Trumpian apoc­a­lyp­tica

TreyEd­ward Shults’s new film is be­ing hailed as a hor­ror in tune with the dystopian zeit­geist.‘Art is go­ing to re­spond and re­flect that kind of anx­i­ety,’ he tells TaraBrady

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - FILM -

“Who the hell is Trey Ed­ward Shults?” Cul­tural com­men­ta­tors thumb­ing through the film se­lec­tions for Cannes in 2015 won­dered how an un­known Texan young­ster had found his way into the In­ter­na­tional Crit­ics Week sec­tion with a mi­cro-bud­geted $30,000 drama star­ring his own fam­ily.

Yet Kr­isha, which, by its Cannes bow, had al­ready re­ceived the Grand Jury Award and Au­di­ence Award at South by South­west, has sub­se­quently gained a de­voted cult fol­low­ing.

Last year, it won the John Cas­savetes prize at the In­de­pen­dent Film Spirit Awards and was named Best First Fea­ture by the New York Film Crit­ics Cir­cle. John Wa­ters cited the “hi­lar­i­ously har­row­ing por­trait of a fam­ily re­union ru­ined by an al­co­holic rel­a­tive and too many dogs” as his favourite film of 2016.

“No­body saw it when it came out,” says Shults. “But time has been kind. And they’re see­ing it now. It’s like liv­ing in a strange fan­tasy. Dreams do come true.”

Shults was 18 when he went to Hawaii to spend the sum­mer with his aunt Kr­isha – the same Kr­isha who es­sayed the ti­tle char­ac­ter of his 2015 break­out film. His ac­tress aunt nat­u­rally had con­nec­tions within the film com­mu­nity on the is­land, con­nec­tions that landed the teenager a gig load­ing IMAX mag­a­zines on Ter­rence Mal­ick’s Voy­age of Time. Shults sub­se­quently trav­elled to Ice­land and Chile to work on the birth-of-the-uni­verse sec­tion of Mal­ick’s The Tree of Life.

“I was su­per-blessed that I got on to a Ter­rence Mal­ick movie,” re­calls the 28-year-old. “I was al­ready a fan of Terry’s. But once I worked for him, I be­came ob­sessed. I re-watched all his movies and stud­ied his film­mak­ing on set. It forced me to a point where I had to make a de­ci­sion to drop out of school. And that changed the en­tire course of my life. See­ing Tree of Life in a theatre, and know­ing I’d played some small part in this am­bi­tious, sprawl­ing movie, was one of the best ex­pe­ri­ences I’ve ever had. ”

Kr­isha was in­spired by a real-life tragedy. After years of so­bri­ety, Shults’ cousin died of an over­dose in 2011, just months after re­laps­ing dur­ing a stress­ful fam­ily hol­i­day re­union. His fol­low-up It Comes at Night is also rooted in per­sonal trauma. A first draft was hand­writ­ten over three days, while Shults was griev­ing for his es­tranged fa­ther, who had died­from can­cer twom­onths pre­vi­ously.

“It started with a notepad and writ­ing,” he says. “It was a vomit draft: spew ev­ery­thing out. No one could read it but me. In my mind, the film feels very sim­i­lar to that draft. But I don’t know if that’s a fact. I have a weird re­la­tion­ship with it. It came from a per­sonal place but it’s a totally fic­tional story. When I watch it, it takes me right back to the head space I was in.”

It Comes at Night con­cerns a fam­ily liv­ing in strict quar­an­tine in an iso­lated farm­house. Paul (Joel Edger­ton), his wife Sarah (Car­men Ejogo), and their teenage son Travis (Kelvin Har­ri­son Jr), have sur­vived an un­spec­i­fied pan­demic that seems to have wiped out most of hu­man­ity. One day, a stranger (Christo­pher Ab­bott) ar­rives look­ing for wa­ter. An uneasy truce fol­lows, but not for long.

Shults turned to a fam­ily mem­ber, who, fear­ing eco­nomic col­lapse, be­came an ex­pert in bunker tech­niques, for in­spi­ra­tion. But he equally took cues from lit­er­a­ture and films about geno­cide, no­tably David E Stan­nard’s Amer­i­can Holo­caust: The Con- quest of the New World, James Waller’s Be­com­ing Evil: How Or­di­nary People Com­mit Geno­cide and Mass Killing, Joshua Op­pen­heiner’s The Act of Killing. Hence, the most dis­com­bob­u­lat­ing ef­fect of It Comes at Night is that even the most level-headed viewer is suck­ered into mur­der­ous, xeno­pho­bic thoughts.

“It started with the per­sonal,” he says. “But at the time I was reading a lot of his­tory, so a lot about vi­o­lence and geno­cide. How or­di­nary people can come to do ter­ri­ble things. What in­ter­ested me about The Act of Killing is that it is told from the killers’ per­spec­tives. I do have a fam­ily mem­ber who talks about how quickly thingscould fal­la­part. I al­ways thought that was a bit crazy. But the more I read and the more I thought about it, the scarier and more pos­si­ble it seemed. On top of that, where I grew up you can walk into any sport­ing goods store and walk out with a shot­gun. So that af­fects your men­tal­ity too. My step­fa­ther al­ways told me you can’t trust any­one but fam­ily. I still con­tend with that. And an ex­treme ver­sion of that think­ing leaked into the movie.”

It Comes at Night has been sub­se­quently hailed as Trumpian apoc­a­lyp­tica, a dystopian com­ple­ment to the woke, so­cially aware hor­ror of Get Out and Raw.

“It’s a re­ally in­ter­est­ing thing,” nods Shults. “Get Out and Raw come out within a few months of each other. And by then I’m in post-pro­duc­tion with my movie and I can’t help but see cer­tain sim­i­lar­i­ties. In the States, after the elec­tion, and in Lon­don right now [we meet on the day of the Fins­bury Park at­tack], there is a shared sense that ter­ri­ble things are hap­pen­ing in the world. Art is go­ing to re­spond and re­flect that kind of anx­i­ety. What’s weird, I guess, is that I wrote this three years ago.”

It Comes at Night may be one of the best films of the sum­mer but it is not, con­tro­ver­sially, the movie that was sold to US cin­ema go­ers. The trail­ers, which made the film look like a fes­ti­val of jump-scares, did lit­tle to con­vey the film’s qual­i­ties and prompted some­thing of a back­lash among dis­grun­tled con­sumers.

“I’ve made peace with it,” says Shults. “But if you had asked me a few weeks ago, I was wor­ried about the way the movie was com­ing out into the world. I just knew it was go­ing to be mis­un­der­stood. I hope that the people who are meant to see the movie get to see it. Even if that takes time. Like with Kr­isha.”

I do have a fam­ily mem­ber who talks about how quickly things could fall apart . . . the more I thought about it, the scarier and more pos­si­ble it seemed

Last gasp David Pendle­ton in It Comes at Night. Below: Di­rec­tor Trey Ed­ward Shults

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