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Family Plot: David Lowery Interviews Krisha Writer/Director Trey Edward Shults

Krisha Fairchild in Krisha (Photo by Ryan Booth)

One of the most impressive debuts of this year, Trey Edward Shults’s Krisha — the story of a recovering alcoholic thoroughly derailed by the pressure-cooker of her sister’s Thanksgiving Day dinner — is a work of astonishing performances, formal control, filmmaking ambition and, finally, deep emotional wisdom. It’s a movie that has all the dramatic pyrotechnics one expects from the “home for the holidays” sub-genre, but, loosely based on a true story about one of Shults’s actual relatives, is suffused with a real understanding about issues of addiction and recovery, regret, and the difficulties of being and feeling accepted.

Winner of the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival, this intimate family drama, shot in nine days on a micro budget, unspools with the full-throated brio of some lost European horror film. The camera movement becomes wildly subjective, the sound design is disorienting, the aspect ratio changes and, as for the music cues, let’s just say there’s one in particular that will send a chill down your spine while it breaks your heart.

The film’s titular “Krisha” is played powerfully by the writer/director’s own aunt, Krisha Fairchild  — “a huge hippie and dog lover who doesn’t drink anything,” Shults told Filmmaker in an interview last year. She’s absolutely riveting as a 60-something woman who, after years of “doing the work,” arrives at her sister’s well-appointed suburban home, her small dog in tow, to attempt a kind of reconciliation with her extended family that requires nothing more than being pleasant, engaging in small talk and retiring upstairs before the evening gets too late. But triggers abound, ranging from the insidiously jocular aggressiveness of a visiting uncle, Doyle (Bill Wise), to the cacophony created by her sister’s arm-wrestling sons to just, well, the oppressive, overwhelming normality of it all. Krisha’s urge to help out in the kitchen proves misguided, and then there are the liquor bottles stashed throughout the house. The film builds to the kind of climax that in its bleak honesty puts similar-themed Hollywood dramas to shame.

To interview Shults, we asked Ain’t Them Bodies Saints writer/director David Lowery, a fellow Texas native whose wife and daughter, Augustine and Atheena Frizzell, have small parts in the picture. Like Shults, Lowery approaches filmmaking from a bedrock of technical experience — they are both editors and have worked in the camera department. Lowery is currently in post on a high-profile follow-up to Saints, a family picture for Disney — a reboot of Pete’s Dragon — while Shults is planning his second picture, a similarly intense drama based on the death of his father, for A24, which is releasing Krisha in theaters this March. We pick up their conversation mid-stream, as Lowery asks Shults about working with “Chivo” — the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity, The Tree of Life, The Revenant) — before he even graduated college.

Did you work with Chivo when you were working on the Malick movie? I did. I was living in Hawaii for a summer with my aunt, Krisha. It was the summer after my first year of college, and she got me this gig [assisting on] B-roll footage for a Terrence Malick movie that still hasn’t come out, Voyage of Time. I ended up being the IMAX film loader, and then I traveled the world with it. I didn’t work with Chivo on that, but I got to work with Terry on a couple of shoots. Then, I worked on the Austin movie they shot, and I worked with Chivo a lot on that. It was a really cool experience.

That’s amazing. To see the movies that he does with Malick, and then the movies he does with Iñárritu, the last two, and then the commercials he does — you really see what he’s bringing to each film. In turn, he gives you an idea of what each director is bringing to it. It’s very easy to look at all three and say, “Oh, he’s just doing close-ups with a 32mm lens.” But once you get beyond that, you really start to get a sense of what each director’s style is, which is very exciting. That’s a perfect way of looking at it.

We’ll use that as our segue into talking about your style, which I really can’t [compare] to anything else. Krisha feels like its own voice. It reminded me a little bit of Wanda, by Barbara Loden, or A Woman Under the Influence. But those films are very objective and yours is so intensely subjective. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film that quite does that in such a way. I wondered two things. Was that your goal going into the movie? And, did you ever go through a stage of making movies that were sort of like ripping off other people? In other words, how did you get to such a unique vision on your first feature? Well, I guess the first part of the question, it was always about being as subjective as we could with [Krisha’s] experience in terms of the film grammar and all aspects [of the filmmaking]: the way we shoot it, the way we messed with aspect ratios, the lenses we used, the score. It was all about getting into her head until we end with her face at the end of the movie.

