[Interview] ‘WAVES’ director Trey Edward Shults talks Frank Ocean, Radiohead and being a filmmaker made for this moment

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Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults. Courtesy photo.

James Clay // Film Critic

Trey Edward Shults’ WAVES is a movie that breaks the rules of filmmaking by letting the audience be a part of the creative process. The film feels fresh, personal and timeless in a way that puts you in the minds of the characters existing within its Florida-set high school drama. It takes liberties with narrative shifts by changing aspect ratios, employing frantic camera movements and allowing all those elements to morph into a psychological experience.

WAVES’ soundtrack captures the fleeting moments of being young and in love in 2019, but it also provides the feeling that these songs have always existed. The music of WAVES includes Frank Ocean, Tame Impala Kanye West, Amy Winehouse, A$AP Rocky, SZA, Alabama Shakes and Radiohead along with flares of Dinah Washington and a “Moonlight Serenade” to act as our spiritual guide through the film’s highs and lows. The aspects of sight and sound work together in a way that’s wholly unique and completely immersive.

Shults places you inside the head of an upper-middle-class, overachieving teen athlete named Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). At the film’s start, Tyler is driving down the highway with his girlfriend Alexis’ (Alexa Demie) foot hanging out the window without a care in the world. From there, the film opens up into a family drama that chronicles the choices we make and forging a path forward.

It’s the discoveries that Shults and Harrison uncover that make this film beautiful, haunting and unforgettable. This is a filmmaker discovering a new method of making films for the youth while possessing a classic arthouse form of introspection.

Fresh Fiction spoke to Shults about his use of music and bringing this vision from script to screen.

Fresh Fiction: WAVES is a movie that can successfully take on many thematic meanings for so many different people. I can assume this was a rather personal experience. Does it feel for the movie that I can assume is rather personal to take on a life of its own?

Trey Edward Shults:“It’s bizarre. I hadn’t made peace with that fully in Telluride. I started to in Toronto, and now that the movie is getting out there, it’s a surreal thing because you make this film with all your heart and soul. It’s like everything gets pent up, and now it’s not yours anymore. It’s a beautiful thing, but it’s a strange thing.”

The narrative structure of the film gives the audience this unique form of hindsight or reflection that is a bit haunting. Did you always want to give the audience this type of catharsis?

“Yeah. I think once that epiphany happened in terms of the structure of the film, it became what the film was going to be about. Because it felt true to life. Getting through things can be tough, but things change. Life takes many shapes and head-spaces; that’s just the way things go when we are shaken with hard times. It was just really exciting to have almost the climax at the half waypoint.” 

The entire film is immersed inside the mind of two starkly different characters, one of manic and the other is meditative. What was your thought process when conveying this thematically as well as visually?

“Well, I wanted to feel what it feels like for Tyler’s head at that moment, it’s almost like chaotic freedom. In reference to a scene where Harrison Jr. and [Alexa Demie] are in the car driving down the freeway. It felt like the only way we could visually convey this was to have the camera surround them and have it spin between their bodies. So, my director of photography, Drew Daniels, is operating this camera rig driving behind us, with a dolly grip and I crouched down behind the seats. Kelvin is driving like a maniac. It was crazy. Being in the car with the person you love is like a ball of fire. But to me, that’s their relationship.”

I discovered Kelvin Harrison Jr. in your previous film IT COMES AT NIGHT, as well as LUCE from earlier this year. Now in WAVES, he’s able to capture the unique perspective of somebody caught in a crossroads in his life. How did you and Kelvin collaborate on finding that tough middle-ground for a person who tends to be both magnetic and explosive, while keeping him sympathetic? 

“It was a long collaboration, and it honestly it started when we made IT COMES AT NIGHT. I had really rough ideas for this and a loose structure, but no character names or title. All I knew is that I wanted to work with him again, and this was the project I was doing next. Even when I started writing this, we started doing mini therapy sessions where we would talk on the phone, text and talk about that specific time in our lives. We got into talking about his relationships with his father, mother, sisters, lovers, and the pressures he was under.”

From Left to Right Taylor Russell, Trey Edward Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr. in WAVES (photo courtesy of Mill Valley Film Festival)

“Then, we got into talking about school, music, and finding the differences and commonalities on how we related to each other. About eight months before we started shooting, he got a script, and he’d give me notes. I’d go write more, and we’d go back and forth. It was amazing. So by the time we started shooting, all the prep work was done, and he disappeared, he was Tyler. I think he’s one of the best young actors of our time.”

I enjoyed the song choices, and the way music was fused into your film. I’m always interested in how filmmakers creatively weave in needle drops. Can you talk about how you blended the music into the narrative?

I think so much of it that was in the DNA of the movie for so long. Some movies do it so well that I love like DAZED AND CONFUSED, GOODFELLAS and BOOGIE NIGHTS, where the needles drops are like the ebb and flow of the movie.

“In a way, they feel like the spirit of the world of the characters in the movie that keeps everything connected. I really wanted that for this movie because music is so huge to me, especially in high school. I think it felt honest to the characters in our movie. In the end, I just hope it brings you closer to Tyler and Emily’s journey.”

So did you have a wish list or any music cues written into the script? 

“I did. It was like a massive playlist. My dream was to have all these particular songs in the movie. As I was writing stuff, it would organically come up, and sometimes it would fluctuate. For example, I could have this Frank Ocean track here, or I’d figure out this one works better over there. By the time I had a draft, I had embedded the music cues so they could listen along. I’d say we got 85-90 percent of what we wanted in the movie, and you gotta love having Radiohead give the last word.” 

A lot of these songs are pieces that I am familiar with, and hopefully, many viewers will be as well. Some will discover the songs on their own. Even though music is an outward projection, you made everything feel so internal and personal. 

“Yeah. I get it. These are some of my favorite songs as well, and you bring baggage to them. I hope that people who love this music will feel closer to the movie, and it just feels right.” 

The Alabama Shakes song “Sound and Color” plays over the closing credits. It’s appropriate punctuation given the use of music and various colors to make up the language of the film. Did you think about what kind of pallets you wanted to highlight certain thematic elements? 

“We honestly just went about it thinking about what felt true to each journey in the film and what state of mind they were in at the time. It was a blend as well because we wrote the film to have a specific geographic location, and we had to fit it in with what the landscape has to offer. Sure, we can pick the color of the kid’s room. But the school that we filmed at had its colors, and we had to adapt accordingly. Our goal was to make it distinguishable and a full-bodied expressionistic feel of color and how that coincided with the characters’ headspace.”

Find our full theatrical review from TIFF here.
WAVES opened in limited release on November 15. It will open nationwide on November 27. It was distributed by A24