‘Waves’ Director Trey Edward Shults on Crafting His Sensory, Soul-Bearing Family Saga

November 15, 2019, 4:00 PM UTC

To call Waves “an experience” somewhat undersells the A24 picture (out Friday), which is as dizzyingly visceral a journey through one family’s tragedy and gradual recovery as you’ll see in a theater this year. The third feature by writer-director Trey Edward Shults combines the family drama of his first (Krisha) with the suffocating dread of his second (It Comes at Night) while operating in a sensory, sun-flooded vein all its own.

Waves follows a South Florida family of four whose lives are devastated by an event involving son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a high school wrestler with a bright future and a dark side. Shattered on the level of the soul, Tyler’s hard-charging father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), compassionate stepmother Catherine (Renée Elise Goldsberry, of Hamilton), and shell-shocked sister Emily (Taylor Russell) all reckon with their loss in ways distinct and jagged. Told in halves, one focused on Tyler and the other on Emily, the film places its characters in a pressure-cooker but leaves them on a note of unexpected grace.

Shults, a 31-year-old white man from Texas, knew he was taking a risk in melding elements of his own upbringing with the story of a black family processing profound pain. But as he recently told Fortune, collaborating with Harrison gave him the confidence to press forward with the project. The pair, who’d previously worked together on It Comes at Night, merged their life experiences to unlock the narrative rhythms of Waves, resulting in a deeply personal piece Shults nevertheless hopes will resonate universally.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

How long have you been working on Waves?

The broad strokes of it have been brewing for a very, very long time, probably more than a decade. A lot of things in the story are autobiographical, and then it shifts to fictional and comes back to autobiographical. That’s the whole narrative function of it. Basically, a lot of writing Waves was just getting through some things in life and then having perspective on them. In time, it just felt ready to come out.

Waves tells a very specific story of a black family devastated by tragedy; it’s especially focused on the crushing pressures of black excellence, how difficult it can be to move past pain. Your two past films, Krisha and It Comes At Night, also wrestle with whether to forgive or shun family members who’ve done wrong, but Waves tackles that question in a very different style and genre. Why did you have to tell this story?

When I first started writing it, Kelvin and I were doing mini-therapy sessions and just talking, exchanging phone calls and text messages about how it felt to be that age: our relationships with our fathers, mothers, all the pressures we felt with lovers, school, and everything else. And then I just started writing. Kel got a script eight months before [shooting] to give me notes on, so I could rewrite it.

Kelvin didn’t wrestle; I wrestled and tore my shoulder, and I felt those kinds of pressures. But Kel felt those same pressures with music, and his dynamic with his father was a big inspiration for Ronald and Ty, the way Kel was being pushed into music. He grew up in New Orleans as a bit of a musical prodigy; his father is an incredible musician and his mom’s an amazing singer. Music was his future, and he was pushed very hard.

We just found commonalities and differences like that, to create a combination to where the left lane was everything I did, and the right lane was what Kel did. The commonalities were the pressures of that experience. The nuance and specificity of a black father pushing him in that regard comes from Kelvin and his dad. But [our stories] worked together to become this unique, personal thing.

(L-R) Kelvin Harrison Jr., Sterling K. Brown in “Waves.”
Courtesy of A24

I’m glad you mentioned the specificity of that pressure between Kelvin and his dad. As a white filmmaker, did you hesitate at all in writing outside of your own racial identity, or how did you work to approach that sensitively?

It all started in that collaboration, and doing that fully through [the project,] because when we first started talking about Tyler, we felt a lot of responsibility to get it right, to make it specifically—hopefully—about an authentic black family, even though what they’re going through is universal: the tragedy and grief, trying to deal. But in that it needed to be specifically a black family, for myself, that’s all in that collaboration, looking outside of myself, trying to understand and do anything to be there and support. It all started with Kel.

