'Waves' Spoiler Interview: Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults On The Film's Startling Second Half

It's been difficult for me to describe what exactly happens in Waves to friends of mine who know that I love the film but want to know why. Trey Edward Shults' third film, which is now playing in select theaters and will expand over the coming weeks, finds moving and deeply human drama in the twinned stories of teenaged siblings Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Emily Williams (Taylor Russell). But the film's moments of grace come less from what the story is and more from how Shults chooses to tell it, particularly in the ways that the two narratives play off each other.

There's so much to dig into with Emily's story in the film, particularly her budding romance with classmate Luke (Lucas Hedges). But in order to discuss their journeys with any level of detail, the conversation has to go into spoiler territory and divulge a major plot point in Waves. Luckily for us, Trey Edward Shults was willing to go there.

Only read past this point if you've seen Waves – and if you haven't, bookmark this page and return to this interview after seeing the film so you can absorb Shults' wisdom and insight. Spoilers begin now.

At what point do you even consider "spoilers" for Waves to start? I would assume in the middle with the incident at the party.

Honestly, I don't know. I'm a fan of people knowing nothing and going in completely blind. But, yes, certainly the party is gigantic.

Switching protagonists halfway through is a pretty tough thing to pull off. Did you look at other films that have done this?

I love diptychs, I love two-part movies, I love baton passes as well. Honestly, a big one for me with this was Chungking Express. I remember the first time I saw it, that movie clicked this structure into place. I saw that, switching to a new couple in the second half, and I thought this could be a brother and a sister with two couples on either side linked by this family and this tragedy. I love that in movies, but I don't know of a two-part baton pass that is linked by such a huge central event. Going from that event and a climax halfway through the movie to a new character, tone and rhythm – it was exciting because I don't know it to this extent very much. But it was hard.

Emily and Tyler are both, more or less, background figures, at least in terms of physical presence, in each other's sections. Was there any idea that maybe their main arcs wouldn't be as compartmentalized from each other?

No. Never at all. That approach went totally against the DNA. The DNA was a very subjective, immersive experience through each of their eyes and halves. Not interspersing those together any more than they are right now. In terms of Emily being more a part of Tyler's story ... I really wanted you to truly live through Tyler's head and journey, then truly live through Emily's and not be reliant on the other in each of their stories more than it was naturally there.

There's such a yin and yang to Waves, with the two halves playing off each other so well. Did one half develop before the other? Or was it always meant to be complimentary?

The Tyler half developed first. It was sequential because it was over a long period of time, a decade. First, it was just teens and music. Then, it became Tyler's half. Then, Tyler's half and this tragedy. But that wasn't enough, and then probably halfway through it was brother and sister, how yin and yang made the whole and the connectivity there. That's pretty much been with it 5-6 years.

I found the parallels so striking between the halves of the film, be it "What a Difference a Day Makes" or the repeated 360 shot of a young couple in love in the car. How did you go about deciding what was important enough to echo throughout the entire film?

It was just really organic. From the writing, it was spewing out of me. I was writing naturally from each of their point of views and just being honest with those characters. Ties would just naturally come together. That's what was exciting to me, too, because the echo between the two halves can feel like a gimmick unless it feels organic and effortless. I hope that's how it feels.

Talk about casting Taylor Russell and Lucas Hedges as Emily and Luke. They're great actors, but those characters have to possess a kind of intangible grace and tenderness that's really hard to conjure if it doesn't feel sincere.

You nailed it. Lucas, I was a fan of, and we met because he dug my past stuff. I flipped out over him in Manchester by the Sea...


I love that movie, too. It blew me away.

It's perfect, more or less. I don't think I could pick a single thing I would change in that movie.

Amen. Couldn't agree more. And I can watch it, as heavy as it is, it's so funny, too. It feels like life washing over and over.

I was just having a conversation with someone the other day about the humor of it!


Like when they can't get the hospital gurney into the ambulance when the house is on fire. 

Yes, in life's most devastating and most painful moments, he [writer/director Kenneth Lonergan] can still make that reality humor work. I don't know how he does it. It's incredible.

But, basically, I was a huge fan of that movie and Lucas. We met and just bonded. When you have a connection with a person, it just happens. You can't force it. We just had a deep, excited connection. I think we shared a burger and just loved each other.

For Tay, she auditioned traditionally. She sent a tape, and I was immediately shocked and blown away by this girl. It felt like she had so much thing going on internally, which is a hard thing to just feel. When you can feel so much actively going on in a person's face without them needing to do much, she just felt fascinating, complex and dimensional. Then I Skyped with her; the same kind of way, I just felt that big inherent connection. Then Tay met Kelvin and Lucas in L.A., and she and Lucas just hit it off. Their chemistry was nuts, and it just made sense. We had to shoot the road trip portion force, so they have to be fully in love. They showed up fully in love, and it just felt like we were making a documentary.

Why is Emily the way she is? We get a little bit more understanding of why Tyler acts the way he does, but I'm curious how you approached developing Emily when we don't have all those details. Is that something you and Taylor discussed?

