While vacationing at a remote cabin, a young girl and her parents are taken hostage by four armed strangers who demand that the family make an unthinkable choice to avert the apocalypse. With limited access to the outside world, the family must decide what they believe before all is lost.
From visionary filmmaker M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, Knock at the Cabin stars DAVE BAUTISTA (Dune, Guardians of the Galaxy franchise), Tony award and Emmy nominee JONATHAN GROFF (Hamilton, Mindhunter), BEN ALDRIDGE (Pennyworth, Fleabag), BAFTA nominee NIKKI AMUKA-BIRD (Persuasion, Old), newcomer KRISTEN CUI, ABBY QUINN (Little Women, Landline) and RUPERT GRINT (Servant, Harry Potter franchise).
Universal Pictures presents a Blinding Edge Pictures production, in association with FilmNation Features and Wishmore Entertainment, an M. Night Shyamalan film. The screenplay is by M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN and STEVE DESMOND & MICHAEL SHERMAN based on the national bestseller The Cabin at the End of the World by PAUL TREMBLAY. The film is directed by M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN and produced by M. NIGHT SHYAMALAN, MARC BIENSTOCK (Split, Glass) and ASHWIN RAJAN (Servant, Glass). The executive producers are STEVEN SCHNEIDER, CHRISTOS V. KONSTANTAKOPOULOS and ASHLEY FOX. The film’s directors of photography are LOWELL A. MEYER (Apple TV+’s Servant) and JARIN BLASCHKE (The Northman). The production designer is NAAMAN MARSHALL (Old) and the editor is NOËMI PREISWERK (Apple TV+’s Servant). The film’s music is by HERDIS STEFANDOTTIR (The Hate U Give) with music supervision by SUSAN JACOBS (Old). The costume designer is CAROLINE DUNCAN (Old).
Of all the extraordinary achievements of M. Night Shyamalan’s acclaimed career as a visionary filmmaker, perhaps the greatest is that his films remain enigmatic, unpredictable and unexpected. The only thing you’re certain of, stepping into a new M. Night Shyamalan film, is that you don’t know what’s about to hit you. Knock at the Cabin just may be the apotheosis of the Shyamalan cinematic experience. It’s a film that both shares a bloodline with his previous films but is also unlike any film he’s made before.
Based on the national bestseller The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay, Knock at the Cabin began, initially, as a 2019 screenplay by Steve Desmond & Michael Sherman that landed a spot on the famed annual film-industry Blacklist, which highlights the best unproduced screenplays each year. Originally, Shyamalan’s Blinding Edge Pictures considered producing the film only, but the idea was so compelling that Shyamalan was inspired to tell his version of the story. “One day in a meeting, Night said, ‘Well, what if I rewrite this and direct it?’” says producer Ashwin Rajan, president of production for Blinding Edge. “He had a real connection to the material and a take on it that made it feel contained but also profound.”
The film centers on a gay couple, Eric (Jonathan Groff) and Andrew (Ben Aldridge) and their adopted daughter Wen (Kristen Cui), who are vacationing at a remote cabin in the woods, when their house is surrounded by four armed strangers: Leonard (Dave Bautista), Sabrina (Nikki Amuka-Bird), Adrianne (Abby Quinn) and Redmond (Rupert Grint.) Taken hostage, the family is informed that these four strangers—who also do not know each other—have all been haunted and tormented by a shared prophecy: that the world will end unless the family in this cabin chooses one member of the family to die. Whether these four people are crazy or correct doesn’t resolve the problem. Both scenarios are horrific. “It’s a thriller with a compelling question at the center of it,” Rajan says. “What would you do if you had to save your family or save humanity, and you could choose only one?”