Whether that was getting notes on the scripts and rewriting specifically for everything, we’d sit for hours. It would start there and just go bigger, so that when Sterling came on, and Renée came on, we’d all be talking about anything. I’d let them have freedom to bring their perspective and everything they can. I just feel like I’m there for support. Whether that’s getting feedback and rewriting a scene or, when we were actually making it, changing the scene and how we were shooting it, changing the language they brought to it. It was basically just a big, beautiful collaboration.

In terms of Tyler’s half of the film, it’s a harrowing watch, and Waves is structured so it builds to a climax in the middle. With that first half of the film—vivid lighting, tracking shots that circle the characters, pulsing musical cues—I could really feel your thriller background. How did you find the specific stylistic combination of that first half, and balance that with any fears that the excess of style would detract from the emotion of the story?

For me, all the style’s always coming out of the character and the substance. Everything we’re doing is just to bring you more inside the main character’s head—the camera movements, the colors, the music. Everything’s just to be honest to Ty and put you through a subjective, emotional experience with that. For me, if you make it about that and aren’t just doing style for style’s sake, if there’s a purpose behind everything, then it’s easier to navigate.

Everything is just meant to put you inside this kid’s head and his world. There’s a lot going on in there, a lot thrown around his world, so that it’s dismantling at a rapid pace. He doesn’t really have time to process anything, just to react. We wanted to put an ambience through it, through his shoes. A lot of the first part of Waves is understanding how this tragedy occurs.

The goal is to make you feel like you’re living it with them, and understanding it as almost a panic attack. Then, hopefully, if that happens, part two gives you a hug. You go out, try to heal, try to get on the other side of this terrible thing.

In my view, the greatest tragedy that could happen to these people happens. You don’t want to just live with that; you want to try to make any sense of it that you can, to try to heal. The structure is exciting to me, the climax halfway through, because that’s how life can be, you know? It’s not perfect. Spiritually, that just felt right for a traumatic event and to experience grief, having that as a center point and then trying to shift and live life on the other side.

"Waves" Atlanta Premiere
(L-R) Kelvin Harrison, Jr., Trey Edward Shults, Taylor Russell, and Sterling K. Brown attend the “Waves” Atlanta red carpet premiere at SCADShow on October 16, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia.
Paras Griffin—Getty Images

Waves is an ambitious work, and you’ve scaled up with every project in terms of how much you’re trying to get your hands around. Was there a point at which you had to let something go?

We shot enough material for a four-hour movie. I edited for about a year, trying to navigate how to keep the spirit intact, retain exactly what the movie is, while making it a length that hopefully people would actually see it. [laughs] It was hard! Because I always sort of saw this one as an epic, sprawling family drama. I wanted to do the highs and lows of life, and everything in between, so that would be a lot. And it is a lot, in the movie. It was very tricky to rein it in from everything we had.

Did you ever consider doing it as a miniseries?

No. I didn’t. I think I just love movies and cinema so much I just wanted to double down. Moviegoers are so dominated by all sorts of stuff but especially superhero movies and “big” movies, so I wanted to double down on these kinds of movies that hopefully are bold and take a chance. But it could have been a cool miniseries.

Last question. I wanted to ask about the music of Waves, which spans Frank Ocean and Kanye West, Animal Collective and Radiohead, some songs that feel modern but others that are more classic. How did you curate the soundtrack?

Music’s always been a huge part of my life, especially in high school. It got me through stuff a lot. At that age, it wasn’t always what was on the radio or big at that moment; I was listening to everything. It was all new if I hadn’t heard it. I was just on the hunt for everything and had big playlists. It made sense to me, spiritually, for connecting with these kids. Since Ty and Emily are in high school, it was about picking some songs that would feel true to them, that worked for their world.

If you separated the music and put it in a playlist, an arc’s being told that matches the arc of the movie from song to song. It was just in the DNA, from when I was in high school, with all these images in my head. For this movie, that was the initial thing: just music and images. I didn’t know how it would all connect, or what it would turn into, but there’s a lot of movies I love that use the soundtrack in link with storytelling to create an ebb and flow. That’s what I wanted this to feel like.

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