Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the Munich International Film Festival. For more information visit filmfest-muenchen.de/en and follow the Filmfest München on Twitter at @filmfestmunich.
During Munich International Film Festival I sat down with debut filmmaker Trey Shults to talk about his very personal, emotional, award-winning feature Krisha, in which a family members returns home for Thanksgiving after several years of absence due to struggles with alcoholism. Krisha is based on a short film of the same name and stars a lot of Shults’ friends and family including his aunt Krisha who plays the title’s protagonist.
Corina Röttger: Your feature Krisha is based on a short film which premiered at SXSW in 2014. When did you decided to turn it into a feature?
Trey Shults: It’s a long story. It started back in the summer of 2012 when I was trying to make the feature the first time and I didn’t know what I was doing in a practical sense. I didn’t have the real resources I needed – I had like half the cast, I didn’t have the camera packs and I was the sole producer. As we were shooting I realized that I didn’t have what I needed to make this movie even though you can make great movies with the resources I had but it wasn’t the movie I wrote. So I had a nervous breakdown and it was the worst week of my life. Then I took two years reediting that footage to turn it into a short film that I actually became really proud of. We premiered that at SXSW and it did well and then my producer Justin was encouraging me to reconsider to do the feature again, to rewrite it and that’s basically what we did and then we shot again in August 2014 and that was the best week of my life. I learned from all of my mistakes and we did it right this time. We got all the resources we needed and I got friends as producers to help me and it was good. Now we are here.
Corina Röttger: Most of your cast and crew consists of either family or friends. What was it like to work so close with everyone for such long hours while shooting on set?
Trey Shults: It was beautiful. It was genuinely a ton of fun. We had a blast even though the movie gets pretty serious but shooting it didn’t feel that way. We all became a family really quick. In the beginning, not everyone knew each other but most of us were also sleeping in the house (where the film was shot) and the crew was so small. Like the camera team for example: my DOP, my first AD, and the steadycam guy who was also there for a few days as well as the sound guy. Beyond that we had producers and our cast. It was beautiful, it worked great. Better than I expected. I felt like I had to do it that way though because it would just fit the subject matter considering how personal it was. I had to help my mom, my aunt and my grandma. I don’t know, I just thought it would make it special. But then to be ambitious, because you know just making a movie that way sounds like a tiny movie but I wanted it to feel like a bigger movie.
Corina Röttger: You mentioned that the subject matter is personal to you. How much of the story is based on your and your family’s life? What is fictional and what’s not?
Trey Shults: It’s tough to say for me since it gets really messy between what’s real and what’s not because it is such a combination of fictional narrative and real things that had happened. Krisha’s character is a combination of different family members. I even put some of myself into Krisha’s character. It is hard to separate but there was a family reunion where my cousin attended and she relapsed with alcohol and pills and 2 months later she overdosed and passed away. I think that was the initial like processing of that. And then there’s alcoholism and addiction in general in my family. That’s why Krisha is a combination of several family members. It’s like I said really hard to separate, it’s messy.
Corina Röttger: Why did you choose your aunt to play your mom, and your mom to play your aunt?
Trey Shults: I wrote this movie for Krisha because she is my aunt but she is also an incredible actress and it just naturally came out that way. My mom could not have played Krisha’s role, it would not make sense at all. The relationship with my character and Krisha in the movie is just like the one I had with my dad. It naturally worked out that way but it is weird explaining to people: “No, my mom is my aunt and my aunt is my mom and my grandma is in it and she is my grandma.” It’s weird, yes.
Corina Röttger: And why did you choose to stick with everyone’s real names?
Trey Shults: Everyone pretty much either has their own name or they have a name of an actual family member even if they’re an actor purely for the scenes with my grandma. She is very out of it and didn’t know that we were making a movie. Everyone just acted like they are family and she just goes with it. That’s why you know it had to be Krisha and it had to be Robyn. It’s purely a practical sense but then on top of that Krisha’s name means something to my family. When my grandfather was in World War II he became a prisoner of war and he escaped and a family hid him. Their daughter was named Krizia and they named Krisha after her. I thought that fits how personal our movie is. The family pictures on the walls are of actual family members and there is history in all of this. I thought that would be interesting. And I think it is a pretty and unique name.
Corina Röttger: There is one scene between your character and Krisha in the movie where you talk about attending business school instead of going to film school. How self-reflexive is that? Yesterday you said that it was more like the other way around.
Trey Shults: My character in the movie goes on the path that his mother and father figure want him to: do the smart path and get a practical job and follow that and maybe follow your passion afterwards. That was an actual huge battle with my parents. When I was 19 I got on a Terrence Malick movie and traveled the world as a film loader and it was this amazing experience. I went back home and I dropped out of business school. My parents weren’t willing to pay money for me to attend film school and I fought with them and decided to just study films because I always loved films. I made my own like bad short films as a kid but I hadn’t really studied cinema. I tried to consume it and that’s what I did for years. I kinda took the opposite path than my character did in Krisha.