For Shyamalan, it was a question that contained multitudes, ideas that connected to themes in his AppleTV+ series Servant and his thinking about the state of our world today. In his hands, Knock at the Cabin is a film that explores ideas behind faith and belief, certainty and doubt, and the power and limits of both. “It’s a modern-day biblical story,” Shyamalan says. “Servant is that as well. The idea of telling large-scale biblical stories, but in modern times and in modern settings, is resonating with me right now. The film is reflective of my current feeling that everything that’s going on in the world doesn’t look good and doesn’t feel good, but I do feel we are struggling together in the right direction. We’re certainly not getting it right all the time, but in general, the direction that we’re moving as humanity is in the right direction and we deserve a chance to continue. That’s my feeling. One love story is evidence enough that humanity should keep going. Knock at the Cabin is this incredible opportunity for us to experience this gigantic global biblical story through the experience of a family.”
That idea of family is central to much of Shyamalan’s filmography. “The one thing that’s consistent with Night is his movies center around family and there’s an emotional journey that the characters and the audience take with each of his films,” says producer Marc Bienstock, who has made five films with Shyamalan. Shyamalan also likes to give himself challenges, and this film presented a major one: a film set almost entirely in one interior location. “I’m very drawn to stories of confinement and telling very large stories through a small window,” Shyamalan says. “That constriction, that balance, a juxtaposition of the size of the story and the way we’re telling it, is very exciting to me.”
It also teemed with creative potential. “This is an opportunity for Night to really focus in on the art of suspense,” executive producer Steven Schneider says. “Hitchcock is one of his favorite filmmakers and this is, in a way, an opportunity for Night to be very Hitchcockian in terms of his composition of shots and the way in which he can build suspense using every cinematic element, from the performances to the lighting to the editing to the blocking.”
Although the initial screenplay followed the plot of Tremblay’s book, Shyamalan’s revision takes the story in daring and unexpected directions. “We adapted a book to make this movie, but essentially went in an entirely different direction around the midway point of the story,” Shyamalan says. “And that weighed on me a little bit. But in my mind, the story needed and wanted to go this way very strongly. And in fact, that was the exciting part of the challenge: Can I make a movie about a very horrific ‘Sophie’s Choice’ and can I get the audience there?”
Nothing in the story is black and white and almost all the characters—and the audience—will have their assumptions challenged and their beliefs tested over the course of the film as the tensions and the stakes mount. “I subscribe to this type of storytelling where you count on the incompleteness of it, where you don’t fill in everything and you let the audience do the dance with you,” Shyamalan says. “Think of the Twilight Zone, where that conjuring of your imagination is required to finish the painting.”
Although the film is timely and provocative, it is not a bleak or pessimistic view of humanity, despite the terrifying premise. “I can tell very dark stories because I feel deeply about people and about the world in a very positive way,” Shyamalan says. “I can spin anything negative into a positive in real life, based in my deep belief in the positivity of things.”
Leonard is the leader of the group of four mysterious strangers who show up at a remote cabin to demand that a family make an unthinkable choice, claiming they’re doing so to prevent the apocalypse. The role is portrayed by Dave Bautista of the Guardians of the Galaxy franchise. Bautista has a renowned professional wrestling background, but he fell in love with acting as soon as he dipped his toes in it. “I wanted to be as good as I could be,” Bautista says. “My claim all along is that I didn’t need to be a movie star. I left to be an actor. I was doing great in wrestling. I left on top, but I left because I love acting so much and I wasn’t able to pursue it while wrestling. The money and the spotlight, that means nothing to me. I just love this craft and I want to be respected by my peers. So, this role was a big opportunity for me.”
Bautista was immediately excited about the story of Knock at the Cabin and the role of Leonard. “My initial thought was, ‘Man, this is really dark,’” Bautista says. “And then, I was like, ‘This is an opportunity of a lifetime. This is what I’ve been waiting for because roles like this don’t get offered to me.’ Typically, everybody wants me for action stuff, and I understand why they want to put me in that box. But I’ve been fighting to get out of that box. I wanted deeper roles because I want to prove myself as an actor.”
