How 'It Comes at Night' writer-director almost became a flight attendant

United Airlines' loss is the film world's gain. Mainly to please his concerned mother, he says, then-fledgling filmmaker Trey Edward Shults — whose second feature, the insinuating thriller "It Comes at Night," opens in 2,500 theaters this week — went five years ago to United flight attendant school, where he met his girlfriend, Ashley Meyers.

"We got kicked out together!" Shults, over coffee in a Frenchy downtown bistro, exults in the memory. "They treat it like summer camp or something, all these rules: You can't go in each other's rooms, this and that. All this stuff. She snuck into my room one night; we snuck into the pool after hours. We had a glass of champagne after acing an exam. So one day the instructor came in the classroom and said, 'Uh, we're getting calls from the hotel that it's like "Girls Gone Wild" over there. Destroying property and whatnot. Trey and Ashley, please stand up and leave the room.' He accused us of all this stuff we didn't do! But, so, yeah. That happened."

His mother's a therapist and Shults, now 28, clearly is used to processing things conversationally. "I was only doing it because my mom wanted me to have some kind of job," he says. "Even when I dropped out of college, studying movies at home, they supported and believed in me. But they were worried."

Two months after getting kicked out, Shults made a short film called "Krisha," with his aunt Krisha Fairchild playing an estranged addict falling off the wagon at a fraught Thanksgiving dinner. After two years of unsuccessful fundraising, and an aborted attempt at making the "Krisha" feature he had in mind, Shults (who interned and later worked for Terrence Malick) found the money and the nine shooting days it took to film a feature-length version.

"Krisha" won the top prize at South by Southwest in 2015. Two months later it drew worldwide praise in one of the sidebar competition slates at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival.

His follow-up project, "It Comes at Night," shot near Woodstock, N.Y., takes place in the near future. A horrendous plague has ravaged the population. A family played by Joel Edgerton, Carmen Ejogo and Kelvin Harrison Jr. stays on guard in their house in the woods. Another family intrudes on their wary solitude. The tale becomes one of trust, paranoia and chilling no-win situations. Writer-director Shults plays the scenario for unconventionally intimate suspense, as teenage boy, Travis, watches a nightmare scenario unfold all around him, while at night his own nightmares complicate things even further.

Shults wrote the script in the wake of his own father's death from drug and alcohol abuse. To the man who made it, "It Comes at Night" is a grief-stricken personal story even if it's not autobiographical.

"For a huge chunk of his life," Shults says of his birth father, "he had it together. And I was with him for a lot of that, though when I was a kid I saw some terrible things. After my parents separated he got his life back on track, but later he fell off the rails again, and one time he showed up at our house in a semi truck to take me to dinner. He was already drunk, and by the end of the night he was trying to get me to take money out of my mom's and stepdad's bank accounts. Extremely unhealthy behavior.

"I was still in high school but I basically cut off our relationship. And I hadn't talked to him in eight, nine years when I found out he had pancreatic cancer. So like Tom Cruise in 'Magnolia,' I went to him on his deathbed, and just tried to help him find some peace before the end. Two months after that I started writing 'It Comes at Night,' and the scene at the beginning (where Ejogo says goodbye to her own plague-infected father) is pretty much verbatim."

Shults pauses a second, then: "I hope the film indicates the mind-state I was in when that first draft more or less poured out of me in three days. I think it's there, anyway."

He made "Krisha" for $30,000 in his mother's house in Montgomery, Texas, and fully half the budget went to camera- and lens-related expenses, including a Steadicam operator. Postproduction and Cannes-related costs brought the final budget to $80,000. The film's distributor, A24 ("Room," "Moonlight"), paid $40,000 for the rights to use the Nina Simone version of "Just in Time," underscoring a crucial sequence in "Krisha." That one song on the soundtrack cost more than the initial production budget.

A24, Shults acknowledges, got behind the defiantly uncommercial "Krisha" mainly to get ahold of Shults' next project, i.e., "It Comes at Night." This one cost around $3 million, and Shults shot it in 26 days. He struggled to find the right ending, he says, initially sending the teenage boy at the story's heart straight to hell, or something like it. He filmed it, but the feedback he got was that after a pretty stark picture, that ending was nothing but "pummeling," he says, shaking his head with a grin. A24 remained supportive, he says, even though Shults burned down an entire set for the unused epilogue.

The next movie, Shults says, will reflect his general state of happiness now. He and his significant other (she's a flight attendant for American Airlines) recently got what he calls "my first really nice apartment," in Orlando. Her schedule flexibility has allowed them to travel the film festival circuit as a couple. The new screenplay in development, he says, will deal with a brother and a sister over the course of a year. And unlike "Krisha" and "It Comes at Night," this one, he says, will likely let in a little more light. (He's planning on shooting in Florida.)

"There's another side of me I have to get out," he says. "I like combining a fictional narrative with the subtext of all this personal stuff. Right now I'm inspired by Florida and my girlfriend, so I'm going with it. … There's a lot of love in my other movies, but they're dark. This one's more about love and sunshine. " Pause. He smiles. "But you know, with some very, very tragic stuff that happens along the way."

As with another A24 release, Robert Eggers' superb supernatural debut feature "The Witch," "It Comes at Night" will inevitably frustrate audiences looking for a more formulaic genre picture. The ads, he says, cautiously, are pushing "a full-on horror movie, which I don't think it is. I'm already anticipating a huge portion of the audience to (be thrown by it), the way 'The Witch" threw people. On the other hand, 'The Witch' still made money. And it reached all kinds of people."

For the moment, Shults' needs sound both simple and, as for so many talented filmmakers before him, elusive. "I've struggled financially a long time," he says. "All I ever wanted to do was make movies I believed in, with all my heart and soul. If I can keep doing that, and be able to live while doing that, it'd be incredible."

"It Comes at Night" opens Friday in wide release.

Michael Phillips is a Chicago Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

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