in James White, and I’m a big fan of his. I had initially thought he was too young for the role, because I wrote Will and Kim as a bit older—I don’t know why, I think it’s more interesting that they’re younger—so it took me a minute just to wrap my head around it. But then, as soon as it was Joel, Chris, and me just hanging out, and we all got along, I was like, “This is too good to mess up. Let’s do it. Let’s make this thing.”
And then everything stemmed from there. I was a fan of Carmen’s in Selma, and then I met her and thought she was amazing. And then Riley [Keough], I didn’t know Riley’s work, and I watched an episode of The Girlfriend Experience, and then I couldn’t stop and I binged the entire thing in a day. I think it’s a great show, and I think women don’t get roles like that that often, and Riley just killed it. I was fascinated by her. Then I saw her in American Honey and she’s totally different, and then we Skyped, and she was different from how I imagined her: shy and chill and awesome.
Kelvin I found through my casting director. I got tapes of kids, but the thing Kelvin had was another layer. He wasn’t just a sweet, innocent kid. You could see the hurt in his eyes and his face. He just blew me away.
I was taken by the fact that the film settled on him. I assumed, watching the trailer, that it would just be Edgerton in the lead, but it’s really Kelvin’s story, and it’s a story about, in a way, loss of innocence, even if that sounds cliché.
No, it’s really true, man. It’s funny, Joel had to be cast first, Paul had to be cast first, and I think on the page, Paul read as the main guy, because he has the most dialogue, he’s the head of the family and everything. But I always told everyone that this is Travis’s story. The movie is seen through his eyes, and it’s felt through him. That was crucial.