Trey Edwards Shults’ emotional Waves begins with a swirling camera capturing a moment ripped out of life, or time, in the romance of a south Florida teen couple who, for a brief moment, have what seems like about everything. They are young, smart, popular and in love. What could go wrong?
Shults, the esteemed thirty-one-year-old filmmaker whose 2015 psychological drama Krisha was a piercing family affair of Cassavetes rawness, graduated to the less impactful 2017 post-apocalypse survival picture It Comes at Night.
His new film continues his three-picture exploration of family dynamics under pressure, and is perhaps his most ambitious (though I’d argue Krisha remains his masterwork). Waves, a dual portrait of south Florida siblings dealing with intense pressures of identity and grief, features a middle class, beleaguered family facing unexpected tragedy that will rock its foundation.
Kelvin Harrison, Jr., the gifted star of this year’s Luce, is Tyler, the charismatic, hyper-competitive son of a wildly demonstrative, Type A father (Sterling K. Brown), pushing him to a breaking point. When that point arrives, his shy sister Emily, gracefully played by Taylor Russell, assumes control of the picture, steering it, and the family, toward new realizations. Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry is their sympathetic mother, caught in the middle.
This is directing as a plunge into feeling, often painful in its precision. In Waves, Shults mounts a furious aesthetic to covey his characters’ consciousness—fast moving tracking shots, scores of music cues, sequences of abstract color and sound—as much as a traditional narrative, conveying a hothouse of feverish masculinity before unexpectedly turning, in the film’s second half, toward restraint while questioning the capacity for family reunification.
I recently caught up with the filmmaker and his two talented young actors to chat about the movie’s take on identity, its immersive technique and scintillating performances.
Let’s start by talking about the structure of this movie. You have largely freed yourself from writing a traditional narrative by eliminating a three-act structure or journey; you’re putting yourself out on a limb structurally. But there is a lot of observance of behavior. You have a natural way of observing lives here before weaving them together into what becomes a narrative.
Trey Edward Shults: Definitely. I get the most excited in seeing movies that feel are doing something different in some way. So I always try to start there with whatever I’m doing. I think part of it is just that, and then I think past that there is like a spiritual nature, I think, to the structure and the sense that life isn’t in a perfect three acts.
The climax can happen in the middle and then you can get on the other side and the tone can change and you can try to learn some new things. I think with this movie, and some I’ve made, that I care about immersive experiences from our main character’s point of view. And I think that is kind of a privilege with movies, feeling like you can be walking with this person and living through their eyes or understanding through them. So I think just the simple fact of feeling that through a brother, and then a sister, is really exciting as well, you know? So it’s for multiple reasons.
Can you tell me about crafting that immersion? Because when I think about the aesthetic side of the movie and the sequences of color and music, that kind of free themselves from the story; they are quite abstract. For example, there’s the sound of a whistle that’s excessively loud at a key juncture, and there’s also a prominently vibrating cell phone. Can you speak to that immersion you’ve crafted, into that world?
TES: Of course. For me, it all started with the kids—first with Ty, then Em, and it’s like letting that immersion do everything to get you closer with them. But it doesn’t have to be just naturalistic or literally true. It can feel expressively honest, if that makes sense.
So whether that’s the colors or the sounds or what the camera’s doing—if the camera is spinning—that’s how they feel right then. If it’s locked down, that’s how their world and head space feels right there. It just felt really liberating to play with it, but to always make sure it felt spiritually true to them and also like a link between them. You mentioned the colors and the music. At times, I think there’s play there, and a link going on even, with the score. Some themes they share and when we let these little color sequences take over. To me, it kind of feels like there’s a spiritual connection going on between this brother and sister that links the whole.
Kelvin, congratulations on two magnificent performances this year. The first one, Luce.
So, I also lecture around the country, I’ve done 12 talks on that movie actually…
Kelvin Harrison, Jr.: Wow, amazing.
