This Friday, June 9th, Trey Edward Shults’ It Comes At Night arrives in theaters everywhere. The pandemic-themed horror/domestic hybrid thriller stars Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, Kelvin Harrison Jr., Riley Keough, and Christopher Abbott, and explores how paranoia and fear can tear apart even the strongest of families and exploit our own psychological cracks, most of all when we least expect it.

Daily Dead recently say down with Shults to discuss the intensely intimate nature of It Comes At Night, and he chatted about how his own personal tragedy helped shape the narrative of his latest feature. Shults also talked about collaborating with Edgerton, the film’s intriguing location, and more. Look for It Comes At Night this weekend in theaters, courtesy of A24.

Great to talk to you today, Trey. I’d love to start off with your approach to this story. We’ve seen survival stories before, but I was hoping you could discuss framing your ideas within the context of this world.

Trey Edward Shults: For me, with this, it all came from a personal place, and that's where it started, and that's pretty much what led everything. It started with my dad's death. I lost my dad, and it was a very traumatic experience for me. I had a messed up relationship with him, we hadn't seen each other in ten years, and I was with him on his death bed. He got pancreatic cancer, and he was so full of regret for the life he led and everything. Then, two months later, I started writing, and it started with that first scene, where Sarah is basically saying goodbye to her dad. That's what I said to my dad. Then, this entire fictional narrative—obviously fictional—came forth after that.

I wrote the first draft in three days. It was like a purge. It was like getting these demons out of me, working through everything that was going on inside my own head and translating that into a fictional narrative. When I was writing, it just started with that scene. I was dropped into this world not knowing everything about the world, just experiencing it with the characters. That's kind of how I treated writing everything. I just flew through it and felt everything as the characters do.

In that first draft, what stayed through to the final film was not knowing how some things later in the movie even happen. I would know, but if the characters don't know, then the audience can't know. That's how I approached it. I still can't tell you exactly how the disease works, but I can tell you what the characters were doing, and how they got to the moment they're at in the film, and how everything works, once the film gets going, and what I think happens after.

For me, it's what this disease does to these characters. That's what I'm fascinated about, and getting these two families in this house and seeing how that dynamic plays out. It was always putting that first.

It’s also interesting that you put those parental struggles front and center, too, particularly with Joel’s character. His biggest fault is that he wants to protect his family, and protect those he loves, and at the end of the day, his character becomes his own worst enemy. Can you discuss working on his character for this film? Your entire cast is phenomenal, but he’s a perfect cornerstone for this story.

Trey Edward Shults: I agree. I think Joel is a genius. He's so talented and he's so smart. Not only is he an actor, he's also a really brilliant writer and director, and I think The Gift is really underrated. He was at the top of my list from the start. I went through a lot of casting stuff. Joel is a busy guy, so he works a lot, which meant he had no open schedule. So I was going out to other people, and I hated it.

But then Joel had his schedule open up. We sent him the script, and he read the script the night he got it. He watched Krisha, and then he met me the following Monday. Tuesday, he said he was doing the movie, and you know the rest. The casting was built around that, and he came on as an executive producer too. He would give me notes on drafts, he would give me notes on cuts. He's just such a powerful collaborator. When we were working, it was so exciting. We'd do a new scene, and it's like, "I wonder what Joel is going to come up with today?"

One day I really remember, too, there's a scene in the movie where Paul not quite interrogates, but asks his son if he's telling the truth about what has happened. We were about to shoot the scene and Joel was like, "I think this was the most important scene between Travis and Paul." I, as the writer, didn't even think about it that way. It was like, "Wait, yeah, you're right." It brought out this whole new dynamic, and then it even changed the way I shot it, and how we played with it. It's now one of my favorite scenes. He's an incredible collaborator and incredibly smart, and a huge, huge part to this movie.

What's interesting to me, too, and I love it when movies do this, is the house itself and the location almost becomes its own character. Where did you find that property? Did it already exist, or did you have to build it?

Trey Edward Shults: We found the perfect house. I was scared we weren't going to. We searched Toronto, and then we searched Upstate New York. We finally found it in Upstate New York, outside of Woodstock, in this place called Bird Club, which is sort of like an artist colony. No one even lives in the house, it's just sometimes people will write in it. It's so old, and it's all wood. If you go to Will and Kim's side of the house, where we put their room, the house is so old that it’s where the peasant quarters in the house exist. We lucked out.

One thing we did do is we built the red door at the end of that hallway. We built the frame to it and put the door there. We play a lot of fake geography in how the house is actually laid out. From a personal place, and where I wrote it from, it's like the house was my grandparent's ranch that I sort of grew up on, because when my parents split my mom went there a lot, and it was almost like my childhood house.

My grandfather, he survived World War II, and he was a prisoner of war and escaped. He wasn't a very open and emotional guy, but his walls and his house were covered with weapons, and World War II paraphernalia, and family photos, and [Pieter] Breugel paintings. Not "The Triumph of Death," which is in the film, but this painting called "The Hunters in the Snow," which was above the fireplace, and there were medieval weapons on the side of it. It felt like the things he was still wrestling with inside him, he was literally putting on his walls.

That's just the house I saw when I started writing this story and thinking about Travis just losing his grandpa, and then being in his grandfather's house and having this little shrine of paraphernalia to him. Beyond that, I wanted to feel timeless—we're kind of stuck in time. It feels like an old house, but we're in a contemporary setting, so I wanted to let that leak over to the feel of the film.

It seems that this was something of a cathartic project for you in a lot of ways. Do you feel like having that introspective perspective going into this allowed you to tap into a different side of horror?

Trey Edward Shults: I'd like to think so. I know at the end of the day, I can't fairly talk about where this lands in the context of horror. To me, this is a personal film, whether it's horror or not. All I did was make something I deeply care about, put everything I had into it, and gave it just as much attention and detail and craft as anything I would do. But I will say it does seem like there's a trend lately with what I consider personal horror. If you look at Get Out, or The Witch, or The Babadook—to me they all seem like singular, personal horror films with a lot on their minds. That's really exciting to me.

That was one thing with this, is that the title of the film is not literal. It speaks to what the movie is about thematically. I wanted to make something that, for the people that it worked on, I hope it would latch onto you, and you took it home with you and you couldn't stop thinking about it. And then, maybe when you return to it later, and you see it again, you see new things, and then new things speak to you. I also intentionally obviously leave things open-ended in the movie, to where I hoped that it would provide audiences with an experience where they’d continue to discover something new in this story.

  • Heather Wixson
    About the Author - Heather Wixson

    Heather A. Wixson was born and raised in the Chicago suburbs, until she followed her dreams and moved to Los Angeles in 2009. A 14-year veteran in the world of horror entertainment journalism, Wixson fell in love with genre films at a very early age, and has spent more than a decade as a writer and supporter of preserving the history of horror and science fiction cinema. Throughout her career, Wixson has contributed to several notable websites, including Fangoria, Dread Central, Terror Tube, and FEARnet, and she currently serves as the Managing Editor for Daily Dead, which has been her home since 2013. She's also written for both Fangoria Magazine & ReMind Magazine, and her latest book project, Monsters, Makeup & Effects: Volume One will be released on October 20, 2021.