Three weeks ago, I got on a school bus just as the sun was setting and was driven into the woods 20 minutes south of one of Austin’s Alamo Drafthouse theaters. At a campsite tucked away off a walking trail, I saw one of the year’s most disturbing films projected onto an outdoor movie screen. The next day, I asked director Trey Shults where he found the inspiration for the harrowing It Comes at Night, which is now in theaters.
It Comes at Night tells the story of one family (Paul, Sarah, and Travis) warily sharing their home with Will, Kim, and Andrew, all survivors of an unseen apocalypse. In the movie, the upheaval has made resources—and trust—scarce. The group’s tentative bond shatters when suspicions mount and the movie ends with a climax that’s among the most chilling in recent memory.
At the Q&A session after the open-air screening I attended, I asked Shults a question: “Is everyone in the movie always telling the truth?” He chuckled and said no. If you’ve seen It Comes at Night, then you know that part of the film’s tension comes from trying to figure out who’s going to do what and the reasons why. During my later, lengthier talk with the 27-year-old Florida resident, he discussed reading history books to get context on how society changes, and how It Comes at Night comes from a place of grief.
io9: Your first film, Krisha, was a tense, semi-autobiographical family portrait, with a little bit of a thriller in there. This new film is something that hews more closely to horror genre conventions. Why the shift?
Trey Shults: Well, it’s really interesting. It wasn’t totally pre-conceived, you know? It wasn’t like, “I did Krisha, I want to do a horror movie next.” It came from more of a personal place of grief. I wrote it like two months after losing my dad and I think it was me processing my grief. But... this [script] was like a demon-beast I had to get out before I could make other, new stuff. I actually wrote the first draft before I wrote Krisha. So I made Krisha and I got to do this next thing. So... it wasn’t totally premeditated, like “I got to do this horror movie next.” It was just like a personal place.
Since grief was such a big aspect of the movie, which character do you feel is the closest analog to how you were feeling during the writing process?
Shults: It’s interesting to think about... I think, I, myself, I’m certainly Travis. I feel like Travis. I think Sarah’s a little bit of my mom, but Paul is both of my dads. A bit of my stepdad, a bit of my real dad. So, I don’t know, it’s so interesting to think of my characters and everything, but, like, in terms of headspace, the movie is a character in and of itself. It’s the headspace I was in. You know? Almost like this tonal piece of death, fear and crap and all that stuff. Just the shit I was going through.
You said at the screening that you were also reading a lot of books about genocide.
Shults: I’m not a history nerd but I am fascinated by history. You know, fascinated by the cycles we keep doing, and genocide stems from that, totally. Going from my dad’s death to reading about genocide is a big jump. The key word that links those things together is regret. I hadn’t seen my dad in over 10 years, because he battled with addiction. We cut off our relationship and, on his death bed, he was so full of regret. My whole life changed on that day. That experience transferred to my sense of my own mortality and my greatest fears. I just had a nightmare the other night where I had cancer. Even beyond death, it’s regret that scares me most. When you think about the saying “there’s worse things than death,” what’s worse is regret. People can do things where they lose their own humanity in the process. So, thinking about genocide lead to the big thing with this movie, like, “Can you retain your humanity in the worst places in the worst times?”
So you weren’t reading this stuff for research?
Shults: Well, sort of. It was so weird how it all links up. I had the images —it was these people in a house— and other key things from it for years, but I didn’t know what it all was. I knew it was some kind of story, some kind of feeling. After I lost my dad, it just spewed out in a few days. It all kind of intermingled in one. It was that global pain and tragic death written about during the Black Death. And if you look at that hellscape, it’s literally death coming from the ground and taking people. As for books, there were several things I was reading, but the ones that stuck out to me were Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World. The film, The Act of Killing, as well. All of that got me thinking about these cycles of what we justify and what we do as societies and then my own experience with my dad’s death combined with those ideas.
One of the things that felt impressive was how the movie acts a microcosm of what a genocide looks like. You have two separate groups come together, bonding and sharing resources and culture. Then distrust creates these little fissures. The lines that really rang out to me, specifically, was when Will said, “We just want to leave” and “We want what’s fair.” It’s like, “We’re owed something,” that something being their lives, and enough to get by. And that’s how genocides happen, when things that were shared get taken by one side. Was this intentional?
Shults: 100 percent. Humans, in the majority of our time on this planet, we’ve been in tribes. Things used to be much more primal and it’s only just now, relatively speaking, that we’ve established civilized society...
Well, that’s what we say to ourselves, anyway...
Shults: Exactly. But we’re not totally civilized. Where the world was then, that stuff is still in us. Big time. And if this falls apart, we’re going back to that. And like, let’s take these people—it’s a microcosm of society. This one house, these two families. What happens? How do they interact? How do they destroy themselves? And how does fear pull them apart?
It feels like the movie is part of this overarching trend in horror, where projects are moving increasingly toward the personal and away from implacable, indestructible monsters. The latter-day trend has been, “Okay, we are the monsters.”
Shults: That’s what it is, right there. It’s dealing with certain familiar elements. Post-apocalyptic disease. Whatever. All of those are there, but, hopefully, it’s in a way you haven’t quite seen before. And that the personal is what makes it unique. It comes from a place so personal, to me. And just spewed out of me. I just had faith that that would connect, or be unique, or something. And to me, like, all my fears are in the movie. I have a cancer/death phobia and, beyond that, it’s like, how we relate, our world right now, and the direction it’s going. All my personal shit, all my fears, inside this fictional narrative. I feel like it’s got to be unique, right? So, I don’t know.
I think this is the kind of movie where people could go see this movie and think that Paul and his family are in the right, or Will and his family are. Are expecting audiences to pick a side?
Shults: I think that’d be cool. I love the idea because, clearly, so much stuff is left open. If these people take it one way, and those people take it another way, that’s awesome. And like, if they talk about it, that’s great. I had four friends come to a screening and I didn’t get to talk them after, but they were all seeing different things and had different points of view.
On one hand, you can look at Will and think, “Well, he’s lying about the family, maybe.” He has no reason to trust the guy who tied him up for a day and-a-half...
On the other hand, Paul’s trying to defend his homestead. Do you feel each character speaks to a different primal urge?
Shults: Well, one thing for sure is that, I think no one’s the bad guy. I think they’re all good people, and I think—even maybe if you see it and think Will’s lying about all this and you think he’s doing it and like, taking them out, it’s cool. How it’s structured is that no one—in my mind—is the bad guy. Everyone has their own reasons and motivations that I think are valid.
Do you think Paul’s final act is defensible?
Shults: [thinks quietly] I think it depends on your point of view. I would say, the way I see it is the way Travis feels about everything. And I see it through his eyes. That’s how I feel. To me, what happens at the end, what Paul does, is devastating. And I think that’s a moment that’s like... that’s worse.
A particularly chilling thing to me was how we don’t see Andrew after they quarantine him. So we don’t know. And there’s one shot where you can see a little mask on his face...
Shults: You hear [Sarah] say that they’re sick, because they’re convinced, but you don’t see him. You don’t know.
Sarah says, “They’re sick and I’m not.” But that’s her own paranoia at work. Without the facts to back it up.
Shults: And we don’t even know for sure who opened the door, who got sick first...
My theory is that it was Andrew. I have a little kid who’s six, and they act differently and justify things differently than adults to. Kids are curious.
Shults: And he’s tall enough to reach the slats.