Corina Röttger: When did you first start playing around with a camera and when did you decide for yourself that you want to become a filmmaker?
Trey Shults: Ever since I was a little kid. I remember being at a wedding combined with a family reunion when I was really young and someone handed me a camcorder and I started filming. I turned that into multiple short films and made little movies out of one family reunion. I remember watching it with my family and they were loving it. That was such a high for me as a kid. It’s always been a dream but then it’s like as you get out of age you have to make that decision of going down this path. It’s scary but you have to do it. If I did business school and went down that other path you can’t just go like “Oh I will do that later as a hobby” because that’s what everyone says and they don’t end up doing it.
Corina Röttger: There is a scene in which Krisha watches a compilation of home videos. Were these some of the home videos that you shot?
Trey Shults: That’s a good question. I think all of those home videos in the movie were actually taken by family members and a lot by my stepdad. It would be cool if they were but I think we have also lost a lot of those.
Corina Röttger: You said earlier that you worked on a Terrence Malick project and I read that you actually interned on three Malick projects. Can you talk a little bit about this experience and how much you were inspired by him?
Trey Shults: Yeah, he is a huge inspiration. He is a genius and working for him was humbling and fantastic especially at such a young age. I worked on Voyage of Time but everything we shot winded up in The Tree of Life in the birth of the universe sequence. We were shooting with IMAX cameras on a volcano in Hawaii and we were in Iceland and Chile. I was 19 at that time and I was like what is going on, this is amazing. I interned in Tree of Life as well, in post-production. Then I worked on Weightless which hasn’t come out yet. We shot in Austin and I was a camera PA and film loader. The first thing I noticed is that you cannot try to make a movie like Terry because I think only he can pull it off. So many filmmakers I think try to him and it starts to become a cliché and people call people out on that. First thing is you can’t imitate him but he is hugely inspiring to the fact that he’s, how old is he? He is like almost 70 now, I don’t know. But he is still making this experimental cinema. Even if people don’t like it he does his own thing. I think that is incredibly inspiring.
Corina Röttger: You’ve covered a lot of fields while doing Krisha. You wrote the script, you directed the film, you produced and also edited it. Which of these would you like continue doing for your upcoming projects?
Trey Shults: I’d be happy with writing, directing and I’d probably end up producing and editing. So a lot of them actually. I think it is important for everything else that I do to be heavily involved with every step so the movie still feels like it is its own thing. That is really important for me. There are voices and auteurs in cinema that are unique and only these guys can make those. That’s my goal I guess. If I am more heavily involved in all of that and as long as am not making it the worst movie that’s the goal, you know.
Corina Röttger: The visuals and the sound worked really well in creating a lot of tension in Krisha. Can you talk a bit about how you achieved this tense atmosphere?
Trey Shults: Our main strategy with that was that everything from the visuals to the score to the sound design is to echo Krisha’s mental state and to go on her subjective journey and carry the audience through that. It is all about her progression that would go with her arch. Visually we would do that by starting the movie with 1.85 aspect ratio, wide lenses and long takes and feeling the house and the family. It is kinda the life Krisha could have had. As the movie progresses the aspect ratio changes when something important happens. The whole time the frame is condensing and closing in. The last act is all about faces, tighter lenses and trying to get to the heart and core of Krisha. By the end you are supposed to be in her mind, in her subjective reality where things could be happening or could not be happening. In the score we tried to do the same thing. Each piece contains some elements of a prior piece. We started a piece with bird noises and woodlochs and in the next piece guitars and strings start to come in. By the end it would be all strings and some clocks and timers, combining sound design and score. After that the piece would be a banjo played with a bow really quick and then fades into a synth and then the end is all synth. It is all about this progression and going on this mental journey with Krisha and we were trying to do that with the filmmaking.
Corina Röttger: What is your aunt like in real life?
Trey Shults: She is a ball of energy. I wish she could be here, she is great. She is a character. She is the opposite of her character in the movie. She does not drink at all. In the movie, when you see her lighter and laughing – that’s her, plus bigger. She is just happy.
Corina Röttger: Do you have any new projects planned already?
Trey Shults: I do. Our domestic distributor A24 bought our movie and they are financing and distributing my next movie. I already wrote another movie before all of this happened, like a year ago. It’s my baby. We’re trying to get the gears going on that. I would love to start shooting that sooner than later. I wrote that right after my dad passed away. It’s my version of a horror movie. It will be more tense than Krisha and equally emotional. I think it will be an ambitious movie, like a step up but nothing ridiculous. We will see. I am very excited.