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How Trey Edward Shults Turns His Own Family Drama Into Hit Indie Films

Like his previous movies, the acclaimed ‘Waves’ draws from the writer-director’s personal life. Shults talks to MEL about the challenges of father-son relationships and the risks involved in being a white filmmaker telling the story of a black family.

Writer-director Trey Edward Shults has never hidden the fact that his movies are, in some ways, transparent portraits of his own complicated relationship with his family. His award-winning 2016 debut, Krisha, starred his aunt Krisha Fairchild as the titular black sheep, a woman trying to make amends after years of addiction and bad behavior. (The story was inspired by Shults’ cousin and birth father, both of whom struggled with addiction.) His next film, the bleak 2017 post-apocalyptic horror-drama It Comes at Night, came about after being with his father on his deathbed. “It was a traumatic thing that changed my life, and two months after that, I wrote this script and it like spewed out of me in three days. I was clearly grappling with the emotions that were going on in my head and applying that to this fictional narrative,” he said at the time.

But those movies’ fraught examination of families under siege isn’t nearly as grandiose as his latest. Waves has an almost epic scope, telling the story of an African-American clan, the Williams, in two distinct acts. The first concerns Tyler (It Comes at Night’s Kelvin Harrison Jr.), a stud high school wrestling champ with a bright future ahead of him. Just then, his life falls apart: A freak injury jeopardizes his athletic career, and his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie) drops shocking news on him. Suddenly, Tyler is in a tailspin — his sense of himself is shattered — and his hard-driving father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) isn’t helping matters. Unmoored, Tyler spirals, leading to tragedy.

The film’s second half shifts focus to Tyler’s younger sister Emily (Taylor Russell), who begins a tentative relationship with one of her brother’s teammates, Luke (Lucas Hedges). If Waves’ first chapter is about anxiety and disappointment, the movie’s concluding chapter tries to pick up the pieces, exploring how a broken family can be repaired. As Shults explains to me, it’s a story very much drawn from his own family — as well as the bruising experience of having It Comes at Night fail to receive the same critical hosannas that accompanied Krisha. (Plus, the movie’s CinemaScore grade, which is given out by audiences who see a film on its opening day, was a disastrous “D.”) “My first draft [of Waves] was after [It Comes at Night] came out,” he tells me. “I was a bit depressed and not feeling good. I put all that energy into positive energy in trying to make this story.”

Speaking over the phone, the 31-year-old filmmaker talked about what it’s like to have parents who are therapists, the pressure of telling a black family’s story when you’re white and the lowest point of It Comes at Night’s chilly reaction — which, naturally, ended up inspiring a scene in Waves. “I feel like everything I’ve made so far has just been leading to this one,” Shults says. “I put everything I had into this movie.”

You’ve made three films, all about families in crisis. It seems like a subject you’re just drawn to.
It happened completely organically and naturally and kind of unintentionally. I stupidly didn’t realize how much all my movies are about family. But yeah, I’m clearly fascinated by them. Waves was just a new one about family — I think it’s the most personal one I’ve made yet. The most semi-autobiographical, I guess.

How difficult is it to make these autobiographical films? You’re putting your life — and the lives of those close to you — out there for audiences to dissect.
It’s a lot. And it’s interesting because it’s messy, too. There will be parts of myself and parts of my loved ones [in the movie], but then that’s compounded with the collaboration with the actors. I was texting Kelvin a lot [while working on the script]. We were talking about his path, my path, the nuances of his experience, the commonalities we share. The collaboration with Kel, that was months on months on months — and it’s the reason why the characters are black. That brought a new nuance and something clearly outside of myself. It’s messy, but it’s good. I want to tell stories that I feel like I fully know and understand.

When you’re working on a script, is there a moment where you think, “Okay, I’m going to have to sit people down and let them know I’m writing about them”?
It’s tricky, especially this one. I had to talk with some loved ones and make sure they were okay with some stuff in the movie — if they weren’t, I would’ve taken it out. Ultimately, I just want [Waves] to be cathartic, and I hope people really connect with it and get something from it.

As a white filmmaker, did you have some hesitancy about making a movie about a black family?

So how did you get past that?
When Kel wanted to play Tyler, we felt a lot of responsibility to get this right and to make this kid human and empathetic and complex — and his family. Because if we do it wrong, it’s a disservice, it’s bad. We felt a lot of responsibility: “Is this right to approach it that way?”

I remember even when Kel met Sterling, Sterling had those same reservations. He was like, “You have to get this right. I know you say you will, but if you don’t, it’s a disservice.” When he met with Kel, they talked about a lot of things, and Kel was like, “Well, should I not play this role because I’m black and because of the color of my skin?” So that was really interesting, man. We basically came down believing in the story, believing we can get it right and believing in that collaboration.

Waves is, at heart, a father-son story — it’s about this dad who pushes and pushes his kid to be the best. There’s a lot of talk these days about “participation trophies” — are we coddling our kids? Should we instill in them competition and raise them to think that winning is the only thing that matters? Since the movie is based on your own experiences, I’m curious how you feel.
I don’t have kids myself. I have five cats. [Laughs] They’re a handful, though. A lot of [Waves] started purely with the relationship I had with my stepdad, and then a lot of elements of my biological father are there as well. Those we really combined with Kelvin and his dad and talking about the nuance of that relationship.

I believe that Ron loves Ty too much. He loves him too hard. What I talked about with Sterling — it’s a big part of his character’s arc — is that if he would’ve allowed a bit more time to tone it down, just listen to his son, and not always talk at him but talk with him, things would have been drastically different. [Ron] has a chance to apply that with his daughter later in the movie.

