Following a frustrating experience with 2017's It Comes At Night, writer/director Trey Edward Shults found a “therapeutic and cathartic” experience in mounting his third feature , Waves.
Feeling the pressure that comes when one's work is falsely framed, or misunderstood, Shults channeled it into Waves protagonist Tyler Kelvin Harrison Jr., a young wrestler in South Florida who becomes unglued following an injury, soon grappling with the consequences of a tragedy he never saw coming. A diptych that switches, midway through, to the perspective of Tyler's younger sister Emily Taylor Russell, the film ultimately examines the way in which a suburban family comes together, in the aftermath of loss.
“It was healing to channel those emotions into a new thing, and then just try to make something that was all of me, as a human being, with human beings I love so much,” Shults tells Deadline. “Honestly, making Waves was the best summer of my life.”
While the reception of It Comes At Night wasn't what Shults had hoped for, making the A24 title proved to be a net gain, in that it introduced the filmmaker to his Waves star, Kelvin Harrison Jr. Forging a powerful bond on that film, and in the years that followed, Shults then embraced the actor's perspective and talents, in the writing of his latest family drama.
With Waves, a timely meditation on forgiveness and redemption that was selected by the National Board of Review as one of the ten best films of the year, the director's goal was to craft a deeply personal and authentic portrait of “flesh-and-blood human beings,” he says. Striving to honor the complexity of all people, Shults made sure that no perspective was left unexamined.
DEADLINE: Between It Comes At Night and Waves, it seems like Kelvin Harrison Jr. has become a sort of muse for you. What is it about him as a performer that's made such a strong impression?
TREY EDWARD SHULTS: Oh man, so much. Initially, he was just a crazy talented actor, and then it was just meeting him and connecting as human beings, and then being blown away working with him, how smart he is, and especially at his age. I remember on the first movie [thinking], this kid is the best. He's as good as it gets, and I believe in him. That was several years ago, and now I can say Kelvin's one of my best friends. He's an amazing human being, he's incredibly talented. Just to watch him evolve, too, as an actor. He was already great, and to watch him get even better and deeper in the choices he makes, and the roles he takes...I don't know, man. I just love him so much. He's my brother, and I want the world to know about him.
DEADLINE: You've said the idea for Waves brewed within you for around a decade before you finally wrote the film. Can you recall a breakthrough moment when the various elements of your vision began to click into place?
SHULTS: I can't remember a specific breakthrough. I think there was just a time period of time after the last movie when I was kind of depressed for a minute. Then, I started writing and talking with Kel, and that was the click in my head of, “The story is coming out. Wow.” I'm learning so much more about Kelvin, how connected we are, in terms of not realizing how many similarities we actually have, that being another huge, organic thing in the writing. Then, [it was about] trying to hear the differences and everything else.
But really, to me, that was like the personal, spiritual click, when those therapy sessions were happening and the writing was beginning. They were both kind of happening in tandem, and the energy felt so right. Past that, it was a beautiful process, but a gradual one. Nothing overnight, all of a sudden, but over a few years.
DEADLINE: Recently, Waves co-star Sterling K. Brown told Deadline about certain initial reservations he had with this project—his concerns that through his actions in a pivotal moment, Harrison Jr.'s Tyler might fall into, or contribute to, racial stereotypes. What kind of conversations did you have with your cast to get to the point where everyone felt comfortable?
SHULTS: I don't want to spoil the movie, but I think the obvious scare is, the central moment that happens in the movie, if you handle that wrong...It's what we talked about from the beginning; it's a gigantic responsibility. Because if you handle that wrong, we're perpetuating a cliché, and doing a disservice, and it's something none of us would want to be involved with.
What we talked about is that it's about understanding. We're trying to make a movie about a complex, flesh-and-blood human being, understanding how someone gets to this point. So right there, in the fact of, we're not demonizing, we're not judging—we're not just saying this kid is awful, and this and that—we're trying to understand, and that's working against the cliché right there. Because that's not cliché. We never try to understand how a human being can get to this state of mind, and to this place, so there's that.
