Trey Edward Shults’ third feature film Waves begins by following Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) through a tumultuous year of high school. As his family struggles with Tyler’s mistakes, the movie turns its focus on his sister Emily (Taylor Russell) as she learns to forgive her brother and love again. The story is a Zoomer-take on the themes most epically touched upon in Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life–one of the films Shults worked on in his early career.
In our conversation, Shults depicts Tyler and Emily’s experiences as a kind of yin and yang, infused by the spirits of Kanye West for Tyler and Frank Ocean for Emily. We also discuss Kelvin Harrison Jr.’s other starring role this year in the film Luce and Shults’s desire to direct a Kanye West biopic.
The Film Stage: Kelvin Harrison Jr. has another film this year, Luce, where he played a suburban African American teenager with too many expectations placed on him. Will you talk about how his character Tyler in Waves differs?
Trey Edward Shults: Their common thread is the pressure they face and the expectations. They’re also incredibly different. In Luce he’s adopted by white parents and in Waves the character is with his biological father and stepmother. Luce doesn’t peg its characters down–it’s like a constant mind game and it’s evolving. Our movie is very much what you see is what you get with Tyler. We’re living through his eyes and experiencing it purely through him, until his sister takes over the narrative. Another thing I talked about with Kelvin, as a young black man, having complex, layered, different roles in a contemporary setting is really exciting for him. When I saw Luce I was so blown away and proud of Kelvin evolving as an actor.
Emily’s relationship with Luke (Lucas Hedges) allows him to forgive his family and Emily to forgive hers. Luke is an awkward, funny and likable guy, and his character emanates a lightness of being.
I think a big part of it is energy changing in Emily’s life. Opening up to a new person and allowing love and healing is a huge thing. I know that’s changed my life greatly. Luke’s someone who doesn’t judge her from the start because she’s going through hell at the beginning of her story and they vibe through that. She really helps him… well, I don’t want to spoil the movie. [Laughs.] They have those connections over how her world is falling apart and how he’s lost his father. We don’t know everything else, but I think they help to build each other up. There are multiple relationships of lovers at different points in the movie, but Emily and Luke is the only relationship we see forming and that’s one of the purest and most innocent places you get in a relationship.
Tyler’s coaches tell him to be better and his father Ronald (Sterling K. Brown) tells him he’s never good enough. It gets so bad that getting hurt is the only escape valve for Tyler. Why is his life so toxic that he had to get hurt to get free?
I think a big part of it is Tyler’s world has built him up to be the best and be in control. A sports injury like his is the ultimate way of losing control. I think his dad loves him so much but he loves him too hard and he doesn’t allow open communication. Tyler’s built up to think he can’t be honest and he’s built up to believe he’s the best and he can push through an injury, even though he can’t do it. I don’t know man… we sabotage ourselves! I still have the scars on my shoulder from tearing it and tearing it again a few years after it doing the exact stuff I shouldn’t be doing. It’s human nature.
There’s a big Christian presence in the movie: the Christian anti-abortion protestors, Tyler’s family attends church, and Ronald quotes the scripture, “Hatred stirs up strife but love covers all offenses.”
That scripture Ronald recites is the heart of the movie. Waves works in dichotomies, it’s a brother and sister, it’s good and bad, it’s love and hate–the highs and lows of our lives and how that’s connected. I think Christianity is a part of the movie, which happened very organically. Myself, I’m agnostic now. I’m very spiritual, but I grew up with Christianity. My stepdad’s dad was a preacher so that stuff naturally worked its way in there. I think it’s a beautiful thing to have something spiritual that gets you through the hardest things in life. That’s something these characters have in the movie. I wanted it to be there realistically, subtly, and organically–to make it true to them in those moments.
You are a co-editor on the movie. Can you talk about that process?
I edited Waves for seven months by myself in Florida. It’s amazing because it’s as intimate I will ever get with the material in the film. My hands are literally on the keyboard clicking it into place for the first time. I’m crying like a baby, I’m on benders, staying up late, but I’m living and feeling the movie for the first time. It’s as close as I’ll ever get to an audience and what they feel. I thought this might be the last movie of mine I edit, but I can’t imagine not doing a movie that way.
How did you shoot 360° shots in a moving car?
It wasn’t that crazy. In the opening shot in the truck, we took out the center console and put a slider that’s going from the back of the car seats to the front. We broke down an ALEXA Mini as small as it could go, and it’s a wide lens, so that’s short as well. The dolly grip and I are hiding behind the two seats. So we’re crunched down on the floor and he’s doing any pushing from the back to the front, and the camera’s on a remote head with my DP Drew Daniels in the car behind us operating the camera. I’m on a walkie talking to Drew and looking at my monitor, but I can talk to the kids in the car. We figured out the camera stuff and we let the kids do their thing.
The movie changes aspect ratio periodically. Can you talk about that decision?
The ratios changing kind of act as chapter markers, but they’re really meant to echo where a character’s headspace is in the narrative. It starts 1.85 frames, wide lenses, full-frame as Tyler’s world is crumbling and closing in on him until we get to 1.33, which to me is more claustrophobic, and it’s also a beautiful ratio for faces. In this moment there’s this huge transference from him to his sister. In Emily’s story it’s sort of the opposite. Instead of closing in we’re opening back up as she’s learning to heal and love herself again. In a perfect world, it feels like the film is closing in on you and it’s almost like a burden is being lifted as we’re trying to heal.
Frank Ocean’s music is all over the soundtrack, but Kanye West’s “I Am A God” narrates Tyler’s breakdown. You’ve got a lot of Frank but Kanye’s kinda driving Tyler.
I’ve been a Kanye fan for a long time. He’s an endlessly fascinating person. I think he’s a musical genius and I love his stuff. For all sorts of reasons, using “I Am A God” feels so true to Tyler. Not only is that the kind of music you’d hear in that headspace, but it’s kind of spilling out of his head and pouring onto the rest. I think The Life of Pablo poster on Tyler’s wall–that album for me plays like a man at war with himself. “Ultralight Beam” is this incredibly beautiful gospel hip-hop, then you have this incredibly crass stuff from Yeezus and that sort of dichotomy playing off each other in that sloppy way, it feels like life in a way. We thought when TLOP came out that would be a big moment for Tyler and his friends. I’m fascinated by the guy and I think his spirit has worked his way into the movie in a lot of ways.
Tyler looks a bit like Frank Ocean from the Blond-era and both Tyler and Emily listen to Frank’s music to relax. And keeping with your dichotomy thread, “Frank’s Track” on TLOP has the line, “Life was precious we found out.”
Absolutely man, I love that. My co-editor Issac Hagy and I would say almost spiritually the first half of the movie feels like Kanye and the second half feels like Frank.
A few years ago you wanted to make a Kanye West biopic. Do you still want to? And what do you think of his new album Jesus is King?
Yes, I would still like to make a Kanye biopic, he just gets more and more fascinating. I have no idea what that movie would be, but just the idea of it is amazing. Jesus is King, yeah man, I’m still taking it in. I’m mixed on it. I was lucky enough to see a Sunday Service in Los Angeles that I thought was pretty incredible and it made me appreciate the album more. “God Is” has the emotion that I wanted to see a little more in the record. Some of it is so broad but that one feels more personal. Even the inflection in his voice, he’s trying to sing there but it sounds rougher. I love that song.
Waves opens in New York and LA this Friday.