The jump from first to second feature is often a tough one for acclaimed filmmakers to make, but for “It Comes at Night” writer and director Trey Edward Shults, it was a seamless one. His first feature, the festival hit “Krisha,” was made for a fraction of his second, the A24-financed horror offering “It Comes at Night,” but one personal vision led directly to the other — literally, as A24 picked up the rights to the new project at the same time that it acquired his debut. The only difference on the second time around was money.
“Now we have an actual budget,” Shults said, laughing during a recent interview as he considered his progress. “It’s not at my mom’s house. It’s not with my family, though I brought as many friends as I could. It’s all funded from a studio.”
It’s a big change for a filmmaker who made his first feature for just $30,000 before rocketing to indie acclaim. “Krisha” was the definition of a family affair. It wasn’t just inspired by his family – particularly his fraught relationship with his father – it was made by his family, with his own aunt (Krisha Fairchild) taking on the eponymous role alongside other relatives, including his mother and grandmother.
Shults himself did just about everything on the film, from writing and directing to editing and producing. He even acted in it as a loose version of himself. The shoot took just nine days, and was filmed at Shults’ mother’s house.
When the film was accepted into SXSW in 2015, Shults and co. had no idea what they were getting into. He didn’t have a publicist or a sales agent (“We had no money, and we didn’t know“). The filmmaker estimates that “maybe two” distributors saw the film at the festival, but neither were interested in picking it up. That didn’t bother Shults.
“The Fantasy Kept Happening”
“We just did it,” Shults said. “We were like, ‘We believe in the movie, let’s just play it. Hopefully, some people dig it.'”
The film was a smash hit out of the festival, picking up both the Grand Jury Award and Audience Award in the narrative feature competition. Agents came calling, and Shults ultimately signed with WME. Their first order of business: Getting the film in front of people. A24 fell hard for the movie, but the company — which was in the process of establishing its filmmaker relationships — also expressed an interest in whatever Shults had in the pipeline.
“One of the guys there called me, and he was like, ‘What do you want to do next?,'” Shults said. “I said, ‘I have this script. It’s sort of a horror movie. It’s my baby. I’ve just gotta make it.’ It was that simple. They read the script, and they dug it.”
With “Krisha” headed to Cannes for an international premiere, A24 bought the film and signed on to produce Shults’ next feature. He’s still reeling from the experience. “It was like, ‘I’m in Cannes, drinking rose, making a deal with A24 from a $30,000 movie I made at my mom’s house. This is weird and amazing,'” he said. “Everything with ‘Krisha,’ the fantasy kept happening, which was really bizarre.” (Check out Shults’ video diary from Cannes below.)
Still, he kept a level head about the next step in his career. “I’ve heard other filmmakers talk about this too, when they’re going to bigger stuff, but it’s like, end of the day, you’re making a movie,” Shults said. “A movie’s a movie, and every story requires a different way to tell it.”
“It Comes at Night” may also deal with family discord, but in this case, it’s a post-apocalyptic drama that plays out in a blood-soaked horror tropes with psychological chills to spare. The film follows a family hiding out from the end of the world – including Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo, and Kelvin Harrison Jr. – whose fragile peace is upended by the arrival of an interloper, played by Christopher Abbott, who has his own family to care for. Set in and around a secluded cabin in the woods, the film steadily ratchets up its unease and tension as the two families initially attempt to co-exist, before everything explodes in a white-knuckle final act.
Building a Creative Family
“What was really important for me with this, from casting to shooting the movie, was trying to build that creative family,” Shults said. “Even though it was a much bigger crew, I wanted everyone to just be happy to be there. If you’re just stuck outside with a sandbag, holding the boards or something, I hope those people felt good about what they were doing too.”
With backing from A24 and a budget of nearly $5 million, Shults was able to expand both his creative family and his vision, including snagging a starry cast of indie stalwarts like Edgerton, Riley Keough, and Abbott and breakouts like Harrison. But even those decisions remained rooted in Shults’ desire to assemble like-minded artists to deliver on his vision.
Shults had previously written about Abbott’s breakout performance in Josh Mond’s Sundance hit “James White,” and the actor was struck by the filmmaker’s admiration and understanding of the film. It didn’t hurt that Abbott was a big admirer of “Krisha,” too. “I thought that it was really sweet and honest and heartfelt, and I appreciated it before I even met him,” Abbott said of Shults’ “James White” essay. “We’re just kind of fans of each other.”
Once they met, their mutual interest in each other’s work inevitably led to discussions about teaming up on a project, though Shults was originally interested in casting Abbott in another film. It wasn’t until Edgerton, another friend of Abbott’s, was set for “It Comes at Night” that casting began to fall into place for the film’s two leading roles. Edgerton liked the film, and he really liked Shults.
