Trey Edward Shults interview: It Comes At Night, Jeff Nichols, movie marketing and more

Trey Edward Shults tells us about It Comes At Night, its dark history, and odd marketing...

It Comes at Night
Photo: A24

In amongst the bustle of Spider-Man: Homecoming and Despicable Me 3 screenings inUK cinemas this weekend is the distinctly unsettling and powerful It Comes At Night. A film marketed, not entirely fairly, as a horror, it’s from writer/director Trey Edward Shults. He wrote the movie following the death of his father, a parent from whom he was estranged until his dying days. That extraordinary, impactful backdrop underpins the film, and was the logical starting point for our conversation.

I’ve been reading quite a lot since sitting through your film. In particular, that the movie was a response to your relationship with your late father. I’m sorry to bring it up, but it resonates through so much of the film once you know that. I read that you wrote the initial draft in a day or two shortly after he died, and you came back to it a couple a years later to refine it. But what was the difference? What was in that original draft that you pulled back on and changed? 

It’s a good question, and I’m not entirely sure in my head. I would say that the final film is about 85% of what that first three days view was. I’m not entirely sure, but it always really important to me, because it was stuff just coming out of me [at the time], stuff I didn’t fully understand even, that I went back and psychoanalysed. But it was important for me to retain that, to convey the mood and tone and emotion of where I was at.

I think I was successful with that, because I don’t enjoy watching the movie at all! I have a weird relationship with it. When I looked at it again, it put me back in that place I was in. Not a fun place to be in.

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I don’t want to dig too deep into your personal life, but I wonder if I can ask you about editing the film? Where day in, day out, you’re dealing with material that sound like it’s been torn from your heart?

It was rough.

I didn’t anticipate it either. I think after that initial writing space, and where I was at, I took a break from it. I wrote it a couple of years ago, and then I would go back and refine it from time to time. But then at that point it had just become, you know, ‘your new movie’. A piece of work.

Making it, you need to detach from it, when you’re doing certain scenes. But the editing in particular? It was really hard for me.

I’ve always edited my own stuff, and I was an editor on this. But from August through to January I was editing alone, I was going a little crazy. I had to bring on another editor to help me out, just because… I don’t know. It’s not literal I guess, but that mood and tone that comes across, it was hard for me. I went down a rabbit hole with the movie quite a bit.

Did you feel at any point in that process that you were losing the film? That you wanted to capture the initial burst of emotion that had led you to write the script, and time was maybe taking that away? I can’t imagine it’s easy, from what you were saying, to be unemotional about it?

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I’m an emotional person. I cried a lot during writing, and I cried a lot during editing. I think another part of it is that I put a lot of myself into this, and I take it very seriously and care about everything. Even editing at a point is easy to detach I guess, because it’s a craft, and you’re doing it over and over. This one was tought for me. The material really drained me, and drained a lot of me. I had post-traumatic stress from a sequence at the end of the movie that I don’t want to spoil.

There was a small film that came out called Right At Your Door just over a decade ago…

Yeah! I remember that. I haven’t seen that in forever…

My response to your film – and they’ve clearly quite different movies – wasn’t a million miles away from my response to that one.

Great!

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Both are about ordinary extraordinary circumstances is how I’d put it. But how did you know you’d got it? That it was the version you needed to lock? I know that sounds like a very basic question, but I think with everything in your life on this one, it seems a pertinent one?

Honestly, this movie was harder for me. It was just tough. I felt like I was walking a thin line to failure right through the editorial process. Failure may be a bit hyperbolic. I didn’t know if I was nailing everything I wanted, if I was getting across everything I wanted.

Also, what was tricky I think was that because it was so personal, having any kind of perspective and knowing if the movie would work for people in a way [that reflected] everything I was putting into it. So much so that we picture locked and I un-picture locked the movie!

I changed stuff, and finished just over a month ago. I’ve been working with it for quite a bit. I will say though that it feels great now to be on the other side, and I’m very proud of the movie. I feel like I did what I wanted to do, and kept in tact what I started with, which was really important to me.

Was it cathartic? Has it helped you as a human being?

The writing was 100% cathartic. In hindsight, I’m a movie guy, a movie geek. My way of processing the grief was that. At the time, that was very cathartic. Then years go by, you finally make the movie, you go through waves, phases of stuff. Now it does feel cathartic, I feel like I’ve made peace with it.

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If you’d spoken to me a week ago, I don’t know I’d have felt the same way. Especially the way it was being marketed in the US. All this crap, it’s very messy. But I’ve made peace, I feel cathartic, and I’m excited to get back out and do something new.

I mean this with all due respect and in the nicest sense, but you are depressingly young to be making films this good. I read a book by Nicholas Hytner, about his time running the National Theatre in the UK. He talked about making, in his view, his best films at the point in his life when he knew the least about filmmaking. That naiveté, and surrounding himself with experts, paid off. Not that I’m saying you’ve peaked, but do you sense that naiveté is an asset?

It’s hard for me to say, because I pray that I am still making films in 30 years. That’s all I’ve ever wanted, but it’s one step at a time. At the moment, it’s all new. It maybe would have been one thing if I’d tried to do another movie with my family for no money. I’m conscious of trying to push myself, challenge myself. To try something new.

For me, this movie – compared to my last movie – there were similarities, but whole new huge learning experiences too, and you’ve just got to take the plunge, you know? It’s true. It’s a naïve thing. It’s about your collaborators, and that relationship. And I love my collaborators.