My first time [out as a filmmaker], I tried to make, I guess, more legit short films… and I failed miserably. I made this 20-minute short film with Krisha where she loses her son, this heavy thing about grief [Mother and Son, 2010]. I hadn’t found my voice, especially stylistically and cinematically. I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was a wakeup call. Then I started obsessing over studying films and studying film grammar. It was the summer of 2012, and I tried to make the feature the first time, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was the sole producer. The budget was like, $7,000, which you can totally do, but I couldn’t [make the film I wanted to do for that budget], and I was stubborn. We didn’t have the camera stuff we needed, but I was like, “We’re doing it anyway. I don’t care.” It was the worst week of my life. Behind closed doors, I was a mess. I had a nervous breakdown. But I finished the shoot, and then for two years I turned that [feature] into the short film [version of Krisha]. I rethought it and really spent time with it. And then, after the short, my best friend, who’s a producer on the movie, was pushing me to rewrite the feature. It was a huge, slow process. So this material’s been with me forever.

I find that fascinating because when I saw the short, the sheer formalism of it was so striking to me. I was like, “Well, here’s someone who knows exactly what he’s doing.” (Laughs)

It felt so controlled. I remember watching the camera moving in concert with that music and thinking, “Man, this guy figured it out.” It was very inspiring. And so, to hear that it came out of the tumultuous experience you described is interesting. For the short film, was there any of that control I saw there in the production, or was that all found in post? The control was there, and the vision wasn’t the problem. It was more about executing the vision, and [me] not being practical enough. But yeah, basically the short was mining for gold nuggets and finding the good stuff.

I love knowing that, and I think it’s probably inspiring to a wide number of filmmakers to know that out of those projects that feel like failures in the moment, there’s actually so much goodness that can be found in them. I believe that. I couldn’t have gotten to the film now without failing the first time. I had to go through that experience.

The other thing that I love about your process with the short was the idea of finding your voice, because I feel that that’s one of the most important aspects of any filmmaker’s journey. Especially in the current independent film landscape, where you hear all the time how there are too many movies and they’re all — Too much noise.

To have a distinct voice is becoming the greatest commodity one can have as a filmmaker. It’s an absolute necessity, but it’s not something that you can just go out and do. You have to figure it out. I mean, I still deal with paying a little too much homage to [other] filmmakers, or ripping people off, sometimes. But nonetheless, I remember the moment when I realized that I’d only made movies that were imitations of other things I liked, and I needed to start figuring out what I wanted to say. I still haven’t completely figured it out yet, but nonetheless, just figuring that out, that I needed to have something to say, was a huge thing. And until I figured that out, my films weren’t going to be worth a damn, and no one was going to care about them. Me, too. At first, I didn’t think about that at all, you know? I loved movies, and I want to make movies. Without sounding pretentious, it’s been a years-long struggle to find my voice as a filmmaker because, like you, I don’t want to put out noise. I want to make special movies.

I know the movie is very personal to you, and that you’ve cast it entirely with friends and family. And you’re in it as well. I was thinking about this quote from one of John Barth’s books on writing. This isn’t the exact quote, but [he wrote] about how even in the midst of the most traumatic personal events, there’s always a part of a writer’s mind that’s asking, “How can I use this?” Was that something you have found yourself doing? God, man, I do it so bad, and I kinda hate it. It almost feels wrong in the moment, that you can be thinking about [those events], you know what I mean?

Completely. I mean, I’m always thinking about it, and then I’m always a little too scared to use [that material]. Interesting.

I admire your courage because you went there. I’m always like, “Okay, how can I filter this through 18 layers of fiction so that I can make a movie that’s not going to hurt anyone or hurt myself?” Were you ever afraid of any collateral emotional damage from your family in making a film like this? My parents are both therapists, and they’re always [saying], “You’ve got to talk about stuff. You’ve got to let out your demons, otherwise it’s just going to build up.” As a family, we saw the greater good in the movie, and we all knew we had good intentions, and we were all down to go there, you know? My family’s also really close, and I kind of feel like this is just our way of processing. For me, it was a natural thing. When I was a kid, the first thing I filmed was a family reunion. I always wanted my aunt Krisha to star in my first movie, and I also had this fantasy that other family members would be in it.

Was it always the plan for you to appear in it as well? Well, my mom and Krisha are in it, and I have a similar face and profile. And the material’s so close. I entertained the thought of having one of my friends who play the brothers in the movie be me, but it just didn’t feel right. I knew in my gut I had to do it. But I don’t plan to do that again.

When you were shooting the film and were also in front of the camera, were you checking every shot after each take? Or were you just trusting your cinematographer? Well, for starters, I love and trust my cinematographer, Drew Daniels. With Krisha, most of our shooting was long takes, so we had to be specific. But I usually knew if I had it or not just by looking at Drew. If the scene ended and he was nodding and looked excited, I know we had it. If he was frowning, it didn’t work. But a lot of times, [directing and being in the film] was a pain in the ass. There’s the opening shot in the movie, when Krisha comes to the house. I think it’s a six- or seven-minute take, and I come in at the end. So the first half, I’m outside with the camera team, following Krisha with my monitor, sweating. And then I sneak inside, and when the time is ready, I go back outside and pick up grocery bags and come back in.

