Interview: Trey Edward Shults
Writer-director Trey Edward Shults’s feature debut unfolds almost entirely within and around a spacious suburban Montgomery, Texas home, a single location that Shults renders a maze of chambers where family members congregate, pair off to discuss difficult matters, or grapple with demons. The single fleeting exception to this singularity of place is the unnamed, perhaps purely psychological space spied only in Krisha’s opening image, a slow push-in on the transfixed visage of its titular character (Krisha Fairchild), a sexagenarian woman with luxurious white curls, naked shoulders, trembling lips, and deep blue eyes boring into the lens.
That opening image is followed by cinematographer Drew Daniels’s elegantly mapped bravura Steadicam shot, which follows Krisha as she parks her SUV, searches bumblingly for the house of her sister Robyn (Robyn Fairchild), and is finally reunited with a battery of cheerful relatives, the last of whom is Trey (Shults), her long-estranged son, who is more cordial than affectionate. It’s Thanksgiving, and this is Krisha’s first encounter with family in over a decade. She conceals a lockbox teeming with medications. At one point she declares that she’s “working on becoming a more spiritual person.” This is a form of spirituality that, it would seem, requires a certain pharmaceutical assistance to come to fruition.
Tensions burgeon in curious ways. A convivial yet pinched banter between Krisha and her Bush-quoting brother-in-law Doyle (perennial Austin character actor Bill Wise) transpires on the porch while a hysterical arm-wrestling match is underway in the living room. Myriad rambunctious dogs roam the property. There is a visual catalogue of everything that can be found inside a dead turkey, a Kubrickian vision of an oven’s interior, and Brian McOmber’s superb score, alternating between lyricism and musique concrète. Shults infuses his orchestra of domestic hubbub with alien energies. Everything is at once familiar and unnerving. We watch Krisha waiting for something to go wrong, even before we intuit a specific cause.
Shults is a Texas native, and Krisha was shot over a mere nine days in his parents’ house, where he was living at the time. Krisha is played by the director’s aunt, Robyn by his mother. The wheelchair-bound grandmother, who delivers the film’s most affecting line in the midst of its most dramatic scene of confrontation, is played by Shults’s grandmother, Billie Fairchild. Krisha is a family affair, and a world away from the typical U.S. indie debut in its beauty, invention and precision. Shults started out interning with Terrence Malick, and the eccentric maestro’s meticulous approach to craft seems to have rubbed off. Since its premiere last year, Krisha has garnered numerous accolades, including SXSW’s Grand Jury and Audience Awards, critics’ prizes at Deauville and Reykjavik, and, most recently, the Independent Spirit John Cassavetes Award. Shults is in pre-production on his follow-up, It Comes at Night, a horror movie written in reaction to the death of his biological father, who was also a primary influence for the character of Krisha.
Krisha had an exceedingly pragmatic production strategy for an ultra-low-budget first feature: it was shot in a single location you didn’t have to pay for, and its cast includes you and your family members. Yet the film features elements far more ambitious than those of your average cabin-in-the-woods calling card: the intricately choreographed Steadicam sequence shot, and the montages assembled from what must have been a teeming bank of associative images.
Krisha was always going to be, in the strictest sense, a little movie, but I didn’t want it to feel like a little movie. I had to ask myself why, beyond my own hubris, that seemed important. It’s because this was going to be a day that would haunt Krisha the rest of her life. I wanted to reflect that cinematically, to freight the film with the material that would allow that gravity to be felt somehow, even just in little details and unconscious things. But hubris is probably also part of it. [Laughs] You want to subvert expectations. If you come to the film knowing it cost $30,000, you’re probably not expecting much. But we swung for the fences.
When you first began fantasizing about making a feature, was Krisha the sort of thing you had in mind?
