“Imagine the end of the world. Now imagine something worse,” read the press notes for It Comes at Night, the sophomore feature from award-winning filmmaker Trey Edward Shults (Krishna). The psychological horror thriller centers on Travis, a 17-year-old boy (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.), who is trapped with his over-protective and armed parents Paul and Sarah (Joel Edgerton and Carmen Ejogo, respectively) after an unnamed catastrophe.
Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough play Will and Kim, a couple that seeks refuge in Travis’ home with their young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). But as mistrust spreads inside the house, the characters realise that they are not as safe inside as they think.
Rising stars Christopher Abbott (Girls) and Riley Keough (The Girlfriend Experience, American Honey) sat down with Danny Peary to analyse their characters and to talk about what it was like to film this intense psychological thriller.
It Comes at Night is being pitched as a psychological horror movie. It has a horror movie title, it has a spooky score, and there are a lot of tense night scenes that are shot as if it’s a horror movie. But I’m not sure that it is a horror movie.
CA: I don’t think so either. It’s a cautionary tale, a family drama in some ways, a psychological thriller in some ways. It does have horror images but story-wise it has a straight drama narrative and there aren’t the tropes that we see in traditional horror films. There’s more of an elegance to it, I think.
Was [writer/director] Edward Shults Trey calling it a horror film when you were making it?
RK: No. I never thought of it that way. It was just a very emotional story, a simple narrative with nothing too wild. It felt like a drama to me, personally. People have told me that they were scared when they saw it, and I get it because the camerawork is creepy and the score is creepy and the unknown is creepy.
CA: We weren’t privy to those things when we were shooting it. The score wasn’t playing when we were doing it!
RK (Laughing): Exactly. We had beautiful birds chirping in the background.
How hard was it to make this movie?
CA: I think it was relatively easy, and that’s purely logistically. There was just one location and we shot in a beautiful part of upstate New York; in Woodstock, in the summer, only twenty something days.
RK: Yeah, it was pretty easy for me, too. It was one of the easiest films I have ever made – low stress despite the subject matter.
What if this film wasn’t primarily about how Paul, Sarah, and Travis react when your characters, Will and Kim, arrive with their small son, but was mainly about Will and Kim coming through the woods and coming upon a family of strangers in a house?
RK (deadpan): It would be a better movie.
CA: Yes, with a much wider release! I never thought of that scenario. Viewers are introduced to our family pretty quickly, so it would just be a matter of getting more of our backstory. I see Will and Kim as being more like gypsies in this vague, post-apocalyptic situation. Paul, Sarah, and Travis have gas masks and follow procedures; Will shows up in a bandana and kind of wings it. [Laughing] I think it would be more of a comedy if you followed our characters first.
You play outsiders, and there’s always suspicion of them.
RK: There is suspicion of them, but I think it depends on the perspective. Because I think if you were following Kim and Will, you’d see that when they are invited into this creepy big house, they’d be just as scared and suspicious of the people who live there as the family inside is of them. I think in that scenario, Paul, Joel Edgerton’s character, would be much more unlikable when he attacks them.
There is one moment when Paul seems to catch Will in a lie. From your point of view, are you trustworthy?
RK (joking): In real life?
CA (joking): Or as the characters?
In real life I don’t care, but I do want to know about the characters.
CA: I think they are trustworthy. But it depends on how the film is edited and even then, it’s up to the audience to decide whether they trust Will or Kim or Paul, or anyone else. Will’s intentions aren’t vague – it’s to protect his family and survive. When Will and Paul have that scene you mentioned, in my eyes Will just slips up. But for viewers the fun is deciding whether he slipped up innocently or is he lying. I decided he just slipped up.
If these two families lived next door in a normal situation, would they get along, despite being from different classes?
CA: I think so, if the world was normalised. Will’s a mechanic and Paul’s a history teacher who, despite the big house, probably doesn’t make a whole lot of money.
RK: I think they’re all nice, decent people. I don’t know if they’d be best friends, but I’m sure they would get along.
The press notes indicate that Travis is attracted to Kim, but I actually think Travis wishes he were part of your family, which is less rigid and still has some laughter – and lovemaking. He likes seeing the little boy sleep between Kim and Will and perhaps he wishes he could do that.
CA: Take away what is happening in the movie and just think about Travis being seventeen. At that age, I’d be jealous of other families for no good reason. You know your family so well and you’re kind of bored by it, so anything else seems exciting.
