Interview: KRISHA’s Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults

When I sat down to see KRISHA at SXSW, I was there to support friend and fellow Cinapse writer Wilson Smith (Producer on the film) and writer/director Trey Edward Shults (who I had the privilege to work with on the Terrence Malick film Weightless [AKA Untitled Terrence Malick Project], though we worked in different departments). I didn’t know much about the movie, hadn’t seen the original short film of the same name, and was honestly just hoping that my friends’ first movie was solid enough to recommend. What I didn’t expect was to find myself uncontrollably crying and riveted by a visually rich and profoundly personal tale of family strife and reflection on a life that was never to be. KRISHA didn’t just hit me in the gut, it went on to win the SXSW Grand Jury Prize and was selected to play at Cannes 2015, where it was picked up for U.S. distribution by A24. This means that soon, North American audiences will be able to experience this utterly unique motion picture on the big screen for themselves.

Once the furor of Cannes had subsided, I asked Trey if he wouldn’t mind doing an interview, and below you’ll find some fascinating insight into what it feels like to be a first time filmmaker, what it was like to work under Terrence Malick, how surreal Cannes is, and even some glimpses into what Shults’ next project at A24 will be about. Read on to hear more from this fascinating up and coming filmmaker.

Ed Travis: What was your most surreal moment at Cannes and why is that the moment that really sticks out to you?

Trey Edward Shults: Honestly, I don’t know if one moment stands out. The whole experience was so surreal. We were able to get something like 14 of us there, so the first time we were all together in Southern France, it hit me how unreal it was. I had never expected our little movie would bring us there. The first time walking the red carpet to the Palais was awesomely surreal. My DP and I got into The Lobster at the last second, and we were the only ones on the red carpet right before the stars of the movie arrived. Of course, the photographers had zero interest in us. Haha. Also, I think doing a Q&A that requires a translator was very surreal. Just the fact that my movie can connect with an audience that doesn’t even speak the same language as me is pretty beautiful.

ET: You signed a deal with A24 while at Cannes, and from what I understand, it is the first multi-picture deal that A24 has ever negotiated. For your next film after the KRISHA distribution process occurs, will you be writing and directing a totally new project that you’ll pitch to A24, or do you have some previously existing or written projects that you are hoping to bring to life? What can you tell us about that?

TES: I have already written a script that is my baby, and A24 has read it and they want to make it. So, it’s not quite us developing a project together from scratch. We shared the script with them, because I wanted to make sure they were on board for the kind of film I wanted to make. It’s like my version of a horror movie that deals with death, fear, and regret. It should be way more intense than KRISHA and equally emotional. A24 and myself are ready to get the gears rolling on it as soon as we can. My dream would be to shoot at the end of this year or early next year.

ET: You came up in the Austin film scene under Terrence Malick’s team and worked in the camera department on a couple of his most recent films. Can you talk a little bit about how that experience impacted you as a filmmaker and what kinds of things you may have learned from watching Mr. Malick work?

TES: Working on Terry’s films kind of changed my life. I was 19 when I got on the first one, and I ended up traveling around the world. I was in school for business management, but I basically dropped out to work on the movie, and then to study films and give myself my own film school. The entire process of working for Terry was incredibly inspiring. I remember seeing The Tree of Life in the theater for the first time and being absolutely blown away. I was just humbled that I had had some small part in helping with that film. Terry is 71 and is still a total rebel. He has found a way to make films and experiment in a way no one else does. He is a genius, so anyone would be a fool to try and copy the way he makes his films. But for me, the biggest thing I take away from him is his spirit. I hope I have half the spirit and passion he does when I am 71.

ET: Regarding KRISHA… what was it about this story that really took it from a kernel of an idea based on something from your past to the first feature film you would make? You probably have a million stories in your mind, but what made this “the one”?

TES: Well, I think it’s a combination of creativity and practicality. KRISHA was something I could make right away. I also knew I always wanted my family involved with my first feature. I wanted to write my aunt a role that no one else would, and I wanted to have my grandma on camera before she passes. I wanted my mom and aunt to have a chance to share a beautifully tragic scene together. I thought it would be special and cathartic for us all to tackle these family issues together. I also just wanted to experiment, and when you have a budget as low as we did, no one is telling you anything you can’t do. It was pure collaboration, and it was beautiful. Also, I always saw KRISHA as a feature, so making a short didn’t end up satisfying me. I knew we could make it better, and with all these elements around me, I would be a fool not to use them for my first feature.

