A simple but terrifying question is at the heart of “Knock at the Cabin,” the latest in unsettling cinema from the director M. Night Shyamalan: If a group of strangers arrived at your house and said, “If you don’t sacrifice one of your family members, everyone else on Earth will horrifically perish,” would you do it?
In the film, based on the novel “The Cabin at the End of the World”by Paul Tremblay, this question is posed to Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and Eric (Jonathan Groff), a couple vacationing in a rustic, secluded home with their adopted daughter, Wen (Kristen Cui). Leonard (Dave Bautista), a towering man who says he is a teacher, approaches Wen while she’s catching grasshoppers in the surrounding forest, but his seemingly gentle nature quickly comes under scrutiny when he is joined by a nurse, Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird); a line cook, Adriane (Abby Quinn); and a surly gas company employee, Redmond (Rupert Grint), all carrying strange weapons. The intruders storm the family’s house, tie up Andrew and Eric, and ask them to make their choice. The longer they take to decide who dies, the greater the world’s suffering, the invaders say.
With the action taking place almost entirely in the eponymous location — save for a few flashbacks — the movie makes for relentlessly intense viewing. For the cast, it was a similarly high-pressure experience on the physically hot set, made easier by the camaraderie they developed. “Sometimes people would come out of the cabin and go to the bathroom and just start hysterically crying, and then come back to the set chairs and be like, ‘Well, that was intense,’” Groff said.
In separate interviews, the six adult members of the cast discussed their approach to the philosophical dilemmas the movie poses, as well as how they managed to blow off steam during shooting. The conversations have been condensed and edited.
What was your initial reaction to the screenplay and the moral quandary presented within it?
JONATHAN GROFF I had a pit in my stomach the whole time reading the movie.
BEN ALDRIDGE I was scared when I read it. I was scared when we were making it. I guess I’m still kind of scared now, but in a really thrilling way.
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NIKKI AMUKA-BIRD It takes your breath away, really, because it’s so densely plotted: You’ve got the home invasion story and you’re dealing with that, and you’re going through that very real experience of, oh my gosh, what would I do if somebody broke into the house? I think we’ve all had that fear. Then you get to the end, and I was just really taken by the fact that I left with this overriding sense of love and family.
Have you thought about what you would do if you were put in the situation Andrew and Eric are in the film?
DAVE BAUTISTA Night said something to me when we first started talking about the role, and he said, “The reason I wanted you for this role is because I figured out through our conversations that you are Leonard.” And so I think basically I would try to handle this the way Leonard handled it. If you’re sacrificing for a greater cause, and that’s the life of every human being on this planet, then there’s no question how you handle it, and that is through self-sacrifice. It doesn’t have to be this level, obviously, but I think people should give more of themselves. There are so many people that are in need. I grew up very poor. I never made a dime until I was well into my 30s. I know what it’s like to be hungry, and I know what it’s like to not have medical insurance, and I know what it’s like to be homeless. So for me, to give is an easy thing.
RUPERT GRINT I often think about what I would do being in a family of three. Once you have this thing that’s just so precious, your whole everything is for her. But you can’t kill yourself. It has to be a very organic decision. I don’t know; that always gets me. I don’t know if I’d kill my wife. I don’t think I could do it. Then it’s a case of, is humanity worth it or do you just be selfish and have a nice time in a cabin?
AMUKA-BIRD I’d realized that I was almost too scared to answer the question properly. I think if you can really fathom it as a reality, that this sacrifice would save the world, then you have to hold your loved one’s hand and say, “Take me, I’ll go.” And you have to do your best to leave them without the guilt and the pain and the suffering of what that action would mean. But it’s a pretty intense thought.
GROFF I’d have to really believe that the apocalypse was happening. I’d have to see the locusts and the planes going down.
Did you have any discussions with your castmates or Night about how you would approach the choice at hand in the film? Did you sit and discuss the meat of the screenplay, or was that more internal?
ALDRIDGE As a cast, we would discuss it. Me and Nikki Amuka-Bird were very obsessed about what the film was about and what the takeaway of the film was.
AMUKA-BIRD I think it was that there is a spiritual dimension to this film, there’s the supernatural dimension to this film, and what that meant for us personally. It brought up a lot of personal experiences we had with our own journeys with spirituality, our own relationship to fear, our own relationship to those big ideas — big questions that I think we all ask ourselves about life and our place in the grand scheme of things.
GROFF [Night] would sort of abstain from giving us lofty things, but then all of a sudden little stories about his family would appear.
It’s such a tense film. What was that like on set and how did you shake that off?
GRINT That breathless kind of hopelessness does have an effect on you after a while. It definitely lingered after we wrapped. Especially being faced with a terrified family tied up. I did actually go into this thinking it was going to be a lot more fun. My daughter came to set quite regularly. One day — it was a particularly bad day — it was her birthday on set. The contrast between going from the cabin into my dressing room where she had her little party was quite jarring.
ABBY QUINN For 10 hours, we would all be crying and screaming. And then there was this screening room in our hotel, and one night, we watched Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” and then we watched “Chicago,” the musical.
BAUTISTA We were always on set together and we always performed with each other, and Night was very adamant about that. Even when we were off camera, we’d be there for moral support. So even when you are not performing, when you’re not pouring your heart and soul out, you’re so wrapped up in someone else’s performance that you’re still feeling those types of emotions. It’s constantly soul-draining.
So at the end of those weeks we just wanted to not overthink. We went to Zumba. It was so funny because Night tried so hard to get out of it, and he said, “Well, I’ll go if Dave goes,” thinking, “There’s no way Dave at 310 pounds is going to Zumba class.” And I was like, “Hell yeah. We’re going to Zumba. Not only are we going to Zumba, I’m going to get us a big party bus and we’re going to drink on the way to Zumba.”