A former assistant to Terrence Malick, Shults burst onto the indie scene with the 2016 critical darling and SXSW Grand Jury Prize winner Krisha, in which he cast members of his own family in the lead roles. This Friday, his excellent new horror film It Comes At Night hits theaters nationwide, and we got a chance to talk to him about his process, the demons he confronted while making this deeply personal work, and what he wants to do next.
Nick Johnston: So Krisha was an incredible start for you. Was there an overarching lesson you learned from making that movie, and if so, did it affect how you made It Comes At Night?
Trey Edward Shults: Ooh, that’s a good question. Krisha was a particular thing where the whole thing was a huge learning experience because I initially tried to make that movie in the summer of 2012 with like $7,000 of my own money in five days. I remember there were roles for family members that wouldn’t come up and be in a movie, and I was scrambling, re-writing, and doing all this stuff and realizing while I was filming that I wasn’t getting a feature film. I was failing and I was having a nervous breakdown behind doors because I, uh, I cared about it, you know? And I knew it wasn’t happening.
Then I took two years with that material and I turned it into a short film, and that short film was the first thing I had made that I felt like, “this is closer in mind to what I think my voice is and closer to the filmmaker I want to be,” and I felt proud of it. Not that it was perfect, but I felt proud of it. And after that, actually, I wrote It Comes At Night, and then after that short [version] of Krisha played [SXSW] and no one was interested in giving me money or anything, I thought about Krisha again and that woman’s story, and everything I wanted the feature to be that the short wasn’t, and then I knew I wasn’t done with it.
So I re-wrote the feature for Krisha and then made it. So it’s so intermeshed and interlinked, and I learned so much from that time. But then doing It Comes At Night, it’s similar, but a different experience for me. I’m at a place where I’m realizing that this was a learning experience just on it’s own, so… I don’t know. It’s one step at a time.
Were there any difficulties for you adjusting to the scale of this project?
Yeah, it ranged, you know? It ranged from how long it took in between set-ups, for lighting the boards on the windows, and for how long that takes with the team to get the interiors right, all the way to that we have a bigger crew, to where… I don’t want to spoil the movie, but we have this big climax sequence in the woods where we shot the whole thing in one afternoon before sunset, and we have all of these moving parts and had all of these emotional performances before the light runs out, all the way to like how we had sequences with small stunts in them and everything and not a big budget and how do we pull those off without them looking terrible and still maintaining all this in the schedule. It was a whole new set of challenges and very different. But when you’re really getting down to it and you’re in the trenches, you’re just making a movie, you know? It’s not really that different. It’s just that each story has its own challenges.
How was it working with a cast anchored by professional actors this time around?
It wasn’t too different, you know? For me, the big thing for me was that I was conscious that I couldn’t put my family in it again and that I needed to push myself and do something different. And it started there, and what I’ve always wanted to do was to make a new creative family and find new collaborators, and any actor that’s in the film I was a huge fan of their work and then met them and thought they were good human beings. And it started with Joel [Edgerton], and it leaked down from there. And by the end of the first week of shooting, the cast and the crew, I thought we felt like a big creative family. And beyond that, Krisha, she’s my aunt, but she’s also an incredible actress. She’s a pro. And then my mom, she doesn’t even know she’s an actress and she’s an actress, you know what I mean? So it wasn’t too big of a jump.
Yeah, your mom is awesome in Krisha.
Thank you. I agree, man. [laughs]
You worked with Drew Daniels, your director of photography on Krisha, again on It Comes At Night. What’s your collaborative process like?
Oh, man, I love Drew so much. Well, obviously it starts with a script, and I’m a pretty visual guy. This movie was a little bit different; with Krisha we literally had written in when it was all gonna be one take, when the aspect ratio changes, blah blah blah, all throughout the script. And then with [It Comes At Night], my new challenge to myself was to not include that in the script and just let it hopefully read well as a script. So, Drew got it in a different way from the start there. But you know, I’m pretty visual, and I see a lot of stuff in my head before we ever make it, but then Drew and I get together and it just grows from there. We have the same taste, but there’s a push and a pull, and we challenge each other. And that’s the collaboration, and it’s beautiful.
And and I think from its referencing stuff we love, to finding the location, to finding every nook and cranny, thinking about every scene, what the scene’s doing, and how to find the right way to film and tell it… like, I know what I’ll want to do, and then Drew’ll come along and suggest something and it’ll just grow and grow. And in this movie too, it was a new challenge. I think as a DP, he had a significantly bigger challenge than on something like Krisha, and I’m really proud of his work.
