Making Waves: How a bond between director and actor gave us one of the year's best films

Trey Edward Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr. came together through shared pain, grief and healing to immerse you in their film's world.

Trey Edward Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr. came together through shared pain, grief and healing

Kevin Harrison Jr. in Waves. (Elevation Pictures)

The first eight minutes of the new film Waves is an all-consuming whirlwind of sounds and sights that immediately drops the audience into the deep end of one teenager's life. It is a dizzying and almost overwhelming sensory overload that uses colour, camera movement, sound design and even aspect ratio to immerse you into his world and mind. 

The film, directed and written by Trey Edward Shults, premiered in September at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) and opens today in Toronto theatres and across Canada next week. I saw it at TIFF and have not been able to stop thinking about since. (It also led to an almost obsessive return to Frank Ocean's album Blonde, which I played every day for a month straight after hearing it featured heavily throughout the film.)

The film is a family drama told in two parts divided by a world-altering tragedy. (Be warned: mild spoilers ahead.) The first half belongs to Tyler (a standout performance by one of my new favourite actors Kelvin Harrison Jr.), the popular, handsome and talented teenager grappling with the constant pressure of excellence placed on him by his father Ronald (the consistently brilliant Sterling K. Brown). This pressure spills into his wrestling and his relationship with his girlfriend and triggers an addiction, all of which ultimately leading to a life-shattering explosion. The second half of the film is guided by Tyler's younger sister Emily (a brilliantly subtle performance by Canada's own Taylor Russell), who is left to work her way through the ensuing grief. Emily's quiet anguish and isolation gives way to a gradual healing that is a relief not only for the actor but critically for the audience, especially those who, like me, spent much of the first half grabbing their hair and trying to remember to breathe.

Earlier this week, both Trey Edward Shults and Kelvin Harrison Jr. came to Toronto and I had a chance to speak with them about the film. In a Q&A following a private screening of the film, Shults described it as a cautionary tale on what can happen in a family that doesn't know how to communicate. After speaking with them, it's fascinating to realize that that communication between Shults and Harrison about their individual experiences of pain, grief and healing is what became the foundation for the building of Waves

Similarly to The Last Black Man in San Francisco — another standout film that premiered this year — Waves emerged as a result of a collaboration between a Black actor and white director. In this case, Shults's desire to work with Harrison Jr. after casting him in the film It Comes At Night pushed him to reimagine the family that had initially been inspired by his own. This decision led to an intensely intimate journey of sharing and collaboration that both men spoke about with passion. I asked Shults and Harrison about the opportunities and risks behind this approach and learned more about their own story of love and mutual appreciation that ignited this creative journey.

The following interview is a combination of the Q&A I moderated after the private screening and the interview I did with both Shults and Harrison Jr. right after. It has been edited and condensed for clarity. Warning: serious spoilers ahead.

Trey Edward Shults (left) with Sterling K. Brown on the set of Waves. (Elevation Pictures)

Kelvin, your performance is incredible. Can you talk about what it was like to figure out the choices that you wanted to make with Tyler, who seems like he has this perfect life on the surface?

Kelvin Harrison Jr.: It was a mixture of things. I remember growing up, everyone thought my family was kind of perfect. I have twin sisters that are four years younger than me and, you know, we went to church and we had a nice house and we were always put together; we went to the best schools. But if you really went inside my home, you would kind of go, "What is this dynamic between him and his dad?" My dad was a classically trained saxophonist and so he wanted me to be a musician, so I played jazz piano and trumpet. I would go to school from 8am to 3pm and then I would go to a jazz school from 4 to 6 and then I would have to practice long tones from like 7 to 8 and then do homework, then repeat. Saturdays I had to practice for three hours. Sundays I had to go to church and play for a couple hours. Summers I would go to three jazz camps and it was just non-stop. It was so much pressure and my dad never really knew how to open up or express "I love you" and stuff like that. It was eating me up inside. I mean, I'm not by any stretch of imagination Tyler, but at the same time I used some of that and was interested in examining that part of my life. As well, I had a cousin that dealt with substance abuse and recently he took his life, and I was interested in exploring how we get there and what can kind of push a kid over the edge — specifically an athlete, because I grew up also with Odell Beckham Jr. We grew up together and so seeing his journey with his dad was something we were interested in exploring. I did three months of wrestling training, getting into the mindset of an athlete and [what] testosterone — a lot of it — feels like and that toxic masculinity. So it was just a lot of things that I kind of took from my very long life [laughs] and put as much of it into the movie.

My condolences about your cousin. You guys have talked publicly about the fact that this was also a collaborative project in many ways. Can we start by first by talking about the fact that it started from a personal place and what it meant [for you, Trey] to change and to shift that because you knew that you wanted to work with Kelvin? It feels like you guys have a love story of your own in this.

[They both say "Awww" and hug and laugh]

TES: Elements and aspects of this were brewing for a very long time, but it was more broad strokes. It was the structure and characters but they didn't have names. I met Kel on our last movie and we kind of loved each other and wanted to do something together again. And this was the only idea I had. So it was like, "Let's figure this out, tailor make a role for you and really try to build it from the ground up." I started trying to write but at the same time I was texting Kel and doing phone calls. We called them like mini-therapy sessions where we're talking about that time of our lives, dynamics with our fathers, mothers, siblings, lovers, pressures. School, for me, was wrestling. For Kel, it was music and the commonalities and differences in our experience and everything in between. Now, it's like Tyler is a fusion between both of our perspectives and experiences and stuff with family. That kind of spiritual energy — the goal was just build on that with all the other actors and just keep it evolving and keep it collaborative.

