Trey Edward Shults’s third movie, the instantly acclaimed Waves, hits the ground running and sprints for a good hour, the camera twirling and pushing and zooming to capture the frenetic life of high school senior Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.). He’s an overachiever—a sharp student, an accomplished athlete, a musician—who will not be deterred from his goals, even when his own body pressures him to do so (a shoulder injury threatens to sideline his wrestling career). And then Ty’s world starts to close in on him—literally. Shults, whose aspect-ratio geekery was apparent in the films preceding this one (2015's Krisha and 2017's It Comes at Night) and is harnessed in virtuosic ways in Waves, closes his frame in on Tyler as the setbacks pile up. Aesthetically, the film has the veneer of so much of the current neon-teen wave pop culture boom (like Riverdale and Euphoria), but it has an energy and unabashed sentimentality (not to mention a strong soundtrack featuring the likes of Animal Collective and Kendrick Lamar) that is all its own. The point is, there is so much to love in Waves. And yet.
I cannot discuss my impressions of this movie without spoilers, nor could I talk to Shults without discussing major reveals, so the rest of this post will be full of them. You have been warned. Spoilers ahead.
Ty’s relationship with his girlfriend Alexis (Euphoria’s Alexa Demie) begins to unravel after she gets pregnant and decides against an abortion. The ratcheting tension crescendos during a face-to-face confrontation at a house party, in which Alexis hits Tyler, and he hits her back with a fatal blow. He kills her with his bare hands. The second half of the movie switches POV to Tyler’s sister, Emily (Taylor Russell), as she copes with her brother’s imprisonment and searches for hope. Her life starts to change when she meets Luke (Lucas Hedges) and a romance ensues.
The rough story outline of the first half reminded me of Richard Wright’s beloved novel Native Son and James Baldwin’s scathing critique of it (“The failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended”). Waves seems tailored to do just the opposite of Baldwin’s charges, and yet it comes down on the same place: A black man kills a lighter-skinned woman with his bare hands. How could a white director be comfortable putting that image out into the world? If the answer is to humanize a guy who would be capable of killing a woman, even if accidentally, well, that seemed like a strange argument to make, too. Having Emily seemingly find redemption in the arms of a white man put a bitter finish on the storyline.
This is what I was thinking—“What was he thinking?”—when I met with Shults in October to discuss the movie. Without any seeming reservation, Shults went there and took me through the process of adapting a story based on his own life into one centered around a black family. He says the main thing that made him secure in going forward with telling this story were the contributions from the cast, Harrison and Sterling K. Brown (who plays Ronald, Tyler’s overbearing father), in particular. “The movie would not be shit without them, I genuinely believe that,” says Shults of his cast. The actors have backed this up. The cast eagerly highlighted the collaborative aspect of the film during a Q&A after the movie’s premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September. Below is an edited and condensed transcript of my conversation with Shults in which he shares just what he was thinking.
JEZEBEL: Can you tell me about conceiving this movie? I read somewhere that you’ve been working on it, to some extent, for 10 years.
TREY EDWARD SHULTS: Yeah. It was brewing for 10 years. Not a lot of actual work, just washing around my head for a long time. So much of it is autobiographical and really personal and things I lived or loved ones lived. For a long time, at least five years, the structure itself clicked: a brother and sister, their love interests on each time, a family linked by a tragedy. But still, I couldn’t figure out how to write it all in a coherent story and the nuance of that. I think I had to live some more things in life and get on the other side of some things to have some perspective. And then two summers ago, it clicked into place and started spewing out.
What is autobiographical in this movie?
A lot. Some things I don’t want to talk about. Things I will happily talk about: Tyler’s very much who I was in high school. I still have the scars from tearing my shoulder in wrestling. The dynamic between Tyler and Alexis and Emily and Luke is very much my girlfriend and I of the past eight years at some very bad times and some very great times. The parents were first inspired by my parents. We took it further outside of that with Kelvin and our collaboration with the other actors. But very similar. I grew up upper-middle class. My mom was a therapist. My dad ran his business. He didn’t do construction like Ron in the film; he was a therapist as well and ran my mom’s business. I live in Florida. My girlfriend grew up where we shot the movie. It’s home. A ton of the locations in there are some of my favorite places. Where we shot the school dance is where her school dance was. There are some other things I don’t think other people would want me to talk about.
Did you hit your girlfriend?
No, not that far. But we had big fights. I like to think all couples have… I don’t know this, but in a long relationship, you have your low moments. Verbal fights. Big blowups and getting to the healthy side of that. That moment that you just asked about... A lot of those [onscreen] blowups are inspired by fights I’ve had, but also things I’ve observed. It was sort of “What if?” What if that stuff combined? What would it take to lead to that?
At what point did you realize you were writing a story about a black family?
Because of Kelvin. It’s been brewing forever, it was just my family. But with him, that’s when it became the nuance of a black family. Kelvin and I did [It Comes at Night] together and we loved each other.
He got a first draft, and then even when I sent the first draft, I said, “You pick. You can be Luke, you can be Tyler, whatever you’re drawn to.” He wanted to be Ty, and we just kept taking it further. He got that probably eight months before we started shooting and it was extremely collaborative. I owe the nuance and perspective of a black family to him. And then it continued once Sterling came on, once Renée [Elise Goldsberry] came on, once [Taylor Russell] came on. Between discussions of them approaching scenes, between them ad-libbing things, and just talking about it. We felt a lot of responsibility. In the wrong hands, this is a drastic disservice, especially culturally right now. Kel and I always said if people get to the end of Ty and don’t understand how we got there, and if you’ve lost all humanity, then we’ve failed. His humanity needs to remain intact, but you need to feel the humanity for every single character in the story. It’s so personal and autobiographical, but then it grew into something bigger because of that and these actors and that collaboration. I feel very, very, very blessed.
