This year, Spike Lee met defeat at the hands of a feel-good “race relations” movie: Just as Do the Right Thing wasn’t even nominated the year Bruce Beresford’s Driving Miss Daisy won Best Picture, so too did BlacKkKlansman lose to Peter Farrelly’s Green Book last February. Apart from sharing a common belief that racism can be cured through the establishment of transactional relationships between white and black Americans, both victors happen to be directed by white men.
Trey Edward Shults is a white man too, but in Waves, his third feature, he crafted the movie with his primarily black American cast. The film traces the arc of a Florida family coping with death and eventually with an altogether different but equally as terrible loss; Shults focuses first on Tyler (Kelvin Harrison Jr., who starred in Shults’s 2017 film It Comes at Night), and then, after a horrifying mid-picture development, switches perspectives to his sister, Emily (Taylor Russell). In the abstract, Waves could’ve also been about a white family, but Shults backs up his decision to shape the project around Harrison, treating him as a primary collaborator and peer, and the effort pays off.
Paste connected with Shults to talk about the work that went into identifying with a black American narrative through empathy and the simple act of listening.
(Note: This interview has been edited for clarity and length.)
Paste Magazine: As a white American, how do you approach telling the story of people of color in America?
Trey Edward Shults: Well, it happened very organically. I think It Comes at Night happened for a reason, and a huge part of that was meeting Kel. We met and loved each other and wanted to make something together again. So this was extremely collaborative. Elements of this have been brewing forever, but I hadn’t started writing anything. It didn’t all click into place. I knew the broad strokes of the story; I started telling Kel ideas for it, and he really gravitated towards Tyler. We were like “Can we make this work?” Basically we started mini-therapy sessions when I started writing, phone calls and text messages and talking about our pasts, that time of our lives, relationships with our fathers, mothers, girlfriends, school pressures, everything, and in that the commonalities and differences of being black, and Kelvin’s experiences.
I was really just trying to listen to him and collaborate and talk and try to convey that into this story. Then I wrote a draft and sent him a draft. He got it probably eight months before we started shooting, and then we just kept collaborating. We’d go through the script, analyze everything, he’d give me detailed notes, I’d go back and write more and try to make it honest and work for him. It was really beautiful because it was organic and natural, because we loved each other and wanted to work. Aspects of it were so personal to myself, but we found those commonalities in our experiences. What Kel and I talked about is making it feel authentic and real and specific to a black family while also dealing with universal things that every family can relate to in the sense of grief and love and loss and trying to heal. For myself, it’s all due to Calvin and then to the rest of the cast as they came on, and that collaboration built and grew. I tried to hear them and listen and convey everything.
Paste: How did Taylor, Renée [Elise Goldsberry] and Sterling [K. Brown] add to that collaboration? Because it sounds like, to me, what you’re discussing is very much an act of listening and letting the voices of your cast be voices in the room with you.
Shults: Oh, absolutely. I feel like the film would be nothing without them. That was everything for this. It did start with Kel, but then it built out with everyone else. I was lucky to get to work with amazing actors and see the auditions from Alexa [Demie] and Taylor; I already knew Renee and Sterling, but I got these auditions and then Skyped with them and jibed and linked with them as human beings, and connected. It started from there, with a special energy and collaboration that kept growing, and it could have been anything—text messages, phone calls, workshopping the script together. I don’t like rehearsing, but like talking about everything and getting their feedback and perspective. And then I’ll get feedback from them and write a new scene and then send it to them.
It’s changing language on the day, and bringing a new sense to a scene. I made Krisha literally with my family and friends, and I’m just trying to build that energy up with everything I do. With Kel, it was different. We already knew and loved each other. I was just trying to find people who could feel that connection at the beginning, hopefully love each other and create something we cared about. It was amazing. It was the best summer of my life working with them.
Paste: It sounds so simple when you talk about just listening to their stories, but I feel like both the industry—the people who make the movies and the people who write about the people who make the movies—don’t necessarily get that. Where do you think that divide is for people, where the thought of white storytellers telling narratives about black characters becomes so difficult to process?
Shults: I think people have the right to be wary, because the wrong people have been telling stories in the history of our industry. Look at the Best Picture winner not too long ago. I get it. I get the hesitation. For myself, that’s why I try to get across the unique way in which this was made. There’s no one way to make a movie. I don’t make movies in an orthodox manner, and I think there are ways a different person can make movies and tell stories that they’re not fully from, in a very particular, sensitive way.
I think for us, between the collaboration and that deeply personal place for myself, that’s how it all clicked and came together. I could get it from objectively looking at it. I’ve had those same issues with movies, but not all movies are the same. So it’s twofold: I think it’s incredibly important for new, diverse voices to break through and come out and tell their stories. But then I think others have a responsibility to try to just listen and open up and tell bigger stories, otherwise…what are you going to make? [laughs]
I think it’s more important to see bigger than yourself and understand and convey and collaborate. It’s very…it’s tricky to do in this industry. I haven’t done a lot of traditional film shoots. I think it’s tricky to do, but I obviously I think it’s possible because I believe we did it and I think it’s important.
Paste: You mentioned that you listened of the cast’s own stories and insights. Were there any in particular that really jumped out at you that were formative for the direction the movie ultimately ended up taking? I could very easily see this being told with white protagonists.
Shults: Yeah, a very different movie version of this movie could exist where all the characters are white. I wanted to make this because I wanted to give Kel a great role. But there’s a different responsibility as soon as the family’s race changes. You have to see everything through that lens and make it specific. It’s all in the collaboration.
Paste: The moment where Tyler’s dad tells him that they have to try twice as hard…
Shults: That scene is a huge inspiration from Kelvin and his father. For myself, it was wrestling, and school pressures, and aspects of my dad and stepfather combined into one character. Then I talked to Kel about the commonalities in those pressures, and then the differences. He grew up in New Orleans. His dad’s an amazing musician. His mom’s an incredible singer. Kel was a bit of a musical prodigy and music was his future, his way out. His dad had that talk with Kel in the same exact manner. So we took that and put it into this situation with these characters, talking about Kel and his father’s relationship, getting that into the script and then saying, “If we were in this moment it would be more like this.” Then I’d rewrite it, send it to him, ask if we’re getting close. It’s all about being communicative and transparent.
Paste: I want to go back to something you mentioned earlier, describing your initial conversations with Kel as therapy. For you and for your cast, did this process ultimately function as a kind of therapy for working through these, honestly, these very complicated and painful issues that we’re talking about?
Shults: Absolutely. We had some hard stuff to shoot and hard places to go. But it’s hard to broadly talk about. I don’t want to speak on any actor’s behalf for certain things, but of course connecting to real stuff and trying to understand and convey that in an honest way is very cathartic and therapeutic. Both of my parents were therapists and I’d be a total mess without them. I think what therapy is about is seeing the good and bad in a human being and trying to learn from that, and I think that’s a lot of what this movie is doing, what we were exploring, and what we wanted to understand and not judge, which is a harder thing to do. We tried to understand and be honest with everything, which really pushed me to think about these scenes and convey that honesty. I’m so humbled and blessed and proud to have, I think, the best cast in the world to get to do that. It was a journey.
Bostonian culture journalist Andy Crump covers the movies, beer, music, and being a dad for way too many outlets, perhaps even yours. He has contributed to Paste since 2013. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected work at his personal blog. He’s composed of roughly 65% craft beer.