LRM Online had a chance to sit down and speak with Trey Edward Shults, the writer and director of the new film Waves, which stars Kelvin Harrison Jr., Lucas Hedges, and Sterling K. Brown.
In our discussions with Shults, we talk about the origins of the movie, how he locked down the great Sterling K. Brown, and why the movie was called Waves to begin with. The film is currently playing ins select theaters!
LRM Online: Okay. So, how did this project come about for you, as the writer?
Shults: Well, I think I always have to, I can’t just write anything. It has to brew for a very long time because I think it’s terrifying just trying to write on a blank page. It was brewing for a very, very long time and different ideas and iterations and everything else. And then I think probably halfway through that it was really locked down on the over broad strokes of the story and the structure and the brother and the sister linked by this tragedy in their family and the lovers on each side. And then I think it was a few things piled into one of meeting [star Kelvin Harrison Jr.] And I think a few other things in my life, living through those and getting on the other side of them to where it finally it clicked into place. And right after I finished my last movie, the writing just worked. And it started writing and it was a blast. It was amazing.
LRM Online: But how did you get that concept of …?
Shults: Concept of … just in general?
LRM Online: Yeah. The story itself.
Shults: A lot of it’s very, very personal. There’s a lot of autobiography in it. That’s why literally living some things in life and going on the other side and some things with loved ones. And then concept itself, I remember … I remember I had the idea of Tyler’s story for a second but then I was like, it can’t just end there. That would just be like ending a nihilism or something. And it was … I don’t know, I think seeing Chungking Express five years ago made this epiphany with the idea of the structure that it could be a brother and a sister, and the sister’s a whole different journey and a new side to things. So that’s why I think it took a lot of inspiration from high school stuff for myself for Ty’s half, but then going through other things in life, getting through bad times and growing from that is a lot of what unlocked part two and I think the soul of the movie, if that makes sense.
LRM Online: As you were writing, did you find it a little risky or maybe as you were actually directing it? I mean this is like kind of like in a two in one in a way. It felt like it in a way.
Shults: It is.
LRM Online: I mean, that’s pretty risky to do because …
LRM Online: And then to be able to do the transition.
Shults: Yeah. Well I think … It was a lot of things. I think one is I love two-part movies. I love diptychs and movies that it’s like the two halves make the hole, but I didn’t know one that sort of went where this goes at the end of the first story, that extreme and then switches characters on top of that. It was risky and you don’t know if that will work but I believe all you can do is go for it. Because at the end of the day I want, the goal is to try to make stuff I haven’t seen before because that’s my favorite stuff I see. At the end of the day it’s risky and scary, but also exciting because we’re trying to go for something different. You know?
LRM Online: What was one thing, part that you would say was pretty challenging?
Shults: Oof. In terms of just challenging to make or challenging to change or?
LRM Online: To change.
Shults: One part that was challenging to change. I think there’s a lot of stuff. I think, even the central tragedy in the movie went further in my first draft of the script. It was more like … It’s hard to talk about it without spoiling things. It was meant to be a subjective lapse of rage. I think it would have been way too far in the movie. And we discovered that that night shooting, especially with with Lex and Kel, that we just couldn’t leave that garage until it felt like it was honest and true and that was really, really hard to do and really hard to go to that place. And then it felt like we pushed the line of how far you can take something like that. And then we had to stop. And they gave their hearts and souls into it. Yeah. That’s the first thing that jumps to mind.
LRM Online: There were quite a few scenes in the movie where it’s like, “Wow, you can totally relate.” We all hit rock bottom at some point. I mean, we just try to be pretty good at covering it up.
Shults: Yeah. And it’s part of life.
LRM Online: I shed some tears there. I have two at home. So it was like, “Wow, you could really relate to this.” How was it during the filming of some of those pretty intense scenes?
Shults: It was hard, hardest stuff I’d ever done. I don’t know about them, but it fluctuated too. There were particular moments I could tell you that were the hardest, like that night and some stuff at the end of the film. And it was very exhausting and emotional and hard to go through. But at the same time, when I look back on everything, it was, I have so much nostalgia. It was the best summer of my life. It was incredible. We had so much fun and the energy was amazing. Because I do think at the end of the day we all kind of loved each other and we were making something we loved and cared about. Whether that was fun stuff or hard stuff to do, it was just like taking it day by day.
LRM Online: Why the title Waves?
Shults: For me, it’s just sort of-
LRM Online: Was the title from the beginning?
Shults: Well I didn’t really have a title until I started. Even when Kel and I talked about it back on our last movie was no title. There were no character names. It was like the brought … “I don’t know, it’s this story. It’s kids in high school, it’s a family.” But then when I actually first started writing, that was the title and always the title. And for me it’s just really more spiritually, thematically what the movie is. I think the movies about highs and lows and dichotomies in our lives, and everything in between. Between a lot of that is relationships and love. So to me, it’s literally waves. It’s the good and the bad and everything in the middle. But that’s part of life. And I think that’s a beautiful thing and we’re all connected and attached to that. We all go through very bad times and hopefully we get on the other side of it and go through some good times too. It’s really just meant to spiritually connect with the movie.
LRM Online: Can we discuss a little bit about the scene in the clinic?
Shults: Yeah. Of course.
LRM Online: I mean, it’s a pretty tense, delicate topic, but yet you brought in a little fun security guard. I mean that was like a spark in there, like “That’s unexpected.”
LRM Online: Can you tell us? I mean was that ditch brought in during the filming or?
Shults: It was in the script and it’s all real. That’s all based on a real clinic in South Florida to what the guard says to the dynamics and everything that plays out. It’s all, yeah, it’s real stuff. And yeah, believe it or not.
