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Wednesday, June 14, 2023 | Interviews


Now on VOD from Uncork’d Entertainment and fresh from its theatrical debut at the Blood in the Snow Film Festival, THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT is a spare, eerie thriller from the real-life husband-and-wife team of Scott Leaver and Adrienne Kress

Filmed during the pandemic lockdown, the film stars Ryan Allen (Spare Parts, Shoresy) as Ben, a former prizefighter who returns to his father’s remote farmhouse to claim his inheritance, only to find that locals aren’t as friendly as they initially seem. These nefarious neighbors are part of a cannibalistic cult with dark designs in mind for him. With the help of librarian Amy, played by Adrienne Kress (American Gods), Ben must hold the hungry horde at bay – or be consumed

Kress and Leaver recently joined RUE MORGUE to speak about bringing THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT to life.

Adrienne, you’re not a horror writer by trade, although horror is an area you’ve been delving into with your adaptations of the Bendy and the Ink Machine video games for Scholastic. Did those projects help get you into a good mindset for THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT?

Adrienne Kress: Absolutely! I learned a lot about the structure of horror stories and the classic horror tropes while writing the Bendy books. But I do think that horror elements have always appeared in my work. I started out writing adventure books, and ever since I was a kid, I knew that the most exciting adventures had life-and-death stakes with scary bad guys chasing you. So, for example, in my very first children’s book, Alex and the Ironic Gentleman, I have a sequence where my main character is trapped on a manic party train that keeps repeating the same day over and over, and each new day, someone on the train disappears, and no one else seems to notice – a creepy, existential concept with a pretty creepy resolution when it is revealed why. So I think I’ve always enjoyed horror elements, and it was only a matter of time before I graduated to full-on horror writer.

THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT has a title that tells you where the story is headed, although not how. What should viewers know (or not know) going into the film? You also collaborated with your other lead, Ryan Allen, in penning the screenplay. Given that the movie focuses on Adrienne and Allen, with Scott running things behind the scenes, what was involved in the collaboration? I’m curious about the process of putting this together, knowing that you and Allen would be delivering your own lines.

Scott Leaver: I’d love viewers to know nothing going into the film. I very much wanted the audience to be a third lead character in the story, unraveling what is going on as the characters do.

As far as the process goes, I knew from the start that I wanted to write a horror movie with Ryan Allen in the lead role. He’s a fantastic actor capable of being both physically imposing and showing great vulnerability on screen. I loved the idea of placing an actor like that as the lead of a horror film. How could you make a capable and dangerous fighter vulnerable? How could we make the audience fear for him?

And both Ryan and Adrienne are incredibly intelligent writers who really understood their characters. It was vital to work with them on the script and make changes as we were shooting when their characters were so alive and in the moment. 

AK: It was interesting to write for Amy because at first, it wasn’t a given that I’d be playing her; We were just trying to write a foil for Ben. But the more her character formed, the more obvious it was that I would be doing it. I think ultimately, though, I didn’t write her with any thoughts of how I would deliver the lines down the road. I was able to divorce actor Adrienne from writer Adrienne during the pre-production writing process. Once on set, though, I think both Ryan and I did find moments where we didn’t quite feel like the lines as written were right for how our characters would talk. So things were augmented at that point. Also, Ryan is an amazing improviser, so he really was able to have fun during various takes, and I had to try hard not to break character and laugh.

Was Night of the Living Dead an influence on the script? You’ve got a pair of characters trapped in an isolated cabin, and the lead is a person of color named Ben. Race is one of the running themes of the script. What were some other influences in terms of style and tone?

SL: THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT was our love letter to the horror movies we grew up with. But, by far, the biggest influence was indeed Night of the Living Dead. I think you nailed all the comparisons on the head. The Shining was a huge influence, as well. In fact, our butcher-knife-wielding Amy was a nod to Shelley Duvall’s Wendy Torrance. We actually used The Shining score for our temp tracks before we turned the cut over to our fantastic composer, Simon Passmore.

What was involved in working with Simon Passmore? How long did it take you to arrive at the tone you were after? And what was it about The Shining score that still resonates so many years later?

