It’s not often you see something in a movie that feels both fresh and obvious. But in Waves, Trey Edward Shults’s bold new high school drama, it takes no time at all for such a thing to show up. The director puts two Florida teenagers—Tyler (Kelvin Harrison, Jr.) and Alexis (Alexa Demie)—in an SUV; as they drive, Shults twirls the camera like it’s a ballerina doing a pirouette in the middle of the car. Tyler and Alexa are dating, and they can’t stop touching each other. They blast the playful Animal Collective song “FloriDada,” and hardly look at the road ahead of them. Immediately, you get a sense of the couple’s passion, but also their recklessness. They’re on top of the world, but one thing’s clear: tragedy might strike at any moment.
The movement calls to mind swift camera operators like Scorsese and Cuarón. But with the movie’s modern music, the saturation of the Florida sun, and the current styles (Tyler’s hair is dyed platinum blonde), it all feels new and distinct. It was, Shults says, the only way he knew to capture a feeling he himself had experienced. As a teenager, his car felt like the rare space that was all his own. “And from then to now, being in the car with the person you love is an incredibly freeing thing for me,” he says. “Obviously there's a danger connected to that. We could all get in car accidents.”
Shults shoots the entire movie with the edge-of-your-seat dynamism of the car sequences, imbuing Waves with both rapture and danger. Its release now, at the end of the decade, feels apt: It’s a bonafide generational capstone, incorporating many of the cultural hallmarks of this era, while also looking ahead. GQ spoke to the director about how his life bled into the film, his approach to telling a Black story, and his love for Frank Ocean.
GQ: This movie has such an incredible soundtrack. You’ve got really generational songs throughout. How did you think about putting it all together?
Trey Edward Shults: Music was a huge part of my life in high school, and I was pretty music hungry. So it wasn't just what was on the radio right now; it was songs from 10 years ago, five years ago, two years ago. I had it all playing, and it would all fluctuate. I guess I'm still like that now. But that was the first time in my life that I became that way. So for myself, I thought I had a creative leeway with picking the music in the sense that it shouldn't just be music of the moment. It could span the last decade and more, because I thought Ty and [his sister] Emily ( Taylor Russell) would would gravitate towards music in the same way that I did. They're both smart, sensitive kids. So then it's just picking stuff that feels honest to them. I think if you took the music and put it in a playlist—well, I know because I did it—there's a story being told from song to song that echoes the narrative of the movie.
Beyond loving these different songs, were there songs in the movie that you had a particular relationship to?
The Frank Ocean track "Seigfried" is played on a road trip, and Blonde is one of my favorite albums of all time, and that's my girlfriend's favorite song. I think it feels of the moment, it feels honest, it feels vulnerable. It's that beautiful dichotomy. That album doesn't age for me. When I listen to it, it feels like either I'm hearing stories that Frank's heard or that he's live. And it just feels of the moment and honest and right and beautiful. And that moment on that road trip—it's all real, and it's getting to a feeling of being on the road on this journey with your lover, how free and beautiful that is. What the song is doing at that moment, I don't know. We kept working on that and mixing it and couldn't finish it until I started crying because I felt like I had finally lived it emotionally, with what the music's doing and what the visuals are doing.
What was your initial idea for Waves? And how did that evolve?
This has been in the back of my head for, like, over a decade. But the initial idea was not this movie at all. The initial idea was just like teens and music, because I had just seen Dazed and Confused and was obsessed with it. With this one, too, there's a lot of personal, semi-autobiographical things. So I think just going through 10 years, always having this in the back of my brain, the story would keep evolving and evolving, until eventually it was really sort of the outline for the whole movie.
Why were you so drawn to Dazed and Confused?
I'm pretty sure I was still in high school [when it came out]—a freshman or sophomore. It was a completely different time, but I grew up in Texas as well, so I related to the high school experience. And the music and the kids and the energy, I just loved it. It felt so real and true. So at first it was like, how could I do a contemporary Dazed and Confused? Then it morphed into something a lot more. [Laughs.]
What were you taking from Linklater?
With him, it's the naturalism. And it’s the authenticity to life and characters in a moment. It just feels true to life. I love the way his characters talk at times. The whole Sunset trilogy is one of my favorite things ever.
Waves feels so personal, but it's also about kids today. How'd you go about doing research?
It was basically drawing on my own personal stuff, my girlfriend's personal stuff, and Kelvin Harrison's personal stuff, all at that age. Sometimes it would be literal, sometimes it would just be feelings—the pressures and everything else that could be swirling around your head emotionally at that time. I was like an old man researching things online, whether it's social media, or websites, or whatever, just trying to get in that headspace. [I met and talked] to some kids, and having kids read the script and getting some feedback [kept] it constantly honest and evolving.