DEADLINE: What can you tell us about your visual approach to Waves, and your collaboration with cinematographer Drew Daniels? Every shot in this film is rife with cinematic details—like the neon orange nails of Alexis, glowing against the backdrop of the ocean.
SHULTS: It's a steady kind of build, and I guess it starts with the script and an approach. I really wanted this to be a subjective, immersive experience through Tyler and Emily's points of view, letting them dictate everything. Then, it goes to Drew; we've made every movie together, and we shot list the whole movie like crazy. We don't do storyboards, but we'll shot list everything, and just have intention behind everything. It's all in that preparation—understanding it, knowing it like a second skin—and then building that out with the rest of your collaborators.
Like Alexa [Demie]'s nails, I don't even know whose choice that was. It was probably Alexa's, but I don't want to take away someone else's credit, if it was them. But that's a moment where we're running out of light, we got the bench scene. It was like, “Okay, let's run in the water. Whoa, there's heat lightning in the back”—one of the most organically beautiful moments ever. I think Alexa and Kelvin, too, they didn't think they were good in the scene prior. I don't know why—I think because of practical stressors. The sun falling, us running out of time, and the waves messing up the sound. But then running into the water, they let all of that go. There was this beautiful, organic love connection, and it was one of the most beautiful things we shot—and it just happened because we ran into the water real quick, put the camera in underwater housing and made it happen.
That's why every movie is a miracle. You plan, you prep, you do all this stuff, but then you've got to be ready to throw it out and go with the flow, and be open to the world, as well. That goes for the visuals, how Drew and I design everything. As much as we shot list, we want to let the movie and the characters, and where we are practically, sort of tell us, and be open to letting that dictate more. That pretty much goes with every department. Then, it's just trying to create a good energy, trying to make it a place people want to go to work, and care about what they're doing. When you're building all that beautiful energy, everyone boosts each other up.
DEADLINE: Waves was a very personal film for you. You’ve said the process of making it was therapeutic.
SHULTS: I didn't think I'd just be making movies for therapeutic reasons, and then you sort it out once you start doing it, and see a trend. But yes, absolutely. And what's therapy about? It's about trying to understand a person and their complexities, their good and bad, so they can grow, right? To me, that's literally the spirit of this movie.
I think we tried to make a movie, especially for today. I think we're at a place where we might not want to try to understand. We might not want to try to understand another side, or try to understand the nuance of something, and attack it. We just wanted to make something that was about empathy and understanding—understanding how this tragedy can transpire, and then is there a way to heal after it? Is there a way to grow? Whether it's a cautionary tale, or whether we're trying to heal in it, that all connects back to therapy, I think. For me, I think I didn't even realize how linked and tied I am to it, truly, until I started talking about Waves.
DEADLINE: The themes of forgiveness and redemption you were exploring with this film resonate with incredible power, in our present moment. What do you think Waves has to say about the world today?
SHULTS: It's about communication. You could take our movie and think the first part's a cautionary tale on lack of communication, and the second part is about building communication. That gets back to therapy, as well, but it is our culture. Human beings are incredibly, incredibly complex, and there's a lot of good and a lot of bad, but that's what makes us beautiful. Those dichotomies and that messy gray matter, that's a beautiful thing. I think it can be tempting to simplify and demonize, but I think it's really important for us to try to empathize and understand each other, and communicate. But real communication, to where we're trying to actually understand both sides and points of view, not just trying to have your view validated.
I think it's everything I believe in, in this movie, and that's why we wanted to make this movie today. I also think maybe if some people don't like the movie, and the movie causes conversation, it's because that's where our culture is right now.
DEADLINE: What's next for you? Are you planning to take a bit of a break before jumping into your next project?
SHULTS: I think so, yeah. I think a part of it is putting so much into this movie. I'm very proud of the movie, and I put it all into it, but now it's out there. So now, I'm just creatively tapped out a bit. And then also, it's a tough time to make complex movies right now, and get people to see them. So, who knows? I'm just going to take a moment to reflect and figure out life.