Waves Director Trey Edward Shults Talks Personal Storytelling and Filmmaking in Florida

Waves Photo courtesy of A24
If you've seen director Trey Edward Shults' first two features — Krisha and It Comes at Night — you might have certain expectations for his latest feature, Waves. Where those two films exist as quasi-chamber dramas, the musically driven Waves, exploring South Florida with a camera that never seems able to rest, is an ambitious and grand-scale departure from his previous work.

"Florida, in a sense, felt incredibly liberating and so exciting, especially after doing two movies that were so contained," Shults tells New Times. "Even though it was a more expensive movie, [It Comes at Night] was even more contained [than Krisha] and I felt claustrophobic making it. I found myself listening to Blonde and Endless, Frank Ocean's albums, a lot and driving around on weekends going to water holes and dreaming about this movie.

"It was the first place I moved after I left Texas and left home, and I fell in love with it and felt inspired by it," the filmmaker says of Florida. "It's where my girlfriend is from and there's personal stuff from our relationship in there, and it's really exciting to make a movie in her hometown. Love is also a big theme in the movie: the highs and lows of it and everything in between, along with parental love, lovers' love, and my love for Florida. I don't have the baggage of growing up here, so I could be infatuated with it in a different way, and I was inspired and wanted to film here and do it justice."

Waves is split into two acts that vary wildly in tone, form, music, and approach to exploring its setting and the people within it. The first act is about Tyler Williams (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), and the second focuses on his sister Emily (Taylor Russell). Shults says the split came early on in the film's conception.

"We wanted to make a movie about these dichotomies: highs and lows, good and bad, of human beings, of family, of relationships, and of the gray area between them, so I thought it would be exciting to literally structure it as a dichotomy," he says. "Having a brother and sister as the viewpoints, having male and female perspectives... I wanted to understand how a tragedy could transpire and also heal afterward, changing the tone and pace and ebb and flow. I wanted it to feel honest to the characters but also spiritually honest to life, in a sense, with that unpredictable nature, and trying to get on the other side of some tough things in life, so it all wrapped together."

This ambition seemingly takes inspiration from the Florida landscape and a variety of artists, and the back half of the film includes a number of scenes that seem directly inspired by Terrence Malick, with whom Shults worked on three features.

"I wasn't consciously channeling him more in this movie... It's just a natural thing that's tied to the fact that Terry is one of my favorite filmmakers and I got to work for my hero," he admits. "Getting to see him work and how unorthodox he is and how only he could do [Tyler], all of that inspired me and put me on my own path in life."

Certain scenes in Waves seem more guided by music and aesthetic than any of the characters' dialogue, and Shults smiles when the word "mixtape" comes up.

"It could be [called] Tyler and Emily's Dual Mixtape," he laughs. "I got to build an epic playlist for a long time and then fused that with the writing. Music has always been huge to me, but in the past it'd be pieces of temp score just to write to an emotion, but then to literally take songs and put them in the script and write to them was liberating and fun; [there were] ideas and parts that had been building up for so long, and then to make it was a blast."

Waves casts a wide net for its musical accompaniment — spanning Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar to Amy Winehouse and Animal Collective, incorporating the likes of Glenn Miller and Radiohead, and even featuring a score by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor and longtime collaborator Atticus Ross. Shults says much of the movie's soundtrack was written directly into the script.

"There are moments that are almost identical to the script and how we shot it, with that music intended, and others were inspired by something new in post and playing with new music," he explains. "I edit alone at first, which can be the most amazing high when the movie is telling me where it wants to go, because there's nothing more intimate than working on it yourself. But then bringing on an editor you can work with to build each other up through collaboration is its own beautiful thing. You'll try this new piece of music and realize it's working and it guides itself."

Shults' first cut of Waves was three and a half hours, more than an hour longer than its theatrical release. The director discovered he couldn't find the room to keep every moment he originally intended to work into the film. "You find new ways to make a moment, though," he says. "Lose one and that'll lead to a new song and sequence fusing together."
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Photo courtesy of A24
For all of Waves' narrative sprawl, though, the film is ultimately about two characters. "Tyler has more of an external journey, because you're taking a world that's falling apart and dismantling, and he doesn't have time to process. He just has time to react," Shults explains. "Emily is the total opposite. Even though her world is falling apart, she has time to process everything — it's an internal journey. Navigating that and making it honest involves questioning 'Where's Emily at with her grief, with forgiving herself?' and exploring her connection with her brother. We're always putting her first, just within different contexts. Even when we leave her, we never leave her point of view; it's everything she's seeing and hearing."

These two characters were built by Shults alongside his cast. "Kelvin is number one because I literally wrote this in collaboration with him," the filmmaker clarifies. "We [were] doing these therapy sessions and I'd get to understand his past and dynamics, and then I'd write and fuse that with stuff from my life, and that continued forever. He got a script eight months before we started shooting. We'd go back and dig through it, and he'd give me notes, especially since the film is about a black family — he's black, and I'm a white director.

"I'm trying to understand him, to listen, to love, to learn, and to translate. So that was a process too, of just hearing him and bringing all that baggage and trying to do it justice. It was a long, beautiful collaboration, and then it just rose from there. Once Alexa [Demie] was cast, we reworked the character for her. Lucas [Hedges] brought himself into his role. Taylor [Russell] collaborated with everyone and talked about everything, and she gave me a woman's point of view for her character. I drew a lot from my girlfriend and her experiences in the writing, but [Russell's] collaboration took it to the next level."

Shults adds, "I want the actors to be as collaborative and involved as they want to be. Sometimes they don't want as much of that, and that involves meeting them halfway, but overall it was an extremely collaborative experience with pretty much everyone taking what the character was written as and making it something more."

This style of collaborative filmmaking is something Shults seeks to continue throughout his career. "It's not just rewarding; it's really what I want to do," he asserts. "My first movie, I made with my family and friends about my family, and now this, even though we weren't linked by blood, we became a creative family.

"If making [Krisha] was the best week of my life, this was the best summer of my life and one of the best experiences of my life. I just want to make things I care about with people I love and collaborate on that and see where it goes."

Waves opens in theaters Friday, December 6.
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.