From Mom's House to Cannes: The Incredible Story of the Indie Sensation 'Krisha'

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·Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment
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  • Morgan Fairchild
    Morgan Fairchild
    American actress

Krisha Fairchild had just walked the red carpet at February’s Independent Spirit Awards, and she was disappointed that not one reporter asked her the age-old, go-to query for any other glitzy Hollywood gathering: Who are wearing? “I wanted to tell them eBay,” she admitted about the brick-red sari-like dress that she glowed in underneath the Santa Monica sun.

About 90 minutes later, Krisha, the drama that first-time feature director Trey Edward Shults lured Fairchild, his aunt, out of retirement to star in, would win the day’s prestigious John Cassavetes Award given to the best film produced for less than $500,000. It capped an amazing year for the anxiety-inducing, critically adored drama, which first awed audiences at the South by Southwest Film Festival in March of 2015.

Fairchild’s modest fashion choice is Krisha in microcosm; the film was shot on a shoestring budget over nine days at the Texas childhood home of Shults, starring several other members of his extended family (including the director’s grandmother, who has dementia and did not know she was starring in a movie). It follows Krisha (Fairchild), an amiable but troubled alcoholic whose reunion with her kin (including her estranged son, played by Shults) after 10 years of estrangement turns disastrous. The broodingly scored drama is a haunting meditation on addiction, and it makes for tension-filled, hyper-real, and deeply visceral film-viewing experience that has cinephiles anointing Shults the next Paul Thomas Anderson.

The making of Krisha is the type of underdog story that should inspire aspiring filmmakers everywhere. It’s one full of somber lows and surreal highs; one that has launched the career of its young writer-director and resurrected the career of its veteran lead; one that began with a family tragedy and led a family to celebration. Shults and Fairchild walked us through the long, crazy journey of Krisha.

The Inspiration. The film’s central storyline is based on reality. Shults’s oldest cousin (and Fairchild’s niece), Nica, was one of his biggest mentors, a “brilliant, Mensa-smart” free spirit. “But when she was 14 years old she was into goth and grunge and she was backstage at a concert,” Fairchild explained. “An older guy who was friends with one of the groups put in a needle in her. She became an addict, right out of the blue.” Nica battled addiction for years, with prolonged stretches of sobriety that allowed her to birth three children. She was five years’ sober when she came to a family reunion at Shults’s childhood home around Christmas 2010. Like in the film, her visit was brimming with tension; then Trey, Krisha, and their clan watched in horror as Nica relapsed. She died of an overdose two months later. “It was shocking and devastating,” Shults said. He began writing Krisha almost immediately, and he wrote it with his aunt in mind for the lead.

The Star. Fairchild, now 65, trained at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, where she became a stage actress. In the late ‘70s, she was hired as a production assistant by future-Fugitive filmmaker Andrew Davis on his directorial debut, Stony Island. She also had a small part in the film, but it was eventually cut. Nonetheless, she chased the dream to Los Angeles, where she lived in a producer’s guesthouse in Brentwood, Kato Kaelin-style, and rubbed elbows with the likes of Gena Rowlands, Ben Gazzara, and John Cassavetes himself. But the business didn’t agree with her. An agent told her she “wasn’t pretty enough to be a leading lady, or quirky or weird enough to be a sidekick,” Fairchild recalled. Plus there was another woman with the same name they were trying to market: Morgan Fairchild.

Krisha Fairchild spent 11 years in L.A., working in real estate, as a restaurant manager, and even as a personal assistant to Nancy Sinatra. She eventually relocated to Seattle, where she flourished as a voice actor, and then to Hawaii. In 2013, she retired to central Mexico… only to be lured back into the biz by her upstart nephew. “I wanted to write her a kick-ass role that no one else would give her because I knew she would kill it,” Shults said. And she does. Even though the film is called Krisha, she’s little like the troubled woman we witness implode on screen. In real life, the actress is warm, sweet, and a total teetotaler.

The Nephew-Aunt Connection… and the Legendary Filmmaker. Shults had gone to stay with Fairchild one summer in Hawaii after he had completed his freshman year at Texas State San Marcos, where he planned to study business management. “He’s going to school for business, but he’s making noise like he wants to be in my business,” she explained. So Fairchild introduced him to her friends and industry pros, the cinematographer Paul Atkins and producer Gracie Atkins, who helped him land an internship at a production company. They were also working on the still-to-be-released Terrence Malick Imax film, Voyage of Time, and they loved Trey. Soon enough, Shults was traveling the globe as part of a small Malick production unit, and some of the footage they filmed wound up in the birth-of-the-universe segments in the director’s Oscar-nominated 2011 drama, The Tree of Life. “By that time, he knows he’s not going back to school,” Fairchild said.

That led to an internship with Malick (whom Shults calls a “great, genius, sweetheart, kooky dude”) at his home base in Austin. Shults got to observe the editing process on Tree of Life, earned a credit on the film, and became a production assistant/film loader on the revered director’s forthcoming film, Weightless. Then… “Every waking moment, he’s watching movies,” Fairchild said. “He put himself through film school in his family’s TV room” (which, if you’ve seen Krisha, is the room the main character stays in). He’d watch classic films repeatedly — once regularly, a second time with director’s commentary, maybe even a third or fourth time without the sound.“ The young man, who had grown up a "jock kid,” had found his calling as a filmmaker.

