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Waves, Trey Edward Shults

How Frank Ocean’s music inspired Trey Edward Shults’ stunning film Waves

The director and cast members discuss their star-soundtracked film about the beauty and pain of growing up

The closest I’ve come to synaesthesia is watching Waves. In the opening moments, flashes of red, blue and green flood the screen as Animal Collective’s “Lock Raven” pulls us into the immersive world of Trey Edward Shults’ astonishing third feature. As the song segues into “Floridada”, another psychedelic earworm by the same band, the camera spins 360 degrees in a car roaming the freeway. Get used to it: the costly, headphones-friendly soundtrack, which echoes the raw emotions of its raw, emotive characters, includes RadioheadKendrick Lamar and, as the title suggests, several tracks by Kanye West. The sensory overload is so powerful, it’s practically 3D.

Above all, it’s Frank Ocean whose spirit permeates Waves, from the poignant needle drops – “Mitsubishi Sony”, “Seigfried”, “Florida”, “Rushes” – to the story structure itself. Just as Ocean eschews verse/chorus/verse arrangements, Waves doesn’t follow a three-act template. In the first half, the protagonist is Tyler, an 18-year-old wrestler played by Kelvin Harrison Jr (Mudbound, Luce). Then, like Chungking Express, the drama tonally flips midway, spending the second hour with Tyler’s sensitive sister, Emily, as depicted by Taylor Russell in a breakthrough performance. 

“Those songs were so instrumental in my life,” Shults says of Ocean’s Endless and Blonde. “They came out when we were making It Comes at Night. I was listening to those albums and dreaming about making this movie.”

Shults personally wrote letters to Kid Cudi, Thom YorkeTyler, the Creator and everyone on his dream playlist. They all agreed. “You just send shit into the ether,” the 31-year-old director explains. “With Frank (Ocean), his team was like, ‘It’s not going to happen. He’s in a creative zone. He’s not going to approve of five songs.’ Then all of a sudden, they’re like, ‘Never mind. Frank approves of everything – for a really low rate.’ I was like, ‘How did that happen?!’”

“Those songs were so instrumental in my life. I was listening to those albums and dreaming about making this movie” – Trey Edward Shults

Shults and the main cast of Waves are over for the London Film Festival when I meet them separately in various hotel rooms. If they’re jetlagged, it doesn’t show; they speak passionately about the film as if it were a real event that happened in their lives.

“I was so shocked,” Russell recalls of her first viewing. “I couldn’t say anything. And then for the next three days, I was really depressed. Not just because the movie is heartbreaking, but it’s so strange to have an intimate experience with a group of people over a summer and then to watch it on screen. I don’t know what it was that made me so sad. But I was really sad. Then I was like, ‘But it’s a really special movie.’”

In Shults’ grief-stricken horror It Comes at Night, Harrison Jr depicted an introverted, sexually frustrated kid who’s isolated in the woods. In Waves, Harrison Jr gets to carry swagger and extra muscles: Tyler adores driving while blasting Tame Impala, he’s on the wrestling team, and he’s dating the coolest girl at school, Alexis (Euphoria’s Alexa Demie). But beneath Tyler’s bravado is a more sensitive side – the clue being a dyed haircut that mimics the album cover of Blonde.

On the press tour for It Comes at Night, Shults offered Harrison Jr the choice of two roles. According to Harrison Jr, Shults phrased it as: “There’s a wrestler in the first half, or a boyfriend in the second half. The wrestling part is more challenging. I know you don’t like sports. You could barely chop wood in Night.” So Harrison Jr, of course, took the more challenging role, and the whole film – the script, the casting, everything – revolved around his version of Tyler, the character.

Harrison Jr recalls, “Trey texted me about my romantic relationships, my relationship with my father and sister, and my experience of being a black male growing up in the South. Then once I got the script, we got into the specificity of the language, the things that young people would say, and the slang I heard from my younger sisters.” They then swapped stories about their fathers. “We found the universal truth amongst us, and made that come alive in the script.”

In Waves, the camera pirouettes with Tyler’s incessant mood swings: the highs are high (Outkast! A$AP Rocky! Cruising beaches with your girlfriend!), but the lows are downright traumatic. The plot, so to speak, concerns Tyler crumbling under expectations from society, his school friends, and his father, Ronald (Sterling K. Brown). “The world does not give a shit about you and me,” Ronald instructs his son about the value of a wrestling scholarship. “We are not afforded the luxury of being average.”

Shults didn’t initially envision the family as black. But as Harrison Jr picked the role of Tyler, the rest followed. “We went back and forth to figure out the right way so that [the dialogue] sounded authentic to an African-American,” Harrison Jr says. “Tyler has this fear in his head: ‘I’m never going to be good enough.’ When you obsess over something, it becomes your whole life.”

In contrast, Emily’s boyfriend, Luke, played by Lucas Hedges, is the opposite of Tyler: he’s softer, often apologetic by default, and cries in public. Perhaps it’s white privilege: Luke is simply allowed to exist.

“Theoretically, a Kanye biopic with the spirit of Waves would be amazing. I don’t know how I could do that yet. But who knows?” – Trey Edward Shults

Harrison Jr adds, “Toxic masculinity is a big part of it, especially coming from Ronald, who had his version of what it means to be a man from his dad. And Tyler’s like, ‘But the world’s different!’ This hardness doesn’t mean anything in this new space Tyler exists in. I don’t know how to explain it. It’s so…” He pauses, then yells, “IT’S JUST TOXIC!”

