It’s all fun and games until they haul out the gas masks.
Actually, they — those in charge of this adventure — have put on the gas masks but handed us paper face masks instead. So, if something resembling the end times goes down, they will survive to scavenge and scrounge while everyone else chokes out their last toxic gasps.
But that’s OK with the 175 or so of us who have gathered at the new Alamo Drafthouse in Austin’s Mueller neighborhood on a recent evening to be shepherded to a secret location to catch “It Comes At Night,” the heavily anticipated post-apocalyptic film from Texas director Trey Edward Schults that opens Friday. The only instructions we’ve been given — besides being ordered to put on our masks and turn off cellphones — are to wear long pants (check) and closed shoes (check) because we’re being piled into schoolbuses and dumped in “the woods” somewhere outside town to see the film in the great outdoors.
Though the Alamo army does its best to make us think we’re being ushered into some hellish deathscape that’s a cross between Mordor from “Lord of the Rings,” the backwoods from “Deliverance,” and that island where the ill-fated, Kendall Jenner-endorsed Fyre Festival was supposed to take place, it soon becomes pretty clear that our lives are in no immediate danger. When a small spider in the restroom at this Texas River School campsite along the Colorado River becomes a topic of discussion, you know you have not suddenly entered “Night of the Living Dead.”
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But that doesn’t lessen the effect of Schults’ film, an exercise in tension and low-level terror that stays with you after the credits have rolled and you’re back in the city on the hunt for tacos and barbecue. Joel Edgerton plays Paul, a former teacher who’s now only concerned about his family’s survival at their bunker/house deep in the woods after an unnamed incident throws humanity into chaos. When another family shows up needing shelter, things go way south, like Tierra del Fuego south.
“It Comes At Night” follows in the nerve-jangling footsteps of such recent films as “It Follows,” “The Babadook,” “Green Room,” and this year’s breakout hit, “Get Out,” low-budget, indie horror-thrillers that show off a distinctive directorial touch and have more on their minds than simply grossing out an audience.
This is the second feature by Schults, 28, from the Houston suburb of Spring, whose first film, the low-budget “Krisha” was a film festival favorite in 2015. Featuring knockout performances by members of his family, especially his aunt Krisha Fairchild, who played the title character, “Krisha” was about an apocalypse of a different sort: a family holiday dinner ruined by addiction. (Shults acted in the movie as well, playing Krisha’s angry, abandoned son.) The film intrigued the respected indie distributor A24 (“Moonlight,” “Green Room,” “Ex Machina,” “Under the Skin”) enough to offer Schults distribution for “Krisha” and “It Comes At Night.”
The two films together mark the arrival of a major new talent who, along with Dallas director David Lowery (“Pete’s Dragon,” the upcoming “A Ghost Story”), represent the next generation of Texas filmmakers (even if Schults has recently moved to Florida).
Both films were inspired by events in Schults’ life: a family member’s battle with substance abuse in “Krisha” and his biological father’s death from cancer for “It Comes At Night.” This is where we started our conversation the morning after the Austin screening.
How long after your father’s death, or at what point in the grieving process, did you start thinking about this film?
It was soon. I believe I started writing two months after, and the first pass just spewed out of me in a couple of days. I have a notepad and it looks like utter gibberish.
My mom’s a therapist, my parents are therapists, and this movie in particular felt like a purge, purge of demons. ... Dealing with the stuff that was going on with my dad, having to confront death that’s not an animal or something, but a human being and someone close to you. It forced me to confront my fears of my own mortality and everything else. ... Throughout post production, filming, everything, this movie has felt like a purge but I’m very happy to be on the other side of it.
But you didn’t make a movie explicitly about a family dealing with death or disease, like ‘Manchester by the Sea.’
Totally, which was really interesting to me, too. “Krisha” was more autobiographical ... but with this, I do know, before my dad’s death, I had my grandparents’ ranch in my head, which is very similar to the house in “It Comes At Night.” And it was [a story about] a family surviving. I didn’t know why per se but there are bits and pieces and stuff would happen in this story. I had this stuff stuck with me forever and then my dad’s death, and I started writing and it all came together. [His death] was the connective material, it was the essence of what the film was about. ... I also think that if it was just a very straight-up thing on cancer, not a lot of people would want to see this movie. If you can put that into a horror thriller with drama, hopefully more people will see it.
