'My stepfather always told me you can’t trust anyone but family'
Trey Edward Shults has a gift for imagining the worst and his latest film is a horror in tune with these dystopian times
“Who the hell is Trey Edward Shults?” Cultural commentators thumbing through the film selections for Cannes in 2015 wondered how an unknown Texan youngster had found his way into the International Critics Week section with a micro-budgeted $30,000 drama starring his own family.
Yet Krisha, which, by its Cannes bow, had already received the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award at South by Southwest, has subsequently gained a devoted cult following.
Last year, it won the John Cassavetes prize at the Independent Film Spirit Awards and was named Best First Feature by the New York Film Critics Circle. The great John Waters cited the “hilariously harrowing portrait of a family reunion ruined by an alcoholic relative and too many dogs” as his favourite film of 2016.
“Nobody saw it when it came out,” says Shults. “But time has been kind. And they’re seeing it now. It’s like living in a strange fantasy. Dreams do come true.”
Shults was 18 when he went to Hawaii to spend the summer with his aunt Krisha – the same Krisha who essayed the title character of his 2015 breakout film. His actress aunt naturally had connections within the film community on the island, connections that landed the teenager a gig loading IMAX magazines on Terrence Malick’s Voyage of Time. Shults subsequently travelled to Iceland and Chile to work on birth-of-the-universe section of Malick’s The Tree of Life.
“I was super-blessed that I got on to a Terrence Malick movie,” recalls the 28-year-old. “I was already a fan of Terry’s. But once I worked for him, I became obsessed. I re-watched all his movies and studied his filmmaking on set. It forced me to a point where I had to make a decision to drop out of school.
"And that changed the entire course of my life. Seeing Tree of Life in a theatre, and knowing I’d played some small part in this ambitious, sprawling movie, was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had. It was so humbling. And then I had to go home from travelling the world and working for Terrence Malick to working for my stepdad. For a year. That was a kick in the ass.”
Krisha, his debut feature, was inspired by a real-life tragedy. After years of sobriety, Shults’s cousin died of an overdose in 2011, just months after relapsing during a stressful family holiday reunion. His sophomore feature, It Comes at Night, is also rooted in personal trauma. A first draft was handwritten over three days, while Shults was grieving for his estranged father, who had died from cancer two months previously.
“It started with a notepad and writing,” he says. “It was a vomit draft: spew everything out. No one could read it but me. In my mind, the film feels very similar to that draft. But I don’t know if that’s a fact. I have a weird relationship with it. It came from a personal place but it’s a totally fictional story. When I watch it, it takes me right back to the head space I was in.”
There is a shared sense that terrible things are happening in the world. Art is going to respond and reflect that kind of anxiety
It Comes at Night concerns a family living in strict quarantine in an isolated farmhouse. Paul (Joel Edgerton), his wife, Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their teenage son, Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), have survived an unspecified pandemic that seems to have wiped out most of humanity. One day, a stranger (Christopher Abbott) arrives looking for water. An uneasy truce follows, but not for long.
Shults turned to a family member, who, fearing economic collapse, became an expert in bunker techniques, for inspiration. But he equally took cues from literature and films about genocide, notably David E Stannard’s American Holocaust: The Conquest of the New World, James Waller’s Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing, Joshua Oppenheiner’s The Act of Killing. Hence, the most discombobulating effect of It Comes at Night is that even the most level-headed viewer is suckered into murderous, xenophobic thoughts.
“It started with the personal,” says the writer-director. “But at the time I was reading a lot of history, so a lot about violence and genocide. How ordinary people can come to do terrible things. What interested me about The Act of Killing is that it is told from the killers’ perspectives. I do have a family member who talks about how quickly things could fall apart. I always thought that was a bit crazy.
"But the more I read and the more I thought about it, the scarier and more possible it seemed. On top of that, where I grew up you can walk into any sporting goods store and walk out with a shotgun. So that affects your mentality too. My stepfather always told me you can’t trust anyone but family. I still contend with that. And an extreme version of that thinking leaked into the movie.”
When art responds
It Comes at Night – note the Red Menace-era title – has been subsequently hailed as Trumpian apocalyptica, a dystopian complement to the woke, socially aware horror of Get Out and Raw.
“It’s a really interesting thing,” nods Shults. “Get Out and Raw come out within a few months of each other. And by then I’m in post-production with my movie and I can’t help but see certain similarities.
"In the States, after the election, and in London right now [we meet on the day of the Finsbury Park attack], there is a shared sense that terrible things are happening in the world. Art is going to respond and reflect that kind of anxiety. What’s weird, I guess, is that I wrote this three years ago.”
It Comes at Night may be one of the best films of the summer but it is not, controversially, the movie that was sold to American cinema goers. The trailers, which made the film look like a festival of jump-scares, did little to convey the film’s qualities and prompted something of a backlash among disgruntled consumers.
“Right now, I’ve made peace with it,” says Shults. “But if you had asked me a few weeks ago, I was worried about the way the movie was coming out into the world. I just knew it was going to be misunderstood. I hope that the people who are meant to see the movie get to see it. Even if that takes time. Like with Krisha.”
- It Comes at Night is on release