If you have a family, you have family drama. It’s a fact of life. But your family drama probably doesn’t much resemble the drama of Trey Edward Shults’ debut film, Krisha, a brisk, 80-minute exercise in tension replete with the score and atmosphere of a highly refined horror film. There is nothing traditionally horrific about the film, of course, but the quivering string compositions that introduce us head-on to its title character, an addict come home on Thanksgiving to see her family for the first time in a long time, put us ill at ease before Shults even takes us into the house where most of his action takes place.
Oh, and that house? That’s Shults’ mother’s house, his actual mother’s house, and most of the people we see in the frame are related to him: his aunt, Krisha Fairchild, plays the titular character, his mother plays her sister, his grandmother plays their mom, and he plays a version of himself, Trey, though Krisha and his mom each borrow the other’s real-life role when they’re in front of the camera. Confusing, maybe, but once you’ve untangled Krisha’s cinematic skein and made sense of where reality ends and the film begins, you’ll be all set to sit back and be discomfited.
Krisha’s release has expanded since it’s opening in New York just over a week ago, though it did the rounds on the festival circuit for almost a year after premiering at SXSW in 2015. Last week, as Shults finally saw his first feature effort make its way to the viewing public, Paste caught up with him talk about his personal and artistic goals for Krisha, the real life and cinematic influences that inspire him as a filmmaker, and the importance of staying hungry.
I want to talk about Krisha with you, but I feel like it’s really impossible to talk about the film without talking about you personally.
Trey Edward Shults: Sure.
Paste: Are you comfortable with the amount of emphasis that’s gotten placed on you and on your family, whether in the film’s reviews or in the interviews you’ve done?
Shults: Oh, that’s a great question. You know, it totally fluctuates. I think for me, the most important thing is the movie, so if sometimes there’s an emphasis on me in particular, positive or negative—I don’t know, I care about this movie a lot. It’s my baby. I did not make this movie to be a calling card or anything like that. I made this movie because I love it, and it’s personal, and it’s my baby. It’s the movie that comes first, not [the] “I” [that] comes first, you know?
Paste: Yeah, for sure. And I’m guessing you don’t make a movie that’s this personal, both behind the camera and in front of it, unless you’re comfortable with talking about that personal element when it comes up?
Shults: Exactly. I’m bringing it on.
For you the film seems to be about working through some stuff, unless I’m just projecting. I know that it was quite a process. There was a lot of work that went into it, a lot of sweat that went into it. I imagine the process was pretty cathartic for you.
Shults: Entirely, man. It was totally cathartic, and in so many different ways. A lot of times when it’s just me alone in a room with it, when I was editing it alone, I was crying like a baby, and seeing it with my family at the premiere and everything…it’s been very cathartic, very positive.
I’m really curious to know how your family reacted to seeing themselves in a feature, you know? Krisha, your aunt, is obviously used to that kind of experience, and you’ve got Chris Doubek and Bill Wise, and they’re used to the experience too. My understanding is that no one else in the movie acted before being in this, so what’s the reaction from them seeing themselves in this?
Shults: Well, it totally ranged, and on top of that actually a lot of people have acted. The family members are Krisha, my mom, my grandma, my other aunt, and myself, and everyone besides that are actually friends of mine who are actors. So really before that question, it’s primarily my mom and my other aunt who are not actors at all. I think my mom is amazing. You know, she’s a therapist for a living. But for her, she loved it. It wasn’t weird. She had a blast. She’s like, “When am I going to get an agent? I want to act again!” Which is hilarious. And I guess besides that, everyone was used to it.
Conventional wisdom, to me, says that going into business with your family can be pretty tough, so I wonder if going into a movie with your family is pretty tough in this aspect. Were you concerned about making the movie with your friends and with your family?
Shults: Maybe at the very beginning a little bit, just because I had no idea how it was going to work out. I will say that you would think it would be a lot harder than it was. The actual making of the movie was one of the best weeks of my life. My friends and family, after the first day, like, we were all a family, you know? My girlfriend and her mom were the caterers, we all slept in the house except some people slept in a little condo nearby because we didn’t have enough room. It was a beautiful, stress-free, great experience. But they’ve all been my biggest supporters, and I’m very close with them, so I kind of had a feeling it would be like that.
Paste: So it was a better experience working with them than working with, say, if you’d cast total strangers in this movie.
Shults: I mean, who knows? Maybe that would have been a great experience, too! But it would not have been what it is, what it was, and what it was, was a beautiful thing for me. It was great.
I know I’m talking a lot about the family aspect, but I feel like that is a really big, defining feature for the movie.
