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Houston-bred writer, director, editor, and producer Trey Edward Shults is an anomaly. He’s made a remarkable name for himself in record time. He only has three feature films under his belt, but they’ve all dropped within the past four years, received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, and remained under his creative control from start to finish. He began in 2015 with Krisha, a tense Thanksgiving reunion film that goes haywire at the hands of its deft and disastrous lead, who also happens to be Shults’s real-life aunt Krisha. A lot of people are close to their aunts, but they don’t end up in Cannes’ prestigious Director’s Fortnight flaunting a decade-topping film together.
He caught the eye and financing of A24, and immediately followed up with the tenebrous horror-thriller, It Comes at Night, catapulting himself from indie one-timer to stalwart of original, authentic cinematic expression. His sophomore project allowed him to work with A-listers like Joel Edgerton and Riley Keough, but more importantly, it introduced him to Kelvin Harrison Jr. with whom a friendship quickly blossomed. Soon, Harrison Jr. would be half of the centerpiece of Shults’s semi-autobiographical third film, Waves, which swept the fall festival circuit to much acclaim and got a limited release on November 15.
Harrison Jr. plays Tyler, the troubled high school wrestler of the focal, Florida-set Williams family, which is rounded out by his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), sister Emily (Taylor Russell), and step-mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry). The sunny, thrilling, technicolor drama is an emotional rollercoaster shrouded in needle drops—courtesy of Shults’s exquisite music taste—and undergirded by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s unabating empyrean score. It’s an early potential awards contender and a mystifying, melancholic treat that will leave your eyes sore and your jaw on the floor. We sat down with Shults in the A24 offices in the heart of New York City to talk to him about it.
You made a film that feels very full in the first half already, but you jump into this second narrative that feels separate from the first when you could’ve ended it there and still had a feature. Why didn’t you end with the gut punch of the first half?
It was always the spirit of the movie that you don’t end in the lowest gut punch place, that you try to get on the other side of it and heal and breathe a bit. To me, that’s true to life and grief and stuff I’ve been through. I know a lot of diptychs and two-part movies, but I don’t know one that goes to this level of switching characters after such a central event. To me though, just ending that gut punch low moment in the first part is almost nihilism and, like, what would be the point? You know what I mean? Maybe there’s a point, but the greater purpose is in the yin and yang, getting to that second half, and how those two halves make the whole.
How do you feel about Lars von Trier films then?
Ah, I love Lars von Trier films [laughs].
He ends in the most desolate places.
He does! That’s probably why they’re so polarizing for people, as well. But it’s true, I love von Trier. Dancer in the Dark just destroys me. I can’t watch that movie anymore, it’s traumatizing.
You’ve got so many amazing artists on the soundtrack. Kanye, Kendrick, Tame Impala, Tyler the Creator, Radiohead, Animal Collective, etc. etc. But Frank Ocean feels like the heart of this movie, which is essentially the filmic incarnation of Blonde.
Oh, hell yeah. Thank you. Really. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time. And it doesn’t age! I don’t know another album that I have that kind of relationship with. I don’t get sick of it and I still discover new things.
I’m curious as to how the album played into your creative expression as a director, which has this boundless, pop avant-garde, experimental aspect to it, much like Frank’s work. How do you translate Blonde expression into direction and screenwriting?
That’s a great question, man. I don’t know. Another reason why I love Blonde so much is because it feels raw and vulnerable but also masterful and enigmatic, you know? And you discover new things. That sort of dichotomy to me is so inspiring. If the movie can get anywhere close to that kind of thing, hell yeah. But I don’t know. I do know this movie’s deeply personal, and it has that kind of spirit. I mean, we literally see the album cover of Blonde while they’re in the bathtub. I don’t know, honestly, how to talk to getting after that, but if you feel that connection that’s the highest praise in the world.
I completely agree. Why’d you choose “Seigfried” from Blonde?
Oof. Well, it might be a contender for favorite Frank song. Love, love that song. Many reasons. It’s my girlfriend’s favorite song. When that album came out, we were listening to it driving around upstate New York. It was when we were making the last movie and fantasizing about this one. And this movie’s also very close to our relationship. That’s why I live in Florida now. But yeah, “Seigfried,” it was just too perfect. Literally, when we cut to the spinning, it’s like [Shults singing], “It’s a loop and the other side of the loop is a loop,” and the little “this feels how molly must feel” after they were just on molly earlier. But then, there’s a melancholy attached to it. That song strikes that perfect balance. And it was an accident, too. We used to have “Godspeed” there, which is in the trailer. There was a deleted scene—I forget what it was—that connected it differently, and “Godspeed” didn’t work as well. Then I put in “Seigfried,” and one day just let the song play out more and put in that shot, and was like, “It’s meant to be!” It’s one of my favorite musical moments of the movie. And one of the most gorgeous songs ever made.
How do you manage all of your jobs on a film? You’re director, producer, editor, screenwriter. You’re doing everything.
It’s just a collaboration. I’m with everyone. I love everyone. Some of my crew are the same people that I’ve had since Krisha. And we’re just really trying to make a big creative family, you know? It’s just communication. I don’t even think of it as, “Oh there are these different jobs I’ve got to do.” It’s all-consuming, all one. And we know everything. We’re doing so much prep work to where we know the filmmaking, we know the goal, we know where we are with the actors, everything. To where when you’re actually there, it’s so fun. We had some very hard, stressful days, but when you have a great team and you know your material so much, and you know what your goal is, it’s not even like you have all these jobs. You’re just there doing it together and it’s amazing. Best summer of my life.
