Waves Interview: Trey Edward Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr.

Waves is the third feature film from writer-director Trey Edward Shults, and his second collaboration with the film’s star, Kelvin Harrison Jr. The film tells the story of a successful black family living in the Miami suburbs as their familial bonds start unravelling. Waves is an impressive feat of cinema that has received critical praise and stirred up controversy since its Telluride Film Festival debut (Shults is a white male sharing a story about the black experience).

Waves overwhelms its audience like a tsunami of sight and sound, slamming viewers with wave after wave of bright colours, frenetic camera movement, and wrenching performances – all scored to a scintillating hip-hop-infused soundtrack. Music is so essential to the feel of the film that Shults embedded links to specific songs into Waves’ script.

Waves is a harrowing family drama that must be experienced to be believed. It’s both a visceral thrill ride and an intimate portrait of love, longing, and a family’s struggle to connect. Trey Edward Shults and his star/collaborator Kelvin Harrison Jr. swung through Toronto this week on Waves’ press tour, and they met with the local media to discuss their new movie. Our discussion with the duo includes the film’s killer soundtrack, Shults’ love of melodrama, and Tyler’s blond hair.

WAVES - Trey Edward Shults
Trey Edward Shults and Sterling K. Brown

Victor Stiff: I think Waves has some of the best beat-drops outside of a Scorsese film. I love the way you apply music, but some people are very critical of throwing recognizable songs into a movie. They feel that using popular music will bully an audience into feeling a certain way. Can you discuss why your use of music in Waves is essential to telling this story?

Trey Edward Shults: Well, thank you very much. It’s funny you mention Scorsese too because he makes the best soundtrack films out of anyone. I think, or me, I love a lot of soundtrack films. I love Goodfellas, I love Boogie Nights, I love American Graffiti, and Dazed and Confused. That was always in the DNA of this because I think music is another part of the world of film.

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 and their world, it’s a part of the storytelling. And for this movie, yeah, 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 (Taylor Russell who plays Tyler’s sister) world and headspace.

VS: I’ve seen this movie twice, and both times people all around me broke down into tears. You walk this delicate emotional line … When you’re coming up with the story, sitting with it for weeks, and practically living in it, how do you draw the line between sentimentality and schmaltz?

TES: Yeah, it’s a fine line. I will say, I think you can see this movie as a melodrama too, and that’s not bad. I think some of the best… I love melodramas. But I do think it’s a fine line because everything’s coming from a more real place in the sense of either myself, or things from Kelvin’s perspective, or my loved ones. Drawing on real stuff and real emotions.

And then it’s trying to link that to where, I mean, [there’s] a lot in this movie, for some it might be too much, but you just try and keep it as honest as possible and keep it that simple and stay true to the honesty of that emotion. If you try and manipulate it too far and push it too far, that’s when it goes to sentimentality and doesn’t ring true anymore.

VS: This is such a flashy movie. It’s bold and colourful, and there’s lots of camera movement, but there’s also these subtle choices too, like Emily doesn’t let her hair out until she comes out of her shell towards the end of the movie. Could you guys talk about the subtle choices in production design and costumes that helped you define the characters?

TES: Like you said, that’s the dichotomy again. Hopefully, at times, the style is going crazy because that feels true to what the character’s going through, and then at other times, it has to be incredibly nuanced. I’m trying to think, broad strokes with the costume and styles. I love that you noticed Emily’s hair.

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: That’s Taylor’s idea. I remember she was saying, “Kelvin, Trey, she [Emily] should straighten her hair, and when she finally comes out, she’s curly and free.”

TES: It was very collaborative with Tay, the arc of her hair. Especially for a woman, it’s very important, just listening to her, understanding that, embedding that.

For the blond, we were in Target…

KHJ: Trying to figure out how to do something different, and we talked about Odell Beckham Jr, Frank [Ocean], we talked about Chris Brown. You see younger guys, you see kids on the street now with blond hair, and it’s just like, what are we trying to say with that? It’s this expression, and this idea of trying to kind of rebel a little bit against the family, and the mould, and his dad.

TES: The Cross on your neck and everything…

KHJ: Also, the room colours, the cross on his neck.

TES: For me, it’s all talking through with the actors. So, for Kel it was all that and just discussing things and embedding and building this character together. For Tay, for the opposite end, the arc with her hair.

KHJ: Braces…

TES: I’m a white man. Please… I value your perspective here for everything and trust you [with] anything. It’s just collaboration, listening, and understanding and trying to embed that, and hopefully build a very honest character and world together.
Waves opens this Friday in select theatres and will play across Canada on Dec 6th, 2019.

This conversation has been edited for clarity.