SL: We knew right from the start we wanted a score similar to The Shining. I think it’s one of the greatest soundtracks of all time. With some notable exceptions, most of the score isn’t even “music,” it’s sound. In particular, the use of Penderecki’s work, where he pushes instruments to extremes outside the norm, was a master stroke. It’s so alien to what the audience is used to hearing; You can’t help but feel something is wrong. The score almost functions like the malevolent voice of the hotel as it gleefully preys on the Torrance family. It’s threatening and anxiety-inducing and so damn spooky. It was exactly the feeling we wanted when people were watching our characters in THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT. 

We had over 300 composers apply to work on THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT, but Simon’s work just stood out. We knew he could create the sound we were looking for. We had used much of The Shining soundtrack in the rough cut of the film to really pinpoint the exact sound aesthetic we were going for, and we sent it to Simon. We told him to use it as a guide, and he immediately went to work, sending us samples of his score attached to scenes from the film. We would go back and forth, exchanging ideas until we landed on something that gave us that unsettling feeling – that sense that something was watching our leads, stalking them, looking at them as prey. I should add that while The Shining score was our inspiration, what made us excited to work with Simon was the inventiveness he brought to the table. He really made the music his own and took things musically in directions we hadn’t been expecting. His work absolutely elevates the film. We still can’t believe we got so lucky to have him as part of our team.

I really dug the wood paneling of the cottage and was curious if there was a big search for the right house. Or did you just use one that you had access to?

SL: That cottage actually helped inspire the story! It was such a perfect location for a horror movie that we wrote the script with the location in mind. I loved everything about it: the wood paneling that creates a sense of motion, the absolute blackness of night in the surrounding area, the wall of windows in the back of the house. It was very cinematic.

AK: It’s my parents’ cottage! Well, mine too, but they, of course, were the ones who actually built it. My parents are now retired, but they were teachers when I was growing up, so we spent summers, Christmas, March break, weekends, just as much time as possible up there. So it’s very much a second home to me. We knew we wanted to write a horror movie set in a single location house-cabin, and so, of course, we immediately thought of the cottage. I had to ask permission, obviously, and we would have been happy to look somewhere else, but my parents were on board letting us use it. Once we knew that it would be the set, we wrote the screenplay very much for that space. I’m sure you could have tweaked the script for another location, but it was written very much with the cottage in mind – almost like it was another character in the story!

The cinematography is interesting. There are lots of small lit spaces in a frame that’s mostly surrounded by darkness. I’m curious to learn more about the technical choices you wanted to make regarding what is seen – or not seen.

SL: I am so glad you think so! The idea I pitched was that the movie should feel like light is a precious resource. Our characters would be floating in an ocean of darkness, just barely clinging to islands of light – a true movie in Chiaroscuro. For the art nerds, I used the painting The Matchmaker by Gerard van Honthorst as a reference. 

Special credit needs to go to our cinematographer [and] co-producer, Nelson Rogers. I worked closely with him on developing the movie’s look. We set out to tell a horror story where large sections of the film appear to be self-lit by the characters as they wander in the dark with flashlights or lanterns. I love the way true darkness looks on screen, where the audience can’t see any better than the characters. And when our heroes are self-lighting, the lanterns and flashlights really transform the space. The moving shadows and ghostly reflections in the windows almost make the house seem to be alive. Moving. Watching them

And when the lights are on, we wanted to be very specific with our color choices. The porch has a large bug zapper that casts an unworldly purple light over the supernatural things happening outside. The indoor lights are tinted yellowish green to suggest something is off [or] unnatural about what is happening in the house. The only warm lighting is during a scene in the upstairs bedroom where the characters get to metaphorically gather around the campfire, regroup, and “tell a scary story.”

We also wanted to make the audience feel trapped inside the house, just like the characters. So we made a choice to have a floating camera that would move around the house, watching the action but unable to go outside unless the characters did. Anything happening outside the house could only be seen through windows, doors, or on the porch. That is until the characters choose to leave the house. And then, we are all in danger.

THE DEVIL COMES AT NIGHT is now available via VOD. 

Jeff Szpirglas