I do believe I am the person I am because of the drive my parents instilled in me. They pushed me hard — especially my stepdad. The dynamic between the parents [in Waves] is very similar to myself, how it was for my parents. I’m very grateful for that, but that said, I had a lot of resentment built up. That perspective changed with time after I went through some things with my stepdad.

But it’s a tricky balance. Ultimately, man, that’s what you learn as you get older: Your parents are human, you’re human. Life’s hard, and we’re all just trying to navigate it. It’s very complex and messy, and we’re all just trying to do the best we can. I think Ron’s doing the best he can, and he learned some things and new parenting approaches as the movie progresses.

What about Emily, Tyler’s sister? She’s not caught up in the competitive thing going on between Tyler and his dad. Does she represent another aspect of you?
I think every character is a little bit of a part of who you are as you’re writing them. But a lot of times, when it’s someone outside of strictly me, it’s inspired by someone in my life. A lot of Emily is inspired by my girlfriend and things in her past and some of her experiences. The dynamics between the couples on each side — between Tyler and Alexis, and Emily and Luke — a lot of that’s inspired by my girlfriend and me over the past eight years and our highs and lows and everything in between. Plus, I know that feeling of getting through grief and going through isolation and hard times and trying to push through to the other side — and that kind of scary feeling of letting someone new in your life and seeing where that leads.

Are your movies a way to express things to people that you can’t say in real life?
I think so. It’s also for myself, in a selfish way, to work things out. My parents are therapists — they helped me not be a mess of a human being. I mean, we’re all kind of messes, but I would have been a disaster without them. I’m very grateful. But I think through these personal movies, a lot of it is working out my own things and then those things with loved ones.

Tyler wrestles. It’s such a masculine sport. Why chose that sport for him?
I wrestled, and I had the same exact shoulder injury [that Tyler has] — tore my shoulder senior year. I’ve since torn it two more times — I’m very stubborn like that. Wrestling is the hardest sport I’ve ever played, and I wanted to do it justice. I wanted to try to [get it to] feel the way it feels experientially when you’re actually wrestling in the ring — and the discipline that that sport requires.

I’ve never wrestled, but what fascinates me is that it seems like this combination of smarts and brawn.
It is, but the funny thing, once you really get into it, it’s kind of like a fight with fools. It’s full pure exhaustion — you can have all your strategies and everything, but then it just becomes you and the other person. Who’s going to push through and who’s not? I love it, too, that cinematically it feels primal, like gladiators. You’re both in the center of this ring with a whole audience watching you. It’s different from most sports in that sense. You can’t fall back on the team in any way. You’re in the spotlight, and everyone can see.

Waves also seems to be about how young people create an identity for themselves and how scary that can be when they lose it.
It’s hard, man. For Ty, he loses his identity, and he loses control over his world. I think he was raised so much [by] his parents to have that control and to be the best, but to work for it to be the best. That’s something you can try to control and actively work toward, but he loses all of that. It’s the worst, man.

It’s the worst when you’re young because it’s the first time going through that stuff. The first time you experience those things, it’s the end of the world, and it’s really hard to navigate. Then as you live a little bit more life, you realize that’s what life does, right? You have your good times and your bad times, and sometimes your bad times are purely beyond your control. But once you’ve lived a little more, you know you can get through it, hopefully. Some people don’t, but most people, I think, get through it.

That’s what I think the tragedy of Ty is. It’s his first time experiencing those things and he doesn’t have a minute to really sit with it and adjust mentally — it just keeps coming in rapid succession. I think it’s sad.

What also dooms him is that he and his dad are stereotypical men who can’t talk about emotions. The movie asks whether or not guys can get better in that regard.
I hope so, man. I think so much of that [conflict] is there [in Waves], but then also there’s men in the movie becoming so vulnerable as well. I hope we don’t have to stay in that cliché, even though a lot of us do. I think the movie is pro-vulnerability, pro-talking, pro-being honest about this stuff and not bottling things inside to where it can lead to anything toxic.

You said you were in a dark place after It Comes at Night. What happened?
A part of it was making it. These movies, I treat them like my children. I care deeply, deeply about them, and that was a dark one. I spent a lot of time with it. There was physical exhaustion from working on it, it was dark material, and then I went straight from working on it to releasing it.

[With] the release, I felt sad and misunderstood. A lot of people went in wanting a mass-marketed crazy horror movie, and that’s not what I set out to make. So I take it personally. When Emily’s reading social media in the movie, how she takes that on is kind of how I feel when I’m reading my Twitter or going through reviews of my films. It’s like people don’t like my kids and they don’t like me, and it’s a lot. Which I’m also working on — I don’t think it’s terribly healthy. [Laughs]

I was in a sad, dark place [after It Comes at Night]. I remember one night, I went out and I bought Burger King and Taco Bell and ate it in the bathtub and cried. [Laughs] That’s why [when he’s depressed] Ty’s crying and eating his burger in the bathtub. [Laughs]

Your movies are about families. Does making them give you any better sense of how you’d like to be if you became a father?
When I’m first writing, I really just try to let the characters and story organically guide everything and be honest in that. Then you learn more things about it as it progresses: “Oh yeah, I was actually getting at this [with] my loved ones.” Then [you’re] talking to people about it and talking about these different dynamics and relationships. It’s really funny: It’s almost like therapy in that sense of it makes you verbalize and intellectualize and talk about things that you might not have otherwise. And then you have a new perspective on that, and you learn and you grow.

So, who knows? Hopefully, that all would guide and benefit me positively. But then I’d probably still just be a mess trying to figure it out, like everyone else.