Paste: As an audience member I’m almost…maybe intruding is too strong a word, but I feel like I’m intruding on something private. Is that kind of something you wanted your viewers to feel?
Shults: Yeah. I mean, if people are feeling that while watching the movie, I would love that. The approach was all about being honest and intimate with this whole thing, so I would love it if people are feeling that while watching it.
We see a lot of happens not just with Krisha, but with the family’s various relationships. You have people talking about their sex lives, or secretly watching porn, or they’re arm wrestling, or stressing about finances. It feels like we’re a real fly on the wall, kind of in the way that Krisha is slowly reintegrating back into this family unit.
Shults: You nailed it on the head. That’s exactly what it is. And the approach is that everything we’re seeing, Krisha’s either seen or heard, you know? We’re taking on her point of view, and all these little things we see and eavesdrop on are adding up incrementally [to] her decision and what she decides to do.
With a background in the industry and having worked with Terrence Malick, people will naturally draw comparisons between your work and his. I’ve also read comparisons made to John Cassavetes, Paul Thomas Anderson…Polanski maybe? In taking this personal experience and turning it into a narrative, who would you want to be compared to, and do those comparisons feel like pressure to you?
Shults: Yeah. Here’s what I want. What I hope is that those comparisons are there but at the end of the day this is different and unique, you know? I hope that it feels like I have my own voice and I’m not just trying to steal from a bunch of geniuses. But I think those comparisons are valid. I love all of those people, and in different ways. With Terry, to me, I’m not trying to make a movie in the way he makes movies at all, or steal his style at all, but more his spirit, how he approaches making movies, you know? His spirit’s beautiful. But then for Cassavetes, like, the way we make the movie cinematically is nothing like what he does, but if it can have some of his essence or soul in there…and obviously there are similarities between Woman Under the Influence, you know, but then with other guys it’s totally different. I love the comparisons because I think all of those people are geniuses, and I look up to them, but hopefully it feels like I’m doing some kind of thing on my own, too, you know?
Paste: Absolutely. And I get being flattered by being compared to guys like that. Don’t get me wrong—I totally understand why that would be immediately flattering!
Shults: As long as they’re not like, “All he’s doing is ripping off these guys!” [Laughs]
So this question might make it sound like I’m jerking off a little bit, so excuse me…
Shults: [Laughs] I love it!
Paste: You’re talking about your influences, and I’m thinking about the way you’re shaped by those influences, and it reminds me of the way that we’re shaped by our family experiences. Was that thought ever in your head while you were making the movie? We become who we are based in part on our family relationships and our family history, and I think as a filmmaker you become who you are based on what you absorb from watching other movies.
Shults: Totally, man! Totally. Especially this movie, just because of the way it’s made and how intimate it is with my family. Yeah, the movie is inspired by real family members. The story is inspired by my cousin, who came home and relapsed, and two months later she overdosed and passed away. The relationship I have with Krisha in the movie is like what I had with my dad before he passed. Addiction has torn up our family. So it’s constantly thinking about that stuff, and whether that made me the person I am, or Krisha the person she is. To me it’s like we’re all coming together and bringing our own experiences, and that’s what makes the film what it is. This is not my movie. It’s our movie.
So what would you say you would take away from this experience, then? Going on to your next movie, what did you learn from Krisha, and what did this do for you and for your voice as a filmmaker?
Shults: From more of the practical aspect, I want to make sure the next movie, even though it’s not going to be made with my family at my mom’s house again, I still want the next movie to feel like a family making a movie, you know? Like, the way in Boogie Nights, it’s a family coming together to make these movies…I think that movie is a metaphor for just any kind of filmmaking, but I want to create that family and continue that process, and I want it to be collaborative and enjoyable, even when it gets to bigger stuff, I know that’s easier said than done.
So from that angle, that’s how I’m thinking. From another, my voice or who I am as a filmmaker, it makes it way simpler, because the next movie I’m doing I wrote before we had any success with this, you know? So I’m not thinking about that stuff. I’m just thinking about the next movie’s my baby, and I just want to make the movie how I see it, and I want to find great people to work with, and be collaborative, and be surprised. So yeah, I’m just excited. I’m excited to be done with Krisha, let it get off into the world. It’s my first baby, but now I want to go make another baby.
I wanted to ask if the year between SXSW last year and now, if the build-up has been excruciating for you. Because that’s a long time to be sitting on your movie, you know what I mean?
Shults: It’s extremely long, man. The good thing I will say is that within that time, we’ve pretty much been traveling the world with the movie. I’ve been going to a ton of festivals, meeting great people, I’ve been tweaking the script on my next movie, I’m trying to write a new thing…definitely if I was just sitting around doing nothing it would be extremely excruciating, but at least I’ve been staying busy!
