Wednesday 23 August 2017

It's full scream ahead with fright night

With his second film about to open, self-taught director Trey Edward Shults shows himself to be a true storyteller

Joel Edgerton leads a strong cast of Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough and Kelvin Harrison Jr in 'It Comes At Night' directed by Trey Edwards Shults
Joel Edgerton leads a strong cast of Christopher Abbott, Carmen Ejogo, Riley Keough and Kelvin Harrison Jr in 'It Comes At Night' directed by Trey Edwards Shults
Trey Edward Shults

Anne Marie Scanlon

Trey Edward Shults is an unusual young man for many reasons. The 28-year-old Texan is the first American I have ever met who didn't claim some connection to Ireland. He's never even tasted a pint of Guinness.

"I had an Irish Car Bomb [a cocktail of Guinness, Bailey's Irish Cream, and Jameson] and it made me throw up," he offers apologetically.

Far more amazing, is that Shults has just written and directed his second feature film, It Comes at Night - a work so accomplished and flawless it belies the director's age and experience.

Ostensibly this is a horror film, a category I'd take issue with. There are no hordes of zombies or chain-saw brandishing serial killers, and yet the tension never eases up - I was quite literally on the edge of my seat the entire time. If you like your summer blockbuster old school, a mindless escape into the air conditioning of the cinema, then It Comes at Night is not the film for you as it prompts more questions than it ever answers.

Trey Edward Shults
Trey Edward Shults

The story centres mainly around Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr), a 17-year-old boy living in the woods with his parents.

At the very start of the film, Travis has to help his father Paul (Joel Edgerton) kill Bud, his grandfather, and immolate his remains. As Bud has succumbed to an airborne illness, Travis and Paul wear breathing masks as they go about their grim task. We never find out what the illness is, or how widespread the outbreak - only that it is fatal and that Travis has absolutely no chance of living a normal life.

He can't go out with his friends or have a girlfriend - he is quite literally stuck with his parents. Despite the size of the house, the claustrophobia is almost overwhelming.

Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and Paul are a mixed-race couple and I ask Shults if this was deliberate. He tells me that it wasn't in his original script - it occurred organically as he was casting the movie.

"To me, it's not a movie about race, it's not commenting on that at all. I am just so happy and blessed that that worked out and Kelvin is the only kid who could have played Travis. The whole cast are great, they're such good people and so talented."

The only time skin matters in this movie is when it's covered with bubonic-looking boils, at which point colour is irrelevant.

Like his first feature film, Krisha, ("which we made for $30,000 at my mom's house and stars my family"), much of It Comes at Night is semi-autobiographical. The house is modelled closely on the home of Shults's late grandfather, Bud, to whom he was very close. Shults had a complex relationship with his father.

"I hadn't seen him in 10 years. He suffered with addiction, alcohol and drugs, but for a huge chunk of my life, he was good." (They were reunited just before his father died)

His first film, Krisha, was based on "my cousin who came home for a holiday, Christmas, in the movie it's not Christmas. She came home for a reunion and we thought she was sober and she relapsed and then two months later she passed away. She overdosed. She was in her 30s, it was terrible. So much stuff with my Dad and addiction in my family came out into the movie."

Given Shults's relative youth and the fact that It Comes at Night is such a well-made film, it's quite surprising to hear that the director did not go down what is now the usual route into film-making via university.

Instead, he is self-taught.

"I was little kid and someone gave me a camcorder at a family reunion and I turned it into a little movie. My family watched it, they were my first audience, and they loved it and I got the bug. I've been watching and obsessed with movies my entire life."

Naturally he wanted to study film but "my parents wanted me to get a realistic degree and a realistic job so I was in school for business but I lucked out and got on this Terrence Malick movie when I was 19. I decided to drop out of school and did my own film school - I obsessed over movies, I did my own short films… I almost self-sabotaged my life until I had nothing left but film-making - I had nothing else to go to. Fortunately, now we're here."

Most tellingly, perhaps, Shults tells me: "I'm fascinated by human nature in all aspects."

It Comes at Night is a thorough study of human beings and how they react to each other. Travis's parents still treat him as a child (despite his involvement in his grandfather's demise). Whatever the domestic situation was before Bud got sick, now it's very traditional, with Paul very much the 'head' of the household. When the family combine resources with a young couple with a small son, the situation becomes more complicated. The tensions between the three men are many and complex. The father/son dynamic plays out in several different ways. Meanwhile, Travis has a ringside seat witnessing a healthy relationship, knowing that he may never have one himself.

Shults tells me that regret is also a major theme of the film. He starts talking about his grandfather Bud.

"There's regret around his death", he says. "I remember the night he died, my mom asked me if I wanted to say good night and I said no, I was tired. I went to sleep and in the morning he had passed…

"I didn't even think about that till now," he says, "there's a lot of stuff buried in this movie."

Every single member of the cast of six is note-perfect. "I love the cast," Shults says. I always wanted Joel [Edgerton] but he's a busy guy. It started with him, I lucked out because his schedule opened and he took me seriously... and from there it led to everyone else."

Given the dystopian nature of his vision, I wonder if Shults is a pessimist, does he think the world will destroy itself?

"I love people and I believe in people but I'm also… I do see us destroying ourselves. That's my biggest fear, one of my biggest fears, I worry. When I was writing this I started thinking about if society fell apart in some way - whether a disease or economic collapse - how quickly we would fall apart."

I tell him that if society went pear-shaped, I'd be one of the first to die or be killed, as I can barely cope - even with the benefits of electricity and flush toilets, without which I'd have no chance. "Exactly," he laughs, "it's hard enough as is, so true!"

'It Comes at Night' opens from July 7

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