The Attempted-Feature-Turned-Short. Shults had shown his family members the script for Krisha and asked for their blessing, telling them, “If it would hurt any of you, I won’t do it.” They were fiercely moved by it, and in fact thought it would be therapeutic. (It should be noted here that Trey’s mother, Robyn, who is phenomenal playing his aunt in the film, is a therapist, as is her husband.) So Shults summoned his family, many of whom would act in it, to Robyn’s house in suburban Houston in the summer of 2012, using $7,000 of his own money for budget.

It was a disaster. “I ended up being totally unprepared,” Shults said. “I didn’t have half the camera stuff I needed, didn’t have literally half the actors that were in the script because some of my family members in the script were busy. But we shot anyways. It was one of the worst weeks of my life. I knew I wasn’t getting a feature film, so behind closed doors I had a nervous breakdown.” Halfway through, Robyn helped Trey come to the conclusion that, no, he couldn’t make a feature film… but he could make a short.

Shults spent the next two years editing the footage down to a 14-minute short. It was accepted into Austin’s SXSW Film Festival, where it won the Special Jury Award for Narrative Short in March 2014. With the success, his best friend since second grade, Justin R. Chan, encouraged Shults to revisit the feature-length version. “I realized that the short wasn’t enough for this woman,” Shults said of his cousin. “I had to dig deeper.” Chan, along with his brother, Jonathan, helped Shults launch a Kickstarter (to which Krisha herself anonymously donated $1,000) and finance the film. So for the Shults-Fairchild family’s next reunion…

The Feature, Take 2…. Plus the Grandma. Shults and his extended family returned to Robyn’s house in August 2014. The director was reeling from the death of his biological father, an alcoholic he hadn’t seen in five years. But this time around he had a $100,000 budget, which allowed him to add some professional actors and better equipment into the mix. Plus he felt far more confident. “Best week of my life” is how he describes it. “Total contrast. It just felt like I was prepared. I knew what I was doing. I’d learned from my mistakes.”

Shults said the entire team bonded like a family. Of course, many of them were actual family, including Shults’s 90-year-old grandmother, who appears despite not actually knowing she was part of a film production. The charming elderly woman (now 92) suffers from dementia, and was brought in from the Alzheimer’s home in which she lives to “star” in one of the film’s most pivotal scenes. “My sweet grandma, I love her to death,” Shults said. “She doesn’t realize she’s in a film that’s been traveling the world. If she did she would be over the moon.” It’s why at one point Grandma complained that the wine wasn’t real, and she couldn’t eat any of the food. “She said, 'We should go somewhere else,’” Fairchild recalled.

The SXSW Film Festival, Take 2. This time it took Shults only three weeks to edit the film. He had had mapped out the whole thing in his head. Still, his family had no idea what to expect when the film premiered at 2015’s South by Southwest Film Festival. The lights came up, and the audience was bowled over. People were crying, and running up to Shults and his cast to give them hugs. “I got punched in the gut by it,” Fairchild said. “I was stunned.”

The next day, Shults and company won both the Grand Jury and Audience Awards for the film. But it was a bittersweet day for Team Krisha. During the screening held shortly before the awards reception, Justin Chan got a call that his mother had been hit by a car and was killed. “It was devastating, man,” Shults said. “We’re accepting these awards, but my best friend just lost his mom.”

The Cannes Film Festival. Despite missing the initial deadline, Krisha screened two months later at the Cannes Film Festival. “It was the ultimate fantasy,” Shults admitted. The family-and-filmmaking team, rolling 15 deep, “cashed in miles and broke open the piggy banks” to get to to the French Riviera, while Shults took out a loan so that they could all stay together in a flat.

Fairchild said her favorite moments from the entire journey came when she and Robyn would wake up to the sight of everyone’s sweat-soaked tuxedos and grimy shirts — they all only packed one set — hanging on the barrister to dry each morning. Shults recalled being at a stuffy soiree where they took advantage of an absentee bartender and jacked a bottle of champagne that they’d sip on a leisurely stroll down the beach. They had plenty of reason to celebrate: It was at Cannes where A24, the tastemaking studio behind indie hits like Spring Breakers, Room, and Amy, bought Krisha for distribution.

The Independent Spirit Awards. Shults and Fairchild didn’t think they were going to win the John Cassavetes Award at the indie Oscars. And they tried not to care. “In general, I have the mentality of 'f–k awards,’” Shults said. “And I hate sitting through awards shows because it’s miserable. But you can’t help but care and have this tension because it’s going to help the life of your movie. At the end of the day you want more people to see your movie.” Sure enough, they won. “It felt like the completion of a journey,” the director said.

The Next Steps. Shults is currently prepping his sophomore project, It Comes at Night, which A24 is financing. He wrote it in response to death of his father, and it’s a horror film “about fear, death, and regret,” he said. “It’s not literally personal like Krisha, but it’s just as personal in the sense that those emotions are what drove the entire story… By the end I hope [viewers are] terrified and crying.”

The dream team of Shults and Fairchild, however, have decided to do a little conscious-uncoupling, meaning she won’t act in the new film. “He has to show people that it was him who made the movie, and I just happened to be the actress,” she explained. “And I need to show people that I was the actress in the movie, and if you have something for me, then I can do that, too.”

Fairchild may live in Mexico — with no intention of re-relocating to L.A., but she’s ready to embrace the buzz that’s been generated by her performance and return to acting. She has a new manager, is about to sign with an agent, and is fielding numerous offers, though she has had to turn down a couple “murderously evil” characters. “And if it doesn’t happen,” she said with a hearty laugh, “I’ll go back to Mexico with my dogs and my hammock.”

Krisha is now in select theaters.