… In Chicago, New York, Los Angeles. No matter where, though, there is endless discussion about what Luce was thinking, who he really was and where he ended up. I think in this film we feel some of that as well with Tyler. You tend to excel at alone time in the movies; creating spaces by yourself. We wonder, often, what is going through your mind. There are many scenes here where you are on your own, conveying some big emotions and transitions without anyone else involved.
KH.: Thank you. I think Luce helped in that a lot, because it was about understanding the psychology of historical trauma; what we bring into our experiences as Black people; and a generational divide and how we communicate with each other. And also, Luce really articulates the idea of, ‘I don’t want to be put in a box’ and how expectations are pressed upon him, like, ‘Give me the permission to just be a kid and to live my life the way I want to.’
And I think Tyler does not have the platform to say those things. He doesn’t have the resources; they were not given to him. And also, he’s looking at a situation where, in a lot of ways, I just don’t think he has the same privileges as Luce. I think when it comes to that emotion it is because he doesn’t have the ability to say the things he wants to say, or the privilege to do it the way he wants to do it. So he’s just constantly bottling and just reacting and moving, and it’s just a chaotic energy that has surrounded him and he’s feeling it in a way more intense way. So for me it was just being honest to that and understanding what’s happening, and then just kind of bringing it all in.
Trey, do you just sort of stand back and watch that happening in the takes, and let it unfold?
TES: I just try to create like a safe, trusting place and feel like I’m in it with them, you know? So I’m trying to feel everything they’re feeling and just like be there and present and in the moment and especially, I think, some of that stuff when they’re alone. It’s like, that’s everything, you know?
KH: He’s always there, and he’s there to see me and peripheral. I just know Trey is with me and he’s in this moment. And literally in every scene I feel like he is also the actor, or the character, and so it’s just in sync. I feel even safer to know that the person that’s shooting and capturing this moment sees it in its entirety, if that makes sense. Maybe that sounds weird.
Taylor, you have this way in the second half of the movie of drawing us to you. It is what I would call a minimal style of acting, which is a compliment. In some of the bigger scenes, like the fishing scene and a later moment where you’re alone in an elevator, you are quite affecting. To me, much of it is that you were delicate and quietly underplaying. I would love to hear a bit about that because so much of what you’re doing is written on your face and perhaps under the radar.
TR: You know, it’s funny. I felt so catastrophic inside when I was doing it that I didn’t realize until watching it how silent I was, because it really didn’t feel that way. So it wasn’t a conscious choice to be really quiet as an actor. It just felt completely opposite of, I guess, what I showed. I also know that I have a very expressive face that can become big quickly, so I have to kind of put a cap on that at some point. I realized that through acting. I also think that this character is kind of the forgotten child. She didn’t say as much. There are scripts that you read with a lot of dialogue and others where you have the opportunity to be quiet and show so much in a different way.
And I love opportunities like that. I don’t get those opportunities and I got one with this. I always look at actors that have quieter performances or just don’t say as much and I’m like, ‘Wow, I really love that,’ because there are many different ways to convey emotion. So you can say so much without saying anything, and I feel like I was afforded that opportunity in this script. So it was just getting really lucky with the material. And also, I just like knowing different parts of myself, wanting to do something different with this character.
I think one of the hardest things to act is conveying the quality of goodness; that you’re a good person. It is generally not achievable in dialogue. The other is that you are believably love with somebody, which can be played all different ways. I thought you and Lucas Hedges captured that quite well; the kind of slow, little moments of evolution; that there was a good center to her.
TES: Absolutely agree. I remember that just from Taylor’s first audition tape; she didn’t have a script. She inherently felt like she just got the material. There is an energy about her that looks like she doesn’t have to do anything, which isn’t true. And she’s fascinating. As an actor, that is a very hard, complex thing to do. But the way her instincts went and how she played things, I just felt like the most blessed guy in the world watching her. I believe she’s a good human being who’s crazy talented, and that’s a beautiful combination. This never could have been anyone else.
Trey, in three films you’ve demonstrated that you are not afraid to push audiences into darker places.
This picture is no different. But do you think Waves offers catharsis?
TES: I hope so.