ET: As I mentioned in my review of the film, there is kind of an indie filmmaking stereotype that zero-budget filmmakers use their own houses, cast their own families, and even feature as an actor in their own film just to get it off the ground. It usually doesn’t turn out well. What gave you the confidence that you could break through all those borderline cliches of indie filmmaking and create something truly special?

TES: That’s a good question! Well, I feel like we proved we could do it with the short, so that helped. I just knew in my gut we could make a special movie that I hadn’t quite seen before, and this was the only way we could do it. I never thought about the indie filmmaking cliché. Sure my family members act in the movie, but they are some damn talented actors! I only acted in it because I was making them do it, and the material is so personal it would be wrong to do it any other way. I structured the storytelling visually, so that I would not have shot the film in any other house. It was the perfect house for the film, and it just happened to be my mom’s house.

ET: The cinematography by Drew Daniels is integral to your story and helps the audience never feel trapped inside of one small house but rather “along for the ride” with the characters. There are some majorly intentional shots that really up the ante from your average family drama. Can you talk a little bit about the goals for the cinematography of the film and how you used the camera to tell the story?

TES: I am a geek for film grammar. Drew and I always wanted to be ambitious visually. I believe over half our production budget was just for camera gear. It’s technically a small film in one house, but I never wanted it to feel that way. I wanted to get into Krisha’s head, and for her, this turns out to be one of the most important days of her life. To me, that is pretty epic, so I wanted it to feel ambitious cinematically, and to take Krisha’s journey seriously. We made a visual strategy for entering Krisha’s state of mind. The first half of the film is in a 1:85 aspect ratio with long takes and wide lenses. I wanted to feel how Krisha did, in the moment of everything, and I wanted these wide lenses to really feel the house, the family, and the life Krisha could’ve had. As the film progresses, it switches to a 2:35 aspect ratio with Anamorphic lenses, so that for a moment of bliss, Krisha feels like the star of her own movie. Also, when you make a DCP for 1:85, and then you switch into 2:35 during the film, it adds the black bars at the top and bottom of the frame – but it made me feel like the frame was now compressed, instead of a true wide 2:35 frame. Finally, a 1:33 aspect ratio takes over in the end to give an effect of the walls closing in on Krisha. By the end of the film, we are on very claustrophobic tight lenses, where it’s all about faces and getting into the soul of Krisha. We don’t really use standard exposition in the film. The visuals are so ingrained to the storytelling that I will start to spoil the story if I go into too much detail. The important thing to me was making it about this progression that starts with observing Krisha, and then by the end of the film, nose diving into her subjective reality. I wanted it to feel like a steady journey getting to that point.

ET: It turns out that your Aunt Krisha, who plays the titular lead in the film, is herself an actress. And she’s fantastic, by the way. But many of the rest of the cast are not professional actors, most notably your own mother Robyn Fairchild, who plays Krisha’s sister in the film. Some of the most devastating dramatic weight actually falls on your mother’s character, and she’s remarkable and sells some of the most important moments. How was it directing your own mother and where do you think she got the well of inspiration from to craft such a fantastic performance?

TES: I am blown away by her performance! I always knew she could do it, but I never thought she would take it as far as she did. I think my mom’s character really brings the emotion and tragedy to the end of the film. My mom is a mental health therapist, so she deals with big emotions every day. Her character is also really rooting for Krisha throughout the film. She’s the one there with Krisha at the end of the night, trying to make a connection. So, my mom is playing someone very close to herself. On top of that, her big scenes are acting opposite her sister in real life, who is playing her sister in the movie. I thought that gave these scenes the potential to be really special. My job was just setting up a natural environment. For the heavy emotional scenes between my mom and Krisha, I would have two cameras rolling simultaneously, and I never did any extra coverage, so that they could step over lines or totally improvise. The cameras would be on tight lenses at the opposite sides of the room. Those heavy scenes take place at the end of the film, and shooting them this way fits into my visual structure for the entire film. But yeah, I think someone else should hire my mom. She’s amazing!

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the author

Ed changed careers and moved halfway across the country from Maryland to Austin with his amazingly understanding wife just to figure out how to earn a living watching movies. He once heard it said that NY/LA are where you go to MAKE movies, but Austin is where you go to WATCH movies. And that is the truth. But seriously, if anyone knows how to make a living watching movies, please let him know. Twitter: @Ed_Travis