Director Trey Edward Shults had quite the 2015. Early in the year he wrapped production on Krisha, his debut feature film, a deeply personal affair that grew out of a short film based not-so-loosely on his own family's experiences with addiction, loss, and the problems surrounding them. Even with the heavy subject matter, it connected with audiences at the SXSW Film Festival in March 2015, where it had its world premiered and swept the awards, winning both the Grand Jury and Audience prizes. After Austin, Krisha made its international bow at the Cannes Film Festival, and then distributor A24 (Ex Machina, Obvious Child) bought it and agreed to fund and distribute Shults's next feature, It Comes at Night. Flash-forward nearly a year, and the film is now out in theaters.
From Trey's own mouth, Krisha's seemingly-immediate success can be attributed to the team he assembled, comprised chiefly of his family and friends, which lends the micro-budget film an undeniable energy and intimacy. Through and through this is a home movie, set exclusively within the walls of his family's own home where his real-life aunt, Krisha Fairchild, plays the titular character, and Trey himself plays her estranged son. The film reflects two realities, one where Krisha, long absent from her family due to addiction, returns one hot and muggy Texas Thanksgiving hoping to reconcile her errors. The other reality is the chaos that is Krisha's state of mind. Adeptly navigating the maze of emotions that come with these struggles, Shults crafts a claustrophobic thriller set to go off when the turkey comes out of the oven.
While at Cannes last year, I sat down with Trey Shults, Krisha Fairchild, and Shults's real mother Robyn, who plays his character's aunt in Krisha to talk about their heartfelt, familial, and dizzying portrait of addiction.
VICE: How did the idea for Krisha come about?
Trey Edward Shults: I always wanted it to be a feature and the short film was supposed to be a feature, but I didn't know what I was doing. We shot the original thing in my mom's house with my family members in a week, but I was the sole producer and our budget was just $7,000. The crew was me, my director of photography, and a sound guy. The feature ended up being minimal, but that just wasn't the film I envisioned and the shoot didn't go well. It was the worst week of my life. I had a nervous breakdown, and then I took two years re-editing the footage and rethinking it. It turned into the short that way. Once we had a little bit of success from [the short], that gave everyone some encouragement. Then, I rewrote the feature, got the troops together, and we shot in August.
The film's style is very unique, both the cinematography and the score working in unison––it feels kinetic. How did that style develop?
It's a combination of me, for the past five or six years, obsessing over movies, and auteurs, and studying them, and then trying to find my own way to do things. But for this particular movie, stylistically, everything serves Krisha's mental state; it's subjective to her experience. And everything was planned out to do that with the film grammar. For example, there's a visual progression that starts with wider lenses and longer takes, then we narrowed things in and changed aspect ratios, as well as used longer lenses. And then we did the same thing with the score. The score has an arc with her character, and each piece contains an element of the prior piece, but it shifts so it's starting off with a lot of percussion, and then strings come in, and by the end it's synths. That stuff was all planned.
Beyond writing what you know, what drew you to make such a personal first film about and starring your family?
We had a family reunion, and my cousin Nika had a relapse, and then a month or two later she had an overdose and passed away. Addiction runs strong in my family. So I guess Krisha's character is kind of a combination of different family members, and the story a combination of different things in our family. I don't know, I just always knew it had to be made with my mom and with Krisha, in my mom's house. I wouldn't have done it any other way. It just felt right, and that's what made the movie special.
Krisha, can you talk a little bit about the process of deciding to do this film? Especially such a personal film with an emotionally-intense role.
Krisha Fairchild: When you have someone in your family that you've loved their whole life, and you've watched them struggle with these things; it's like a roller coaster. You have to do hard things. And then when the person comes back, and they're clean, then there's this sense––I don't want to use the word guilt––that you can't escape, that you feel like, "Oh, God, we did these things to her to help her the last time, the tough love, and now she's OK." And, of course, "OK" is all relative with an addict.
So, she had been "OK" for five years, being a part of the family and everything, and then this one time, we all felt the off-the-rails-ness, but we knew that we couldn't save her. I think after she passed, we all felt a sense of––again, guilt is not a healthy word to use––a sense of What could I have done differently? So by doing this movie, for me, I wanted to create a character that is empathetic and people can find the place where they feel compassion and empathy for the addicts, or the people who are struggling with mental issues, or whatever, in their family. We wanted to tell people, if you can't save them, if you can't help them, just let them know you love them.
Robyn, can you talk about your experience having your son make a movie with you about your family?
Robyn: I have always been so supportive of his vision of wanting to be a filmmaker. I was a little anxious about whether I could do a role like that, because I'm not a trained actor, but I didn't really care… I just knew I would. So for me, yes, it was a lot about Nika, it was a lot about our history, but I gotta say, as a mom, it was more, I wanted to help him make what he saw.
Krisha: Well, I'm an actor, and I had that same anxiety!
Robyn: Yeah, and it's so personal, and yet––in a way—it being so personal made it easier.
Krisha: It did.
Robyn: The acting part I really was feeling, and the crying was real. In a way, that was easier than if I'd gone and done some part that I didn't have an attachment to. I mean, I already love [Krisha], I already love [Trey], so that made it easier.
Krisha: And we had complete trust.
Robyn: We had complete trust and love.
Krisha: I mean, where else are you gonna get that? Most actors, they show up for a shoot and they've met the director once or twice. It's stressful. But Trey has been making movies that have made our family cry and laugh—
Robyn: ––All of our lives.
I just always knew the movie had to be made with my mom and with Krisha, in my mom's house. I wouldn't have done it any other way. — Trey Shults
You also made this movie in your real house in Texas. So you're essentially finishing a scene, wrapping for the day, and then just going to bed in your bed? Trey: Oh, yeah. At the end of the movie, when Krisha goes in the son's room, that's where I live, with my girlfriend and her three cats. [Laughs]
While you were making this film, you had a number of other actors coming into your house. How did you deal with separating your family from these other professionals?
Robyn: You don't.
Trey: We were all one big family.
Robyn: Yeah, we just clicked immediately. Everybody felt comfortable.
Trey: And pretty much everyone in the short was back for the feature, and then we had people on top of that, but everyone knew each other in one way or another.
Robyn: And because we were all living in one house, we were sharing showers.
Krisha: I got there two days early to wash all the sheets, and sanitize all the pillows for everybody who was going to stay there. Trey's girlfriend and her mother, who's a caterer, did all of the meals. It was completely family style. We ate every meal together, at a table, like a family.
So you're going against the grain of "You can't choose your family."
Trey: Yeah, exactly!
Krisha: We have a blood family and we have a soul family.
Are you guys planning on doing another thing together, about family stuff? Or just with your family, but not necessarily about your own life?
Trey: I don't know. I personally want to do something totally different next. I feel like this has been a special, kind of magical experience, and you can't duplicate that. I just want to do something totally different, with different people. But then, I mean, who knows on the movie after that?
Robyn: We're hoping, on his third or fourth movie, he might try to use us again.
Trey: There you go.