Kelvin, what was that process like for you?

KHJ: Just incredible. I mean, I was just shocked — I was like, "He's actually gonna let me do this movie? He actually cares what I think?" It's a gift. But it's the incredible thing of what this moment of filmmaking could potentially be. We always talk about representation. We always talk about how we can incorporate people from different races to direct movies about a completely different race. I think it just came down to listening and just a love and being ego-less. So to be able to sit and have these conversations about our universal truths, of our experiences as human beings, was such a blessing to me. Everyone's experienced grief. Everyone's experienced loss. It really transcended race in a lot of ways. And to be able to understand someone else's perspective and the specificity, all it came down to was just loving another person and wanting to do that. I learned so much from him in this process about how I would choose to go about my next few projects and how I want to collaborate with other people. I know it won't be the same way every time because this was real lucky, but at the same time it definitely sets the standard for me.

Taylor Russell in Waves. (Elevation Pictures)

There are definitely so many universal truths, but it is very specifically a Black family. And there are these pressures that are universal but it becomes specific when you talk about the pressure of Black excellence and Black exceptionalism for example. Can you talk about the responsibility of being a white filmmaker and the homework that you did to tell this story?

TES: Absolutely. So much of that is that collaboration with Kel. There's universal things his family is going through but it's specifically a Black family and it has to be authentic and real. I felt a lot of responsibility with that. For my job, it was just listening and understanding and collaborating. So it started with Kel, and we would be working and talking through things like, "Yes, this is interesting but with my dad and myself it'd be more like this." And then I'd go back and write more. And then it just pushes further when Sterling [K. Brown] gets involved and Renée [Elise Goldsberry] and Tay [Taylor Russell] and it's just a constant evolution in that sense.

As a storyteller who is engaging narratives about Black folks, you have to navigate the terrain of all the caricatures and stereotypes that have been created over time. How did you grapple with the visual implication of telling a story where a young Black man kills a woman with his bare hands?

TES: It was huge. It was terrifying, honestly, and it was something we all talked about. There's just so much responsibility because I think you take that arc and if it's handled wrong, it's perpetuating a cliché and it's a disservice, honestly. So for us it was all about finding the humanity and finding the honesty in a relationship like that — relationships that are built on love that can fall apart to such a sad place. I still have scars in my head from my parents as a child, seeing certain things. I think the big thing that was so different with our movie, what we talked about, is we didn't want to judge — we wanted to understand. We wanted to understand how Ty gets there because ultimately it is an accident and it is a tragedy. It's a tightrope we're walking, but it's all about that empathy and understanding how it gets to that point because I think if we wouldn't have done it that way, that's how you fall prey to the other thing. For us, everything in it was about just retaining the humanity and honesty and understanding.

KHJ: Sending me the script, I think he understood what that was, but at the same time I think it was the amount of love he had for me. How much he saw me as a person and registered me as nothing else was what made that kind of makes sense. No one's exempt of something this tragic. No one is not capable of doing something so deplorable. So ultimately the conversation we began to have is that we're neither saints nor sinners, so if we're trying to protect that narrative by not casting me to play this part, then are we ultimately dehumanizing us as Black people? Ultimately we need to be able to show the beauty and the contradictions and the flaws and all the grey areas in between of what we are and allow people to see this boy as a boy. That was what we were aiming for. This is an opportunity to actually tell a much greater story about what it means to a middle class Black family in this situation, with progression, with opportunity, with some level of privilege — and to show how difficult that journey can be when we have a historical backstory, where we were beaten down before we were celebrated. To be put in this light was an opportunity to empower. We understood it, but we were excited about the risk because the risk meant a greater return.

Alexa Demie (left) with Kelvin Harrison Jr. in Waves. (Elevation Pictures)

So much of the first half of the film explores the fragility and the toxicity of masculinity through Tyler and through Ronald. You said that this comes from a personal place. Was this you also working through your own stuff in terms of masculinity?

TES: Yeah, absolutely. It is very specifically a Black father and son, and that was all in that collaboration with Kel. But I think that was another part of finding commonalities in our experience. I also related to a dynamic with a father like that. For me it was my stepdad — and my biological father has aspects. My stepdad just saw the movie for the first time last week and he was crying and was like, "I didn't realize how I was with you." It kind of broke my heart.

Do you feel like this film was a healing experience?

TES: Absolutely. Recreating some real things from life was bizarre and painful and weird but ultimately cathartic. I'm also reconnecting with all my siblings that I haven't for years. Through this movie, I just reconnected with my ex-stepbrother and stepsister I haven't talked to in almost more than a decade. I'm already gaining a deeper relationship with my half-sister, and then talking with my parents after they see stuff too. It was a lot for myself and with my girlfriend as well. And then, you know, just this relationship with Kel. Having it mend these relationships in a beautiful way has been been kind of crazy. Still in the middle of it, but it's been really interesting.

[In response to a similar question from an audience member]

KHJ: I think it was when I saw the movie and I got to see that second half for myself, I also healed through it because then I got to call my dad and I got to call my mom and I got to talk to my sisters and it allowed me to to to have the power within myself to kind of open up the dialogue and the conversation. Seeing Emily do it with her dad and seeing that my dad was someone's son and ultimately he's just a young man, and we're just two young dudes trying to connect and get to know each other, made him feel way more human and I wasn't so scared anymore to express my vulnerability or my problems or my insecurities. I was able to kind of look at the movie and go, "This was a gift for me." This was a gift to see something like this and be able to rectify the moments in my life in which I can make I can make a change and do it better.

Waves opens in Toronto this weekend followed an expansion across Canada in the coming weeks.

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.