More or less. Krisha—the real Krisha, my aunt—is someone I always looked up to. When I was a kid I figured she had things to teach me. I always had it in my head that she would star in my first movie. Which led to me thinking, like, why not get all my family in there? It somehow made sense because the first amateur movie I ever made was at a family reunion. I just hijacked a video camera from someone and made this little movie of my family members doing goofy things. I’m also just a practical guy. I didn’t want to slave over writing something, fall in love with it, and then have no way to actually make it.
I haven’t seen your short, Mother and Son (10), but I’m guessing there’s thematic overlap?
Maybe there is. Mother and Son is a film I’m not proud of. It was my first stab at working in a more legit way. I hired a DP and a sound guy. I wanted to make “a real movie.” I mostly wound up realizing how much I didn’t know. Funny thing about Krisha is that the relationship between mother and son in that film is actually much closer the relationship I had with my dad. My mom and I are extremely close. There’s very little conflict between us. My biological father passed two years ago from pancreatic cancer. I hadn’t seen him in over eight years. He struggled with addiction. Krisha was inspired by his troubles, as well as those of a cousin who overdosed after a family reunion.
Krisha Fairchild is a career actress, but what about the rest of the cast? How, besides this impulse to use your family, did you come to cast the others?
My mom is therapist. She deals with big emotions as a day-to-day thing. She’s great with people. I liked the idea of moving from a series of chaotic scenes with a large ensemble to eventually just having two sisters talking in a bathroom in the middle of the night. I knew my mom, because of her professional and personal experiences, could convey both the frustration of dealing with Krisha while still deep-down pulling for her. She and Krisha really love each other and I just felt confident that something special would happen. And I definitely wanted my grandma in it.
My favorite scene in the movie is the one where they bring Grandma home. She didn’t know we were making a movie, so everything with her is real. That’s an element that’s extra-special to me. They bring her over and we’re shooting and she just starts talking about the family lineage and she can’t get Krisha’s name right. None of that was written, none of it forced. It just came out. Which seemed beautiful. I know she would freak out, in a good way, if she knew that she was in a movie that was traveling the world.
She’s still alive?
She is. She’s gotten worse, but you can never really tell. At the moment she seems to be in a good phase.
It sounds like all the material with your grandmother wasn’t scripted, but what about that incredible moment where the whole family is present for this big blow-out, and Krisha leaves, and your grandma says, “Come back”?
That was her. Throughout that scene you notice that she’s in the corner of the frame and out of focus. We didn’t even have space for an operator in that room. We had a camera pointed at the corner just in case something happened. We did that scene a bunch of times and my grandma could not have cared less about what was going on. But for whatever reason during that one take she said those words. My theory is that something snapped, the performances hit some other layer of truth, and my grandma became conscious that something was happening.
You’re clearly a warm guy, but your character, by circumstance, is the coldest person in the film.
I put myself in because I just felt like I couldn’t force my mom and my grandma to be in this and then not do it too. It’s interesting to see how audiences respond to all the characters, and to what’s perceived as cold or sympathetic. When the film was at Cannes, the French were always very pro-Krisha and thought that [all the other characters] were assholes. There was this lady in the front row during a Q&A who just hated my mom. She nearly spat on her!
The film feels pretty tight, yet it’s also brimming with these micro-tangents: the rampant pooches and arm-wrestling sessions, the discussion of how best to accommodate waking boners. Did you always envision this balance between something very focused and something pretty loose and amenable to detours?
The script was less loose, for sure, but I knew that once we had everyone that I wanted to feel a sense of all the life circulating through the house. But all the tangential stuff, the horseplay or the guys watching porn, all of it is stuff that Krisha’s listening in on. That seemed important, that she was attempting to re-enter her family yet is doing so as an outsider, eavesdropping.
I think too that when you’re struggling with anxiety there’s this way that you can feel disembodied, alienated by your environment. All of this activity that Krisha’s absorbing has the cumulative effect of pushing her into a corner somehow, just piling up and closing in, forcing her to indulge in her predilections.
Absolutely. That makes so much sense to me. In fact I think what you’re describing is something that Krisha herself—my aunt, I mean—might have been working with.