I’m sorry people have to keep asking you this, but you wrote this film after the death of your father. Was there anything cathartic about crafting this movie?
Yeah, it’s interesting. Certainly the first, uh, spew, like writing it and getting it out of me was very cathartic, and I was crying throughout, and it felt like a purge. It felt like a purge of all this stuff that was going on, and clearly it’s put in a fictional story, but it really felt like that. And then it sort of abates, right? A lot of the time you’re just making a movie, and you put that stuff aside. What I didn’t anticipate is, looping around to the editing, how draining it would be and how much it would bring back. It’s weird, man. It’s weird watching the movie, too, because, when I see it, not that people know this because it’s not a literal thing, I see where my head was at and my feelings and what I’m kind of battling with and getting at. And it’s weird. It’s tough for me to watch it, and it takes me to a dark headspace. And it’s simultaneously cathartic but also I just haven’t had a minute to slow down. We shot this in August, I finished the movie weeks ago, and now it’s gonna come out, and I just haven’t had a chance to decompress or process anything, so it’s very strange.
Did this change on you at all in the editing suite? Did you just look at the raw footage and see something completely tonally different than what you’d thought initially?
It did, but not in big ways, definitely in small ways. I would say that from the first cut or something, it was 70 percent there, but what was a challenge was keeping the balance of nightmares and reality and the right pace. And past that, there was a whole other end and a whole other dream sequence, where Travis has this final confrontation, and it was all just too much. And it was so hard to cut from it because of the incredible performances, but finally I started stripping it away. And a lot of this movie, what I found out, is that less is more in so many aspects. And it rang true through the editing which to me, I considered a final draft, like the final writing happened in the edit. And to that, through the scoring, and everything else, that was the approach we took with it.
What specific horror or post-apocalyptic films did you look to in crafting the look and feel of this film?
That’s a good question. Even tonally, a lot of the feel I was drawing on came from The Shining, Night of the Living Dead, and The Thing. You know, the feeling those movies give me, and the dread, and unease, and the paranoia, and the fear… but to me it’s less about “scary” and more about “unsettling.” I like the movies that sink deep in me and and they’re hard to shake, you know? And that was a lot of the inspiration there. But there’s so much other stuff, like even Cassavetes or the family drama in Tree of Life or something, like even how we shoot… like you put on a wide lens and you push into a backlit tree bark, like the way that [Terrence Malick] would do it would be beautiful, and we’d try to do that in a menacing way. So it ranged from all of those different things, and culminated in whatever this thing is.
Totally. Off the movies you’ve name-checked, there’s a common theme, and that’s that they’re all set in one location, and two have conflicts that come from within, both of which describe your work so far. Is there something about that attracts you to situations like that?
Yeah. It’s really interesting to me now, because I wrote them around the same time, and I can see how they’re similar in ways. They’re about different things, but they have a lot of commonalities. One thing I think about both is that they’re chamber dramas, you know, and they’re both about the tension within families. I don’t know why I’m fascinated with that stuff, but I am. That being said, I cannot do my next movie in a single location. I gotta get out there. I gotta find a new challenge, a new thing.
One last question for you: Are there any other genres you’d like to work in for your next project?
Yeah! And certainly, I just love movies, I love all kinds of movies, and I love the idea of working in any genre possible. But so far, as like with this movie, I didn’t approach it like it was going to be “my horror movie.” I just kind of approached it from that personal place and that’s just naturally what it became. Same thing with Krisha. I didn’t know how to… [laughs]. When people go, “What is this movie?” and you talk about it, it doesn’t sound like a very good movie. It sounds like a movie you’ve seen — a family reunion, a relapse, and it’s Thanksgiving.
But I just had a feeling, on how it was, and how it was going to be different, and it’s hard for me to intellectualize, but I just had to make it. So I don’t know. I know the next thing I want to do is, like, kids in high school in a family over the course of a year. But whatever it is, whatever genre, I just want to believe it in, you know. I just want to do stuff I believe in. So we’ll see. I’m curious to see where that leads me.
‘It Comes At Night’ hits theaters tonight as part of its nationwide release this Friday (June 9). Follow Nick Johnston on Twitter @onlysaysficus.