This time a year ago, Trey Edward Shults didn’t have particularly big expectations for his first feature “Krisha,” which despite being anything but modest had entered the SXSW Film Festival without much fanfare. Many of the actors were members of his own family, including its lead who gave the film its title, Krisha Fairchild, and Shults had taken the week off from his job working for his stepfather to attend the festival, which had played the short that evolved into the feature to great acclaim a year earlier. It was largely the same friends and family that populated the film that came to its first screening at the Alamo Ritz, where not every seat was filled, but they were the lucky ones – by the end of the week, lines were so long that large crowds had to be turned away from its encore screening as SXSW’s Audience and Grand Jury Prize winner.
Once you see “Krisha,” you’ll understand why. It’s the kind of fiercely original experience that makes one believe that cinema has been reborn as it spends Thanksgiving Day with a Texas family that’s not all that thankful to learn of the return of their Aunt Krisha, who disappeared five years earlier on the account of her addiction and though sober now, sweeps into town like a hurricane. Told in long, serpentine takes that capture the chaos unleashed in the house, set to appropriately discordant score from Brian McOmber that only heightens the anxiety, “Krisha” carries itself in a manner befitting of the regal head of silverish hair its lead actress has with so much going on inside of it.
It’s not surprising to learn that part of Shults’ desire to make it was to give his aunt Fairchild the role of a lifetime, but it was also a way to honor his cousin, who attended such a family reunion and relapsed shortly thereafter following five years of sobriety. Besides appearing in the film, Shults and his family invested themselves considerably in the project, filming in his mother’s labyrinthine home, lined with pictures of the clan through the years and filled with home movies that the director had manned the camera for growing up. Shults captures the dizzying experience for both Krisha and her extended family of reconciling the memories they have with what’s now immediately in front of them, fueled here by such energy that it simulates the high that the recovering addict once chased at the cost of her family’s trust support and the frenzy that comes with trying to win it back.
Shortly before audiences around the country find out why all the fuss is justified, Shults spoke about how he created such an emotional and immersive drama, figuring out a way to block scenes in an evocative way (even while appearing in them as Krisha’s estranged son), and the considerable technique that went into making a film that may have taken just a little over a week to shoot and less money than a used car, but will last for a lifetime in the memory of all who see it.
Having made the short, what did you learn for the feature?
I was trying to make the feature in the summer of 2012, not this same exact feature, but very similar to the one we finally have and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was the sole producer – $7,000 of my own money. We didn’t have half the camera stuff we needed or half the actors that were in the script. But I was just stubborn. I was like, “We’re shooting. It’s going to work out.” It didn’t. It was the worst week of my life. I had a nervous breakdown behind closed doors because I deeply believed we could make a special movie, but it wasn’t happening. I just felt like I was failing myself. My ego was getting in the way. It was a nightmare.
I knew we were getting some good stuff, just not enough to tell a feature-length story, so I took two years re-editing that, and turned it into a short film I was actually really proud of. We actually [played it] in South By and it did well there. We got a Special Jury Award and people seemed to dig it. Then afterwards my buddy and producer Justin Chan was pushing me. He was like, “Why don’t you write it again? Let’s do it again.” At first, I thought it would be wrong because I felt the short was special and I didn’t want to try to re-duplicate that. It’s a fourteen minute short that has the same arc as the movie, and it’s not enough time to truly dive into this character and feel the weight of it, but I’m still really proud of it, and for whatever reason, I started thinking about everything we could do right, what we could do so much better, and what I learned from this experience.
I rewrote it and we shot in August of 2014. We shot for nine days and it was the best week of my life. It was a beautiful experience. It was all about failing that first time and learning from it and using that, [which] went into how collaborative I was [the second time]. I had failed at writing the script the first time. It’s been a long journey. Without the short, the feature would not be anything.
One of things I was so impressed by was the blocking in the film during those long takes, particularly in the scenes you’re in yourself – in that very first moment when you walk in and you see the back of Krisha, the mother of your character, turned towards the camera as you stride past, it says so much about the relationship. How much planning went into that?
I’m glad you noticed because that was very difficult, and it’s funny, a lot of these one takes, I’m in them, too. For example, that opening one starts with Krisha pulling up and going into the house and meeting the family. For the first half of that, I was sweating my ass off, helping behind [the scenes with] the camera guys on my monitor just trying to make sure the take goes well and get us inside [the house]. Then I put all my stuff down and grabbed grocery bags to come into the scene. It’s a very bizarre way of working, and it was tough.