Did you go to film school?
I didn’t. I was 18, 19 when I got on the first Terrence Malick gig, working crew on the birth-of-the-universe stuff that wound up in Tree of Life. We started out in Hawaii and then went to Iceland, Chile, Monterey. I was just a kid. I was in college for business. My parents insisted I do something practical and then follow my dream, and I always disagreed with that but went along with it for a bit. I did my freshman year, then worked on the Terry movie, and when I came home I said, “I’m dropping out of school.” We had a lot of fights, but I did it. I interned for Terry for a bit, got on some other movies, worked on a Jeff Nichols thing [Midnight Special].
Really? I’ve been thinking that I sense a kinship between you and him.
Right on. I worked on the pre-production test shoots. He’s another awesome dude. Anyway, I did that while working for my stepdad. I built the entire fence in the backyard. I would help him with amazingly basic computer issues, just like my character does with his uncle in Krisha. And my stepdad likes to randomly do karate moves, just like in Krisha. But my film school was in that big TV room where Krisha is installed in the movie. I took very seriously this thing Paul Thomas Anderson once said about picking the directors you love and then finding the movies they love, and so on. Lots of re-watching. I felt like I hadn’t seen a movie if I hadn’t seen it at least three times. Eventually I felt like I was finding my own voice.
You did more work with Malick?
I worked on his untitled Austin movie with this crazy cast of great actors. I got to watch Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Ryan Gosling, Natalie Portman, and Cate Blanchett, and see how they work under Terry’s method. That there is an awesome film school!
Was Malick someone from whom you could take direct lessons in filmmaking? Or was it all mysterious and opaque?
I think he’s a genius and that only he can make the films he makes. You’re a fool if you try and copy that.
I agree. Though apparently you can also win an Oscar doing it.
[Laughs] Totally. There are things I like in The Revenant, but yeah, there were Malicky moments where I kept thinking, “Stop! You don’t need to do that.” That being said, there are plenty of things you can take away from Terry. Attitude more than anything. The biggest thing is just teaching yourself to stay open. When shooting Krisha, every day we had a set number of pages to get through and once that was done we’d spend the rest of the day exploring. Actors would go into rooms and try out things, propose things. Most of that didn’t make it into Krisha, but some of it did and the movie is better for it. All those conversation scenes between Bill Doyle and Krisha were improvised.
Did you never have a moment while working on Malick projects where you just thought, “What the hell do these people think they’re doing?”
It was funny going from the Voyage of Time / Tree of Life experience where it was basically, like, four of us just traveling, shooting these little things that would eventually work their way into this big movie. It felt really special. We were all passionate and excited. We became close. We were the superfans! We’d shoot all day and then go have dinner and talk Terry movies. Then we went to shoot the Austin movie with this way bigger crew. It was different because they hated it. They had shot To the Wonder and Knight of Cups, and I guess it was getting to be too much for them. They hated the way Terry worked. There was no order. They just complained. There were fights with the AD. It was instructive, contrasting us fanboys off on our adventure with these Hollywood guys used to a certain type of thing.
It’s also generational, right? The kind of directors who got access to the full mega-budget apparatus back in the 1970s, today they would be making, well, Krisha.
[Laughs] It’s true. It’s also a humbling experience, to feel like you’re in the thick of making some masterpiece and meanwhile the guy next to you just really wants to get to lunch on time. Which is totally understandable! Bigger movies work differently. Personally I want to at least try to make sure everyone working on anything I’m directing is happy. I would love it to feel familial. The Krisha shoot was beautiful that way. If I do bigger movies, I’d love to retain that feeling, though I know it’s easier said than done.
My favorite David Gordon Green film is still George Washington, and I wonder if part of that doesn’t just have to do with nurturing exactly what you’re describing—this very contained, intimate, family barbecue-like situation.
I get the same feeling when I look at his films. It really makes you stop and wonder. Man, I hope Krisha isn’t the best movie I ever make.