Director Trey Edward Shults Returns to Themes of the Family With Waves
The Krisha creator screens his latest at the Austin Film Festival
Trey Edward Shults has been called a horror filmmaker who never made a horror film. His movies are about the oppressive closeness of family bonds, and in his latest, Waves, the tensions are enough to shatter lives and bodies. "It's not like each new movie I go, 'Tackle family,'" he said, "[But] my family and my loved ones are the closest people in my life, and I wouldn't be who I am without them."
Texan native Shults developed the story of an African American family in Florida with Kelvin Harrison Jr., the star of his last film, It Comes at Night. They bonded on that film (as Shults says, family isn't just about kinship: "You make new friends and loved ones who become family") and decided to work together again. Of course, there is always the question of whether a white director should be the first one to tell the story of black characters, and Shults agreed that it was always going to be an issue. However, the story started off as only broad strokes, and when he first talked to Harrison about it, "It didn't have a title, it didn't have character names." Harrison started gravitating toward the idea of playing the then-unnamed brother in the family, and as they started fleshing out Shults' ideas into a full script, their conversations "became like mini therapy sessions between us. There would be calls and text messages, and we would be constantly talking about our experiences at that age – finding commonalities and finding differences, finding nuance and specificities for Tyler and his family. It all really came from there, wanting to make a great role, and hopefully a great film, for someone I love, something that felt honest to his experience."
Waves concentrates on a black, middle-class family – teen athlete Tyler (Harrison), martinet father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), doting mother Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry), and overlooked daughter Emily (Taylor Russell) – as the fallout from Tyler's actions become a maelstrom. Yet it is also deeply personal to Shults, who described it as his most autobiographical film to date – even more so than his 2015 breakout Krisha, which starred his aunt Krisha Fairchild in the eponymous role and was drawn deeply from his own family experiences (and keep an eye out for a brief cameo by her in Waves). Like Tyler's character, Shults was a high school wrestler; and like Tyler, his career is cut short by a shoulder injury. "I've still got the scars," he said, "and the filmmaker in me got excited because wrestling is definitely a less common sport in movies. It was fun to capture the high school wrestling experience as I experienced it – especially the way we filmed it, and pushed that subjectivity, and hopefully make it feel for an audience how it feels to do it yourself as a kid."
Shults' films have always been noted for their visual intensity, and Waves is no exception, beginning with the size of the image. It begins in the classic full-screen image ratio of 1.85:1 – a reflection, per Shults, of how Tyler lives his life to the fullest. Yet it doesn't stay that way. "It's Tyler's journey, and as his world closes in on him, the ratios close in on him. Then when we move to his sister, as she's trying to heal and grow, the aspect ratio's doing the same thing."
It's a technique he first experimented with in Krisha. Yet if that seems like an esoteric cinema technique, Shults said it's not important that the audience is able to pick the changes out, or link them intellectually to the different chapters in the characters' stories. "As long as you feel it," he said, and that's what happened with Krisha. After a screening in Iceland, one audience member approached him and said how much the film affected her. "She said that she felt so close to the main character, and she said that she thought the screen was morphing with her. She didn't know if it actually was, she just knew it felt that way."
That's not the only part of what Shults called his filmmaking grammar that the audience can feel. He laughed when told that he makes kitchen sink dramas that make the walls shake, and credited his supervising sound editor, Johnnie Burn "and his amazing team," as well as composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Their score combined original compositions, existing songs, elements of Burn's soundtrack, and snatches of piano played by Tyler (another of Harrison's skills) to create a soundscape that never relents. "We want you to feel as immersed as these characters are in what's happening," he said, and they reached deep into the toolbox for a variety of effects. "It can be panning dialogue around the room with music, or it can be using atmosphere in the rear speakers when you're by a lake or on a beach, because we want you to feel like you're on that beach with them."
For Shults, the end result is not about "being naturalistic all the time. It's about being emotionally true to the characters' state of mind, so there's this leeway to be impressionistic." Combined, the soundscape and the shifting perspective create a constant, impending sense of dread. Yet, much as with both Krisha and It Comes at Night, Waves is really about contrition, grief, guilt, and – ultimately – transcendence. "That's a goal in all our lives," said Shults. "But it's easier said than done."
Centerpiece FilmMon., Oct. 28, 7:15pm, Paramount Theatre with Trey Edward Shults in attendance.
Oops! A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Shults is a graduate of UT Austin.