Written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, Waves is a stunning journey into the heart of a family in crisis. Following the journey of a suburban African-American family, the film focuses its lens through the eyes of young wrestling star, Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) and his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). Raised in a family led by their well-meaning but over-bearing father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown), their family is forced to explore the nature of love and forgiveness in the aftermath of tragic circumstances. With so much emotion within every scene of the film, Shults believes that he had to be careful that he didn’t push the dialogue too far for fear of losing his audience.
“It’s a fine line between sentimentality and shmaltz,” Shults believes. “I will say, however, that I think you could see this movie as a melodrama too. I love melodramas but I do think it’s a fine line. Everything’s coming from a more real place in the sense of either myself or things from Kelvin’s perspective or my loved ones are drawing on real stuff and real emotion. It’s a lot in the movie. For some, it might be too much. You just try to make it as honest as possible and keep it that simple and stay true to the honesty of that emotion. I think if you try to manipulate it too far and push it too far, that’s when it goes to sentimentality. It doesn’t ring true anymore.”
With this in mind, star Kelvin Harrison Jr. also appreciated Shults willingness to collaborate on dialogue in order to breathe authenticity into the script.
“I had an opportunity right before this movie [to do] a movie called Gully and that director let me get really in there, surprisingly so.,” says Harrison Jr. “[As a result,] I think I had a little bit of a tease of what this could be like, but never in this capacity. We met at a coffee shop and [Shults] told me about the two parts of the movie and… that he’d tailored the role for me. But the conversations we were having were just general conversations about life. Then, by the time I got the script, I realized, ‘Oh, you actually care about my thoughts on character and dialogue and what will be said and what wouldn’t be said?’ So, it’s incredible to collaborate in that way and it really helps you as an actor dive in more and so that the performance doesn’t feel like a performance to me. I can actually just feel like I lived in it and I don’t have to try so hard to hit marks, hit beats or try to execute anything. I can kind of just breathe. It just made the movie experience so much easier and more fun, honestly.”
As a result of this collaborative process, Shults and Harrison Jr. were able to discover many common aspects to their own stories that enabled them to properly flesh out the voice of Tyler more authentically.
“In those little ‘therapy sessions’ (as we called them) and in this work, it’s about really finding those commonalities in our experiences but then the specific differences,” Shults explains. “So, the pressure, the way Tyler’s dad is, I relate to that. For me, it was wrestling. For Kelvin, it was music. His dad pushed him specifically with music and then the specificity of a black father and son. That’s all from Kelvin. So, I’ll listen to him. I’ll take a stab. I’ll write, [then] he’ll get a draft and [get] specific notes from [him] and really trying to hear and understand [him]. Then, I’ll do work and rewrite it and ask, “Am I getting closer to truth here? Is this more authentic to your experience?” It’s all in that collaboration of communication and just trying to understand [one another].”
“I think the thing [about] that conversation was trying to understand my own dad and the stories he would tell me,” Harrison Jr. adds. “I feel like a lot of friends I know and a lot of young black men have had that conversation with their dad. Trey had a similar conversation. That’s what was so mind boggling to me. He had a similar conversation about being the best and being number one but, what happens when you add the pressure in the history of black people onto that and tackle and put that chip on Ronald’s shoulder?
“We’re looking at a family that’s privileged at the end of the day,” he continues. “This is a middle-class family. At the end of the day, my dad came and said to me, ‘You’re spoiled. You do know that, right? Let me remind you what you look like. Let me remind you who you are and then remind you where you came from.’ I didn’t ask for all this information, but it was a necessary piece that I needed to understand in order to keep going in my life… It’s just the idea of that I could be just as talented as the person next to me, but will I have the same opportunities? So, it was explaining that to Trey. Then he wrote out a monologue and I was just like, ‘Well, that checks out’ [laughs]”
One of the most beautiful and unique aspects to Waves is its interest in shifting the film’s perspective in the middle of the narrative. Because of the film’s willingness to take risks in this way, Shults is able to create a more fully-formed dialogue surrounding the nature of hope and suffering.
“For me, it was everything. It’s so exciting to me because I [think] it’s about the yin and the yang,” he explains. “I feel like the movie is kind of about dichotomies in our lives and the good and the bad of a human being, of your family, of relationships, your loved ones, the highs and lows of love, [and] everything in between. So, literally structuring the narrative in a dichotomy between a male and a female—between a brother and a sister—and hopefully understanding how a tragedy can transpire but then not just living in the worst of the worst, but [also] trying to find some healing and growth on the other side as much as possible. I was just so, so excited because I’ve seen a lot of two-part movies and diptychs that I love. I got really excited too though within that [structure] being linked by such a devastating tragedy and then switching characters. We were all [wondering] is it going to work? I believe it [does] because Kelvin is so incredible and [Taylor Russell]? She’s the best.”