But you’ve said you’re not a big horror fan?
I don’t watch a lot. I love “The Thing.” I love “The Shining.” I love “Rosemary’s Baby.” I love the great horror films usually by great filmmakers. To me, ultimately “It Comes At Night” is about fear, fear of the unknown, and the greatest unknown is death. It’s like, ‘OK, can I put that emotion into a narrative that’s fictional?’ ... It’s interesting that it happened that way but it’s not a traditional horror movie. It’s a horror movie about people and how fear can tear people apart. ... There’s worse things than death. There’s losing your humanity in the process.
Are you worried that people are going to lump it with all the other post-apocalyptic fiction?
I’m not a post-apocalyptic guy. I don’t know why I gravitated towards that [but] I think a lot of [the storyline] about disease, the plague, reminds me of the stuff I was going through with my dad. But then you step back and it’s like, ‘Oh, are people going to think it’s a ‘Walking Dead’ episode? Is this a post-apocalyptic thing?’ No, it’s not either of those [though] it does have elements of that. But it’s going towards something different at the end of the day.
I don’t know if it was intentional or if you just wanted to work with these particular actors but there’s the interracial aspect [Paul’s wife, played by Carmen Ejogo is black, as is his son, played Kelvin Harrison, Jr.]
It was [intentional]. I thought a lot about race with the movie just because it’s so contained and it’s two families. For awhile, it was like, should the different families be different races? What would that be saying? And then I came down on how interesting it would be if the movie was just sort of post-racial. Like, it’s not commenting per se on race but there’s a mixed-race couple. To me, that was interesting and beyond racism.
You’ve wanted to be a filmmaker from a very young age?
I think it was at a family reunion the first time someone gave me a camcorder. My cousin and I just started filming. I started naturally making mini-movies and made a movie out of the reunion. That’s when I got the bug and when my family watched it, they were like, ‘Oh, this is amazing.’ It just kept going and then studying movies, watching movies. I got to intern for [Austin-based directors] Terrence Malick and Jeff Nichols a little bit. It was interesting because I went to [Texas State University] for a year, for business, and then I just dropped out. I got on this Terrence Malick thing and I guess I haven’t looked back.
Why did you study business?
My parents. Paul, Joel’s character in the movie, is totally a combination of my dad and stepdad. ... They were always big on, ‘Film, that’s ridiculous. We believe in you but the odds of you making movies for a living is insane.’... I was always, ‘It’s got to be all or nothing.’... There’s two paths and I’m going down the other path. [If I don’t] I’ll regret it for the rest of my life, and regret terrifies me.
A lot of the filmmakers from Texas are very distinctive, whether you like them or not. You see a Terrence Malick, Wes Anderson or Richard Linklater film, you know it immediately. Why do you think Texas filmmakers are so distinctive?
I actually hadn’t even thought about it. Even, you could say that for Robert Rodriguez, too. ... I think it’s cool that they’re Texas filmmakers and they’re outside the system and they all have unique visions. I would be honored to fit into that in any way.
Also, your film is coming out around the same time as David Lowery’s ‘A Ghost Story,’ which is also distributed by A24 and is a horror story that’s not really a horror story.
Oh yeah, his movie comes out a month after mine [July 7]. I can’t wait.
You had a bigger budget with this film and you weren’t working with family like on ‘Krisha.’ Were you nervous going into it?
Yeah. It was always important to me to have a new challenge, you have to do the new one totally differently. ... I was nervous and I wasn’t, just because one thing I made sure is that they were all amazing people. The first time I met Joel and the first time I met Kelvin, and everyone else, it was like, ‘I love these people’ and, as soon as we started working, it was a blast.
When A24 came knocking, was that a total surprise?
It was after “Krisha’ at South by Southwest. We premiered and there were no buyers, no one was there. We didn’t have a publicist. We didn’t have a lawyer. We were just this scrappy movie that got into competition. Then the next night, we won. Everyone was like, ‘What’s this movie?’ ... Then, eventually out of that process, my agent sent the movie to A24. One thing led to another and they said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know. I wrote this horror movie thing’.”
‘It Comes At Night’ Review
Read the review here