“I have to live more life before I can try to write another movie like that ...” - hmv.com talks to Waves director Trey Edward Shults
It has barely been five years since writer-director Trey Edward Shults delivered his critically-acclaimed debut feature Krisha - a film based on a short he created a year earlier, and which both stars and is named after his real-life aunt - but Shults has already wrapped on his third feature film, Waves, which makes its arrival on UK cinema screens this week.
Where his debut feature drew heavily and quite literally on his own experiences, featuring a story about a family member and addict who suffers a relapse at a family reunion, its follow-up It Comes At Night was, by contrast, a tense psychological horror, but one in which the real monster is the darker side of human nature.
Although very different in both style and substance, the common denominator between Shults' first two films is the focus on dynamics between characters and how they communicate with each other – or don't. His third film, Waves, continues that theme, which manifests in this case in a story about an affluent black family and their attempts to reconstruct their lives in the wake of a tragedy that threatens to tear them apart.
Already earning rave reviews from critics lucky enough to catch an early screening, Waves features a small but talented cast led by Kelvin Harrison Jr., whom Shults met working on It Comes At Night, and with whom the director has worked closely to develop the story in his new movie. Starring alongside Harrison are Sterling K. Brown, Renée Elise Goldsberry and Taylor Russell.
With the film heading into cinemas this Friday (January 17th) we sat down with Shults to talk about the collaborative approach he took to making the film, learning the ropes under Terrence Malick, and how Trent Reznor sent him the coolest email of his life...
Like your other films, you've written the screenplay yourself – Krisha was heavily based on your own experiences, was it the same with this film? Where did the inspiration for this story come from?
“A lot of stuff. It's easily just as personal as Krisha, there's a lot of real stuff going into fictional narrative and then coming back to real stuff the whole time. So for me, it was a lot of things in my life, we drew inspiration from stuff in Kelvin's life, from my girlfriend's life, parents, family, all of that linked together.”
It seems like Kelvin has been quite instrumental in the process, besides just acting...
“Yeah, it happened really organically. We bonded a lot after the last movie, that's where we met, and even from back then in upstate New York we wanted to work together again, and the only idea I had for anything was this movie. I showed it to him, it didn't have character names or a title or anything, but it was broad strokes, a structure and rough characters, and he really dug it.”
“Then, about a year later, we only got closer and I started trying to write, and at that same time we were talking, doing these kind of mini therapy sessions, just trying to understand our pasts and me trying to understand a lot of his past in relationships, connections, nuance. A huge main reason for that is that he's black and I'm white, and it felt that if we were gonna do this and really build this character specifically for Kelvin, that it had to be real, specific and authentic. The only way to achieve that was through total collaboration.”
It's an interesting setting, with this quite affluent black family who seem close, they communicate with each other, but maybe not truthfully...
“Yeah, absolutely. That's another thing that came up organically in talking to Kel, hearing about the relationship with his dad and his family, combining that with stuff from my family too. The irony with me is that both my parents are therapists, but I wasn't always the best with communicating with them!”
“It was really just drawing on some real stuff and trying to make that honest. The dynamics between our dads are similar in some ways - for me it was wrestling, for him it was music. We both grew up in the South, upper-middle class, so it was about finding those things that lined up and then the specific differences, you know?”
How did you go about finding the rest of the cast? Taylor Russell is very impressive...
“She's amazing. I think she's incredible, man. It started with Kel, that trust was built up and it was like 'we love each other, let's make something we care about'. So I was just trying to find that special energy with strangers. So I guess that starts from either me reaching out to someone or them sending a tape. Sterling and Lucas, that was different, but Taylor and Alexa just auditioned. I got an audition tape and I thought they were amazing, but then Skyping with them and feeling a connection, just feeling like we get along as human beings. They feel like good human beings, they're smart, we care about this thing, we get it. And then it's just building that up.”
“We tried to just make sure that energy was good from the start, and then letting it be a full-bodied collaboration. For me it's as collaborative as you want to be. Let's talk about everything. Everything is open and on the table, and possible to change. So as soon as they're cast, it becomes that, and it's sort of just building up a good energy and trust. I love all these actors so much, they're not family, but it feels like a creative family.”