True to the film’s exploration of dichotomies, it also draws bold comparisons between the nature of both love and hate. According to Shults, while the heart behind both feelings are vastly different, there also exists a significant blurred line between them.
“I think [love and hate are] blurred,” he considers. “I think for myself, it’s about the gray. It’s not about the polar opposites. It’s about the gray in between. That, to me, is what’s really human about us and our relationships. Human beings are so, so damn complex and relationships are incredibly complex. Relationships with the people you love the most where it should be so easy to just communicate can be incredibly difficult and nuanced. So, for me, it’s about those dichotomies, but then the gray area between and everything linked together because that to me that’s what life has been like so far.”
With this in mind, Waves holds up the hearts of its characters in the midst of traumatic circumstances. Given the horrific events that take place in Tyler’s life, both Shults and Harrison Jr. feel that there remains hope for him and his future, despite the difficult road ahead.
“I think it’s a lot because basically the worst thing that could happen happens and it’s at his hands,” Shults laments. “It’s the worst accident and mistake of his entire life and he has to live with that. For me [though, I personally think] hope at the end [is shown because] he hasn’t lost touch with God. He’s in prison for a while, but he can still grow in there. I think that’s hope. I think processing, reckoning with what’s actually happened and trying to grow as a person is kind of all the hope he can do. It breaks my damn heart.”
“I feel like, there are good situations of this and there are bad and they don’t always come up,” Harrison Jr. interjects. “For me, what I pull from is [that] I have two cousins and they’re brothers. One of them recently took their life because they had substance abuse problems and they couldn’t take it anymore and the other one’s left alone. Both of them went to prison at one point or another [and] both of them got out but one came out completely different than the other. You don’t know what’s going to happen and you don’t know how the actions will affect a young person and how it will affect their psyche. All you can do is make sure that we nurture the relationships that we have in front of us, and I know that now we’re reaching out to my cousin. We’re making sure we include him in a family, making sure that he feels loved and safe to be able to express himself in that we’re not going to judge him, no matter what happens.”
“So, for Tyler, who knows what’s going to happen to him? We hope that he finds peace, but we don’t know what happens behind those doors. We don’t know what he’s going to have to get over with. We hope that maybe they can get him some therapy, if that will help. But you can’t predict that. So, I don’t know. We just hope for the best.”
Creatively, Waves also plays with a movie camera in such a way as to include the viewer within the action itself. Nevertheless, despite the film’s style and flare, its director believes that the soul of the film stems from the performances of its cast.
“I think a movie like this lives and dies by its performances.,” Shults emphasizes. “So. if we’re ever taking camera stuff too far to where we’re getting in the way and impeding [the actors’] performances, then we’ve failed. It’s just trying to prepare [and] plan, but then be ready to adapt, change [to] really whatever they need. Honestly, the most difficult scene to shoot, just for practical reasons, was the scene when Trey arrived at the party and he leaves his truck and goes through the whole party and upstairs. It was a long take. It was a very complex lighting set up. It was a million extras… Blocking just at that magnitude with that many moving parts was hard. But once we got there, it was amazing. To me, I have the best team. It’s not only the best actors, but the best crew. You figure it out together.”
In light of this, however, Waves also features a diverse and beautiful soundtrack that brings the film to life sonically. For Shults, an incredible soundtrack was always going to be an essential component of the film due to his interest in other classic films.
“Scorsese makes the best soundtrack films out of anyone I love a lot of soundtrack films,” he fawns. “I love Goodfellas,Boogie Nights, American Graffiti, [and] Dazed and Confused. That was always in the DNA of this, you know, because music is another part of the world of a film. So, I’m sure it can be a shortcut to things if you have a pre-existing experience with it but, for me, it’s just another part of the filmmaking. Having a soundtrack that hopefully feels honest to these characters in their world is a part of the storytelling. For this movie, I consider it a soundtrack film where that’s very much the ebb and flow in the purpose of getting you closer to Tyler and Emily’s world and headspace… I embedded so much of this music in the script and you could press play and plot pause as you’re reading it just to set the tone from the beginning.”
For full audio of our interview with Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Trey Edward Shults, click here.
Waves dives into theatres across Canada on December 6th, 2019