Joel Edgerton remembers a time when horror movies aspired to be more than just “blood porn.“ The Aussie actor spent his drama school days gorging on high-minded horror films like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby. He bemoans the state of modern horror, which can trend towards the all-out gorefests exemplified by the Saw and Hostel series.
But thanks to the success of films like The Witch and Get Out, we suddenly find ourselves in the midst of a horror renaissance, as young emerging directors gleefully embrace and then subvert the genre’s tried and tested conventions. One of those filmmakers is Trey Edward Shults, who cast Edgerton as a paranoid patriarch in his second feature, the post-apocalyptic thriller It Comes at Night.
Edgerton first gained notice as a ruthless outlaw in the Aussie potboiler Animal Kingdom. Since, then he’s enjoying a steady ascent to the top of Hollywood’s ranks thanks to a string of rangy supporting roles in films like Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby and Black Mass. But after star turns in films like The Gift (which he also directed) and last year’s Oscar-nominated Loving, Edgerton is finally ready to assume his rightful place as a bona fide leading man.
This current role may be just the push he needs. In It Comes at Night, Edgerton plays a father and husband whose only job is to keep his family safe as the outside world crumbles around them at the hands of an unnatural threat. When a mysterious stranger shows up at their door and throws the family’s domestic order into chaos, Edgerton’s character must grapple with the line between survival and civility, something Edgerton knows about all too well.
You’ve made some very eclectic choices throughout your career. What draws you to these kinds of high concept genre movies?
I’m lucky enough for people to give me their trust and their scripts and my instincts tell me one way or another whether or not to do it. Generally, I’ve realized by looking back on those choices myself, is that I feel kind of weird going into a genre exercise just for the sake of a genre exercise. If I feel like it’s been done time and time again, then what do I have to contribute? And also what do I personally get out of it, if I’m not learning anything? I just love the fact that Trey did what I was trying to achieve with The Gift, which is to have one foot in a familiar genre and then use the other balance of the film to have a foot somewhere else, which was subverting it in a way or using it to say something about what he was going through at the time. That, to me, says something about the world we live in in terms of the way we try to trust but we often can’t, and how we fear the inner workings of other people and their intentions and how situations that could be harmonious turn the other way. So I felt like we were making a rollicking genre suspense film but at the same time it had additional value so I think that’s what I’m always looking for. That extra something.
As someone who’s directed a film yourself, what are the qualities one must possess to be successful as a director? How does Trey embody them?
He had a preparedness that I think is very important. He has a confidence that I don’t have. He’s very sure about trusting his instincts in a way that’s very evident when you’re on set with him. I think most good directors trust their instincts and Trey does that by shooting a four page dialogue scene with one steadicam shot without giving himself any cutaways, because he’s sure from the moment he was typing away on his computer that that’s what the scene looked like in his head. And he won’t back down from that. But he does it in a way that’s quietly confident. He’s not bombastic or arrogant about it. He’s not patting himself on the back and calling himself a genius. He’s just confident and willing to know that he’s got the right stuff and knows when to move on. For the sake of efficiency and many other aspects it’s a great quality to nurture.
It’s remarkable that such a young person can be so sure of himself.
Yeah look at Xavier Dolan. He’s 27 and he’s in post on his seventh movie. A very good friend of mine’s 15-year-old son made a short film. I think technology is allowing filmmaking to be possible for anyone that has the money and the lifestyle that allows them to buy the technology. Young people can get started much earlier and they don’t have to worry about any infrastructure waiting to embrace them. They can just create that infrastructure and I think that’s cool.
There seems to be a horror renaissance underway with films like Get Out and now this. Do you think these films are a product of our current political or social climate? Are they a response to what’s happening in the world?
I think so. I’m only going to go the cinema if it is. I could tell that Get Out was as much of an essay on the sign of the times and a response to current culture as it was a horror movie and a satire. I think It Comes at Night is definitely a response to something. I prefer to go and watch a movie like that. I’d be proud if this movie was considered part of a renaissance in horror movies because I think that for too long many of them have fallen short of a quality that deserves to be considered even part of the genre. Some had thought the genre split with blood porn on one side and movies like Get Out and It Comes at Night on the other side, which is the smarter more elevated stuff that I responded too when I was learning more about film at drama school. You know, stuff like The Shining and Rosemary’s Baby, they’re well made films. It’s a shame to think that horror has a curse like ‘Oh you’re doing a horror movie’ like it’s a bad thing.
This film is terrifying more for what it doesn’t show you than what it does, which is sometimes a more effective way of getting scares.
Yeah. One of my favorite horror movies of all time is Alien. I think almost everybody’s aware of that whole theory that the alien that you don’t see is more terrifying than the one you do see. Your imagination runs wild when you photograph an open cupboard with darkness behind it because the question of what’s in there is up for grabs. But as soon as you show it, it’s not that interesting anymore or the tension gets released. I think that Trey is well aware of that.
The film explores the delicate balancing act between our survival instinct our morality. Do you think a line between the two exists?
I think so. But I love how thin that line is or how quickly the knife’s edge turns from a place of trust and harmony and then almost immediately it can go the other way and things can go south and chaos ensues. The idea that, ‘I hear what you’re saying and I trust you and I want to trust you,’ and then one word out of place or one breaking of the rules or one false look from someone you don’t know or that you’re already suspicious of can fucking turn everything upside down. I love that about this movie, the idea that you might not like your family or you might have issues with them, but when you have to pick a side, family is the only thing you can truly trust. Everyone else you don’t know them well enough to know the inner workings of their mind and when the world’s paranoid and things are suspicious that’s when lack of trust grows rapidly.
Can you recall an instance where that line evaporated for you?
I remember a situation where it really became family first and I was entertaining thoughts of civility going out the window when it came to protecting my mother in the face of someone that I found very suspicious. It was a guest at our house and I was very young and I remember thinking I was going to have to do something incredibly violent, but I would’ve needed some help in terms of a prop or something because he was a grown man and I wasn’t. It didn’t turn that way but it definitely went there in my mind because I saw the signs.
Tell me about working with A24. What makes them so good at what they do?
There’s a certain quality they have. I think good companies good taste and know to trust their filmmakers and to vet them in the early stages and sort of get out of the way and trust that they’re going to deliver on their promise. I love that A24 are more robust and risky in some of their choices, but their choices do have that feeling of one foot in a genre and one in subversion. I thought The Witch was fantastic. Over the years they started to build a real brand and there’s an unwavering sense that they’re going to continue to take these risks on small projects and they’re really good at pushing them out in the world. It’s got that element of quality to it that I remember Miramax had in the early days when we would go and see things like Reservoir Dogs. I’d see the brand and go ‘Okay I’m going to see anything that brand does because I feel like they know what they’re doing.’