That’s amazing. Obviously, when you were working with family members, particularly with Krisha, you had that familiarity. You already had a dialogue established. You had a comfort zone that you could get in and out of, and you knew the boundaries of that, to a certain extent. But, in terms of making an independent film with a very short schedule, how specific were you with your family about what you wanted? Was there a rehearsal process to get to that place beforehand? I think a huge part of it was doing the short first, and then seeing the end product in the short and all of us being proud. We shot for nine days [for the feature], and everything just worked. It felt really serendipitous, and we were all a big family. We didn’t do any rehearsals. I did get one extra day, where I worked with the camera team, the sound guy and Krisha to choreograph some of these long takes. But I didn’t want [to work with] any other actors because I didn’t want it to get stale or rehearsed. There are also some emotional scenes with my mom and Krisha towards the end of the movie. Some of that stuff they workshopped on their own — they dwelled into it on their own — but that’s about it.

And when they did that on their own, would they bring it to you or would they save it for the take? It was more just talking about stuff, not trying to fully act out a scene. We saved that for when we actually filmed.

Did you also go off and just follow certain tangents with the characters while filming? The final movie’s probably 70 percent scripted, 30 percent improv, and every day the strategy was to nail what we had to get in the script to tell the story, and then the rest of the day, different actors would be in different parts of the room creating scenes together. I’d walk in and be like, “What do y’all got? Okay. Let’s do that.” It was really beautiful to work that way. Everything with the uncle, Doyle, who keeps going at it with Krisha, that’s all 100 percent improvised. Bill Wise, the guy playing Doyle, he’s incredible. I told him before the shoot not to even read the script because his character’s not in it, but we’re going to shoot stuff and don’t worry. Other stuff, like the scene when my grandma comes to the house for the first time, that in the script was like, “Okay, my grandma’s going to come to the house.” We didn’t know what she was going to do because she’s so out of it she didn’t know we were making a movie. [For that scene], I had a talk with my mom and Krisha about trying to push the scene forward as much as they could. My DP hid the camera behind some boxes, and we just brought [my grandmother] out, and it was almost like a fake documentary. The take that we used, where she starts talking about her mother and our family lineage, that’s subtext in the movie. The framing is Krisha and my grandma in profile, and I am right behind Krisha, and Olivia is holding the baby in the back. It’s just beautiful serendipitous stuff that it came together like that. It was just about getting my ego out of the way and being open and collaborative. That was a big thing I learned from the first shoot. This one was an open and collaborative experience, and I think we all felt, beyond just being fun, that we were making something special.

You couldn’t have scripted that scene any better. And to know that that was completely just serendipitous is— It’s my favorite scene in the movie.

It’s unbelievable. And it’s also great to know that, hey, you can let go sometimes. Because my instincts would be, “Is everyone hitting their marks? We’ve got a long lens, the camera’s hidden and we want to make sure this composition works great.” But you don’t have to do that, necessarily. You can just let go, and those moments will come together and work within the context of an incredibly formalist piece of [filmmaking] and not feel out of place. A funny thing, too, the take that’s in the movie was the third time we shot it. I found that if we put my grandma back in the room and let her chill for a bit and bring her back out, she would forget that she just said hello to everyone. She would just do it again. Also, the take is a super-slow zoom that starts wide, so that it allows a little more room, I guess, for messiness to come into place. People don’t have to hit their marks per se—

Because the camera is participating as well. Exactly. Drew was operating, and he was feeling it. I thought it was just going to be a slow, slow zoom into Krisha’s face, but then he pans a little to grandma and pans back to Krisha. It worked out beautifully.

The movie is doing something that I love, which is that it feels like it’s structured almost like a piece of music. Yes.

And this is in the short film as well, and it’s even more profound here. It feels like the film is cutting to a rhythm that is musical. The movie almost functions more as a piece of music than a traditional narrative. What was your process of doing that? Were you working hand-in-hand with Brian McOmber on the score? The structure of the script was really important to me. I wanted it to have those peaks and then take those breathers — to have those ups and downs. So I knew how the structure was going to be, but I didn’t quite know what we would pull off. The first rough cut was all temp music. Brian came on after that, and he just elevated it because he made [the score] as effective as the temp, but better, because it was something new and unique to this film. It’s funny, I think this next movie I’m trying to do is less like that; it’s maybe a little more writerly. But the movie I want to do after that is 100 percent that same mentality, like almost treating it as a piece of music.