We want that for this family. In Krisha, there wasn’t as much. There is some kind of commercial movie thinking that says it’s risky putting people in dark places they perhaps may not want to visit. What do you say about that?
TES: I’d say we go to dark places in our lives, you know, and I think showing that honestly and trying to understand it is, in and of itself, healing. And I think people are interested and compelled by that, or at least I would hope. Both my parents are therapists. So I always think not ignoring that side of things, shining a light on it and trying to learn from it has been incredibly healing for me.
And if I think it’s easy to ignore that darker stuff and put it on the back burner, but if you do then it is more disruptive, you know? So for me, with my other films, even though they’re dark and everything as it goes, I hope it is cathartic in a sense of like at least we’re portraying that honestly, and I’m trying to heal through that, if that makes sense.
Was Krisha cathartic for your family?
TES: Very much. Very much so. Very much so. I think too, because all of us were making it about our loved ones and trying to portray their experiences honestly. So I think in doing that we just felt closer and that we understood them more as human beings. And yes, it was incredibly hard.
So certainly we each may have our own take on Sterling’s father character—how he expresses himself and shapes the family, one way or the other. And later in the movie, Renee shares her view of him very plainly. I wonder what you guys thought about that character, and if you could share some thoughts about what advice you may have received when you were growing up?
TES: Hmm, that’s a good question.
As teens, we don’t always hear advice, particularly from parents.
TES: Yeah, I haven’t thought about that.
Or we can just talk about Sterling, if you’d like.
TES: I guess starting with Sterling, wait, what was the question on Sterling? So now I’m caught up…(laughter)
What’s your take on him as a character in the movie? It’s very strange because we always look for heroes and villains in movies. In Waves, there don’t seem to be any.
TES: Yeah, I hope not. Amen. That was a huge goal that every character in this movie is not a hero or a villain, but a complex human being on all sides. And I think that is the case with Sterling’s character as well. I think he loves too hard and too much, and he doesn’t always channel that love with his son in a way that his son feels he can be completely honest and open with him. That’s a part of his journey and his arc that he goes through, like, ‘How can I not fall apart but, rather try to keep it together and find a new way to love my family and build a communication?’ You know, I think it’s a beautiful character.
KH: Like Trey said, he just loves him so much that he can smother him. But I also think he is a man who has a vision for his family and also of his own upbringing, and also maybe had parents that weren’t as emotionally available. So I in a lot of ways I empathize with him, but I fear that man, and I hope that man that you see this movie ultimately starts to see himself and figure out how to grow so that he doesn’t continue to repeat the same cycles.
TR: I just think Sterling is an incredible person. I was really surprised by his performance because I didn’t see a lot of the first half. I just wasn’t on set to see his stuff. I saw some of Kelvin’s scenes, but we also interacted in the first half of the movie. I didn’t as much with Sterling, so I only really saw him for the lake scene and the driving scene that we had together. So I was really shocked by it.
I was shocked by Renee too. Renee is so incredible. I mean, what she does with the scenes that she has, the way that you first see her and Sterling when they’re in the kitchen and she’s telling him to go take a bath or ice his knee, or what she says to him and the way that she looks at him, in like one second you just see so much of the inner workings of their world, and how she views him. And so I think like equally Renee and Sterling are incredible, incredible artists and we were really lucky as like younger actors to be able to work with them.
Trey, you talked about the idea making personal movies, right? This seems like an anomaly now, so for you to make three movies like this that are in the wheelhouse…what about it? Is it something you can continue to do if you want to play bigger and higher in this industry?
TES: I hope so. Yeah, I would love, the problem now is I’m like a blank slate and I put it all into this movie and it feels like closing a chapter, so I have no idea what I’m going to do next.
There are a lot of chapters left to live.
TES: Yeah, exactly. I think I’ve got to listen more to life first. This movie is one of the most fulfilling experiences of my life and I am so proud of the people that I got to meet and work with and the connections we made. Even now, when we’re showing it to people and we’re looking in the eyes of people that connect with it, this is going to be a hard one to top, I think. I just want to keep making movies in this vein with people I love, and that’s the goal.