At the moment I just want to make stuff I believe in. But also to be ambitious for myself and really challenge myself. That’s just what I’m trying to do. I hope when we talk in 30 years I’ll still be doing movies I believe in!

I even remember I think Danny Boyle saying that there’s something with your first film, a feeling, that you never have again.

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That applies across books, too. I picked up a new edition once of John Grisham’s first book, A Time To Kill. And more than the book really, what stuck with me was him saying it was his first book, and that even though he looks at it now and sees things he’d want to change, he wouldn’t change a bit of it.

I love that, I love that.

Because this film, then, is so personal to you, how does that affect how you process the reaction to it? You’d said in the past that the film wasn’t one you envisaged for mass consumption, and yet it’s got the backing of A24 in America, and it’s become a top ten hit. And here we are in the UK in a Universal junket, with the film set to go against Spider-Man: Homecoming inBritain.

How do you process that? How closely are you monitoring people’s responses to something that started as your own response to what you were going through at a particular period of your life?

I’m still working it out. Again, talk to me a week and a half ago, and I probably would have said something entirely different. As you said, I did not design the movie for mass consumption, and to get out there like this. I’m humbled and grateful that it’s getting out there.

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The other side of that is that I don’t think the marketing is 100% accurate at all. I worry the wrong audience is going in, and that some people are hating it. But I care about the people it reaches. I don’t know. It’s weird. I’m in the middle of it, and I can’t control it. It’s a strange place to be good, but I feel like I’m making peace with it. A week and a half ago, I’m going crazy!

Well, if we’d have had this chat a day and a half ago, just after I’d watched the film, my half of this chat may have been different too. 

My initial reaction to your film was that it knocked my head all over the place. In the nicest sense, I didn’t have a lot of fun watching it, I found it that unsettling. The compliment to you here is that now I’m processing the film, it’s lived in my head pretty much since the credits rolled.

I read that The Shining is one of your favourite films, and I recall responses to that being all over the place on release, and it’s only now it’s regarded as a rich classic. I wonder, then, how you’d feel if people were getting more out of your film in 20 years time then than now?

My dream is that what you said is true. I pray that the movie can sit around for people, and that the people who dig it can return to it. The people who hated it, or didn’t get it or something, can hopefully come back to it. That’s the dream.

A lot of the movies I love – you’re right – had a mixed response when they came out and then go on, with time, with the hindsight of time… I don’t know, because I’m in it!

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There’s a wild difference between someone coming out of Big Momma’s House 2 and saying they don’t like, and people coming out of your film and saying they don’t like it!

[Laughs]

The three year or so gap between you writing the film and directing it, I’m curious how that altered your touchpoints? You cited the outstanding videogame The Last Of Us, and you played through that in the intervening period. That you were influenced by the likes of Take Shelter and Melancholia. Did they influence you as a director rather than a writer, though

That’s a good question. I know that Take Shelter and Melancholia were things going into the writing phase, but they were just movies I loved, personal apocalypses in my mind.

I love Take Shelter.

Me too. I know Jeff Nichols, he’s an amazing person, and he’s incredibly talented.

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Depressingly so!

All that stuff comes across, and I think everything, whether it’s those films, or The Shining, or Paul Thomas Anderson stuff, I’m obsessed with movies. As for the directing side, when I was writing it, certain shots and sequences in my head, I knew how I wanted them to be, and what I wanted to say. Across the board there was an approach where I wanted some patience with it. Even at the score level, I didn’t want a traditional score. I wanted it to have hopefully this haunting aspect.

Have you watched the recent De Palma documentary?

I have, I thought it was great!

In there, De Palma talks about scoring, and when he first met Bernard Herrman is one of my favourite bits!

Yeah!

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Jeff Nichols is obviously a huge touchpoint for you. I saw you worked on Midnight Special, a criminally underrated film. Is his the kind of career you envisage? That he went to the edge of the lake of blockbuster cinema, but stopped at the where he could make stuff with the people that he liked working with, at a level that let him do it but still be in control?

Yeah. I think he’s brilliant, and so smart with his career. He’s made, what, four or five films? They’re all Jeff films. He hasn’t taken a giant leap, but the progression he’s made! I think he’s really smart. I don’t know if I’ll have the same kind of career or anything. But like him, I want to do movies that I can get behind and believe in. One step at a time!

If the call for Transformers 6 came in tomorrow, and they wanted a director for hire, that would or wouldn’t interest you?

It wouldn’t. It would not. Certainly not. I could go chase that stuff if I wanted. That been said, I love certain big movies. It’s not scale. It’s about story, what the movie’s about. I don’t want to judge the Transformers movies, because I’ve not seen those. But for me, look at a guy like Christopher Nolan. He’s making huge scale personal movies. That’s what I’m excited by.

And what is next for you?

I’m trying to write something in my spare time, which is my new baby! Another part of me that I’ve got to express. It’s totally different from It Comes At Night in a way. It’s more ambitious than anything I’ve done so far.

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Is that with a view to directing too? Will you always be a writer/director?

I think so. I can’t imagine – unless I’ve got to make some money, and someone will pay me to write something… I just love writing my own stuff. I’m also open to directing stuff I haven’t written!

Trey Edward Shults, thank you very much.

 It Comes At Night is in UK cinemas today.