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.”