At a pivotal moment, on the brink of self-destruction, Tyler’s fractured headspace is mirrored by the frenzied verses of Kanye’s “I Am a God”. A poster of The Life of Pablo hangs on his bedroom wall. “Pablo has such a dichotomy between the most gorgeous gospel to the most crass, Yeezus-type stuff,” Shults explains. “It’s a man at personal war with himself – there’s a spirit of that in Waves.” The director once expressed an interest in making a movie about Kanye. “Theoretically, a Kanye biopic with the spirit of Waves would be amazing. I don’t know how I could do that yet. But who knows?”

So was Harrison Jr preparing, like Daniel Day-Lewis would, by studying Blonde, Endless and The Life of Pablo non-stop? “Honestly, I didn’t start listening to those albums until after the movie,” Harrison Jr admits. “I listened to what made sense for me, for the character. So I was listening to Kelly Clarkson!” The actor laughs so hard, he can barely get the words out. “That connected to me. I was like, ‘I know Kelly Clarkson!’”

“Really?! Wow!” says Renée Elise Goldsberry, gobsmacked, when I tell her Harrison Jr opted for “Since U Been Gone” over Shults’ playlist. Goldsberry plays Tyler and Emily’s stepmother Catherine, the warmer, more empathetic of the two parents. What struck Goldsberry was the integration of technology. “This group of kids are the first generation who’ve had smartphones their entire lives,” she says. “We have so much access to communication that you think all misunderstandings would be cleared up. In reality, despite social media, we’re still not totally communicating.”

However, one touching exchange between Emily and her stepmother occurs over the phone. “The entire closure of our characters is based upon a text message,” Goldsberry notes. “These things are so not dramatic, but it works because Trey did it so well as a filmmaker. We experience life, we experience news, we experience tragedy, we experience forgiveness via text message. As an audience, we get it.”

“There’s a communication barrier between children and their parents,” Russell says. “Oftentimes, you don’t necessarily know how to relate or talk to each other.”

Harrison Jr was at school during the mass migration from Myspace to Facebook. “It was a way to exploit and pick at people,” he recalls. “You knew more information that you needed to know. Then Instagram highlighted it even more.” In Waves, Tyler obsesses over Alexis’s whereabouts, right down to stalking her social media presence for hints of infidelity. Instagram, it seems, is an addiction.

“But you also have permission to see things you wouldn’t normally see,” Harrison Jr continues. “In the South, if we didn’t have social media, we wouldn’t know what’s going on with kids in New York or California. We see it from rappers and TV, but it’s having those influences in front of you 24/7. It’s constantly evolving and changes how a young man sees the world. I lived with a social media influencer when I was 16 and moved to LA – it blew my mind.”

Around the midpoint, a catastrophe occurs – the film, and its family, spins off its axis. The impatient adrenaline rush of Tyler’s psyche gives way to Emily’s serener point of view. The aspect ratio widens, the tempo relaxes, an anamorphic lens is introduced. Emily’s introspective arc is guided by empathy, not self-hatred. Instead of frantic snippets of Yeezus, there’s more likely to be the plaintive piano of Radiohead’s “True Love Waits”.

“I listened to a lot of Frank Ocean, because Blonde makes me very emotional,” Russell notes. As they’re separate stories that complement the other, does Russell perceive Emily’s side of the film as the Blonde to Tyler’s Endless? “Totally. The first half is so vibrant and juicy, like a steak. I was on the edge of my seat, feeling really anxious and nervous. And then you can breathe. Blonde is so quiet and impactful.”

“I love a lot of diptych movies, but I don’t know of one where the climax is at the halfway point,” Shults says. “It only works if you love Emily, and could leave Tyler to go on this new journey. When part two comes, it’s a hug – it puts things into perspective, and pushes through into a new phase of life.”

If the first half is toxic masculinity, then what’s the second half? If it’s just kindness and love, then why isn’t there a catchy buzzword for it? “I don’t think we’re used to seeing it, in this space, with these types of characters, with women,” Russell says. “Maybe that’s why it’s stumping.” She adds, “But I do think the pressure you see is similar to my experience as a young person, even if that’s pressure Emily puts on herself, not necessarily from her parents.”

Oddly, Shults and the cast haven’t heard back from any of the artists, or even know if any have seen Waves. Still, it’s a film that, like a piece of music, is to be soaked in, to have echoing around your head, and to save for that opportune moment when a life event requires a specific song – or, in this case, a specific film.

“It’s about the ups and downs of life, and how we’re all connected to that. And that’s beautiful. When it’s hard, it’s fucking hard. But you don’t feel the beauty without going through that pain” – Trey Edward Shults

After all, there’s an alchemy to Waves beyond the synaesthesia: the exact nanosecond a scene will cut to the next gut-wrenching incident; the precise pigment of a sunset that reflects Emily’s tranquillity; or when to introduce the original score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Shults tells me of a three-and-a-half hour cut with additional Kanye songs and footage of Harmony Korine playing Emily’s teacher. Everything feels rigorously tested by the director’s gut instinct, as if the version hitting cinemas is what will leave the most lasting impact.

“It’s yin and yang, two halves of a whole,” Shults explains. “It’s about the ups and downs of life, and how we’re all connected to that. And that’s beautiful. When it’s hard, it’s fucking hard. But you don’t feel the beauty without going through that pain.”

Waves opens in UK cinemas on January 17