The filmmaker Trey Edward Shults thinks a lot about families. Specifically, families in trouble. They preoccupy his work to a degree that is difficult for him to explain. And, believe him, he has tried to explain, including to his stepfather, who will call after watching one of his movies to ask whether everything is O.K.
Shults’s biological father struggled with alcoholism and addiction and was an infrequent presence in his life. He was raised from a young age by his stepfather and mother, both psychotherapists, who kindled his interest in human fallibility.
In 2013, 10 years after he lost contact with his biological father, Shults paid him a final visit as he was dying from pancreatic cancer. A character in Shults’s second movie, “It Comes at Night” (2017) — a meditation on grief and frailty in the guise of a postapocalyptic horror film — consoles her dying father using the same words Shults said to his: “You don’t need to fight it. You can just let it all go.”
Though “It Comes at Night” received strong reviews, Shults, who at 31, has quickly joined the vanguard of American independent film, was dismayed by reactions to the movie. The emotional ideas he had been trying to communicate had been lost in translation, drowned out amid an ancillary debate over the film’s genre credentials.
“Waves,” Shults’s new movie, released Friday, also includes a scene with a character offering clemency to a dying father, but this time he has dispensed with the supernatural packaging.
The film, which features searing performances by Sterling K. Brown, Kelvin Harrison Jr. and the newcomer Taylor Russell, is told in two parts, each of which revolves around a love story. The first focuses on Tyler, a determined but volatile high-school wrestling prospect, and the second on Emily, his soft-spoken and emotionally adrift younger sister.
Connecting them is yet a third, more complicated kind of love story, one that pays close attention to how families both absorb and amplify individual pain.
Earlier this month, over coffee in New York’s Washington Square Park, Shults, whose broad, slightly hunched shoulders attest to his own high-school wrestling days, discussed the personal origin of “Waves” and how thinking about mortality influences his work. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.
Was this always a story with two parts for you?
That was in the first outline, with the idea of a brother and a sister and two relationships. I wanted to make a movie about what it’s like to go through something hard and then come out the other side — how unpredictable that can feel, especially when you’re in it. My other movies end at their lowest emotional point. [Shults’s first film, “Krisha” (2015), which starred members of his real family, portrayed an alcoholic’s relapse at Thanksgiving.] This just felt more like where I’m at now as a human being.
You worked with Kelvin before on “It Comes At Night.” What was it like collaborating with him this time?
We just kind of fell in love on the last movie and loved working together. I told him about my idea for this movie before there was a title or character names. When I started writing, we would do mini-therapy sessions over text and phone calls where we would talk about our experiences at that age and growing up upper-middle class in the South. For me it was Texas, for him it was New Orleans; for me it was wrestling, for him it was music. Eight months before we started shooting, I sent him an early version of the script and he gave me notes and we just kept working on it.
With Kelvin as Tyler, obviously that means you’re dealing with a black family. How did you handle writing one as a white person?
It was all in collaboration. Kel and I talked early on about the idea of making it a black family with universal issues but still keeping things specific and authentic. He would point out things in the script that didn’t feel right, like, “Actually, my dad would tell me this,” or “We’d do it like this.” Then I’d write a new version. On every movie I make, I always want the actor’s input. So this was just taking it a step further.
Did you ever think, “Actually, maybe I should steer clear of this?”
Absolutely. But it started from a really personal place and a personal script. And then Kelvin and I loved each other and wanted to do this thing together. I made my first movie with the people who I love and who are closest to me, and that’s what I believe in.
The movie seems to be asking, “What happens when we have the courage to open up to the people that we’re closest to? And what are the things that get in the way of that?”
Definitely. I had a lot of resentment toward my stepdad for a long time, just because of the way he pushed me and because of our different personalities. Then one day, when I was older, he opened up to me, and was vulnerable, and told me things he had never told me before. I saw him as a human being in a totally new way, and it changed our relationship. Talking to your loved ones and really breaking down those barriers is hard. It seems so simple but it’s not.
In “Waves,” there’s a character who, like you, visits his estranged father on his deathbed. When you’re writing something like that, do you think about how much of yourself to put onscreen?
I do now! There were some moments in creating those scenes where I was like, “I’m terrified. I didn’t think this through. What am I doing? This is the worst feeling in the world.”
What made it the worst feeling in the world?
It’s weird to relive the most traumatic thing in your life, it just gave me an all-consuming sense of dread. I’m shaking a bit just thinking about it. Even with “Krisha,” it was inspired by family members, but not literally my life. So I did ask myself, “Is this healthy?”
You’ve said that your father’s death changed you. How?
It changed everything. A huge thing is not wanting regrets and not holding onto baggage. It’s made me want to lead a life that I’m proud of, care for the people I love and salvage bad relationships. I think coming that close to death spiritually changes you, and it changes your perspective.
Something that popped into my mind is how young you are, and how prolific you’ve been. Confronting mortality like that, did it set a fire under you as well?
Absolutely. That’s a big reason I think “Waves” clicked into place. I was depressed after “It Comes at Night.” I thought that what I cared about in that movie no one had felt, and the people that probably would have connected with it didn’t see it. I felt like, “What if I die tomorrow and this is all I have to show for myself?” I got this urge to put everything I had as a human being into something that I felt proud of, so that if I passed away at least I would have done something. I think about that every day now.
Are you working on anything next?
Nothing. For the first time, I have no idea what I’m going to do next. I put it all into this movie.
Really? If I checked your Notes folder on your phone … nothing?
I mean, I have gibberish notes and random stuff, but not any real ideas. I don’t want to make another movie until I have something that I believe in 100 percent, and I feel like I’ve got to live more life and get more perspective before I’ll have anything else that I can contribute.