Trey Edward Shults boldly plunges in to his second full-length feature film “Waves,” starring Kelvin Harrison, Jr. (“Luce”), Taylor Russell, and Sterling K. Brown depicting a suburban family dealing with an unexpected tragedy and must find a way to forgive and ultimately heal. This personal film explores the emotional range of a young black man never quite seen on the silver screen before. Shults, Harrison Jr., and Russell were all in Chicago for the Chicago International Film Festival and sat down with me to discuss the making of this tragically beautiful and visceral film.
*(Edited for space and clarity)
Pamela Powell (PP): I know your first film, “Krisha,” was a very personal one, based upon your own life’s expereinces. Is “Waves” also?
Trey Edward Shults (TES): Yes, it was. This one probably more myself or starting with myself and things I’ve actually lived and gone through…and the collaboration with Kel (Kelvin). It was a kind of very narrow, personal point of view and understanding other perspectives as well.
PP: Was this a type of therapy or catharsis for you?
TES: My mom and my step-dad are both therapists. I think that could go both ways, but I actually feel very blessed to have two parents as therapists because I think I would have been a total mess and they put up with me pretty well. (Everyone laughing) I think everything I’ve done so far is working something out. I genuinely believe that with this movie [I] was putting a lot of past experiences, some present, and everything that I believe and feel as a human being, spiritually, creatively, emotionally, where I’m at right now, into a movie. It was an incredibly cathartic experience; every different stage of the movie.
PP: Kelvin, tell me about your input and collaborating with Trey.
Kelvin Harrison Jr. (KHJ): He pretty much already had an idea of what the movie was going to be and at the end of “It Comes At Night,” he said he was going to make this high school movie and I was like well then maybe I should be in it.(Laughs). So then about a year later, he came and he was like, ok, I’m ready. And so let’s talk about it. …. the collaboration became this, like Trey said earlier, therapy for us. Rehashing out our childhood and our upbringing and relationships and experiences with our fathers and my sister and our romantic relationships and just trying to figure out who are we and what would it feel like to be a young man. What were the struggles of just trying to find our identity in that moment, just trying to understand and love yourself. It was like honest and this universal truth so then me coming into it, just explaining to him what it was like to be an African American and throwing in those experiences, him just being such a great listener.
PP: Forgive me if I’m unaware, but I really haven’t seen an African-American family portrayed in this way before.
Taylor Russell (TR): No, I think you’re incredibly intuitive. We were at a Q&A and it was a mixed audience … What was lovely is that somebody said, he wasn’t Black, this story doesn’t feel like a Black story, it feels universal. On the other side, a Black person said, this feels like so tailored to the African American experience. … It’s very rare that you see a person of color who you see all the nuances and the tones of what it’s really like to be a real person who is African American, who’s upper middle class or who has all the different levels as human beings. I think because of the fact that it’s universal and about a Black family, we really haven’t seen that before and I think it’s really important.
PP: Kelvin, tell me about creating such evocative scenes and which one spoke to you?
KHJ: To be honest, I think it’s the scene with Tay in the bathroom. I think it’s because, first of all in terms of masculinity and black masculinity that was something we really wanted to explore …I look at Denzel and he does it so well, but then there’s that strength behind it [and there’s] always this idea that I’m going to hold it together because I have to. One of my favorite movies is Michael B. Jordan in “Fruitvale Station,” and even him in this movie, it’s still like, be tough, get through it. … I think we see, they’re playing the truth of what this is to be a Black man, and it speaks on the progression of where we are and what the youth are like. … they have the opportunity to be more vulnerable and be less fearful.
PP: Trey, tell me about creating an unexpected yet now favorite scene.
TES: When Tay and Lucas meet, that, I wasn’t even going to shoot the scene that way because that seems very unorthodox where it zooms in on her. It was just going to be a two shot, solo shots the whole time, but I let the scene keep running. We zoomed back out and we kept playing this whole scene with this nice awkward take where you see the body language. It feels really special because of that.
PP: The cinematography is uniquely dramatic. Can you tell me about that, especially driving and capturing these sometimes dizzying scenes.
TES: I [try] to make them (the cameras) feel hidden. Sometimes they are far away or were tucked behind something, but sometimes they’re right here, spinning (hand in front of Kelvin’s face) in front of their faces, but we’re trying to not get in their way. We want to set up the environment for freedom so I hope for them, it feels like the camera isn’t even here any more [that] we’re just playing.
“Waves” opens Friday, November 15 in limited theaters.