Did that mean a lot of rewrites and tweaks on the set?
“Yeah, and it was just very organic. It could range from rewriting a whole scene – within reason, it still has to fit in the larger story, of course – to changing a moment to a new moment, to not changing anything. Just talking through [the options], and then on the day playing with it even more. Doing a scene like the script, doing it but injecting new language, or just going completely off and riffing. It was all on the table.”
The soundtrack is very intense – how did Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross get involved?
“I was just crazy blessed. They reached out to me, shockingly. I got the coolest email of my life saying that Trent Reznor was a fan and he wanted to meet, so I jumped on a plane to L.A. and went and met them. But again, as soon as I sat down it just felt connected, it felt like we had known each other even though we'd never met just met - from my perspective, at least, I don't know how they felt! But that's how I felt, it just felt comfortable and right.”
“We were just talking, they dug my other movies and wanted to work together, I was a massive fan of theirs and said 'I'm writing something, can I send it to you when I have a draft?' That was Waves, so I sent them the draft and I was terrified because it had, like, 40+ songs embedded in it and none of them were by Trent or Atticus, or Nine Inch Nails! But luckily that was exciting to them and they were like: 'Where does score fit into this? That's an exciting new challenge, let's figure this out.' So luckily they wanted to do it, and it was just a pleasure getting to work with them.”
What kind of brief did you give them?
“I didn't give them much of a brief before the script, because I'd tried to make it as transparent as possible what the film would be. There was music embedded into it that you could click play or pause, there were different colours, big fonts, small fonts, aspect ratios, camera movements. It was very transparent 'this is what kind of movie it's going to be.'”
“Then, once they were down, they just asked for, like, a vomit email of any notes or ideas I had on score, but also things like what the movie means to me, everything. They really wanted to understand my headspace as much as possible, so I just tried to sloppily convey that. And we never worked together in person, it was always either emails or phone calls, and then sending stuff.”
You started out doing bits and pieces for Terrence Malick, right? He's a famously private person, how did you land that gig?
“Again, I was just very lucky. I went to Hawaii for a summer because my aunt lived there, and she was friends with a DP (Director of Photography) and a producer, locally, and they were shooting b-roll footage for Terry Malick. It was for A Voyage in Time, but a lot of that footage got used in Tree of Life. So she got me on that shoot as an intern, I was just working for free and could do anything they needed, I was working out a lot and I was in good shape so I could carry a lot of equipment!”
How did things progress from there?
“The assistant camera had to leave early, so the film-loader had to become assistant camera, and we were sharing a room so he taught me how to load film. I did an OK job and the DP liked me, and he got me onto other shoots. So I decided to ride it out and not go back to school, and eventually met Terry. Long story short: that was the beginning, the pivot. I interned for a bit of post-production on Tree of Life, then I got to work as a film-loader on another one of his movies Song to Song, and it just changed the course of my life.”
You have quite a unique voice as a filmmaker, are there any other directors who've influenced your work?
“Ooof, so many! Definitely Terry, also Paul Thomas Anderson, Nick Cassavetes, Scorsese, Kubrick, Lynch, Bergmann. The legends, you know? The heroes. Just the expected list, I would think.”
Have you had any thoughts about what you'd like to do after this? You've written and directed all your movies so far, do you think that'll continue or would you like to try directing from someone else's script, maybe?
“I mean, I do know I'm a bit tapped out! I think creatively and emotionally I'm done for a minute. I definitely think I've basically drawn on all the personal life story stuff I can, for now, and I have to live more life before I can try to write another movie like that. So I think I'll probably have to find something else, whether it's a script or a book, something that doesn't fully stem from me that I can bring myself to. So hopefully that works out.”
Is there any particular type or genre of film that you'd really like to make?
“More like concepts. There's a few things. I definitely want to try to figure out a movie that's like a contemporary silent film, with as little dialogue as possible, and more purely driven on sound and visuals, or music, the core stuff. And I have a few other vague ideas, less 'genre' per se, but maybe elements I'd like to explore, I guess. But honestly, I don't know. Who knows what's next?”
Waves is in UK cinemas from Friday January 17th.