“These stories really prick up my ears,” Edgerton said of the first time he heard about both “Krisha” and Shults. “They’re about a renegade filmmaker on a shoestring budget who is really committed and does something interesting and it’s a success story.”
Edgerton was initially unable to join the cast of “It Comes at Night,” but when another movie he was working on fell through, his schedule opened up. In another serendipitous twist, the same casting director, Avy Kaufman, was working on both films and let Shults know that Edgerton was available. Edgerton had recently completed his directorial debut, the psychological thriller “The Gift,” and was open to other horror-tinged outings that avoided the trend of what he calls “blood porn.”
“I’d read the script, and I was like, ‘Fuck, this says so much about the way we treat other people,'” Edgerton said. “The way we’re paranoid about the inner minds of other people, what they’re capable of and how quick we are to move from trust and harmony into that other darker place.”
With Edgerton on board, Abbott signed on for the part of Will, neatly rounding out a burgeoning creative family of artists who were all eager to work with each other. It’s a familiar situation for not just Shults, but Abbott and Edgerton, who both come from a filmmaking background that values teamwork and collaboration. Edgerton is a long-time member of Blue-Tongue Films, an Australian film collective and production company that includes other filmmakers like David Michôd, Spencer Susser, and Edgerton’s own brother Nash, while Abbott frequently works with his long-time friends at Borderline Films, including Mond, Antonio Campos, and Sean Durkin.
“It’s a bit of a safety net, it’s important to have a sense of community in that way,” Abbott said. “Even logistically, I’m very lucky that my dear friends are also really talented, and then they think I’m talented enough to keep hiring me, and then it works. There’s a certain comfort that comes with it, it just kind of becomes about making the best project you can make.”
That level of comfort also helped Shults work his way through the tough, often very personal subject matter of the film. If “Krisha” is about Shults and his father working through their complex relationship, “It Comes at Night” is about the filmmaker coming to grips with his dad’s death.
“A Sense of Ease”
“It’s clearly not autobiographical, but there’s elements to it that are personal to him,” Abbott said. “The opening scene of the movie is somebody saying goodbye to their father, and that is something that strikes a chord with Trey.”
Shults started working on the script just two months after he lost his father to pancreatic cancer, and that goodbye scene was the first one he wrote. “I put a lot of myself into this movie, and it was draining to make, very tiring,” Shults said. “It’s not like ‘Krisha’ was a light movie, but this subject matter was way more draining.”
Having the support – financial and otherwise – of A24 also added to the sense of support on what could have been a nervous set.
“There’s definitely a sense of ease about it,” Abbott said. “When I’m making a movie, I often forget that it’s gonna come out in theaters. You kind of feel like you have a leg up already. Already knowing that this movie is going to come out, took a bit of a weight off of not just me, but I think for a lot of people.”
Shults included. “I kept waiting for them to let me down, and they didn’t,” Shults said. “A24 helped me make the movie I needed and got me whatever I needed, within reason. It doesn’t need that much, and they just got me everything I needed, and they always supported me.”
Although Shults did not have final cut on the film, he edited it himself, including an initial cut that was created in the same kind of deeply personal space that Shults favors. A24 encouraged Shults to follow his own whims with the project, including his decision to cut an entire sequence that involved burning down a set. “A typical investor would be like, ‘No, no, no. We spent money on this. You’re not cutting that,'” Shults said. “They were like, ‘No, no, no. We get it. The movie’s not that, it’s this.’ They’ve been like that throughout.”
Shults is currently writing a third feature that’s been knocking around his head for years, another family-driven story that focuses on a brother and sister during their formative high school years, ultimately leading to tragedy and some modicum of redemption. While he’s loath to dole out more details, he’s got a good sense of humor about it.
“I always talk about the things I’m doing in very abstract terms,” he said “I’m sure somebody else would be able to write a really boring synopsis for it afterwards.”
While he doesn’t discount the possibility that he could one day go the route of so many of his indie brethren and direct a multi-million dollar blockbuster, that’s clearly not his focus right now. “The second movie, that’s the worst, especially if you’ve had any success with the first one,” he said. “I try not to focus on that stuff. I just focus on what that story means to me, and why I’m making it, and what I’m trying to say.”
Earnest as ever, Shults is bent on remaining true to the spirit that has gotten him this far.
“I just want to do stuff I believe in, no matter what that is. It’s too exhausting to not,” he said. “I just don’t want to put stuff into our world that doesn’t truly come from me, and my heart, and my soul.”
“It Comes at Night” opens on Friday, June 9.