Trey Edward Shults wishes his deeply personal third feature, Waves, feels authentic to the experiences and emotions of today’s youth. “I hope they see it first, and that it feels honest to the pressures they've dealt with and the relationships they've [had],” he tells me at last weekend’s sunny and laid-back Key West Film Festival, a perfect place to continue his Florida-based film’s festival journey that started in Colorado’s mountainous Telluride over the Labor Day weekend. Coming after his blistering domestic drama Krisha (2015)—a modern-day Thanksgiving classic for grown-ups seeking a holiday viewing with shades of tragedy and compassion—and skillful post-apocalyptic genre entry It Comes At Night (2017), Waves sees the young filmmaker continue his exploration of family with its cracks and cozy facades. This time though, there is no trace of his first feature’s homemade feel or the dark palette of his second picture. Intensely sensual and technically proficient, Waves instead is a sun-soaked explosion of colors that continually strokes the viewer’s senses while maintaining a tight grip on the audience’s pulse.
At the heart of the film is a black family, or rather, teenaged siblings Tyler and Emily—played by Luce’s rising star Kelvin Harrison Jr. and the astonishing newcomer Taylor Russell—a popular yet injured high-school wrestler with a temper and a smartly observant student, respectively. The tense, highly stylized film starts off by following Tyler and his girlfriend, and then, on the heels of a heartbreaking centerpiece (which would be too cruel to spoil), shifts gears into a quiet, mature second chapter that follows Emily and her new boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). The constants are Tyler and Emily’s concerned and protective parents—the duo is portrayed elegantly by Sterling K. Brown and Renée Elise Goldsberry—as well as themes around empathy, forgiveness, and healing. Throughout, Shults braids the threads of his tale with grace and specificity, resolving to a place both deeply personal and universal.
In our conversation, Shults’ discussed the delicate ties of his story, the film’s risky structure—which pays of in a profound way—and how he conceived certain defining camera movements throughout, among other topics.
NOTEBOOK: You have a personal connection to this story.
TREY EDWARD SHULTS: So much. Everything from the stuff with the parents to the couples on either side. I was a wrestler; I tore my shoulder in the same way. We just recreated everything that happened when my dad passed away—my girlfriend pushed me to go there and that activated new things with her grief. It verges from recreating things from life, then going to some fictional things, and then going back to the real thing. The whole story's doing that. Even the centralized moment or event is inspired by something I saw as a child and [had] ingrained in my head.
And then also, I really wanted to try to make something that was empathetic, create everyone as complex as possible, understand all these people and put an audience in [their] perspective. Of course, with things like this, collaboration [makes it] grow so much bigger. Meeting Kel [Kelvin Harrison Jr.] informed so, so, so much. It unlocked a huge aspect of this movie. Every actor would bring elements of them or stuff from their life.
NOTEBOOK: It sounds like the cast helped you expand on things. And not that you can’t understand or empathize with different perspectives, but you are still coming to this story that largely involves or is about a black family, as a white male. What was their input to you, to help you better engage with the specifics of the black experience?
SHULTS: Well, it all started with Kel. After we had worked together on the last movie [It Comes At Night], we just wanted to work together again. And I had the structure for this in mind. But I hadn't written it and didn't know how to connect all the dots yet. I was telling Kel about the ideas [behind it]. And then he was gravitating towards [the brother character]—Tyler didn't have a name at the time.
About a year later, we just got closer, being able to do some press and stuff with It Comes At Night. Then I started trying to write. And at the same time we were having [mini therapy sessions]; just talking about, really talking about, both of our experiences. [I was] understanding his experience, relationships with his father, mother, siblings, school [and the] pressures, commonalities, and differences. I can relate to pressures from parents, and pressures to succeed. For myself, it was wrestling in school and [having] a work ethic, and for Kel, it was music. So finding those links, but also talking about his father, his father's father, family history… I sent him a script, and then about eight months or so before we ever started shooting, it just continued from there. It would be everything: like, “In this scene, my dad would say this, or my dad's had this talk with me. Can we inject that here?” Then also just detailed actor stuff. Like, why is his truck this color?
So for me, it started with the person. The love and trust and that great energy were already there. We made something we [cared] about; [built] each other up and [did] that together. Whether it was Sterling [K. Brown] injecting new language and playing with stuff within a scene, to just talking through things, and then me going off and taking another stab. It was just a constant evolution. It was really humbling.
NOTEBOOK: That specificity is so clear between the father and son, Sterling and Kelvin; especially when they speak of a lack of freedom to fail as black men—the society won’t care unless you’re at the top of your field. Interesting that Kelvin’s character in Luce also deals with the same struggles. I'm wondering if these conversations took place between the two of you?
