This week HeyUGuys caught up with talented director Trey Edward Shults. Having already shown his filmmaking prowess in his acclaimed debut film Krisha, his sophomore feature It Comes at Night confirms that he will be a cinematic force to be reckoned with for decades to come. In a wide-ranging interview Shults talks interning for Terence Malick, how he conceptualised the dream sequences in his latest production, and much, much more.
You’ve managed to do more world building in It Comes at Night, from within the confines of this country home setting, than most movies manage to do when they are trying to establish a similar premise on a global scale. I think it’s the psyche of those involved, as well as the dynamics and emotion of the situation that makes moments in movies like this work. Do you think sometimes by showing less and focusing on these kinds of details as a filmmaker you actually get more from these kinds of concepts and characters?
I hope so, I think so, I think that’s very possible. I think its subjective, of course, and everyone is going to bring their own thing to it, but clearly I dig that.
In a strange way this actually reminded me of Krisha. In the way you’re not really sure of the situation and how the characters relate to each other, and as a viewer you’re left to almost piece the situation together and work it out for yourself. And the danger in both films seems to come from a very internal place. In Krisha you feel like her demons are inescapable, and in It Comes at Night it feels very much like you can keep out external dangers all you want, but the internal threat of fear cannot be escaped. Was it your intention to portray fear as the real enemy and in that kind of fashion?
I love that you see similarities with Krisha, now I see them as weird companion pieces. I think yeah, it was, it was never about a monster or something. It was always about the people and when I was writing I was reading books on genocide and stuff and I was thinking about, you know, kind of cycles of violence. And you know ordinary people committing terrible things to other people that keeps happening and I just loved the idea of these two families, these two tribes just stuck in this house and this little microcosm of their society, and seeing how they interact with each other. That was what always fascinated me.
It felt kind of like the characters are worried so much about death and getting sick but it almost feels like, at the same time, that death might not necessarily be the worst thing that could happen. It feels like death would almost be a relief in that kind of environment.
You nailed it, man, it’s so true, that’s what this movie was always sort of about to me, you know. I wrote the script two months after my dad died and on his death bed he was full of regret and it was one of the most traumatic things I’ve confronted and now probably one of my biggest fears, and I think it went from that and thinking about it in a broader sense and sort of thinking about death and fear of death. And how much fear drives us as humans.
Yeah, especially in society nowadays, I mean the media alone drives that kind of fear.
It’s terrifying, I was just watching the news before I came in here and another thing happened in London last night and it’s terrifying. And, to me, what the movie is getting down to is, what we do with our time here is important and there are worse things than death, there’s worse things than that fear and there’s a line you can cross and I don’t think we should cross that line.
You’ve said that Krisha and It Comes at Night are derived from very personal experiences, but what’s amazing about that is that you’ve managed to channel and articulate those feelings in such abstract and intangible ways in your movies. Is that side of the creative process cathartic to you or are you channelling some ideas and emotions subconsciously that even you don’t fully realise are there until you take a step back?
I think it’s both and it does start from that personal place. For this film, as an example, it was like the first draft that spewed out of me in three days was extremely cathartic and I was crying throughout it and just spewing and going and I didn’t even know everything yet. I was like, why is all of this coming out? I feel like now, finally, years after the fact, now that I’ve finally made the movie I think I know everything in it, but it’s sort of like purging it out and then psychoanalysing it after the fact.
I mean, I’ve read that your parents are psychologists so maybe that’s where it comes from.
Exactly, I am fascinated by that.
I really liked how the moral ambiguity of the situation is presented. Do you think, in a situation like this, that a person’s first obligation has to be the survival of their family, even at the expense of their own moral compass, that perhaps wouldn’t necessitate murder if that person didn’t have others or their own tribe to think about?
I think that’s something people should have a good think about. I just think there is a line, you know, where you can lose your humanity and that’s worse than surviving at all costs. It’s like, what’s the point at a certain point and I think about that a lot.
It’s amazing that society is built on this unspoken trust. In a way, you can walk down the road and you can presume that a person is not going to kill you because society has built itself up over years, but once civilisation breaks down as we see in It Comes at Night, that trust is gone. The family that are taken in, for example, in the film, they seem like nice people but there is this distrust in everything that they say and do.
I’ll say, for me, I believe in every character in the movie, I think there are no bad guys and good guys. I think they are just all people just trying to do their best and they’re all coming from their own personal genuine place. Whether everyone is totally honest or whether we can totally trust everyone, you know I can’t say that, but at least I think they’re all just people just trying to live.