The role of Leonard is complex and layered, director M. Night Shyamalan says. Leonard is not a fanatic. He’s heartbroken and tortured by the idea that he must force this family to make this impossible choice. “Leonard is like a giant who’s physically intimidating and has to do these horrific things, but is actually incredibly gentle, like a teacher,” Shyamalan says. “And Dave is this character. He is this childlike giant. He’s very smart and is incredibly analytical about human nature—almost like a child. He can panic in a way, like a child, in the most beautiful way. And I wanted all of that on screen. Exactly where Dave is in his life with his craft and his very unique combination of experiences that he’s had and his vulnerability—I wanted all of that for Leonard. Dave came to me and basically convinced me that he would do anything for me. And he did.”
One of the main messages behind Knock at the Cabin is sacrifice and not putting a definition on what love looks like. “Love takes all kinds of shapes and forms and comes from places you wouldn’t expect,” Bautista says. “I hate to be cliché, but it can save the world.”
What starts as a normal family vacation soon turns sinister when a family is taken hostage by four armed strangers. Tony award and Emmy nominee Jonathan Groff (Hamilton) plays Eric, who, along with his husband Andrew (Ben Aldridge), are parents to eight-year-old Wen (Kristen Cui). “I’ve never played a father or a husband before, so having Ben and Kristen there on set and being in such a restrained, intense environment was even more emotional and intense than it was when I first read the script,” Groff says. “Because it’s one location and an ensemble of actors coming together to tell a story, there was something very theater-like about it. Even in the rehearsals, it felt like we were rehearsing a play because it’s a lot of passing the ball back and forth during these long 15-page scenes.”
Andrew and Eric have a great partnership even though they have different perspectives on humanity. Andrew is more cynical and has lost faith in humanity; Eric is more hopeful and is more likely to see the good in people. “So, you have these two opposing perspectives in a very heightened environment with this scary cult-like energy coming at them and people saying extraordinary things to them,” Groff says “I think the story is definitely asking us interesting questions about faith, trust, family and certainly questions about sacrifice.”
Shyamalan always had a very clear vision about what he wanted from his actors. “Night talks about the difference between hunters and gatherers as directors,” Groff says. “Hunters know exactly what they want. They go out and hunt it. Gatherers have an idea of what they want, but they wait until they get there on the day and see what’s happening and figure it out as they go. Night primarily identifies as a hunter. He knows what he wants, and the crew and cast help fulfill his vision. It’s one of my favorite ways of working because you can really lose yourself in the process. You have that person in charge who has your back and can see everything and can guide you to the kind of performance that they already know that they want.”
Andrew and Eric have a moving love story, and Shyamalan noticed that Groff and Aldridge connected right from the get-go, too. “They would never separate on the set,” Shyamalan says. “We would be like, ‘Okay, you two are done,’ and I’d be working with somebody else, and those two would just be sitting there talking for hours. At some point, I was like, ‘There’s nothing else you could say to each other. You’ve said everything, Jonathan and Ben, stop talking to each other.’ But they really did love being around each other. And that comes across on screen.”
Groff notes that he and Aldridge connected on their shared experiences as gay actors in the industry. “Ben and I are both in our mid-late thirties, and it was different when we were growing up 20 years ago,” Groff says. “Acceptance of sexual identity was just in a completely different place. And we’ve come so far since then and we are pinching ourselves that we get to be in this Hollywood horror movie as gay actors playing gay characters in an M. Night Shyamalan movie. This would not have been the case 15 years ago. And it’s such a special opportunity to be able to just be ourselves in a movie—in a fun, interesting, scary movie—being gay both on screen and off. Now that it’s 2022 and things have progressed, we get to ride this wave generated by all of the work that’s been done before us to get us here. And that progress that we’re benefiting from is not lost on us.”
Ben Aldridge (Fleabag) plays Andrew, Eric’s partner and Wen’s other parent. Aldridge was attracted to the family-centric story immediately after reading it. “It’s about a same-sex parented family,” Aldridge says. “And they are central to the story. Their queerness is part of the story, but it’s not the story.”
