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BFI LFF Interview: Trey Edward Shults on his first feature Krisha

BFI LFF Interview: Trey Edward Shults on his first feature Krisha


“I tend to gravitate towards heavy films”

By Ana Šturm

At the 59th BFI London Film Festival, there was one film that stayed with me long after I saw it. Krisha (USA, 2015), a debut film made by the writer and director Trey Edvard Shults, is a visually complex, tense, nervous, dark and also, on many occasions, a very funny family drama about addiction and chaos. It has an innovative narrative structure in which a recovering addict named Krisha comes home for Thanksgiving after being away from her family and her son for more than ten years.

Although we can find many visual references and echoes from the older masters in Krisha, such as Terrence Malick, P. T. Anderson, John Casavetess and Thomas Vinterberg, the chaotic and deeply troubled chamber piece strongly resonates with a unique authorial voice of a young (and very promising) American director. If the family in the film seems to be tighter than most acting ensembles, it is because they really are one. The director cast his aunt, who is an actress, as the main character, his mother as the family matriarch and himself in the role of Krisha’s estranged son.

It is a small movie — filmed in Shults’ mother’s house and made on a tiny budget — it won two of the biggest awards at last year’s South by Southwest Film Festival and will surely became one of the best and the most memorable films of 2016.

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This is your first feature and we all know how hard it is to get these kinds of projects financed these days. You ran a Kickstarter campaign, so maybe you can tell us how the rock started rolling and resulted in this amazing film.

A big part of the Krisha story is that we made a short film before the feature, and that is a whole another long story that I don’t know if I want to get into. In short, I tried to shoot this feature in summer 2012. I didn’t know what I was doing, but I kept going, and I screwed it up. It was the worst week of my life, but we still shot stuff. We shot the whole movie. It would be bad though, I knew that. So I spent the next two years just re-editing the material, turning it into a short film. This short film played on South by Southwest festival/SXSW in 2014 and then after that, I had my producer, who is also my friend, telling me – you should make a feature now. And I said yes, let’s rewrite it and let’s do it right this time. And I learned from my mistakes and that’s what we did. So, that is how the rock started rolling. And it continued to roll.

So we did a Kickstarter campaign. For the Kickstarter video, I posted first six minutes of the short film, just for people to see that we can actually make a movie, to give them some proof. And on Kickstarter, we got almost 15000 dollars, which turned out to be a big chunk of our production budget. I was really taking it one step at a time. We first got production budget, then we shot the movie, worked on the editing and then we were like, OK, how much do we need now? So yeah, really one step at a time. It was a work in progress until we screened it in Cannes. We had a premiere at SXSW again, but our sound mix there was not right, so we had to figure out how to remix the movie. But now, after Cannes, the movie is done and now we are just showing it.

We can say that Krisha is a family film, story-wise and production-wise; you cast half of your family members, and others were working like caterers, producers, etc. Was that because of the low budget or was it intentional?

It was both. I am a fan of the idea that limits spur creativity, so it was like: I want to make a movie and I want to make a feature film, because I don’t want to make any more shorts. So the question was, how do I do that? I don’t really have an access to a lot of money. So yeah, I was figuring that out, but on top of that it was what DO I have around me? I have my mum’s house and it’s perfect, it has these amazing high ceilings and the whole movie could take place in here. My aunt. She is an amazing actress. So it was all these things that kind of brought everything together. I also thought it would be interesting to tap into my personal material, literally, with my family. And a lot of people have asked me, aren’t you afraid of the cliché? But my idea was to make something cinematic with that.

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How does it feel to reveal so much of your personal life in a movie? I imagine it must be terrifying and liberating at the same time?

Yeah, that is a perfect way to describe it. It fluctuates between those two. And you know, while we were shooting, for example, most of the time you would just forget about the personal stuff and it was like ‘we are making a movie’, and all we were thinking about is how we are making this movie and what do we need to make it. But then there’s times when we were shooting certain scenes and the force of the personal involvement came back big. And weird stuff to. My grandma has dementia and didn’t realise that she was in the movie most of the time while we were making it, which caused some weird situations. I have to say though, she was my biggest supporter and also, my favourite scene in the movie is with her. She loves movies and if she knew that the film she’s in is travelling the world, she would be so happy.

The movie has this strong claustrophobic atmosphere. How did you manage to make it so effective?

I think that sometimes what separates TV and cinema may well be the atmosphere or something like that, although that is changing now, and TV is getting better and better. But I don’t know, I think it’s something you just go after and all the elements start to align. A big part of creating an atmosphere is how we choose to tell the story, how everything was cinematically from Krisha’s point of view; we are going on this journey with her and we created this visual strategy for that. And the score has this arc, because it’s Krisha’s mental space we are at. So I think that alone creates this atmosphere that is different. You combine that with your actors, how you are shooting scenes and it just starts to come together like some sort of movie magic, and you feel it while you are shooting and it’s beautiful: all these elements are coming together and you only hope they are going to work.

The way we shot the movie… I would say that the final movie that you saw is 70% scripted and 30% improvised, and every day we would knock off some of the things that we had in the script. Actors would be in their rooms just coming up with some scenes and I would walk in and I would be like oh, that is great, let’s go shoot that. And some of that is in the movie, and some is not. But yeah, that combined with being in my mum’s house, and my girlfriend and her mum were the caterers… it was not a normal movie at all. So we were all a family and even if movie is – hopefully – tense and emotional, making it was not like that at all. It was the most fun I’ve had in my life. If the first time was the worst week of my life, this was the best.

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When we talked before, you mentioned that you love watching films and one can find a lot of references in Krisha. Malick, Cassavetes, P. T. Anderson and Vinterberg, especially his Festen come to mind.

About Festen, a big thing that I love so much about that movie is the energy. It has this kind of propulsive pacing and tension in the right moments and humour and it just feels so alive and I was thinking if I can capture anything like that. I watched that movie a lot of times. There is also other stuff, Cassavetes obviously, especially A Women Under the Influence; I love Paul Thomas Andersons Punch-Drunk Love, I don’t know if that comes across at certain moments; and There Will Be Blood. There is just so many!

All pretty heavy films.

Well, not Punch-Drunk Love, to me that is a comedy. But yeah, I tend to gravitate towards heavy films, I think, naturally; but my goal, at least with this movie was that the tension is there the whole time. But at least in the first act, in the first 20 minutes or so, hopefully there is also levity. I call it playful chaos. So to me, there is a lot of humour in Krisha and then it gets really tense and then hopefully ends up kind of tragic – but I don’t know.