LRM Online: Well kudos to that because I mean this is a serious topic, a scene, and then yet you were able to bring in a little bit of a flare in there.
Shults: It should, it’s based on real stuff and a real guy and yeah. We also wanted that stuff to just to make it honest and then filmically we’re just like a fly on a wall. It’s almost like a document. We’re just standing back and letting everything play out and we were just trying to make it as honest as possible.
LRM Online: How involved were you with the casting?
Shults: Very involved. It started with Kel because we worked on the last movie and it was super collaborative in building things together in that sense. But after him it was just a step by step process, you know? It was amazing. We just … I wanted to … Because it started with Kel and I, we love each other and love this thing and want to work together and make something special. So I just wanted that energy to spread to everyone. Whether that was Tay and Lexus auditioning and me not knowing their stuff at all and being blown away by an audition and then aiding them and loving their energy, to trying to go after Sterling K Brown which you don’t if you can do. It’s like he was like a dream for us, so you don’t know if you get the dream.
But it was at the end of the day, it came down to … At least for our key ensemble too, it was talented people that I believed in that I also believed in as human beings and connected with. But then it spread out through … There’s a lot of, you know, like the pastor’s a real pastor in the film and he had scripture I put in the script, but then he riffed and did his whole own thing. It’s a real judge in the film. It’s real. A lot of the … All the wrestlers are a real wrestling team in South Florida and it was … So trying to combine all of that with some authenticity I hoped, you know?
LRM Online: Let’s talk a little about the kid’s father.
LRM Online: He’s pretty intense.
LRM Online: There’s a scene where it says … I don’t know if I remember off the top of my head, but he says, he’s telling his kid, his boy, that they don’t have the privilege to being average.
LRM Online: Now that, I mean, can you tell me how that came about in this case?
Shults: That’s a huge moment and scene. That’s an example of how this whole process came about of like, that started with myself, the dynamic I had with my father and the pressure I felt from him on things. But then when talking to Kelvin and that collaboration, it grew into something bigger and it grew into the talk and a talk he’s had with his dad a lot. And talking about the pressures about being black men in America and what a father has to pass down to their son. And that’s why. That’s like all that nuance and specificity is because of this intense collaboration with Kel. And Sterling and I talk about, we talk about … We think … For me, Ronald loves too much. He loves too hard. He loves his son like crazy.
All of it is in the service of making him a stronger person and succeeding in the world.
LRM Online: And causing neglect to the daughter.
Shults: Yes. Well that’s an interesting thing too because he puts so much focus on his son that he’s not … I mean Mom calls him out on it on the back half of the film. Like “You weren’t there for it. You just play the good guy. You show up, you know, but you’re not actually there for her.” So it’s a huge part of his arc too, between over focusing on a child and loving too hard and not allowing a proper communication, to trying to learn more about this other child and allow that communication in a way that he let slip up before. I think it’s a really beautiful, beautiful arc.
LRM Online: Let’s see. Many kids will be able to relate when watching this, obviously. The way how being a teenager as is, it’s tough nowadays. There’s suicide and the peer pressure, the parent’s pressure, not just the parent … You know, it’s just everything all around. What’s one of the things that you hope that people take with them from watching this film?
Shults: That’s a good question. In particular teens too, or just anyone? Anyone?
LRM Online: Everyone. Anyone.
Shults: A lot of things I hope, I guess ultimately, I hope they take away some humanity and empathy and understanding. Whether that’s … A really beautiful thing I’ve noticed in the past … We’ve been traveling a lot and doing a lot of Q and A’s and screenings and if I’m going to pick a common thread that’s happened, it’s seeing some either the kids or parents separate in different screenings or together for some screenings and talking about communication between the two. I think it’s like really kind of trying to break down and be honest and have that full open communication with your child or with your parent is a way easier thing said than done. But it can be a beautiful and productive thing.
Honestly I hope that that’s taken away from it. I hope if you’re a parent watching it, you … Twofold. I hope somehow it reminds you of being at that age. I hope the parent’s dynamics and relationships feel honest and true. But then I also hope it makes you think about your kid and what they’re going through. And then vice versa, if it’s the kid watching it, I hope it feels honest or they can connect to some aspect of the story and the emotion. But then I hope they can connect with the parents and relate to things there. And then ultimately the dream would be if each, if the kids and the parents both take things from the movie and just, it helps something in their relationship in communication. I mean that’s … Who knows? But that’s the hidden dream.
LRM Online: I think of anything in any sort of relationship really.
Shults: Yeah, yeah, absolutely.
LRM Online: Not only in just of a child and a parent.
Shults: Absolutely. And it doesn’t have to just be a child and a parent. Another big part of it is lovers. That’s a big part of the dynamics in the movie. A lot of that’s inspired too by my girlfriend and I at very bad and very good moments and everything in between. And I think love, love between lovers can be the most powerful thing in the world. It can also be destructive. I hope, again, it’s just like … I hope that stuff feels honest. I hope it feels honest to relationships. I tried to make it honest to experiences I’ve had and my girlfriend’s had, I think. I think we can only … We can learn from both. Right?
It’s nice to see the positivity of love, but I think also it’s showing how love between lovers can be destructive can be a positive thing because it allows for more understanding, if that makes sense. Or at least thinking about it in that light, you know?
LRM Online: Yeah. I guess I have one other question.
Shults: Yeah, of course.
LRM Online: We’re almost there. Any projects that you can share that you may be working on?
LRM Online: Nothing right now. Just focusing on Waves.
Shults: I’m a blank slate. I put everything into this movie and now I have no ideas and I’m not working on anything.
LRM Online: Okay. Well, I’m sure your mind’s going to start developing and creating.
Shults: I hope so. I hope so.
LRM Online: Just like with this.
Shults: Yeah. Probably just need some time, you know?
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