I do think you instantly understand the dynamic of the family and where Emily fits in from Tyler's half. You don't see her a lot, and it's from his point of view, but we always talked about how she's the kid in the shadows of the family. Tyler is the star, and all the focus is put on him. She's also younger. She's not at the forefront of the family. Then this devastating tragedy happens, and she really starts to navigate that in such a mature, graceful way that really brings her out in this new kind of way. She becomes the heartbeat of the film, really, and that was the hope. From "oh yeah, the sister, she's just kind of in the background" to "oh, wait, she's taking over now, where is this going to go?"

Why, in Luke's first appearances with Emily, is he shot in silhouette or as a reflection?[laughs] Twofold. We're trying to be honest from Emily's point of view, and, at first, Emily is annoyed. Why is this person bugging her? She's on guard, man. She's lived through some utterly devastating stuff, her family's in a very dark place, and she's in a dark place. She's a kid dealing with heavy, heavy grief. And she feels isolated. We get hints about social media and the way her peers might have been. She doesn't want to let anyone in. When they first meet, it's a long close-up and all we see is the shadow. We even distort his voice a little bit, very subtly, and it's honestly all playing with what feels honest to Emily. In that scene, we zoom out to a two-shot as she's letting him in a bit. We treat it almost like we're an observer over on the side and just taking in their dynamic. For myself, letting someone new into your life can be a really scary thing – amazing, but also scary. Where she's at, she's like, "Who the hell is this dude?" Can she trust him? The first little part of their relationship, she's really on guard. [Does] this guy have ulterior motives?How did you go about incorporating the ways in which Emily processes her grief online and on social media? There's a real honesty and understanding of how young people turn to these platforms as outlets for their confusion and emotion. How did you gauge which scenes might not be face-to-face or verbal communication? In the final moments of the film, Emily begins a reconciliation process via text message with her stepmom but also ends up erasing the portion expressing her desire to "be a family again."

Massive, massive moment ... and it's just over the phone in a close-up! It was another case of just being organic with the story and seeing where things naturally went. I don't have any social media anymore. I still get on things from time to time just to track some stuff, but phones and technology is just instrumental to my life. I've had huge moments over text message, whether that's a giant fight – we have a giant text message fight in the film as well – or that feeling of trying to hear honest feelings over this device. In that big, emotional moment when she's trying to intellectualize and verbalize everything that's been pent up inside and how to relate that to her stepmom ... just the backspacing, you know? I've had so many times where I'm trying to say straight up how I feel, and then I end up taking it back and putting something new in. All the technology, in those instances, were just trying to be honest to how it felt to me and my experience. And how it felt organically and honestly to these kids' story.

Let's zoom out and talk a bit about religion and spirituality in the film. Obviously, the institutional church plays a big part in how Ronald comes to terms with all that happens, but I think there's a larger spirit of grace that animates Waves. I'm curious about how you grounded this deeply human story in what feels like something so much bigger.

That's hard itself to intellectualize. It's a feeling that comes across with a culmination, and I hope it feels organic. It was something organically happening for me in the writing. Even during filming, I had a religious, spiritual experience at the end of the summer. The most powerful thing I've ever felt. I don't know. It's hard to talk about, it's a feeling.

It does begin with the practical nature of these characters and faith. It's a part of their lives, so we're incorporating that. And then it's organically becoming what it is. It comes out even more because it became a movie about getting to the other side of grief and tragedy, trying to heal and sort out the pieces. Some spirituality and grace came through with that as well.

The film grapples with themes of redemption and forgiveness – these are weighty topics, and you discuss them with a real wisdom. Where does that come from? Organically, like you've said, or from other people and works?

It is organic, from the first draft on and then it just keeps building from there with the collaboration of all these incredible people I had. I put all of my feelings and thoughts into these movies, and it happens organically – sobbing like a baby and everything. I'm working stuff out through these movies. Both my parents are therapists, so I have a feeling that's a part of it as well. I think I would be an utter mess without them. I think just living life, going through some stuff, having perspective on that and then just organically putting them into a story with some characters. My theory is that if you approach something like, "I'm going to tell all these themes, I'm going tackle this and this," I know I would fail. I can't speak to others, but I would drastically fail. I start from that inside and come out. When it's honest to these characters and story, and then organically these themes are click into place, that's what I'm always going for.

You've talked about your aesthetic, particularly the camera movements, as a means to bring the audience closer to the characters. Is what's happening visually also meant to happen to us emotionally? We don't look down or observe these characters – we're meant to journey with them.

You're exactly right. I hope you get to the end, and it feels a very empathetic, human movie. I think that applies to the filmmaking and style because everything is just trying to get you to feel how they feel. Either looking through their eyes or sitting beside them. Two examples I like are the second opening shot with the crazy spinning camera in the car with Ty and Alexa ... for me, as a kid, two sacred places that were mine were my room and my car. No other place is more free than being in the car with the person you love. To me, the most emotional, honest way to echo that freedom is with a spinning camera playing off each other. That's emotionally what it feels like. But then there's times when it's just dad and daughter on a bench at a lake. The camera doesn't move at all. It's super simple, blocked off. We're doing subtle things playing with the sound design and using the speakers to where it should feel like you're sitting on the bench with them and completely present with them. I hope everything is in service not to judge anyone but understand them. Understand their journeys, understand their nuances and complexities. The film grammar thing we're doing is just in service to go on that journey with them.

I really appreciated that there was no ironic distance from the characters and that we were just going through it with them.

Thank you, man. That was the goal.