It Comes at Night director Trey Edward Shults: 'I never approached it as a horror movie'

The independent filmmaker making waves in Hollywood discusses his new psychological horror

Jacob Stolworthy
Thursday 19 October 2017 15:17
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I will pay you ten dollars if anyone comes to me wanting a sequel for It Comes at Night" are not words you'd expect to come from the film's director. Yet it speaks to the personality of 29-year-old filmmaker Trey Edward Shults that a follow-up couldn't be further from his mind.

“It’s too bleak. No one’s going to be like, ‘What’s next in this world?’"

The world he speaks of is a post-apocalyptic one ravaged by a contagious disease forcing a family, led by Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo, to seclude themselves in a country home. It's the arrival of a refuge-seeking couple, played by Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough, and their young son which sends events spiralling out of control.

Critical acclaim and a healthy performance at the US box office – which could well be matched in the UK following its release in cinemas today (7 July) – mark this out as something more than just another slapdash horror film looking to mutate into a bankable franchise. For starters, according to the director, it's not even a horror.

“I never approached it as a horror movie which is what it’s been marketed as,” Shults tells me.

Despite what the trailers might suggest, It Comes at Night is more psychological thriller than out-and-out scare-fest, for the most part being a chamber piece more interested in the claustrophobic horrors within than the dangers outside. Its genesis stemmed from an event which altered Shults' life in a dramatic way.

It Comes At Night - Official Trailer

“I was in grief at the time I was writing. I had a rough relationship with my Dad; I hadn’t seen him in ten years and he got pancreatic cancer. I was with him on his deathbed and he was so filled with regret. It was a life-changing thing. Two months after that, I started writing and this spewed out of me in three days.”

This taps into a theme which also runs through Shults' 2015 debut Krisha, the acclaimed drama following a woman, his real-life aunt, who returns home for Thanksgiving after ten years away from her family. And that theme is fear of the unknown – “the ultimate unknown being death,” he tells me.

“I like being dropped into situations and playing catch up. I approach these stories from the characters' point-of-view so I want the audience to experience that too.”

Shults has established a vigorous directorial presence after just two feature-length films, which is perhaps no surprise when you consider that, aged just 18, he interned for Terrence Malick. As he puts it, the legendary filmmaker “changed the whole course of his life” (Shults' work can be seen in the new Malick film Song to Song, coincidentally released in UK cinemas on the same day as It Comes at Night).

While Malick's features favour ambiguity over clear-cut answers, It Comes at Night manages to take something from both approaches, ending with a final scene that won't exactly send you dancing into the night (no spoilers here) but will linger in the memory long after you leave the cinema. Many critics have applauded Shults' vision, but, to the filmmaker's ire, some have questioned its integrity.

“I’m not a fan of when I feel like a movie is just beating me up purely just to beat me up with nothing on its mind," he states.

“Sadly, nothing has frustrated me more with [It Comes at Night] than when I read an article that says, 'A wonderfully made movie that’s totally utterly pointless’ or ‘A depressing and pointless movie for a depressing and pointless time.’ In general, [the reviews] have been good and favourable, but it’s so frustrating anytime I see that because to me there is so much on its mind. I guess the positive that can come out of it is people talking about it.”

Settling the score, he continues: “It’s a movie that comes from death, fear, regret the heavy stuff. I always knew it wasn’t going to be happy. My parents are both therapists and I think I would be a mess without them and therapy is about confronting things you don’t want to confront, bringing things to light that you don’t want to look at. In a twisted way, I can see it as not bleak,” he says with a laugh. “But clearly the situation is bleak.”

Thanks to the film's marketing, Shults is being looped in with the industry's crop of emerging horror directors (its trailer stands out as one of the year's most effective). While he acknowledges his long-term desire to make a great horror film – “I will do one day and it’ll be dope” - it’s the last thing on Shults' mind right now (he would, he says, be “totally” be up for making another film set in the same world as It Comes as Night).

Currently, he's hard at work on a passion project that couldn’t sound further from It Comes at Night: “It’s not genre and it’s not one location". And there is another, somewhat surprising, film idea kicking around Shults' head.

“I have a dream of doing a Kanye West biopic,” he says through a smile. “My dream is he will see and like my movies and let me pick his brain apart - to make the ultimate one-of-a-kind biopic we haven’t yet seen [that will] explore this man. There’s so much to explore. I just want to chill out with Kanye and make something great. I think he’ll like this next movie that I’m writing.”

But, failing that, there'll always be the inevitable It Comes at Night sequel he's convinced isn't going to happen. With ten dollars on the line, we shake hands. What happens if it's greenlit, I ask him. How do I claim my money? “Don't worry," he smirks, "you'll get it.”

It Comes at Night is in cinemas now

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