Every decade or so, we get new media that only entertains us but educates us on the experiences of the next generation. Many times they highlight the new complexities and differences of their experience to ours, but they also remind us that while it may be put in a different context, at its core they are things we have also gone through. Trey Edward Shults delivers exactly that in his latest film, Waves, which explores not only how these experiences affect a family unit, but how race can also play into them.
We spoke with Trey Edward Shults, and actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell collaborating together, revisiting their teenage years, MySpace and the start of social media, and more.
Since your first film, Krisha, you’ve created films that explore different family dynamics. We revisit topics like addiction and overbearing fathers. What attracts you to these types of stories?
Trey Edward Shults: I just connect to a lot of them. Personal experiences and loved ones’ experiences, especially in these 3 movies [Krisha, It Comes at Night, Waves] because they weren’t made that far apart. They were probably all brewing in the brain at around the same time. Whether it’s conscious or not, I think I was still rustling with some certain things, and remain fascinated by them.
As the film starts, everything seems almost idyllic, nearly perfect, but as it goes on, we learn the true complexity of each character. What was it about your respective characters that drew you in?
Kelvin Harrison Jr.: For me it was seeing this boy who had so much love and respect for his dad and those around him, but he really didn’t know how to communicate that or know what to do with that information for himself. He starts trying to appease everyone in a way that ultimately strips him away from his own identity and his own voice. I wanted to show the humanity of a black boy where he doesn’t fall into the cliches, but who can make mistakes that also don’t define who they are. I also wanted to show how a family would have to grow because of the historical traumas that come from being a black family in America right now. It wasn’t just about the character but also the entire message of what we have to go through as African Americans.
Taylor Russell: It’s really rare that you get characters like this for a young woman. I haven’t ever seen a script like this come across my lap, so it was a no-brainer to be a part of it. To see a story that is so nuanced, truthful, and authentic to the complexities of the black experience, which is so vast and so different for every person, made me admire how that was portrayed in this story. I liked how quiet she was, and how her strength was unconventional and unique. Even the storytelling style was perfect, how it was told in the two halves, was something that felt unique and that I had never seen before. I knew Trey’s work from Krisha. It was shot in such a beautiful way and unlike any other cinema. People were telling me that it was going to be quite close to Krisha, and I was like, “Oh my god, if it’s going to be like that then hell yes! Let’s do it!”
I like the way the film is split into two different perspectives. The first half focuses on the male experience, while the second half follows the aftermath and the female experience. Was it always your intention to split the film up this way?
TES: I think it was in the DNA way before even writing it. It functions in dichotomies, literally from highs and low, white and black, male and female, love and hate, and everything else in between. I liked the idea of the movie functioning in these dichotomies, but what it’s really about is the link and complexity of how we’re connected by the contrasts in our lives.
Although the film mostly focuses on the individual struggles and the family as a whole, there are a few moments in the film that talks exclusively to the black experience in America. What resources did you use to research this before incorporating it into the film?
TES: Kelvin was such an invaluable resource, and he’s the reason that the story is about a black family. We met on our last film [It Comes at Night] and first started talking about Waves. I didn’t have it written yet, but I started talking about ideas of what I thought the movies was, and broad strokes about what I wanted it to be. Then, we were like, “We should do it together.” When I was first writing it, we were texting a lot. Almost like little therapy sessions as we were learning about each other, learning about our commonalities and shared experiences with families, especially around the character’s age. Kel got a first draft, 8 months before we started shooting and then we kept building it further and further at that point. I let the actors kind ad-lib and make some changes to the scenes so that it would feel more natural and authentic. I felt like it was my job just to listen and understand and try to capture everything I could.
So this was truly a collaborative process?
TES: Oh, absolutely.
KHJ: It was so easy because it really feels like the script and Trey’s version of it really understands the family. It was like the skeleton and the muscles, setting a strong foundation so that we can come in and be like, “Well, let’s put some brown skin here and a little blush and we’re good to go.” I was never fearful of speaking up and being like, “Well this is how I feel and this is how I experienced this.” He would also respond with, “Well that makes sense and I understand that so now let’s shoot it that way.” To me, that’s beautiful.
While watching the film, it takes a turn partway through where it turns into a horror film. It feels almost nightmarish at a certain point.
TR: On the day of shooting those scenes, you could tell right away the tonal shift the movie was taking. It felt scary, and that day of filming was really intense too. Although a lot of that was in the script, it is still quite shocking when you see the final version.
TES: I talked about this with Sterling [K. Brown] a lot too. For this family, the greatest tragedy has happened and a nightmare has come to life. It started with exploring how this would feel for this family and this situation, and from there it grew to adding the visuals and audio elements that would end up giving it more of a horror feel.
One of the things that really helped push some of the more unnerving elements was the sound design and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’ score. How did that come together?
TES: It just got super lucky. One day, I got an email from Trent and Atticus saying they were interested in working together. It was unbelievable. For sound design, I had Johnnie Burn and his whole team create that atmosphere and mood.
I’m still haunted by the sounds of the ligaments and muscles tearing. It was almost like ASMR, but in the most stressful kind of way.
TES: Johnnie had such an amazing foley team and I don’t even know how they got most of the sounds they used in the film. We played with that beyond just what would sound natural and tried out things that would be more subjective to the characters, like whenever Tyler would use his shoulder.
KHJ: Oh, I was on the ground and I could definitely hear it and feel it.
Did you know how to wrestle or did you have to learn just for the role?
KHJ: Hell-to-the-no. I had to transform. I did 3 months of wrestling training. I did 3 days a week of CrossFit with wrestling twice a day. My wrestling coach Vlad is actually in the movie. He would tell me, “Kelly, get tough!” It was a tough experience but ultimately great for the movie because I could feel free and authentic when playing the character.
For some people, their teenage years are either the best or the worst. How did it feel revisiting that time for your characters, or even while developing this film together?
TR: I mean, we play teenagers a lot. I feel like I’m constantly in high school. Maybe I’ll finally graduate one day. One can only dream. I think I got a little bit longer because I have a babyface. This story though feels so transcendent beyond being a 16-year-old, it’s more about the human experience. In that way, it feels like it could be at any age. At the same time, it’s telling the story of teenagers and experiencing and feeling things for the first time. It was a fun thing to explore, but also a hard thing.
KHJ: It was therapeutic for me. My parents saw it for the first time and they told me that that could really understand the relationships. That’s what the movie ends up being about: relationships. At the end of it, I was feeling like maybe I should call my mom and try to figure out how to communicate with her a little bit better. It transcends age in a lot of ways, but the specificity of the 2019 kid experience is fascinating to me. I remembering having MySpace growing up.
I honestly still miss MySpace. It’s basically the only reason I have the limited HTML coding knowledge I have. I mainly miss that you could set specific songs on the page.
KHJ: I don’t miss it at all. So many fights when you would set your top 5 or top 10. It was the beginning of proper social media drama, and I was just not interested in it. The intensity of that now with apps like Instagram and Snapchat is insane.
TR: In the film, you see the role that social media plays after the major event happens. Just the way people comment and speak about it so realistic. Even the cussing in the movie feels real, like when Trey has the phone autocorrect “ducking” for the f-word. We all know about that and that feeling when you’re so mad that you just don’t even care that it typed that out because we all know what they’re trying to say. It just adds to the overall relatability and speaks to real experiences.