Eric and Andrew respect each other’s different perspectives on humanity, but as the peril of their situation at the cabin escalates, that gap between Andrew’s cynical world view and Eric’s more hopeful one becomes a source of anxiety and tension. “What Night does really well, which you see in films like Signs or The Village, is he takes a nuclear-family setting and explodes that out into biblical proportions,” Aldridge says. “This story was such an intense thing to get inside of. Upon reading it, I quickly realized how giant the themes are and how powerful the journey is that the characters go through.”
Shyamalan’s films encourage the audience to challenge their reality and what they believe in. “I think this film is doing that more directly than any film that he’s made,” Aldridge says. “It’s really asking its audience about faith and belief, it’s questioning religion and I think it’s throwing up all these direct, confronting questions that are life’s riddles and they’re encapsulated in this unconventional domestic family setting.”
Aldridge, who is openly gay, believes the industry has made noticeable progress in representation. “I grew up in a time where I didn’t have any access to what being gay or being queer was at all,” Aldridge says. “In the UK, there were a handful of really extroverted, flamboyant TV presenters, and I remember thinking, ‘That’s what gay is.’ But I didn’t know what it meant on a human level or what I was experiencing myself. So, I think representation is hugely important across the board. It’s important to be able to see ourselves reflected in the art that we’re choosing to watch. It’s how we learn about ourselves; it’s how we learn about the people in the world who are different from us as well. I think representation has the power to change and impact the world in a really positive way.”
Sabrina is one of the four strangers who holds the family hostage, believing she is preventing the apocalypse. Her day job is working as a nurse, but recently she’s been experiencing unexplainable events, which lead her to join forces with these strangers with this common goal. Like Leonard, she is tormented by what she and her fellow strangers feel they must do to prevent the end of the world.
The role is played by Nikki Amuka-Bird, who was most recently seen in Shyamalan’s Old. “Sabrina is a caring woman,” Amuka-Bird says. “She’s someone who’s close to her family. She didn’t really have a belief in faith or God, necessarily. And then one day, she started to have these visions that changed the course of her life, and she felt compelled to be here, where the story begins, to almost sacrifice herself in order to save humanity. I think she is as terrified as everybody else, but she’s overcoming her fears because she believes in saving lives.”
Sometimes the strength of nurses can be overlooked, but the situation that Sabrina is pushed into is more intense than anything she experienced in that profession. “In my experience with nurses, they are some of the most selfless people I’ve ever seen, but they also have to be sturdy people,” Amuka-Bird says. “They have to be strong when other people are suffering and emotional. That’s what was challenging about this role, because this is an unreasonable situation and it’s extreme. And I think even for Sabrina, who’s a strong woman, she’s out of her depth and she has to overcome her own fear to help get the others through it. That’s something that Night and I worked on together. He kept whispering to me that she’s stronger than this and she can be a voice of reason and be somebody who speaks logically at a time when people are feeling traumatized.”
The three other strangers that Sabrina is working alongside have been having similar experiences that she has. “They’re experiencing supernatural events that they cannot explain,” Amuka-Bird says. “And they’re driven by this force that’s greater than them. And I think that was the challenge as an actress and for all of us as a cast: scene by scene, how do we tell the narrative? How do we explain this in a way that doesn’t make us look crazy and makes us look like we’re trying to break through that frustration, to be understood. And as we see in the movie, there are consequences when we don’t get the message across. These characters have this huge pressure on them and the clock is ticking. For me, the movie is like Greek tragedy. The idea that you take normal people and you put them in extraordinarily abnormal situations. You amp up the level of tragedy and the stakes to the highest, and the audience watches people go through something that they would never go through in their life. But it makes them ask themselves, ‘What would I do?’”
A common theme throughout the film is the idea of spirituality as an inroad to ask questions. “I was struck with this more than anything because these are questions that really matter to me: about how your spirituality, if you have one, affects your course in life,” Amuka-Bird says. “And I was just really shocked to see a mainstream film like this, a genre film like this, really tackle those big questions. It feels like a cautionary tale in some ways. But essentially, it’s something that you feel in your gut. It’s like the old stories when you were little: once somebody starts telling it, you have to know what happens at the end.”
