'Waves' Director Trey Edward Shults Reveals His Painful Film Is Largely Autobiographical

Posted: Dec 02, 2019 2:00 PM
'Waves' Director Trey Edward Shults Reveals His Painful Film Is Largely Autobiographical

Source: AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau

As you can tell from my review of "Waves" a few weeks ago, I had an emotional two hours in the theater. The film, from A24 Films, centers on an upper-middle-class African-American family in Florida that is struck by tragedy. It tells a powerful message - or warning - about the relationship between parents and children. The first hour of the movie was especially a struggle because it leads up to the unspeakable tragedy surrounding the main character Ty. Once the unthinkable occurs, the remainder of the film acts as a sort of therapy session for the audience, and it focuses on a different character entirely, Ty's sister Emily.

Since the viewing, I've had a chance to chat with Director Trey Edward Shults. He's seen a lot of movies, but he hadn’t quite seen anything that goes so far as to switch tones and protagonists so completely in the second half of a film.

“It was just exciting to go for it and see if it worked,” he recalled.

As he put it, you can "breathe more" in the second half. And it's true. I could almost hear the audience exhale. 

As it turns out, the film was inspired by some major waves in his own life.

"A part of it was just getting through some things in life and getting on the other side of some grief maybe," Shults shared with Townhall. "And I think life can feel like that sometimes. It can be unpredictable and change tone and pace."

He not only wanted to tell the tragedy, but what happens on the other side of it so he could "heal as much as possible." As an audience member, let me tell you, I appreciated that directorial decision.

The film is so emotionally draining that it was painful to hear it was so autobiographical. In fact, Shults shares, some of the last scenes in the film were “straight-up just recreating stuff” from his own life. The scenes in Missouri where Emily and her boyfriend Luke, played by the talented youngsters Taylor Russell and Lucas Hedges, are going to visit his dying father are “pretty much as autobiographical as it gets” because Shults’s girlfriend “pushed him” to visit his father in the hospital, which “activated new things for her grief.”

The Florida scenes were some of Shults's favorite places. Even the cat in the film is his cat.

As mentioned, weaved in with all the emotional trauma in "Waves" is a cautionary tale for parents. Ronald, the patriarch in the film played by "This Is Us" actor Sterling Brown, puts an intense amount of pressure on Ty to excel in sports. His intimidating style doesn't leave much room for vulnerability.

“Ronald loves a bit too hard," Shults explains. "He pushes a bit too hard. He doesn’t allow Ty to feel like there’s an open line of communication.”

While it’s too late for Ronald to fix things with Ty, he goes through a huge arc with his daughter.

Directing "Waves," Shults said, has been “the most humbling” experience.

I reminded Shults about a powerful moment from the Washington, D.C. premiere of "Waves" last month when a young man in the audience stood up and shared how the film had inspired him to open his own new line of communication with his father.

“That night was honestly one of the best nights of my life,” Shults beamed. “Between what that young man said, the energy in the room, a few other young women had some beautiful things to say, how it brought up things with their parents and their families.”

He and the cast were a family on and off the screen. The concept for the film was even conceived during a collaboration between Shults and Kelvin Harrison, Jr., who stars as Ty.

The ebbs and flows in the film are complemented by some unique, immersive camera work and an epic soundtrack, which Shults said was meant to bring the audience "closer to the characters’ journey." In case you hadn't already guessed, music helped the director heal in his own life too.

"Waves" is in theaters now.