Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults first began envisioning his version of a high school movie a decade ago, when he was 20.
“I was thinking of ‘Dazed and Confused’ and stuff. It’s nothing like that now,” said Shults, in town for the Mill Valley Film Festival with actors Kelvin Harrison Jr. and Taylor Russell to promote the finished film, the masterful “Waves.”
His third feature, which opens Friday at the Kabuki and Embarcadero, tells the story of the Williams family. Eldest son Tyler (Harrison, of “Luce”) is a star wrestler with a pretty girlfriend; his younger sister Emily (Russell, of “Escape Rooom”) is shy and withdrawn after a terrible tragedy.
Harrison, who worked with Shults on his second film “It Comes at Night,” felt a connection with the director.
“This is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever said, but we were shooting a sequence, and I was like, ‘Trey, we have to do this again… you have to promise me I’ll be a De Niro to your Scorsese.’ He said, ‘We’ll see how it goes,’” laughed Harrison.
Weirdly, Harrison didn’t expect to hear from Shults again. Shocked and grateful that “Waves” came along, he said, “You never know… it’s Hollywood!’”
Upon seeing the completed film, in which each character is the focus of a section, Russell was surprised to see how radically different it seemed, compared to her experience of making it.
In Emily’s sequence, a wrestler, Luke (played by Lucas Hedges) asks her out. The movie creates a subtle, threatening feel around the relationship, but Russell said, “I never got that impression. It’s shocking, because Lucas is so silly!”
At almost every turn in “Waves,” Shults seems to break cinematic rules.
Early on, Tyler drives around with his girlfriend Alexis (Alexa Demie), enjoying music. The camera is inside the car, spinning around 360 degrees, capturing the characters — Tyler’s foot hangs out the window — the road and the traffic. It feels dangerous and exhilarating.
“The first time he saw a cut, my producer Jim [Wilson] said, ‘I love that shot, but clearly it’s fake.’ And I said, ‘It’s 360, and we see everything. It’s totally real.’ I hope it feels like their energy in love. The camera is meant to feel crazy in love with these kids,” said Shults.
The movie also plays with changing aspect ratios; the screen shrinks or widens, depending on the action. “With Tyler it closes in on you, and with Emily it opens back up again, so it closes in to tragedy and opens up with healing,” said Shults.
In another scene, Emily and Luke romp through lawn sprinklers at night, and a hand-held camera follows them. The wet lens creates lovely little stars over the image. Shults says he hopes the shot’s “sloppy, real beauty” captures the feeling he was going for.
The film’s soundtrack boasts an incredible, tense score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross as well as great songs by Radiohead, Kendrick Lamar, Tame Impala, Animal Collective, Alabama Shakes and more. “Every song is one of my favorite songs,” said Shults, who personally wrote to the musicians, hoping he could use their work in his low-budget feature without paying enormous licensing fees.
Also, Shults cast his aunt Krisha Fairchild — the unforgettable star of his powerful debut film “Krisha” — as an English teacher, explaining the phrase “carpe diem.”
Perhaps best of all, his own cat BK, who has a neurological disorder that makes his hind leg constantly bounce, portrays Emily’s cat. “Waves” shows him in all his glory.
“He’s off-balance a bit. He doesn’t know it, though. He lives a great life, and he’s a happy boy,” said Shults. “I think he’s a star.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Kelvin Harrison Jr., Taylor Russell, Sterling K. Brown, Lucas Hedges
Written and directed by: Trey Edward Shults
Running time: 2 hours, 15 minutes