Redmond, played by Rupert Grint, is one of the invaders of the cabin. The script for Knock at the Cabin combined two of Grint’s biggest nightmares: home invasion and the apocalypse. “There’s something quite seductive about apocalypse movies,” Grint says. “There is this fascination with an apocalypse, and people love contemplating what that would look like.” Rarely has been it explored in such a confined, remote, intimate setting, which. “Seeing it from this perspective, from this cabin, is a perfect setting for something like this.” Grint says. “This is a place where it’s so isolated, anything really could happen and you’re so far away from any help. So, it just makes it even more disturbing.”
Grint was also fascinated with the story because it taps into a lot of the topical fears that surround us right now. “We’re just coming out of a global pandemic,” Grint says. “There’s an environmental crisis in the world that has never felt more fragile. So that kind of impending fear of the demise of the planet is something that’s in a lot of people’s minds at the moment.”
Redmond, along with the other strangers who invade the home, isn’t working with a lot of time. “He can hear the clock louder than anyone though, so there’s this real manic fear that comes with him,” Grint says. “And he’s a character who’s also kind of in reform. He’s got a shady past, but I think where we find Redmond, he’s actually in a good place. And suddenly, he’s hit with this huge burden and decision to make. He’s very aggressive, and still has a lot of anger he’s struggling with. And that come out in lots of different ways. He’s the worst person to be in this situation. He’s not cool-headed, and he doesn’t really know how to communicate very well.”
Grint stars in Shyamalan’s series Servant, so he knows how the filmmaker works, but Knock at the Cabin was filmed in an entirely different way. “There’s this sequence that’s like 10 pages long and, and Night shot it in a way where some of the takes were five minutes long,” Grint says. “It felt like a play because you’re in it for such a long time. You’re so immersed in the world, and you find this rhythm between all the other actors as well. You get into this weird sync and it’s very rhythmic and collaborative in that way.”
Shyamalan is eager for audiences to see the depth and nuance of Grint’s performance. “Rupert is the rare actor that reinvented himself as an adult,” Shyamalan says. “He took all those child-actor experiences—didn’t eat himself up—and turned it into wonderful techniques and opportunities for his adult acting journey. I’m really excited for everybody to see what he’s capable of and to continue finding stories for him.”
The fourth of the strangers invading the cabin is Adrianne, played by Abby Quinn of Little Women. Quinn was fascinated by how the story triggers unexpected questions for everyone. “Night is combining people’s biggest fears and then that makes every character in the film question their own morals and what’s important to them and who’s important to them and what they’re willing to sacrifice in their life,” Quinn says. “I think the movie also makes you question how far people will go in a good or a bad direction to feel like they have purpose and they’re doing something good.”
One of Shyamalan’s priorities was to focus on the interpersonal relationships between the characters. “One of the things that I like about what Night did with the adaptation is that he made this story much more three-dimensional,” Quinn says. “He added a purpose. The movie is a perfect invitation to slow down and take a hard look at your life and your relationships.”
Andrew and Eric’s eight-year-old Wen is played by Kristen Cui, who is making her feature film debut with Knock at the Cabin. She found it to be a joyful and education experience, particularly working with her on-screen fathers, Jonathan Groff and Ben Aldridge. “My favorite thing about Ben is that he shared a lot of great tools about acting,” Cui says. “If I was like, ‘Should I do this or do that? Will it be very odd if I try it this way?’ He would tell me, ‘I think you should do this’—and he always shared the reason behind everything. He is a great teacher. My favorite thing about Jonathan is that he’s very playful and goofy. But when the crew would say, ‘Rolling!’ he would immediately change into character.”
Groff and Aldridge were impressed by Cui, particularly in how she absorbed direction and guidance from them and from Shyamalan. “Night was franker and more honest with Kristen than he was with us,” Aldridge says. “We all have egos and with that kind of direct honesty, we’d all collapse, I think. But Kristen’s just kind of free. She’s doesn’t have the insecurities or the ego that we might have attached to the work, so Night was able to really craft her performance with her.”