In the opening, when Ty's on his Instagram, that was actually because Kelvin made an Instagram for his character, and when we were shooting the scene, I was like, “Oh, pull up the Instagram, let's film it.” I will say, I think it started with the headspace of what it feels like to be that age. From meeting kids today, it's still that way, just with a different specificity.
The film, like your other movies, is filled with tension. You can feel these modern pressures weighing on these kids, especially Tyler. Did it feel like the experience of being young today involved some of the same feelings, just with more intensity?
Absolutely. It's different for everyone's journey and perspective. I think that Tyler became really a combination between myself and Kel, and we felt the weight of the world on our shoulders. Our parents pushed us in ways. We had a lot of responsibilities. For myself, I was a wrestler, I really tore my shoulder, I worked for my parents, I worked hard at school. And you have a lot in your world. You're not a kid and you’re not an adult. But you're kind of stuck in the middle, and you feel everything. For me, it did feel like a lot of pressure and a lot of weight in just trying to succeed and do well.
For Kel, it was different. For him, it was music. His dad's an incredible musician, and his mom's an amazing singer, and he grew up in New Orleans, and that was his future. So Kel was like a young music prodigy, and they pushed him hard.
One of the differences between your life and these characters' lives is that this is a Black family. Kelvin was probably very influential in shaping the story. But how did you approach telling a story from that perspective?
It was really all Kel. It happened really organically. We met on my last movie, and loved each other and wanted to work together again. And then when I started writing this, we only got closer and closer over the year leading up to it. I started writing this and we were basically having these mini therapy sessions. We were doing text messages and phone calls, just talking about our pasts, about relationships with our parents, lovers, pressures, everything—nuances of Kelvin being Black, his family, and all that good stuff. That was all happening while I was writing. Kelvin was one of the first people who got a first draft, and he got that probably eight months before we started shooting. We would keep working from there. Kel would go through the script and give me detailed notes on everything, and then I'd write more and work more.
It just continued to evolve and grow from there with the rest of the cast as well. Once people were cast, I treated it as, I am open, listening, let's do this, let's collaborate. To me, it's all about them. I was just there as a way to hear and listen and translate as best I could. And I think what helps is: the movie is very autobiographical to myself and loved ones. It's real stuff and social narratives all looped together throughout the whole movie. So it kind of feels like 80% of the movie we've lived to some capacity. Our goal ultimately was that this is specifically a Black family. And it hopefully feels real and authentic to that. But you know, a Black family can have universal problems as well, and go through universal issues.
Making Waves, were you were reflecting on the ways masculinity was presented to you growing up?
I absolutely was, and even more so subtextually than I thought. When I was first writing and everything, I don’t start with themes. There’s the simple bare bones of, “What is this story leading to or truly about?” But then you dive in. I was just trying to be honest to the characters and the journey and write something that I feel like I can connect to and know in some capacity. So a lot of the masculinity and everything naturally came out from there. Even lifting weights together: My biological dad actually almost passed out trying to flex in the mirror. There's a scene kind of making fun of masculinity. But then we’re seeing the good and the bad. And it can be toxic, but it's not just toxic. There's goodness there too. I think it was just trying to make it honest.
Did making this movie help you work through some of that stuff?
Absolutely. There's so much personal stuff attached to this movie, but a lot of things are from far away in my life. I've had a lot of perspective and time on it. Even the dynamic of the masculinity between the son and the father, a lot of that's inspired by the dynamic I had with my stepdad. I built up a lot of resentment towards him for the way he pushed me—and also, we're just different. But I think years later, him opening up being vulnerable to me in a new way, and vice versa, broke down barriers in our relationship. To me, that kind of arc is there throughout the movie. Getting through this movie and coming to the other side feels cathartic. It feels like there's healing in a lot of these places.
Did you read Martin Scorsese’s recent essay in the New York Times about Marvel movies?
As a young director, does this feel like a precarious time to be making movies?
You know, I haven't lived through this Golden Era and gotten to this other side and everything. All I know is what I'm in right now. All I know is, I got to make this movie without compromising, and I made the movie I love and believe in. And I know and love a lot of amazing filmmakers who are making amazing movies. I just want to double down and make these kinds of movies and hopefully grow that and keep getting it out there. I'm not scared, just grateful to be making movies and getting them out there.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
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Originally Appeared on GQ