SHULTS: Oh, hugely. That was everything. That's all literally taking language exactly. Kelvin would give me notes [on] language to inject into this scene. Everything was from talks Kelvin would have with his dad. And infusing that, it was gigantic.
NOTEBOOK: It felt to me as though you were looking at different shades of masculinity in this movie; what masculinity is and isn’t, and how men should be allowed to get in touch with their softer side and feel things, and to cry to express those feelings.
SHULTS: For me, it always starts with the personal. Instead of going at it like, “I'm going to tackle masculinity,” it becomes that. [I was] drawing on things from my stepfather and my biological father and our relationship. Then it's collaborating with Kelvin, talking about him and his dad. It's really just exploring those dynamics and trying to make it honest.
For me the first half of the movie is like a cautionary tale on that masculinity. And like you said, it's about knowing it's okay to be vulnerable. It's okay to communicate. You don't have to bottle all of it. That's something I struggled with for a long time, too. Even though I had parents as therapists, I would keep it all inside, and that's what [is] happening to Tyler. Stuff in his world is dismantling so quickly, and he doesn't have time to process anything. Then he's not communicating with people and not being honest, for different reasons. I think for his father, he doesn't feel like that line is there, cause he has so much weight of expectation. As for his mom, he doesn't want to disappoint her. He's the star child. He's the golden boy. He doesn't want them to know how much he's hurting. So he bottles all that in.
NOTEBOOK: A really striking visual component of this film is your swirling, circling camera. I loved it. And it’s noticeable more when the characters are in cars. I felt both a sense of freedom and a sense of unease through it. I often feared for the physical safety of every single person in this movie. And that’s perhaps the intention on your part.
SHULTS: I think so. It's funny too, because you still never know with the swirling camera in the car. We honestly haven't seen quite that in car stuff before. There's that amazing Children of Men take, but you don't know how an audience is going to take it. That first moment between Tyler and Alexis, and then Emily and Luke; [those are] a perfect encapsulation of the spirit of the movie for numerous reasons. One is, I think the movie is about the dichotomies in our lives. And you just mentioned with the words you used, the freedom vs. [unease] and anxieties in our lives. And that's life in general. That's love. That's especially young love. That's still love for me.
NOTEBOOK: It’s so high-stakes.
SHULTS: High stakes, beautiful but scary. That's what Tyler and Alexis’ relationship feels like, a bottle of fire, and they love hard and fight hard, but they're beautiful. It was the only way that made sense to convey it, to literally let the camera spin between their bodies inside this car. I think cars also at that age [are personal space]. For me, it started with my room, and then it became my car, my space. And the car is so much freer, because you can go anywhere. But ultimately, everything we're doing is just trying to get to a deeper spiritual, emotional, immersive connection with the main character. We never wanted to make stylistic choices [that overpower] them. It's all in service of trying to get the audience closer to where their heads are. And what their experience feels like. It's a privilege in movies. We get to live, hear, see and feel through another human being. We never truly get to do [that] in our lives. We try to understand each other, but to actually live in all these particular moments. I just think that's a privilege, and that's a part of that empathy. And another way to take that even further is to let that character dictate all your film choices. The goal is to just really get you as deep into this person's spirit as much as possible.
NOTEBOOK: That tough spirit that you so beautifully articulated is amplified by heightened colors and choices of music, too.
SHULTS: Absolutely. And it's just extending, whether it's the camera movement, aspect ratios, how we're shooting something, to the color palette in the film, of the world, to literally color interludes that come out. That to me is [where] the insides of the spirits come in. The first time we really get it, is in the beginning with Emily on her bike, and then that leads us into Tyler. And the next time we see them is after one of the most important moments, to me—when she's consoling him in the bathroom. And these colors come out; it's like a spiritual connection between them and their souls. And that's another thing, a brother and a sister [have] an undying link for life. But they're rarely together in the whole movie. It's all from their perspective, but they're so separated that, between those colors and music, we wanted to build a connection between them emotionally. That also was the spirit of the film.
NOTEBOOK: And not to get too spoiler-y in the interview, but I want to go deeper into the structure we’ve been vaguely talking about until now. It is risky and still quite rare; to abandon a main character after having your audience invest time in him, to follow another main character. At its premiere in Telluride, I obliquely thought of Psycho when the gearshift happened. Were you concerned at all, to try out such a bold thing?
