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For his third feature in a row, writer/director Trey Edward Shults (Krisha, It Comes at Night) dives back into the subject of a family in crisis with Waves. This time around, he sets his drama in South Florida to trace the epic emotional journey of a suburban African-American family, led by Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), a well-intentioned father who puts a great deal of pressure on his high school athlete son Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., from Luce, last year’s Monsters and Men, and Shults’ It Comes At Night), while tending to ignore his quiet, studious daughter Emily (newcomer Taylor Russell).

When tragedy strikes, the family—who also includes stepmom Catharine (Renée Elise Goldsberry)—has to find the strength to regroup and forgive flaws even in the darkest times they have every faced. Emily is able to find some kind of solace with the help of a new boyfriend Luke (Lucas Hedges). Waves is a sometimes uncomfortably real and emotionally raw experience, in which all of the characters find very different paths through suffering and recovery, but it’s the journey that Shults paves for his characters that makes the film such a worthy and fulfilling experience.

/Film spoke with Shults, Harrison, and Russell in Chicago recently during the Chicago International Film Festival, where they discussed the very personal events that led to the screenplay, and the ways in which the actors found their way into their very different characters, and the way Shults represented each with unique visual languages. Waves is currently in limited release, opening in top markets on November 22, and continuing to rollout throughout the holiday season.

This film felt so personal at times that I was almost tempted to look away because I felt like someone was having a moment that I didn’t think I should be watching. How personal was this for you?

Trey Edward: There’s a lot, and I love hearing that because that’s a goal with some of this stuff, to make it as honest as it can be, and sometimes you want to look away from the real honest of things. I wrestled in high school, tore my shoulder the same way as Tyler, the couples in both halves of the film are inspired by my girlfriend and my relationship over the years—both good and bad and everything in between. The parents are inspired by mine; we lived in Florida; we shot where my girlfriend grew up. A lot of the areas where we shot are areas I love. Everything set in Missouri is autobiographical and re-created; the cat in the movie is my cat [laughs]. It goes on and on, and that’s how the story functions too—it’s real-life stuff and some fictional narrative then some real life and fictional.

I read somewhere that you’d been working on this on and off for a while, and it was difficult to finish. What was the thing that finally cracked it for you? Was it just living more of a life?

Trey Edward: I don’t think it was a narrative device or anything like that. Even the main structure was there for a long time. I think it was just living life and getting through some stuff and having more perspective, mentally and emotionally, and having those things click. I also think things happen when they’re meant to be, and a part of that was meeting Kel on my last movie and a few other things. So the combination of meeting Kel, making another movie before this, and learning from some things, it was all of that coming together and it finally clicked.

One of the threads that goes through your films is that the family unit has the potential to be destructive and resilient. Why does that theme fascinate you enough to keep coming back to it?

Trey Edward: It’s probably multiple reasons, but one certainly is that I’m fascinated by family—family and your closest loved one—I am pretty loose with the term “family.” These kids are my family as well; I think family are the people most important in your life. That being said, my mom and my stepdad were both therapists, and a lot of therapy is looking at all sides and talking about the bad so you can heal and grow from it. My other two movies, they ended in destruction, but I still think there’s positivity in that, whether it’s a cautionary tale or not. You can learn from that. But this movie was about family and love and the destructive but also how you can grow from that too. Love between family can bend and refract and take a person down, but it can also build a person up. I’m fascinated by that.

Taylor: I think it says that family is more fragile than we realize, and that just because you’re born into a family, it doesn’t mean you can just rest. You have to put a lot of thought and care into the relationships and nurture them, because if you don’t or you only think about your point of view, things can get easily messed up, I suppose. There are strong messages of forgiveness in this film, that nobody’s perfect, and about forgiving when it’s really hard to do so, and when you feel ungraceful and messy. There are so many different feelings you can hold at one time, like loving someone but not liking them or the choices they’ve made. I think you really see that in this movie.

Kelvin: Everyone is still growing into themselves. I’ve noticed in some of my relationships in my own family, my sisters are growing into the young women they’re going to be, my parents are growing into the parents they’re going to continue to be, not that we’re older—life is constantly changing. There are new obstacles or new people that come into our lives and new stakes. We’re constantly evolving and we have to keep trying to figure it out. And once we understand that everyone is doing the same thing, we can pump the brakes and go “Everybody, are we checking in? Cool. Let’s move on and we’ll figure it out together.”

I want to talk about the two young relationships presented here, because they are so different. Kelvin, the relationship Tyler has with Alexis [Alexa Demie] is passionate and spontaneous with lots of emotion on the surface. While with Emily, her relationship with Luke is much more reserved and cautious and part of her healing process. And we should also look at what’s going on with the parents, which is very fluid during the course of the entire story. Did you shoot them differently in terms of your visual language?

