Waves tells a coming of age story in wide open spaces

Trey Edward Shults on the role of Florida and the challenge of shooting a road trip in his new film.

With Waves, his newest film, director Trey Edward Shults sets foot outside. His two previous films, Krisha and It Comes at Night, rarely leave the confines of his character’s home. Their houses defined their world, closed off and paranoid. Waves, on the other hand, celebrates the outdoors and the unlimited possibility of the road. It’s a film about a black suburban family navigating life and how they deal with tensions, transformations and love. It’s also a film about space, the expanses of the Florida landscape, how our inner world comes to define our relationship with our environment. As the full world seems to lay open at the feet of the film’s two adolescent characters, it can be as stifling as it is liberating. 

Shults spoke to me about the film’s changing moods, and the importance of space plays. Waves stars Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell as a brother and sister duo, and the film is structured in two parts taking on each sibling’s subjective point of view as they go through the highs and lows of adolescence. The environment and how it’s shot plays a considerable role in the experience of the film. “How we use space,” he says, “it can feel wide and big and then suffocating and claustrophobic. We were trying to make an honest experience about how the characters live in their worlds.”

Florida plays a significant role in this vision; it’s the state Shults now considers home. The organic and lived-in sense of space likely emerges from his relationship with the environment. He shot the film in places his girlfriend grew up in, and his conversations with her helped shape the film’s Florida experience. From there, it becomes a more organic process, as he explains: “Just thinking and living here for years and letting places build up,” says Shults. “Let that organically work its way into the story.”

The landscape itself becomes transformed through the subjective experience of his characters. “Every kind of movement echoes where their emotional headspace is at a given time,” he says. “That can be spinning through a car because that’s what their love and relationship feels like.” The camera’s movement, at times free and roaming, at other times stagnant evokes the emotional experience of each scene. 

Shults has worked with cinematographer Drew Daniels (who has also worked on Euphoria) on all his films. Together they would look at the script and break down each scene by focusing on what Tyler and Emily are experiencing emotionally. From there, they would work to create the mood and emotional direction of each scene.

Most of the film’s visually evocative scenes take place in cars. In several sequences, Tyler and his friends drive down the highway, singing and laughing. The camera moves 360 degrees to inspire a sense of full liberation and emotional bliss. Once Daniels and Shults decided that was what they wanted to do for the scene, they had to go about figuring out how to do it logistically. For Shults, achieving this effect was essential as the visual “encapsulates thematically” the entire film. The only frame of reference they had for this kind of scene was from Children of Men, and they knew they did not have the kind of money to build the rig used to achieve a similar effect in Alfonso Cuarón’s masterpiece.

What they did was remove the centre console of the car, put in a slider (a revolving horizontal piece of equipment) from the front seat to the back and break down an Alexa-mini as small as it would go and place it on a remote head. There is a dolly grip crunched down behind the driver’s seat who can move the slider, Shults is crouched behind the passenger seat with a walkie-talkie and Daniels is in another car operating the camera remotely. After figuring out the practicalities of it, they started to play.

“Once we did that, we hoped the kids would just forget about the camera and we could just dance with them,” Shults says, “let them dictate what we’re doing. It was a blast.” The technical work becomes the backbone to what is ultimately a spontaneous and improvisational film. “I would call it playing jazz,” Shults explains of the on-set atmosphere. The script became a living document. There was a lot of talking about scenes and working things out. It was playful and fun, always searching for a new way to see a scene and making it better. 

Like many films about youth, music plays a vital role in the atmosphere of Waves. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross composed the score, and the film has a soundtrack that includes music from artists like Animal Collective, Kendrick Lamar, Radiohead and Frank Ocean. The movie’s sound, as much as its visuals, informs the ebbs and flow of the story. Shults says that almost all soundtrack choices emerge on the level of the writing, and the music onscreen is “probably 85 to 90 per cent of what was in the original script.”

A film about growing up, Waves seeks to capture the shifting emotions of youth through a place, movement and music. It’s a film that takes risks structurally and formally, searching for new ways to express the chaos of adolescence. For Shults, this is his biggest movie yet, but it’s been brewing for a long time. 

“I had this epiphany one day: I wanted to make a movie about the highs and lows of life and love and everything in between, the good and the bad of being a human being, the sloppy messy grey matter that connects those dichotomies and that we all connect to.” ■

Waves opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, Dec. 6