Another thing that really fascinated me is the use of dreams. Normally dreams in movies are the kiss of death as far as I’m concerned, but in this it was this really great true to life situation in which it kind of reflected the stress and psychological strain the characters were under in this environment, which kind of warps into these horrible sequences. How did you go about conceptualising how the dream sequences would fit into the story exactly?
Well, what excited me was letting the dreams be a gateway to this kid’s subconscious and every dream functions in this specific way of a character sort of processing everything going on around them. Whether it’s the fear of death and grief of his grandpa or hormones as a kid and this beautiful new woman in his house, but in the twisted world he is living in that has messed him up. So, like, that excited me because I wanted them all to be about something, and while hopefully tense or twisted or whatever you take from them, there is something on their mind as well and they can bring you closer to what’s going on in this kid’s head. Beyond that it was fun just to like visualise and think about how to do certain subtle things. We didn’t want it to just be like boom we are in a nightmare, we wanted to just kind of slip into them like Travis would as you slip into one of your dreams and let it kind of overwhelm you and be in it but then also access something at a deeper level.
Did you study books on dreams, because they seemed very accurate.
I am fascinated by dreams regardless and I think Carl Jung and his theory on dreams and just how every dream means something. I don’t remember all my dreams, I remember some. My girlfriend remembers more of hers but it’s always fun to hear even like the goofiest weirdest dreams just give them a good think. Because a lot of times you can unpack them and there’s stuff going on, it’s like your subconscious is talking to you and you can be receptive to it, so that’s fascinating to me.
You’ve said that It Comes at Night will be polarising and hit people in different ways. How do you feel about people interpreting something that was kind of personal and maybe specific to you and projecting their own experiences and thoughts onto something you have created? Does it feel less personal to you once it is out in the open for film critics to probably talk nonsense about its meaning and so on, or are you happy that people are engaging with it in different ways?
It’s weird and messy to be in it, I will say yes, I am happy people are engaging with it. Like, the biggest goal to me is if it can stick with people and they can talk about it because you know the movie is meant to be open in a way that I hope each person can take a different thing from it, and to me that is really beautiful and exciting. The frustration that comes with that is when you don’t tie everything in a bow all the time and you leave things open – that can be frustrating for people as well. Like, I saw a headline on a review where it said a beautifully made movie that is utterly pointless and that is a big bummer, but I set myself up for it. If you leave things open people can interpret it as they like.
I just want to bring up Krisha Fairchild who, of course, is your aunt. Incidentally, I gave her my best lead actress pick on my film podcast for last year for her truly phenomenally great performance in Krisha. Why do you think an actress as talented as her can get overlooked for so long, to somehow slip through the cracks and not have the career that her talent obviously deserves?
It’s a bummer. I know for her in particular there were certain things that happened in her life at a younger age where she decided to not play that game. Regarding the sort of bullshit you might have to do to create certain opportunities, and she went against that, which I am very proud of her for. But beyond that I just think it is a bummer, I don’t know. I mean, I think she is a one of a kind, unique soul and to me she is one of a kind. To me it was always my dream to write a great role for her so I can’t help but be happy about that. I just hope this makes people pay attention and gets her more roles.
So, do you have any projects in the works that you can maybe give us even a slight glimpse into what they might be?
Yes, I have a new baby that I am trying to write in my spare time and I always talk about it in sort of abstract ways, especially when I am writing. But I think if you like Krisha and you like It Comes at Night, I will be shocked if you don’t like the new one. It has something from each of those but it is new and probably more ambitious than those. It’s sort of a family over a year, and kids in high school, and this brother and sister linked with a tragedy in the middle, and a lot of life and love in it. And I want it to flow like a piece of music where the soundtrack will be so huge in the vain of something like Goodfellas or Boogie Nights. It needs to flow in waves like a piece of music and it’s, like, so me. I don’t know if that makes sense but I am very excited about it.
You interned for Terrence Malick before. What would you say is the thing you took away from working under him the most, as a filmmaker? It was probably much more than one thing, but anyway.
Well certainly more than one thing and that experience changed the whole course of my life, so it’s so many things. But I think the biggest conscious thing I took from it is thinking outside of the box when approaching making a movie. You can make movies in an unorthodox way. I wouldn’t want to copy the way Terry does it because he is Terry and only he can do it. So it encouraged me to find my way of doing that, if that makes sense. And just being inspired by that and going with that. The Tree of Life is one of my favourite movies and just so much of that has influenced and leaked over, I am sure.
It Comes at Night is released on July 7th. You can read our review of the film here.