Her name's Krisha and it's called Krisha, but my aunt's this sweet hippie who loves dogs.
An especially fraught Thanksgiving holiday brings a woman’s troubled, booze-soaked history into unsparing yet compassionate focus in Krisha (pronounced “Kreesha”), a psychological deep-dive character study that marks an impressive feature debut for Trey Edward Shults.
Shults drops Krisha Fairchild (the filmmaker’s aunt) in the hubbub of a frantic upper middle class holiday: a bustling kitchen, barking dogs, and football fandom. As she navigates the minefield that is a family get-together, we come to learn that her presence in the house—her first time seeing her extended family in more than a decade following an addiction-fueled estrangement—is a conditional one. Throughout, Shults fixates on Krisha’s troubled face, a beaten down look of a woman baffled by a world that has slipped beyond her grasp. It ends badly, of course, with a stolen bottle of wine and our protagonist’s failed attempt at convincing everyone that she’s managed to stabilize her life over the course of a Turkey-less dinner—Krisha!—that careens into chaos.
An expansion of Shults’ 2014 short film of the same title, Krisha was shot in nine days at the filmmaker’s parents’ home in Montgomery, Texas, on a Kickstarter-funded micro-budget, and starring mostly friends and family members, including Shults. When the film premiered at SXSW last year, it picked up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award. After screening at Cannes as part of the festival’s Semaine de la Critique lineup, A24 (Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, Asif Kapadia’s Amy, Alex Garland’s Ex Machina) offered Shults a contract to develop his follow-up feature, the first deal of its kind for the indie distributor as a production company.
Next up: It Comes at Night is a psychological horror film about a father who will stop at nothing to protect his family from a malevolent presence terrorizing them from their very own doorstep.
Krisha opens in select cities on March 18.
Krisha’s own perspective is revealed through the very texture of your filmmaking style, which has a unique flare to it. Your past working experience with Terrence Malick has been heavily documented now. You’ve cited the influence of Cassavetes—the tale of a broken individual attempting to reconnect with her family after an untold absence seems to directly recall A Woman Under the Influence. What else inspired you going into this?
I’m a huge Paul Thomas Anderson fan. I watched movies by Roman Polanski for this—The Tenant, Repulsion, and Rosemary’s Baby—because we shot certain things like a psychological horror film and I thought that would be interesting. Scorsese, Kubrick, Bergman—all sorts of guys. I’m sort of a film geek. I don’t even know what comes across in the end. A lot of people talk about Terry and I think it’s because I used to work for him, and Cassavetes because of its similarities to A Woman Under the Influence, like you just said. I think I have a lot of inspiration.
Are you going deeper into psychological horror with your next feature?
It’s not straight up psychological horror. I wrote the script not even looking at it like that. It’s also a deeply personal movie, a family drama. But the elements of psychological horror are there, too. I mean, I hope that people are terrified and crying when they watch it. [Laughs]
What stage of production is that in? Did you start casting yet?
That’s literally happening this week. We’re putting together the rough budget, scheduling, and going out there to cast. The plan is to shoot It Comes at Night sometime between August and November this year. As long as we don’t run into any big disasters along the way, it should definitely be getting out there by next year. I can’t wait, man. I’m so excited to make it.
With Krisha, there was already so much hype built around your aunt’s performance before I got around to seeing it that to see your mom steal those later scenes was really unexpected. Krisha obviously has an acting background, but your mom certainly doesn’t.
I’m incredibly proud of my mom. I think she brings a lot of the heartbreak and tragedy with the vital emotions that you need to carry this movie through. She’s actually a mental health therapist in real life. She helps people every day in dealing with different emotions. She’s just great with people. I thought it would be exciting to have real life sisters playing sisters on film. My mom is rooting and pulling for Krisha’s character, you know? She’s trying to help her. My hope was that something true would come out of that. My favorite scenes in the movie are the stuff with my grandma because she didn’t even know we were making a movie. Then there are good actor friends of mine who aren’t literal family members like the wrestling boys, the couple with the young baby, and Bill Wise playing the uncle. Bill is based out of Austin, he’s been in Richard Linklater’s movies, and had a small role in Computer Chess. Chris Doubek, who plays the karate guy in the office in Krisha, was in Computer Chess as well. They are the two outsiders that I brought in who I didn’t know personally. I’m very proud of everyone in this movie.
I did hear that about your grandmother. That gives you the kind of authenticity you get with child actors, sometimes at a price. Kids just walk out of the room in the middle of a scene.
That’s a great analogy. It’s really true.
Krisha, and certainly you as the extension of that character, becomes an unreliable narrator throughout. In one of the intense scenes towards the end, you see your mom’s character compassionate and also aggressive with Krisha, playing that same scene differently. Is this a direct reference to an addict’s warped view on reality?
That’s a great way of looking at it. In my mind, the movie is entirely subjective to Krisha and there are certain scenes that are more objective. We have these long takes following her around and interacting with the family, but the goal was to always lead up to this final moment that’s truly inside her head, in her delirium. It’s a meshing of reality and how she perceives it. I know myself: I can have anger issues, and when that stuff happens, you’re always the victim and it’s always other people who are wrong. You’ll perceive events in your own way that’s not actually how they happened. In my mind, my mom is being extremely compassionate in trying to help Krisha. Krisha is letting the rage build and changing those events to keep fueling the fire. I know addicts do that. I’ve certainly done that, even though I don’t have addiction issues.