RK: Yeah, there’s something he’s wanting from her or them. He doesn’t feel any animosity toward anyone or think bad stuff.
Riley, I think a major scene in the movie is a quiet one in which Kim and Travis can’t sleep and end up alone at a table having an intimate conversation.
RK: In isolation like that, relationships get weird and I think the two of them just want human contact and connection. Neither of them has talked to anyone out of their family circle for a while. It’s blurry, but I think Travis may have a crush on Kim. I don’t know if it’s mutual, but that’s up to the audience to decide.
Kim tells Travis that when she was 17 she met Will. Her saying that kind of makes this boy into adult.
CA: Yeah, right. That’s interesting for sure.
RK: Definitely, there is tension there between them. And Trey definitely wanted that tension.
Chris, in certain scenes between Will and Travis, does Will usurp Paul’s role as the father and create a rivalry between the two men?
CA: There is not a rivalry that Will and Paul set out to make, but it’s Paul’s impression of Will and Will’s of Paul. I’m sure Paul feels some jealousy that Will is the one teaching him to chop wood, and Will is worrying that Paul is out alpha-male-ing him during the movie. Will’s anxiety increases because the more he gets to know Paul, the more he feels, “This guy is going to try to kill us at some point.” It’s not a stereotypical mano-a-mano battle between two men but is more interesting because of the ambiguous way it plays out. Playing that was fun.
Trey says that a subtext of the film is “the failure of parenting – fatherhood specifically – epitomised by Paul and Will’s struggles to protect their children.” Chris, do you equate Will and Paul in regard to them being fathers and protectors? Am I right in thinking Paul goes more to the extreme than Will?
CA: I don’t know. That’s an audience thing. A question to ask is whether Will puts his family at risk by doing certain things, like pulling out a gun. Depending on an unfortunate series of events, maybe Will puts his family into more jeopardy than they would have been.
RK: Watching the film yesterday, I wondered what would have happened if Will didn’t do that.
CA: Who knows what would have happened?
I don’t see a rivalry between Sarah, played by Carmen Ejogo, and Kim. But we learn, surprisingly, that Sarah is capable of violent thoughts and actions. What about Kim?
RK: I don’t think she’s quite there yet. She’s younger and less cynical, just a different person, and she’s not ready to go that route. There was a scene between us that got cut in which it was implied that Sarah was a little bit jealous of how tactile and loving our family is. The issue is less between us than between Sarah and Paul.
Riley, there is so much about connection, or the lack of, in your other work like American Honey, The Girlfriend Experience, and Lovesong. Was that something you were thinking about when making this movie and playing Kim?
RK: Definitely. The reason this film works is because everyone is so invested in these people’s connections. They are families. If, as you said, they were just random people in a house it wouldn’t be as impactful if they die.
CA: I think that it’s inherent as human beings that you would survive in a situation like this twice as long if you’re with someone than if you’re not.
For It Comes tt Night, Trey Edward Shults came to you to play the part and I presume flattered you. Would you have turned it down otherwise if you thought it wasn’t different?
RK: The line is pretty blurred there. From my view, it was, “Pick me!” because I wanted to be in it because it is different. I don’t know what Trey was thinking.
Are you both searching for something different?
RK: Yeah. I definitely try not to do the same thing over and over again. I’d get bored. I don’t want everyone to think I’m doing something habitually, like I’d know what to do with it quite easily. I don’t like that. I definitely try to do different, challenging things.
Chris, since some people still think of you as Allison Williams’ boyfriend in the first two seasons of Girls, are you still trying to show that you can do all kinds of things?
CA: Well, not necessarily as a reaction to the show at all. Before that I did a lot of theater and since then I’ve done a lot of films not many people have seen. That comes with the territory. I’m getting my kicks, and it’s just a matter of being seen.
Where does this film fit into your careers?
CA: I don’t like to think of anything career-wise as if I’m on a path or some kind of journey. It feels narcissistic, like everything is happening to me and around me. I don’t believe it. The process of doing a film means more to me than the result, and that’s really what makes me choose films. However, it’s still important to be proud of a film I make, as with It Comes at Night.
RK: My answer is similar. The actual process of making a film with the people I do it for is more important to me than the actual film. I always enjoy making a film more than watching it. It’s kind of an extra bonus when my film comes out a year later!
It Comes at Night is in cinemas July 6, 2017