Director, stars of ‘Waves’ discuss bringing authenticity to Black characters

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With two feature films under his belt “Krisha” and “It Comes at Night” Trey Edward Shults is making quite a splash with his newest film, “Waves,” which received rave reviews from critics after premiering at the Telluride Film Festival this past August. Returning to form, Shults has had his hand in every step of the filmmaking process, having written, directed and edited “Waves,” which is by far his most personal film. 

The ideas that eventually made their way into “Waves” had been in Shults’ mind for some time, but he had struggled to translate them into a script for a while, unsure of the exact form they should take. In explaining the difficulty of penning the “Waves” script, Shults said in an interview with The Daily Californian: “Because I had been holding onto different iterations of this movie for so long, it was really just living life and going through a lot of things … and being on the other side of it.” Because of the autobiographical nature of the script, he attributed the impetus to “having a bit of perspective.” 

“It really clicked and spewed out of me,” Shults said. “(The process) felt very cathartic.” 

“Waves” features an impressive ensemble, including Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell, who are the anchors of the film in their roles as brother and sister. Taking place in Florida, the film follows a Black family as they deal with intense circumstances that upend their lives in the suburbs. “I don’t know a movie exactly like this,” Shults said. The film does not shy away from exploring the darker aspects of life but it does so with purpose. “We dialed things back a bit from my extreme first draft,” Shults said. “We would always settle on what felt honest and what felt real, trying to make it as truthful as possible.” 

“Waves” marks the second collaboration between Shults and Harrison Jr. — “It Comes at Night” was their first. After such a great experience on that film, Shults knew he wanted Harrison Jr. to be a part of “Waves.” According to Shults, “Kelvin is extremely collaborative and will have every question in the book for the character. That’s why he was so paramount to the start because in the wrong hands and with the wrong approach, Tyler (the protagonist) is a cliche and you don’t feel this complexity and this humanity.” 

While many details of “Waves” are intensely personal to Shults, he consulted with Harrison Jr. to help bring in an authentic perspective to the Black male lead, incorporating Harrison Jr.’s own experiences. In an interview with the Daily Cal, Harrison Jr. described how he felt when he finally read the finished script: “It was just a beautiful representation of an African American family and I was just blown away and moved and excited.”

As the other integral character to the film, Russell had a similar reaction to the script: “I knew it was going to be epic and (I) had to be a part of that,” she said in an interview with the Daily Cal. While much of the magic was already on the page, the collaboration between director and actor was constant in order to bring authenticity to the silver screen. Russell likened the experience of filming to the shooting of documentary, saying: “I didn’t even know the camera was rolling at times. I didn’t even know the camera was there. It just felt very fluid and very observational.”  

“Waves” features a modern day, well-off, Black family — a subject that is not often given the spotlight in film. The importance of this portrayal is not lost on the ones bringing this story to life. While Harrison Jr. plays a Black high school athlete facing intense pressure from his family who makes mistakes, he knew this portrayal of his character was important to get right so that it did not fall prey to being a stereotype. 

The trickiest part of it is convincing everyone else because I know what I am as a young Black male. I know I’m a good person and that I can make mistakes and it doesn’t define me as a human being,” Harrison Jr. said. Ultimately, he added, “All I had to do was be truthful and honest.”

“What’s so impressive is that it’s not the stereotype at all and I think it’s because Trey (Shults) is an evolved, sensitive person and so is Kelvin (Harrison Jr). They’re both vulnerable, sensitive men,” Russell said of her collaborators. As a film that explores the effects of toxic masculinity and family dynamics, “Waves” offers a deeper, more complex look into issues that are both universal and specific to the experiences of many Black people. The film deals with very dark subject matter at times, but brings an intricate, nuanced humanity to the family it portrays. As Harrison Jr. describes it: “This is what we really are and I’m excited we got to show that.” 

Contact Julia Mears at [email protected].