The editing is such a huge part of this movie, too. And the camera is so expressive. What are you trying to capture with that?
Everything we’re doing is trying to get you closer into Ty and Emily’s head. So when that camera in the car in the opening scene is spinning between Ty and Lex, it’s like that’s what that moment feels like and that’s what their love feels like. It’s a bottle of fire and it feels free and crazy. His foot’s out the window and he’s driving crazy and they’re having so much fun. To me, the only way to echo that headspace is to spin with them, to dance with them. So that to everything—even when the camera’s not moving at all—it’s all just trying to connect you spiritually to where the characters are in that space and in that narrative. It’s all coming from them.
Why’d you decide to tell the story of a black family? It seems like there’s a lot of controversy waiting for you there as a white filmmaker.
Basically, it’s all because of Kelvin. I met Kelvin on my last movie, and we loved each other and wanted to make something together again. Waves has been a movie that’s been brewing forever, but I couldn’t click it all into place. So, when I talked to Kel it didn’t have a title, it didn’t have character names. It was just a brother and a sister linked by this tragedy and a family. He was gravitating towards Ty, so I started writing about a year later, right after [It Comes at Night] came out, and it was just really organic. Kel and I were having mini-therapy sessions and talking about our pasts, our differences, our commonalities, and everything in between. The relationships at that age and the pressures we felt. And then, we kind of built Tyler together and that collaboration just continued and grew with all the actors, so it’s a black family because of Kelvin. We essentially came down on the feeling that it was a black family going through universal things, you know what I mean? It needs to be specifically nuanced, real, and authentic to a black family, but ultimately, what they’re going through is a universal tragedy that any family would go through. So, it needs to be specific for them. but hopefully in that specificity there’s a universality to it.
How did you write aspects of being black into the screenplay?
Honestly, it was almost all Kelvin. First, I was writing, and we were texting and calling and doing all these things. Then, I sent him a draft, he got that draft about eight months before production. And then he would just give me notes. We’d get on the phone for hours and do detailed notes. He’d be like, “If this was me and my dad, it would be more like this,” and “if this was my family it would be like this.”
So, he helped in writing other black characters, too, in a sense?
Absolutely. It wasn’t just Ty. It was pretty much the family dynamics because Kel, too, he has sisters and his mother and dad. I’d just get detailed notes from him on everything and follow it through that. And then, of course, there’s language used in moments that come from Sterling just doing something and surprising us, or Renee, and vice versa, so it just keeps building out and evolving as it’s going.
Back to music, how’d you get Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross on board?
Very lucky. I got one of the coolest e-mails of my life one day that Trent Reznor was a fan and wanted to meet. I got on a plane on soon as I could and went to L.A. and met him and Atticus for lunch. Instantly, the energy was great. They had seen and dug my other movies and just wanted to work together, so I told them I was writing this other thing—at the time I was writing Waves—so I sent them the script. But I was terrified when I sent it to them because it had like 30+ songs embedded into the script and none of them were Nine Inch Nails, so I was hoping they wouldn’t be like, “Where the hell do we fit into this?” And it was the opposite. They loved the script, and were like, “Let’s do it. This is exciting and different for us.” And then we did it and it was amazing. So cool working with them.
What was the process like? How involved were you?
I participated in the process in the sense of, like, just the ideas of it. I sent them a really long rough cut because they asked for it. They really wanted to get as much inside my head and where I thought things could go as possible. So, I sent them a really dense notes document outlining placement, where I thought score could go, what I thought it could do. It was a rambling process. They dug it for some reason, but it was just a ton of rambling, like, “Maybe we could take sounds of the world and use them musically and bring them closer to the character’s headspace. That’s what the score could do that’s different from-” and just giving all these ideas and ranting. It was all remote, so I wasn’t with them for anything, but then did their thing and made it good, you know. It was really cool.
In what way is Waves autobiographical for you?
I don’t know what percentage, but the whole thing is fluctuating between autobiography and fictional narrative, whether it’s from me or loved ones. There are these two ends—from all the wrestling and shoulder tear, that was me in high school, to everything in Missouri, that was just real, and we recreated it as much as possible. I lost my dad and was only there for him because my girlfriend pushed me to go, and then that did new things for her grief in the relationship she had with her biological father. It’s boring, I could go into it more, but the whole narrative is kind of that—those two ends. But then it’s like real, fake, real, fake, real, fake. And it’s all intermeshed together to where it just feels like a very spiritually autobiographical thing. But then at the same time, especially given the collaboration with the actors and everything, it starts from this very personal place and gets bigger than you and grows outward.
Are you friends with Harmony Korine? He’s credited as having a cameo, but I didn’t see him.
You hear his voice in the classroom when Emily’s in class in the second half. I don’t know him that well, but my producer and production designer know him. He lives in Miami, so he lives thirty minutes from where we shot. We would play basketball games with him on the weekend, so we were like, “Why don’t you come do a little cameo in the movie?” We shot like thirty minutes of him just fucking around as the teacher. None of it’s in the movie, but it was so fun to do [laughs].
Were you inspired by him at all? I’m just thinking of the colors of Waves next to The Beach Bum and Spring Breakers.
Absolutely. Yeah, man, I love him. He’s a great filmmaker and artist. Especially his Florida inspiration. He’s so inspired by the vibrancy there.
What you are working on next?
Nothing, man. Everything was kind of leading up to this. I’m a blank slate right now.