Another scene later on when Krisha comes down to the kitchen for the first time, it’s literally every single character in the movie [in the frame]. Everything was choreographed like a play, so there’s depth and you feel it and it was me on a cooler just yelling out commands, not in a dictator way, but more just stage directing. At first, it was a mess, but it was like let’s just keep with it, it will work out, and it did. I really cared about that and there were little things like that I just thought would elevate the film. For [the character of] Krisha, this is a day she’ll remember the rest of her life, so I wanted to feel that weight cinematically and do what we could to give her story as much weight as possible. I think when you hear about [“Krisha”], you assume it’s maybe a clumsily made movie with a lot of heart, but I wanted to be really ambitious with how it was made.
The film really utilizes the contours of the house it’s set in, particularly the kitchen – did you write the script with the house in mind?
That’s my parents’ house. I was with them when they moved into it. I built the fence in the backyard you see and immediately when we moved into that house, I was like, “I could shoot a movie here.” I loved the high ceilings and I love the layout. Everyday when I would be writing a scene, I’d get whatever crappy camera I had – an iPhone, anything – and I would pre-visualize and map out the scenes and how I would shoot them and how we would use the layout of this house. It was vital. I wouldn’t have made the movie anywhere else.
Did you use mostly available light? It seemed like you used shadows in the way most people would use light.
We had hardly any light. We didn’t have a gaffer. It was mainly practical stuff. A big thing for a lot of the lighting was figuring out what time of day the sun would be hitting the house because the house has such huge windows. It can be a problem because everything can look flat because there’s so many windows, but it made it easier to use effectively, so we’d just black out certain parts of the house. A lot of night stuff was just either subtle light here or there. Then for the practical lights, we’d get dimmers for the lamps and different light bulbs. Towards the end of the movie, our goal was to get as dark as we could without irritating the audience. Literally the first half of the film is all day – white lenses, depth, exposed. The second half of the film is tight lenses, faces, and dark as we’re revealing more sides to Krisha and stripping away the façade, trying to get to her soul.
This also has such a wonderfully unsettling score, courtesy of Brian McOmber. How did you work with him on the music?
We’re very proud of the score and we worked our butts off. Brian’s incredibly talented, and it was a very collaborative experience. Music’s really important to me and I knew exactly how I wanted the movie to flow. Structurally, it had to have these peaks and valleys and how we used the music was extremely important to that. It started out with very strict temp music, [with the beats] exactly as I had worked them out, then Brian and I tried to get away from that as much as possible and create something new and have fun. We decided to treat the score as an album that follows Krisha’s mindstate, starting in one place, then ending somewhere totally different. If you listen to it, each piece informs the next or it will have some musical element [that carries over].
One piece we call “The Woodpecker” is a mash-up of wood blocks and bird noises because we thought Doyle, the uncle, was like a woodpecker on Krisha — if you look behind them when they’re talking on the porch, there’s a forest out there. We let that dictate how we were going to do this piece of music. It’s all these wood blocks and it’s nutty. Then [in the next scene] it starts with wood blocks. It’s them on the porch, but then [Doyle] starts going at her and it gets more intense. Strings start taking over and there’s a little guitar. The tone of the whole film starts shifting, and then the piece after that is all strings and it’s very melancholic [followed by a scene where] a banjo played really fast with a bow — which to me, sound like alien strings. Then it goes to a really emotional synth piece and the movie ends that way, so it was all about that progression of starting in one place and ending with another.
You literally put a lot of yourself into the movie as well – you see the knickknacks around the house from your youth. Was it interesting to put that stuff in a different context?
Yeah, totally. The house is pretty much as you see it [in real life], except I went out of my way to rearrange pictures and add family photos. The movie was made with my family and it’s about my family, and then these pictures have all this history to them, so [while] the whole audience doesn’t know, I just have this feeling that it comes through in some subconscious way. The home movies are real home movies with Krisha and I and I liked using them because this woman is drinking and stumbling around and she finds these home movies. If she’s going to start watching them, they’d be devastating and as soon as she sees them and the life she could’ve had, those are going to linger in her mind. They keep coming back. At the very end, when where it’s distorting reality and you don’t know what’s true anymore, [those home movies] were all feeding into that and leading to that moment.
What’s the past year been like for you?
It’s been surreal. Last year was easily one of the best years of my life — life-changing. It’s not like I’m rich or anything, but at least I can break away from the day job. My day job was working for my stepdad — there’s a scene in the movie with me in the office with Krisha that was like my life everyday. And it’s nice to not be doing that and just focus 100 percent on film stuff. At this point, I’m just grateful. I want “Krisha” to get out there because it’s been so long. A lot of people have seen it, but a lot of people haven’t, and I’m very hungry to make the next movie. It’s very strange, but great.
“Krisha” opens in limited release on March 18, including Los Angeles at the NuArt. Find the nearest theater here.