Trey Edward Shults on ‘It Comes At Night’ and Working With ‘Papa Joel’ Edgerton

By  · Published on June 6th, 2017

The writer-director of this weekend’s indie horror film talks soundtracks, nightmares, and what it was like to see his movie screened outside.

When not trying to navigate proprietary streaming services, most film critics experience movies the same way the audience does: at the local multiplex or arthouse theater, with comfortable chairs and pristine sound and picture. Then there‘s It Comes at Night. As part of the Austin market’s publicity for the film, A24 and the Alamo Drafthouse partnered on an utterly unique experience: watching the movie in the middle of the woods, surrounded by employees in surgical masks and a raging bonfire with the “bodies” of the formerly infected. “It was bizarre,” writer-director Trey Edward Shults tells me the day after the outdoor screening. “To see buses of people go to a movie I made in the woods.” Throughout our conversation, Shults would explain the challenges of making a post-racial horror film, the importance of music to the story, and what it was like to work with “Papa Joel” Edgerton.

Although the film’s title and first haunting trailer may suggest an otherworldly creature in the woods, the first thing you should know about It Comes at Night is that it’s far more interested in being a grounded survival story than a prototypical horror romp. A good portion of the film is spent watching the two families slowly feel each other out and decide how much they’re willing to risk by trusting each other. What separates Schults’s film from your average post-apocalyptic film is its humanistic streak; Schults’s characters want to form a community and are willing to risk their safety to do so. The tragedy of the film is how people with good intentions can still lose their way.

This makes the dynamic of the main family a key element in the film’s success. Once you move past the blood and guts, the horror genre has always operated as a deceptively progressive space for filmmakers, and It Comes at Night is a refreshing addition to that mix, anchoring its story on an interracial family played by Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. Originally, Shults considered incorporating a more overt bit of commentary in the movie by having the two families be different ethnicities, but moved away from that by the time they got to the casting process. “The movie’s not about race; it’s about people,” Shults explained. “It’s about fear destroying people.” To that end, the director describes It Comes at Night as a post-racial horror film, focusing instead on the power struggle between the two groups of survivors and what they’re willing to do to keep their respective families safe.

The film also benefits greatly from having an actor like Joel Edgerton in the leading role, allowing his character to alternate between pragmatism and optimism on a scene-to-scene basis. Edgerton was the first person cast in It Comes at Night, giving Shults an opportunity to collaborate with someone who is also an established writer-director in his right. Shults recalls sending Edgerton drafts of the scripts or edits throughout pre-production and letting the actor add to the complexity of Paul as a character. “Every time, his instincts were brilliant. A new layer, a new depth… I love that dude. I call him ‘Papa Joel,’” Shults says with a laugh. “He thinks like a filmmaker.” That doesn’t mean that Shults didn’t have to prove himself with his leading man, of course. A few times on the first day of production, Edgerton nudged Shults to explain some of his decisions regarding coverage or shot selection, but only to ensure that the director and his star were on the same page about the production.

Perhaps the most important element of the film’s grounded tone, though, is the soundtrack, which eschews the popularity of hyper-stylized music in the independent horror scene — think It Follows as a recent example — for more ambient and atmospheric sounds. “The approach was sort of the opposite of Krisha,” Shults explains, noting that he didn’t want “big, out there, showy” music for his latest film. To that end, the soundtrack for It Comes at Night was always intended to compliment the subtle work being done by both the actors and the camera. Shults describes the film’s soundtrack as “guiding you subconsciously and subtly and getting you in the story and the head-frame,” with a blend of horror, ambient, and tragedy all present in the musical cues.

The music also helped Shults create the film’s most overt horror moments, typically taking place in a series of nightmares that Harrison Jr.’s Travis suffers through the course of the film. In these dreams, Travis is regularly subjected to the infection and death of himself and his family; as the film progresses, the audience begins to realize that Travis intuitively understands something bad is on the horizon. Through experimentation, Shults and composer Brian McOmber found that giving Travis’s dreams a different sound than the rest of the movie allowed them to play with the barriers between the waking and nightmare worlds. “As the movie progresses, nightmare music starts to come into reality,” Shults explains, “so that — in my point of view — by the end of the movie, nightmare and reality have become one.” Shults also played with aspect ratios to make Travis’s dreams feel increasingly claustrophobic, shrinking down to 2.60/1 and 2.70/1 as the nightmares become more intense. “Throughout the whole climax sequence, they’re slowly closing until it’s 3.0 and the rest of the movie is that way,” the director points out. “It has become a nightmare.”

And while the wilderness screening of It Comes at Night was an ingenuous way to promote the film, Shults does recommend seeing it in theaters first before recreating the experience in your backyard. “It sounds different in a theater,” Shults admitted. “I think certain sequences in the movie, that was the perfect way to see it, [but] stuff in the mix was no-doubt lost. Gunshots and nuances in how the scoring meshes with other stuff.” For a film as subtle as It Comes at Night, losing even a little of that rich interplay between scene and soundtrack might change the experience slightly, so anyone looking to get the film’s full impact would do well to see it on the biggest and loudest screen possible. But that doesn’t mean Shults isn’t glad that so many people got to experience his film for the first time in the wilderness. “One-of-a-kind, unique way to see it,” he says with a smile. “I’m so happy it happened.”

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Matthew Monagle is an Austin-based film and culture critic. His work has appeared in a true hodgepodge of regional and national film publications. He is also the editor and co-founder of Certified Forgotten, an independent horror publication. Follow him on Twitter at @labsplice. (He/Him)