SHULTS: Yes and no. It's scary because you don't know if it will work. But ultimately, everything I'm trying to do is to go for that kind of stuff. Go for trying to make a unique film. Because I get so excited when it feels like [a film] is doing something new. Ultimately, a lot of things clicked into place. One is, I do love Psycho. I loved certain two-part movies and kind of diptychs. It's so peculiar and amazing. [The other is] a real epiphany: the movie thematically works in dichotomies between the good and bad of a human being, of a family, of our relationships; the highs and lows of our life, love and hate, and everything in between. It's those polar opposites, the gray matter that makes us human beings; that beautiful messy area.
I thought since that was the spirit of the movie, it could be structured in a dichotomy, between a brother and sister, between a male's point of view and a woman's point of view. And [I] just let these two human beings divided in half dictate the ebb and flow and heart and soul and everything in the movie. That just felt really exciting to me. It was that combined with practicalities; there was Psycho, and Chungking Express, and that blowing my mind with the couples on either side.
NOTEBOOK: Speaking of brother and sister, father and son; you are clearly drawn towards stories about families and the fault lines within families. Your previous two films are about that too. Do you think of your films inside a thematic unison like this?
SHULTS: Well that's the funny thing, because I think it happened so organically. But then when you do that, you have to objectively think about it as well, and it's like I don't quite know, but I am obsessed with it a bit.It probably shows. [Family] means so much to me. And I'm fascinated by human beings, and I'm fascinated by human beings [in] a family as a particular thing. There's so much you can explore there. I don't think of families as just blood. Even literally my dad and my step dad—I had two dads growing up. My step dad was not linked by blood, but he was family, and now I have Kelvin’s family. My girlfriend Ash's family. They're the most important relationships in [my] life. And thus far, I've been making personal movies. That's just where I gravitate towards.
I think another part is that since my parents are therapists, and I'd be an utter mess without them. I already am a mess and have been a mess, but would be so much worse without them. A lot of that in therapy is about exploring, not just the good, but also the bad in the fault lines. And the trying to understand that stuff and heal and grow from it. I think that's what it was. Those first two movies were almost like cautionary tales, exploring loved ones we had lost to addiction in our family. And then the second movie, it was like a metaphor for grief, and all this stuff I was going through. But then [Waves] was the first time of actually trying to heal and sort it out on top of [telling a cautionary tale]. I think that was really exciting as well.
NOTEBOOK: On that note, forgiveness is the big centerpiece of the movie. It seems like Waves was your way of dissecting what it is, and what it can be.
SHULTS: I’d like to think I've gotten better about forgiveness as I've gotten older. It seems so simple, but it can be so incredibly hard. And absolutely, recreating things at the end of the movie with the father and the regret and all that, that's just all straight [from] real life. And after that happened, it changed the course. Those things happen, and they change you as a human being. It changed how I saw relationships in the world. I'm very pro forgiveness. I believe in forgiveness.
NOTEBOOK: You forgave your father similarly then, like we saw in the movie.
SHULTS: Literally, identically, yeah. It was just recreating everything.
NOTEBOOK: So let's talk about Taylor Russell, who plays Emily—the catalyst of that forgiveness we are talking about.
SHULTS: She is the best. The best.
NOTEBOOK: She's an absolute star. How did you find her?
SHULTS: I just got so lucky, so, so lucky. Just got an audition tape. Right away it was like, who is this girl? Oh my goodness. The one thing with auditions, actors don't get the full script, they just get sides. They're just playing an idea of what they think this character could be. And the same thing happened with Kelvin, when he auditioned for It Comes At Night. It was like their spirits just naturally lined up with the character. For Taylor, there's so much going on in her head. You can just tell watching her in her act—layers upon layers and she's fascinating. I was crazy blown away. I Skyped with her and [felt] the human connection right away. I felt comfortable in good energy. She felt like a good human being. Then I was in pre-pro[duction], and she was in L.A. She met Kel because Kel was in L.A. And he loved her, and then she met Lucas, and Lucas loved her. I'm so blessed. Like you said, she's a star.
NOTEBOOK: The work she does here has such range. Not only in the louder scenes, but also when she’s quietly observing and emoting.
SHULTS: Absolutely. I don't think the whole movie would work without her, because of that structure. That was one of the things we talked about from the beginning. Who’s that girl? After everything we've been through, you got to want to follow her, and she's got to compel you, and bring you along. It's like a quieter complexity. But for Taylor, it's just natural. She can just be so subtle and compelling, because she's so smart and has so much buried below the surface. That's what we talked about with Emily too, the idea of a quiet strength. She's the kid in the shadows that then comes out more. I just owe everything to her, man.