All of that said, is it daunting to have your name attached to this movie? You’re white and you’re telling a black story.
I know no matter what, it won’t be enough. Some people won’t be able to look past it, and that sucks. I remember, too, when we were talking to Sterling, he was like, “If we don’t get this right, it’s not good.” He talked with Kel and Kel was like, “I love Trey, I’m drawn to this character, we believe in this for this reason, but… should I not play this ’cause I’m black?” I think Sterling was taken aback, too. I think if I would have approached this objectively as a white dude like, “This is a black story,” that would be terrible. The only reason I think it works and feels honest, hopefully, is because of that collaboration. Film can be one of the most collaborative mediums between the script and the productions, I don’t know what it would have been like any other way.
Just looking at raw framework, it is at the very least audacious as a white filmmaker to make a movie in which a black character kills a lighter-skinned woman with his bare hands.
Given the stereotypes. Given Native Son and James Baldwin’s reaction to it. Beyond the collaboration, how did you come to peace with that?
This was the scary thing for Sterling, the scary thing to work through and get to. What we talked about was that you have to understand Ty, and you have to understand Alexis, and you have to understand their dynamic. They are a combustible thing. I think the mistake would have been if it were just angry Ty. They push each other. That’s a real relationship. They’re a ball of fire. Before that pivotal moment happens, she slaps him hard across the face three times and he lapses. He has a terrible, terrible instinctual reaction. Ultimately, I believe it’s a tragedy, it’s an accident. But it’s a very fine line to where if that would have been taken the wrong way, it’s a disservice. It’s terrible. Shooting that was incredibly hard. We all wouldn’t leave that garage until we found—this sounds pretentious—the truth in it. The honesty in it.
I wonder what the bigger philosophy was regarding humanizing someone who could do that.
Look at the internet in the movie. Look at when Emily’s scrolling through social media. At that point, Tyler’s journey becomes what it is culturally: It’s pure evil. I know it’s a fine line, but what I believe is that human beings are incredibly, incredibly complex. We have a lot going on. We tried to make every character complex, but especially Tyler, a complex, good, bad, real human being that’s flawed, and portray that honestly. To me, that’s life. There’s a nuance in that. What we do right now sometimes culturally with the internet, is we don’t have that kind of nuanced empathy, or really trying to understand something. It becomes pure both sides. Good or evil. I don’t think that’s accurate to human beings in life. That being said, I want it to be complex and for everyone to feel like they have weight. I want Ty’s journey to have weight, Alexis’s to have weight, Emily’s to have weight, and understand each side. I hope it feels empathetic and I hope it feels human.
I think someone could still say, “Look, here’s a movie about a black guy who kills his girlfriend with his bare hands, and his sister who finds redemption in a relationship with a white guy. That’s fucked up.”
Of course. But here’s what I’ll say: We knew that going into it. On both sides, on the flip side, too, on Lucas’s side of things, you do that in the wrong way, that’s a terrible disservice. And I get it. There’s some people that just won’t go there. It’s already happened.
I’m sure it has.
And there’s no way to do anything. I respect that. Our intentions, and what I believe the movie is doing is not falling into any actual stereotypes, because we’re humanizing every single person and every single person is complex. And even for Part 2, Lucas doesn’t do shit. He doesn’t save her. What’s he do? They do molly together and smoke weed. She saves herself and the relationship with her family is so much more paramount to that.
It’s already happened, and I haven’t talked to those people [who’ve said that] personally, but I would love to talk and just get a dialogue going and be like, “I hear you, this is what we were trying to do, this is what we believe, and this is why I think, I believe we approached this with the best of intentions and we did a good job making complex human beings on all sides.” But if you can’t get to the nuance and meet the movie at that level, I get it. It makes me sad, ’cause ultimately I believe the movie’s not about race first and foremost; it’s about a lot of other things, but we just wanted to represent fairly.
Was there anything that your cast pointed out that you got so wrong or that had to be radically reexamined from your original vision?
A big one: The pinnacle event was more graphic in my first draft. My first stab at it was supposed to be a lapse of rage where you don’t understand what happens. I’ve had that kind of rage in my life. It’s a funny thing about anger, too. You’re always the victim. Everyone else is out to get you. The goal was to visually do that to where you’re like, “What happened?” and you just experience it with Tyler. But I think in that process, it was just making the event more graphic and wrong, and it would have been way more alienating. This was a huge flag for Kelvin, for Sterling, and it’s what we talked about. It’s why it is what it is in the movie. That’s the main thing. Past that, I can’t think of a lot. It wasn’t drastic stuff. It was nuance.
What do you think of the Euphoria comparisons?
It’s frustrating. I can sound really annoying in this context, but there are little things like we shot before Euphoria was made. My DP [Drew Daniels] was hired for episodes of Euphoria because of Waves. There’s that. I will say, I really dig Euphoria. I think it’s a great show, but it’s very different than Waves. I think it’s an easy comparison and the nuance of the filmmaking and the nuance of what the two things are about, yes there’s commonality, and yes there’s kids with parents in high school with some similar themes, but I think they’re still drastically different. I’ve seen Euphoria, I’ve seen This is Us, because it’s emotional and Sterling is in it, and I’ve seen Moonlight because it’s a black family in Florida. It’s like all those are great, but this is its own thing, hopefully. I believe it’s its own unique, beautiful thing, and can we just take it in for what it is instead of comparing?
Waves is in select theaters today, November 15.