Trey Edward: Honestly, I don’t think they’re shot that differently, but the spirit of both happens in different ways. I will say, it’s two-fold: almost every relationship between lovers in the movie are at very different times. One is a marriage that’s been together for year and they clearly have baggage even when the movie is beginning, then there’s a whole new set of things they have to navigate through this tragedy. Another relationship, they’ve been together for a minute but they are the kind of relationship that’s a bottle of fire. They build each other up or break each other down. And Emily and Luke is the one relationship in the movie that is brand new, and I found in my time that it can be the most innocent time in a relationship, when you’re first coming together. It’s a beautiful thing, but it can also be a scary thing. It’s scary to open yourself up to something new. If you think of it like that—different couple in different phases—it was trying to be honest to each relationship’s spirit and the phase it’s in.

What were the things about your characters that you were able to latch onto initially and say “I can build upon that”?

Kelvin: I just loved Ty’s chaotic energy. I wan not anything like that in high school; I was very quiet. I was more like Emily. I remember being excited to be in the position to be that confident and being like “I’m having the best time in my life. I have a beautiful girl. I’ve got a sick truck. I’m a good wrestler,” to just learn to be the jock. But also that that person, with this idealistic version of his life has his own issues and problems. Me and him weren’t that different. So once we started to pull back the layers, I was like “Oh my god, not only am I in the same boat with the dudes in high school I thought were above me, but I’m in the same boat as my dad, my cousins, my sister, with my friends. And we’re all trying to work through the same things together; we just have no clue what’s happening in life and we’re trying to find the answers the best way possible, and that humanized him in such a huge way and grounded me, and I was so excited to go on this journey and understanding someone from another perspective. That’s basically what Trey did for me, and that made me closer to Trey. That’s what need to be doing; we need to be listening more and loving more and taking a step back.

Taylor: For me, I don’t think it was a conscious aspect of her that I could build off. It was more than I read the sides when I got them, because it wasn’t the full script because it was super under wraps. It was a connection and soul recognition—I saw her and relate to so much of who she is. Sometimes as an actor, it’s rare that you read something and synch up to it, and you’re like “I know how this person speaks, I know what they’re thinking, I know who this girl is,” and I had that with her, so it made sense right off the bat. There wasn’t a lot of thinking, and it wasn’t a super-cerebral process until I actually got the part and was thinking about how intricate it was and certain themes I wanted to infuse in her. At first, it felt like a guttural thing.

Kelvin mentioned emotional chaos, Trey. You shoot emotional chaos better than just about anyone. I want to talk about that scene in the car with Tyler and Alexis after they leave the clinic, because that’s one of the scenes I wanted to run away from—it’s so personal and intimate, yet it’s explosive. Talk about staging and shooting that, both of you.

Trey Edward: We did nothing fancy and just got out of the way. Drew [Daniels, cinematographer] and I had two camera rolling simultaneously in the back seat, so we were back there. Ty was driving, Alexis was in the passenger seat, and that’s almost the entire scene, that single coverage, the same focal length, we don’t change anything until she gets out of the car later. Then we attached the camera to the door to up the visceral impact, and then we just track along with him. Even before that, when they’re leaving the clinics, it’s just handheld, tight lens, feeling the chaos with Ty and tracking it. 

When they come into the clinic, the camera is just meant to be a fly on the wall, get out of the way, shallow focus, let them be, get as real as possible. Sometime, the camera is up in there, spinning around, doing all of this crazy stuff because that’s where their head are, but for that stuff, it was almost like having a fly on the wall or sitting in the back seat with a non-interfering approach. I think also because they’re so incredible, it makes it more honest; you feel more dread and it feels real. That whole sequence, the inspiration for it was the first time I felt watching scenes from Raging Bull, like I’m watching something I should not be seeing. “This isn’t a movie; this is reality.” But it was really mostly about getting out of the way and letting it feel honest.

Kelvin: A lot of it was in the writing. When you read it, the lines were never in the middle of the page; they were scattered, so you could feel the chaos on the page. So for me and Alexa, we know where their intensity sits in the scene. All we had to do was have it make sense of us and find the truth. It was playing it out, and we kind of rehearsed it before but not to much—not with Trey—just to see what it sounded like out loud, where does it sit in our bodies. And then we ramped ourselves up by find out what our triggers were, what are the things we heard from home or previous relationships or maybe bullies that might make us go “I don’t want to hear that.” What are our insecurities, and how we kept pushing those buttons. All those things helped us, so that when certain things happen you just go “Rrraaaaahhhh!” Then random things would happen like getting caught in the seatbelt.

Trey: Yeah, the seatbelt thing was an accident. Kelvin couldn’t get it on right, so there was this “Beep beep beep” happening, and I was in the back seat going “This is amazing.”

You contrast that scene with the one of you and Lucas driving to see his father. I was waiting for something bad to happen, but it was so nice.

Trey: I love that too because they are just kids going on a road trip for the first time in their life, and it’s the unknown. For them, they’re just purely excited, but to us as viewers, because we know life and how radically things can change, it brings this different perspective on things, whether that’s tension or melancholy.

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