Production designer Naaman Marshall and his team built a full-size cabin on a working cranberry farm in the Pine Barrens Forest in Tabernacle, New Jersey.
The production design team had to do create full architectural plans for the cabin and have them stamped by an architect and engineer as if the cabin would remain permanently at the location. Additionally, because of the rigorous process of municipal approvals, they had an extremely compressed build time, and were able to build the whole cabin in three weeks.
Color played a huge part in undertones of the film. From early on, M. Night Shyamalan responded to the contrast of good and evil and using blues and reds to represent the opposing forces acting in opposition to each other, set against the natural backdrop of the woods.
At the location, Marshall and his team created a 360-degree backing custom shot of the area around the cabin and then installed it on a soundstage. This way, the location would perfectly tie into the stage work. The custom backdrop ended up being 30 feet high by 350 feet long.
For flashback scenes, the crew created four completely different sets in an abandoned hospital in a suburb of Philadelphia. Two of of the sets were for scenes in China, where the characters of Eric and Andrew meet their adopted daughter, Wen, for the first time. This was a fun challenge for Marshall and his team to turn this single space into multiple sets, each with their own look and feel.
Knock at the Cabin had two cinematographers: Jarin Blaschke (The Northman) and Lowell A. Meyer (Servant).
The film takes place inside of a cabin and unfolds over the course of 24 hours. The cabin that was built on location in the woods was used for exterior shots and the other cabin on the sound stage was built for interiors. To mimic and recreate natural light on a stage, a light study was conducted on the location cabin, which involved photographing every angle outside of its windows and doors for the entirety of a day. These angles were also used to gather plates for blue screen work done on the stage when looking out of the front and side windows.
Early in the process, the time of day of each scene had to be considered so that the appropriate lighting could be chosen to match the scene’s mood and reflect the passing of the day into night and then into a morning storm. Sections of the script were delineated into six distinct phases of lighting; phase 1: afternoon, phase 2: late afternoon, phase 3: sunset, phase 4: dusk, phase 5: morning and phase 6: gloom. Each phase had a unique positioning of lights and reflector mirrors to mimic the shifting sun, as well as gels to show the changing color temperature in the ambiance and sun.
To help give the film an old-school thriller look, Panavision Primo Anamorphic lenses, which were first released in 1989 and became the popular choice for films shot over the proceeding decade, were employed for the majority of production on Knock at the Cabin. The only time they switched to a different set of lenses was for flashback sequences, for which they used the Panavision USG (Ultra Speed Gold) Panatar Anamorphic lenses (which were released in 1980) to help differentiate the past from the present.
Very little Steadicam is used in the film because Shyamalan prefers holding precise frames. Most of the shots were filmed with tripod, dolly or jib/crane, which are all more structured and locked tools. However, one of the only shots for which Steadicam was used is a minute-long tracking shot with eight-year-old actress, Kristen Cui, which takes place in the forest at dusk.
For the emotional climax of the film, the filmmakers wanted the camera to embody the character’s POV and have a direct connection with the audience. To do so, they employed an EyeDirect rig directly on the lens of the camera to allow the actors to look straight down the barrel and still see one another. This is a beam-splitting rig which allows the actor’s gaze to be redirected with mirrors past the lens to an actor off-camera, while their eye-line remains still dead-center on the lens/camera.
Knock at the Cabin was shot on Kodak 35mm film, primarily utilizing 5207 250D stock. Occasionally, they used Kodak 5203 50D for day exteriors in direct sun, as well as Kodak 5219 500T for the final scene inside of the cabin.
ROBBIE DUNCAN and his props team perfected the farm-made looking weapons used by the four invading strangers by shopping at antique shops throughout the state of Pennsylvania.
Duncan and his team named the weapons. Rupert Grint’s weapon was called the Cow Killer. Dave Bautista’s weapon was called the Sleeper.