Trey Edward Shults is worried you’ll think Krisha Fairchild is like the character she plays in his debut feature, “Krisha.” In the indie, Fairchild, Shults’ real-life aunt, shares a first name with her character: a troubled middle aged woman who visits her estranged Texas family for Thanksgiving. She has a checkered history only alluded to, including abandonment and alcoholism. She’s on edge even before she enters the packed house of gracious but suspicious family members.
“She’s not like that at all,” Shults tells us. “She’s a big flamboyant hippie who loves dogs and doesn’t drink at all. I’m sure people assume it’s literally her playing herself, which she’s not.”
Shults still based the film on real family strife. Krisha is a composite of others, including his father and a cousin, both now dead. His film isn’t just therapy, nor a standard indie drama. It’s a highly formal film, with acrobatic long takes and sensory overload, replicating the anxiety Krisha feels as she tries to make amends or simply stew in her own discomfort. It’s technically impressive but it’s not showboating for showboating’s sake.
“Everything you do has to be in service of something. We’re not trying to show off. I don’t think you should do something just to do it,” Shults says. “For this woman it’s one of the most important days of her life. It’s a day she’ll remember, and it’s going to haunt her for the rest of her life. I thought it was more respectful to her to feel that weight cinematically, to be ambitious. Because she’s worth it. I thought it would be more disrespectful to have a more typical way of shooting it.”
That also meant he had to pull off some difficult filmmaking while working with a cast largely made of non-pros, including family members (like his mom) as versions of themselves, as well as some actor friends. (Fairchild has a history as an actor, and Shults has been trying to get her representation since the film’s premiere at last year’s South by Southwest, where the film won both the Grand Jury and Audience awards.)
And so Shults had to find a way to make his performers relaxed but not too relaxed, polished but not too polished. “When you first start [a shot] it’s utter chaos. It’s not really a scene,” he explains. “Then it comes together more, and you find that middle ground where it not chaos but it still feel real. If you go past that it starts to feel too rehearsed and fake and not real.”
Some of the long takes could be tricky. The first bit shot is an epic one, following her as she parks her pickup truck on the suburban streets, walks to the house and starts to anxiously mingle with everybody. “I think we shot that 17 or 18 times,” Shults explains. “The first six we didn’t even make it inside the house. We kept screwing up. Once we got inside there were takes where the dogs would bark at the camera or the baby would try and touch the lens.”
One take looked great, he said — until he realized the camera was reflected in Fairchild’s sunglasses.
Shults plays one of the family members himself: a young man who seems to be Krisha’s nephew but who’s eventually revealed to be her son, whom she abandoned. The two share a nervous scene where she tries to heal their wounds, to get him to quit business school and return to the filmmaking he used to do as a kid. But he’s uninterested.
In real life, Shults’ path was the opposite. He went to business school for a semester and then found work as an intern and P.A. on Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life.” (He went on to work on other Malick films, including his still forthcoming “Weightless” and “Voyage of Time.”) He wound up dropping out of school to take up filmmaking full-time. He says he was a little trepidatious about including a scene with him as a former filmmaker, fearing it was too meta.
“The reason I think it works is because most people don’t know that’s me in the movie,” he says.
“Krisha” may technically be a film about an alcoholic, but Shults intentionally put off revealing her affliction till the last stretch of the movie. There’s even a small scene where she opens a drawer, but we don’t see that she’s looking at bottles of booze.
“When I showed my mom an early cut of the film, she like, ‘People aren’t going to get it. You have to show it,’” he recalls. But he felt adamant about keeping some mystery in the film. Besides, that’s not what the film is about. “People say it’s a movie about addiction. I didn’t approach it that way. To me it’s about this woman.”
As for making a film about real family struggles featuring actual family members, he said they were supportive from the start. “We’re incredibly close and open,” Shults says. “My mom and my stepdad are therapists. I think I would be a mess without them raising me. They were all about bringing out skeletons from the closet and talking about that stuff.”
And yet “Krisha” doesn’t end with everything resolved. It ends open-ended, with things still at a fever pitch. “To me the film is a confrontation,” he says, pointing to the hair-raising bookending shots of Krisha staring ambiguously into the lens. “Whatever her face says to you at the end, that’s what matters.”