Trey Edward Shults reveals what visuals and stories he considered for his second feature film
Director Trey Edward Shults announced himself as one of the most exciting new American directors with the release of Krisha. The micro-budget yet phenomenally accomplished drama was set in one house as a middle-aged woman (played by Shults’ own aunt Krisha Fairchild in a heartbreaking performance) relapses during a Thanksgiving dinner.
Now one year later, Shults has a bigger budget and more movie star names (including Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough) in the cast of his follow-up film — but the 27-year-old filmmaker has doubled down on his terror-in-one-house aesthetic. It Comes at Night (see trailer below) is the most dread-inducing, knots-in-your-stomach, cover-your-eyes movies of the summer.
Shults places tremendous trust in the audience to pay attention and figure out what’s going on. The “It” of the title is not a rage zombie monster hiding in the woods, but something darker, more inward, and scarier. And that trust makes the horror of It Comes at Night pay off spectacularly. (Check out a scene about an hour into the film when a character casually mentions he’s an only child — the effect on the audience is terrifying.)
It Comes at Night, which is being distributed by A24 (The Witch, Ex Machina, Moonlight), is playing in theaters nationwide now. Shults sat down with EW to talk about 10 intriguing points of influence he considered while making the film.
‘Lord of the Flies’
“It wasn’t such a conscious thing, but I had to read Lord of the Flies in high school and I’ve only more recently begun to realize how much of it seeped into the creative process of making this film,” Shults tells EW. Asked about Cormac McCarthy’s acclaimed novel The Road, which bears some thematic similarities to his film, he admits, “I haven’t read it. After telling people early on about It Comes at Night, the first questions I was asked was, ‘Were you inspired by The Road?’ I have a copy of it right now, so I’ll read it soon.”
Paul Thomas Anderson
“There Will Be Blood was such an instrumental movie for me, period. I saw it while I was a junior or senior in high school, at a time when I had become obsessed with sports and wrestling and had drifted away from movies. I saw There Will Be Blood and it was so reinvigorating. I was like, ‘Oh sh–, this is a movie! This is what movies can do!” While making It Comes at Night, There Will Be Blood became my comfort food. I would just put it on my laptop and watch it.”
Shults adds, “It’s the craft of it and the music and the way the camera moves to build tension. Paul Thomas Anderson is my favorite living filmmaker — and the next movie I’m thinking about making will involve wall-to-wall pre-existing music, very much in the style of his Boogie Nights. But we’ll see.”
Lars von Trier
The notorious Danish director made his 2011 film Melancholia — about a despondent newlywed (Kirsten Dunst) unspooling as a rogue planet is about to collide with the Earth — while deep in a depressive episode. “I was really fascinated by how von Trier took a personal emotion and placed it into a fictional narrative,” Shults says. “I think it’s such a beautiful film.”
Dogville, von Trier’s 2003 minimalist epic starring Nicole Kidman, was also a touchstone. “The morality play going on in that film, it’s amazing. People in confined spaces, messing each other up. I saw that when I was first discovering von Trier and I was completely blown away.”
“He’s one of the best that ever lived. If you look at The Shining, for example, it’s so open to repeat viewings. You can always find new things. It’s about the unraveling of a family and the child’s experience of that. And this terrible outside force that tears everybody apart. Such a huge influence for me.”
‘The Last of Us’
Shults had not heard of this survival video game (first released in 2013) while writing It Comes at Night, but played the survivalist game while in production on the film. The Last of Us, which has a highly anticipated sequel scheduled for release, tells the story of two people named Joel and Ellie who are tracking across a post-apocalyptic wasteland while cannibalistic mutants lurk in the woods.
‘Come and See’
“This is not an easy one to watch, but it’s maybe my favorite war film,” Shults says of the harrowing 1985 Russian drama set in Nazi-occupied Russia during World War II. “The film tracks this one kid and it’s all about where his face is at the end of the story. It’s just devastating. There are certainly stylistic influences that made their way into Krisha and It Comes at Night. The big parallel here has to do with a kid living in a world he shouldn’t have to be in. Seeing kids thrust into situations like this, that’s just heartbreaking to me.”
Books about genocide
Among other titles, Shults read David E. Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World and James Waller’s Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing.
“I was fascinated by the idea that for humans on the Earth, most of our time has been spent in tribes. Even now, our tribe is our family, however you define that. If someone gets between me and my cat, they’d better watch out. And the core of the movie, I hope, get to these essential, primal things: fear of the unknown, power, moral blindness. That’s why the gas masks fascinate me so much. They’re a block of your human emotion, and masks have been in cycles of violence for centuries. Plus, my own fear of death and my own fear of where things are going — the books helped bolt a lot of my ideas together.”
“I was so impressed by [cinematographer] Roger Deakins’ work on this film. I remember a scene when the RV goes into the woods at night and we just see a flashlight on Jake Gyllenhaal’s gun. And the way that the light hit Paul Dano’s face when he turned around. And the use of close-ups. The way that the photography of the scene established the mood — it’s extraordinary.”
‘The Tree of Life’
“I love the sight of a wide lens pushing into a tree — that’s obviously a specialty of [cinematographer] Emmanuel Lubezki and Terrence Malick,” Shults says. “In It Comes at Night, it’s a symbol of menace as opposed to beauty. The Tree of Life, also, changed the course of my life. I lucked into being a film loader on Malick’s Voyage of Time and some of that footage wound up being used in Tree of Life. Then I dropped out of school and interned for Malick’s office for a while. I remember the first time I saw The Tree of Life — just being blown away by the scale and ambition, with the grand and the small all connected. It was the most humbling experience to sit there in the theater, crying, part of me thinking about the little tiny role I played in how the film was made, while also realizing how much bigger things are than me. It was amazing.”
‘The Triumph of Death’ by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
Bruegel’s macabre 1562 oil painting features prominently in the movie — and kicked off its first trailer. “Growing up, my mom spent a lot of time at my grandparent’s house, which was a ranch house that was a big inspiration for the house in the movie. My grandfather was a prisoner of war during World War II. And I remember the walls of his home felt like him internally: weapons from the war interpreted with family photos. And above the fireplace were two Medieval weapons and Bruegel’s Hunters in the Snow.”
Shults “geeked out” when he realized The Hunters in the Snow appear in both Melancholia and Andrey Tarkovskiy’s Solaris. “Then I got a Bruegel book and saw The Triumph of Death. It haunted me in the best way. It was a hellscape of all my fears. Then I read that Breugel was inspired to paint it by the plague in Europe. The Black Death. And I just thought how perfect that would be for the movie.”