At the same time, that being said, I wish the movie would have come out back in August or whatever, you know? I don’t know. At this point I’m just like, it’s about time. I’m ready to release it into the world. Long time coming.
Absolutely. And of course for the people who read about these things and don’t go to those festivals, the wait is nail-biting too. I think it’s smart that you started working on other scripts while Krisha’s been doing its thing—going to Cannes, going to AFI, going to London. Do you just like to keep yourself occupied? Is that just your nature, or did someone say to you, “Maybe you should start working on something else?”
Shults: No, I think it’s more just my nature. Especially with this. Having what’s happening right now is my dream. It’s been my dream since I was a kid. All I want to do is make movies. I love it. So I’m hungry to make other things. It’s not like Krisha is all I want to do. I want to make other stuff. I want to do all sorts of movies. So I can’t help but start that stuff, because I’m hungry to do a lot more. I think that’s just by my nature.
Paste: I like your work ethic!
Shults: Yeah, oh yeah! Well, I’ve been working a lot—I’ve been honed in, really focused, at this since I was 19. I just turned 27. My whole life I wanted this, but I’ve been really focused since I was 19. I feel like I’ve been working for a while, and I’m extremely grateful to be in this position, so I don’t want to blow any opportunities. I’m hungry. I want to get shit done.
Of course. Is it my understanding that you’re making a horror movie next, is that right?
Shults: Yeah. It’s not a traditional horror movie, and I as I was writing it, I didn’t even look at it as “This is a horror movie.” But, you know, I hope it’s terrifying.
Paste: I’m looking forward to it. You had me at “non-traditional horror.” But while I was watching Krisha, there were moments where I thought, “I feel like I’m in a horror movie.” Those close-up shots of Krisha staring straight into the camera felt horror-ish, and I felt like that wasn’t by accident either.
Shults: Yup! No, not at all man. Actually, you mentioned Polanski earlier—I was watching Rosemary’s Baby, and Repulsion, and Kubrick’s The Shining before making Krisha. So that stuff is totally there. Yeah, I love when people say Krisha’s like a horror movie. It’s not, but I dig that, because I like the idea of taking this set up, like a Thanksgiving reunion movie that sounds like a clichéd thing you’ve seen a million times, and the last thing you’re gonna think is that moments are gonna feel like a horror film. If you can pull off that line and balance, I love that. I love doing what’s not expected. So for my next movie, saying it’s a horror movie, to me it’s even more of a family drama, you know, uniting those things. So it’s going to be just as emotional and personal, but in a totally different way. To me that’s exciting.
I feel the same way. I think you can mine a lot out of that. And thank you for validating my feelings on that. I thought it was just the A24 label, but I kept thinking of Under the Skin when I saw those close-ups of your aunt.
Shults: Love that movie.
Paste: It’s great. And I think it’s incredible that you can start with such an emotional and painful premise and you can go there with it, in such a subtle way.
Shults: Hell yeah. I thought that would be cool. It’s still a gamble. You don’t know if that stuff is going to work. But I’m just happy people are responding to it, like yourself, you know?
Paste: I mean, I don’t know how you couldn’t respond to it. I think for a lot of people, and maybe this is your experience, there is a certain degree of fear or horror that comes from dealing with family travails…in the sense that there is something dreadful that you have to contend with.
Shults: You nailed it on the head, man, because I wouldn’t want to do this stuff just to do it. There’s a reason. When my cousin relapsed at our family reunion, I couldn’t move because I was terrified. I have a history with my dad, and addiction, and it felt like a horror movie. The tension was unbearable. But it’s just a domestic family in a tough situation. So if we’re making a movie and we’re doing things cinematically, from my experience it was terrifying going through it. So I think it should be terrifying at certain moments. I love that you felt that and noticed that.
I love that it’s there. You mentioned typical Thanksgiving movies, and I feel like this is an attempt at subverting that. I don’t know if you were like, “Yeah! I’m gonna put my family experiences on film and I’m totally going to upset the Thanksgiving film formula!”, but it happens. It feels very organic, too. Was that really the intention?
Shults: Well, what I will say is when I approached it, I didn’t think that I was making a holiday, Thanksgiving, family reunion movie. I didn’t think I was making an addiction movie. I was making a movie about this woman, and my family’s experience, and trying to make that true. So I think that’s why it is what it is. Being objective about it now in hindsight, I do love the idea of starting with maybe a cliché set-up and then going and doing something totally new and different within that. I love that idea. But I didn’t approach it like that, you know, not like I’m some smart guy breaking down the Thanksgiving or addiction movie. It was really just trying to tell our experience in an honest way.
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.