I wanted to touch on a couple of more things on a technical side. One is, you play with aspect ratio very effectively. When I watched the movie, I thought to myself, “Wow, I can’t believe I didn’t notice that the movie was in [a different] aspect ratio.” I don’t want to go into spoilers with the movie, but I think it was probably the exact point at which you wanted the audience to realize it, to feel it, you know? (Laughs) Yeah.

I think altering aspect ratios is in the water right now. Wes Anderson is doing it and Xavier Dolan did it really great in Mommy. In Mommy and Tom at the Farm.

Everyone’s really making a big point out of it, and yours is done so subtly. I was wondering, did you ever back yourself into a corner in the edit, when you were having to crop something? Or did it all work out exactly as you foresaw? Luckily, it all worked out as I foresaw, I think because I was so adamant about the structure. Even when we were shooting unscripted material, I knew where in the structure they would fit. And the last thing I wanted to do [with the aspect ratio shifts] was some pretentious, show-offy thing. I just want it to be another hopefully subliminal thing. There is no way an average audience member is going to notice it. I hope they feel it, but I hope they don’t notice it, you know what I mean?

Yes. I think you pulled it off because with The Grand Budapest Hotel, Wes Anderson wants you to notice it. Exactly.

So you shot the movie in August and then it was at South by the following March? Yeah.

How long was the post process? And did it all click into place or was it a lot of exploring? The edit was very easy. The first rough cut was very close to the final movie, only 10 minutes longer. I did that, honestly in like two weeks because I was obsessed and couldn’t stop. My girlfriend would wake up at three or four a.m., and I’d be drinking wine and talking to myself, still doing it. I think the big reason [for it being easy] was that structure and also the long takes. For those takes, I wasn’t doing anything except messing with sound levels and picking the right one. And then after that, I was doing the fun montage-y stuff. So the edit was really quick. There was stuff that took longer. Probably the biggest pain in the ass was sound. We had to remix our movie after South by Southwest, and, luckily, we got to go to Skywalker and have Michael Semanick, who’s done my hero Paul Thomas Anderson’s movies. I’d be like, “Do you notice Punch-Drunk Love in this?” And he’d be like, “Oh, yeah.” (Laughs) I kind of geeked out.

It’s so strange when you start collaborating with people who have worked on those films [you love]. Our sound designer on Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, and who I’m working with now on this Disney movie, Pete’s Dragon, worked with James Gray a lot. Every now and then we’ll be pulling a sound effect and he’ll be like, “Oh, yeah, this is something I recorded for The Yards.” I’m like, “Holy cow, I’ve got a sound effect from The Yards in my movie!” 

On that note, you have pretty much fulfilled the dream of most independent filmmakers, I suppose, which is to make that small personal film and have it recognized by the world at Cannes, at Critics’ Week. When you were there with your family and the crew, up on that stage introducing your film to an international audience, did you stop to think in that moment, or any moment before or after, how crazy it was that this actually worked out? During South by Southwest it was insane because it was a little movie no one knew of. We were one of the last ones in competition to play, and then the day after, we won. That week was a whirlwind, totally crazy, and then, after I had the chance to process it, the melancholy hit in. At Cannes, it felt great, but I couldn’t fully process it. It was like a dream that I was going to wake up from soon. But the funny thing is that both times, after South by Southwest and Cannes, I was sad and depressed. I’m so grateful, but I can’t ever, like, fully get into it.

It’s something that I feel is difficult to talk about because you don’t want to seem to be complaining about where you are. Exactly.

You’re in a great spot, and you don’t want to say, “Oh, woe is me.” But it’s something I think filmmakers on their way into that underestimate. I have had friends who went to Sundance and talked about their post-Sundance blues. It’s very real and something more filmmakers should be prepared for because it definitely hits hard. It’s great to hear you feel the same way.

Of course, you would never in a million years say, “Gosh, I wish this hadn’t happened.” But at the same time, there is that point when you’re like, “I wasn’t expecting this feeling.” You get through it, but it is something very strange. Filmmaking is a great thing, but there’s a dark side — all sorts of negative elements that no one ever prepares you for. 100 percent.

Do you think about what you would be doing if your film had not been accepted to South by Southwest and/or Cannes? Oh man, no, thankfully. (Laughs) I torture myself in enough ways that that would just be another added one. I don’t know if you do this, but I build a fantasy career in my head — where I’m going to go. And in my head, I was thinking Krisha, maybe a couple of people like it, maybe a couple of investors like it, and I can just make this next movie I want to make for a little bit more money. And then that movie would get me more in the situation that Krisha got me to. I felt like I was born to [make films], and I knew success would come at some point, I just didn’t think it would be with this movie. So for me, I’m more just focused on, okay, it happened early. Re-adjust. Stay hungry and passionate and excited. Make sure you don’t mess up any opportunities. Take advantage of everything you can and don’t get lazy.

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