I don’t normally do this when I watch movies the first go around, but I wrote down a list of things that surprised me as I was watching the film. The first thing was Krisha’s finger.
That whole finger thing goes with the telling of this story. It’s one of the mysteries that’s never fully explained. Exposition is boring to me and I’m just personally more compelled by the tension created by the mysteries in storytelling. I think it was two months before shooting when Krisha’s dogs got into a fight with the neighbor’s dogs and she stuck her hand in and got bit. Long story short, she had to have her finger amputated. We didn’t think we would be shooting after that, but it worked out. I thought that was the perfect mystery to add to this character.
The second surprise was Brian McOmber’s score and Tim Rakoczy’s sound design.
Brian’s done a lot of indie movies and I was a fan. I found his email online and reached out that way. He worked on the short film with me. When we decided to do the feature version together, it was a beautiful collaborative experience. We had this idea to make the score subjective, like the grammar of the rest of the film. It’s from Krisha’s point of view, and we thought it would be fun to totally fuse the score with the sound design. We had this one piece called “the woodpecker” because Doyle (Bill Wise) keeps going up to Krisha like he’s pecking her. And you look behind them and it looks like there’s a whole forest back there, so you know you’ll be hearing some bird noises. We stumbled on this approach or these ideas where we would treat the score much like an album with the arc of her character starting in one place and ending in a totally different one.
Could you walk me through that? It’s a fascinating score.
The first one when Krisha’s coming down the stairs and it’s all chaotic, we called it “itching chaos” with these prepared pianos. We meshed the chopping in the kitchen with the way certain spots hit, like mimicking people’s movements and the music. Then that fuses into “the woodpecker” piece, which had a lot of woodblocks. The piece after that is woodblocks with strings starting to take over when the tone of the movie begins to shift. The piece after that is all strings. The one after that is a banjo playing really fast with a bow, which creates this totally alien sound. Then that shifts into synths, and the last one is a more emotional synth piece. It was all about the arc and the build, echoing the structure of where Krisha started and ends up.
When you work with people so close to you in your private life under this umbrella of making a film together, how do you resolve conflict that will inevitably arise? Was there conflict?
That’s a good question! With the actual shooting of it, we only had nine days and it was so quick, and we had already experimented with the short film. So we knew what we were getting into and it was smooth. Honestly, I don’t think there was ever conflict during the shoot. But there were other things… My other aunt who’s also in the movie—not Krisha—lost her daughter to addiction. The movie was inspired by certain events that happened when she came home for a family reunion and relapsed. If anything, there would be moments when something would ring too true and we would just stop filming and take a break. But there was never real conflict. I don’t want to sound like I’m full of crap or anything, but I really can’t think of one instance in any aspect of it where we had conflict. There was a little bit of that with post-production sound, but that’s unrelated.
Were you able to shoot the film in sequence given the nature of having an ensemble displaced to a single location, which was obviously the case here?
You’d think we could, but we actually did not. It was so quick that we had to shoot long days. We had to start shooting all of the night stuff that comes at the end of the movie early on. We did find a nice schedule that just made sense to me in how I wanted to shoot it, but it wasn’t perfectly chronological like you’re talking about. Shooting out of order like that, I was even more impressed with Krisha in her performance because she had to tap into her different states of mind so quick and piece together this character arc. She was an actress prior to this, too. Her name’s Krisha and it’s called Krisha, but my aunt’s this sweet hippie who loves dogs. She’s not like this character at all. [Laughs] She doesn’t even drink! She hasn’t drank in forever.
It must be a very different experience for non-pro actors—unlike Krisha—to see themselves up there on the screen, especially with an audience. How did everyone react?
The big thing was making that short version first because it gave as an idea as to what the feature would be like. The first time I showed people the rough cut of the short, especially my mom, they were surprised it came out as good as it did. I think we all kind of had the confidence in what we were doing going into it this time around. Beyond my family members, everyone else is an actor. I’m not an actor. My mom, Krisha, my grandma, and my other aunt aren’t actors. But everyone else are friends of mine who also happen to act. Then we have Bill and Chris, brought in from the outside like I mentioned earlier. So it wasn’t that weird.
How much of this was improvised?
My best guess would be 70% scripted and 30% improv. There was a lot more improv that didn’t make it into the movie, but I love the way we got to shoot it. The improv was vital and the movie wouldn’t be what it is without it, especially with the stuff between Bill and Krisha on the porch. That stuff wasn’t even in the script. We just started with ideas, talked to Bill about it leading up to shooting it, and we laid it all on Krisha and surprised her. It was really fun to see her respond to everything in the moment in a genuine way. It was beautiful.
A lot of improv in nine days. I wouldn’t want to find myself in that kind of situation.
That’s exactly it. That would be terrifying. If it was totally improvised, I would’ve failed. We all would’ve failed. The one thing I did know was—because I was so adamant about the structure of the narrative and how it should flow—where certain scenes could fit and improve the movie. It wasn’t like, “Let’s randomly shoot this. We’ll find some place for it.” Even with the improvised stuff, there was a plan around it. It was a wonderful way of working.
You’ve been on a long promotional trail. It’s been a year since SXSW. What discoveries have you made, having screened the film to all these audiences and given all these interviews?
For me, it’s always amazing just talking to a new person who likes the movie or any time someone sees something in the film that I didn’t see. It came from such a small place that I could never have imagined this. I would’ve never imagined winning at SXSW. I had realistic hopes that we would play there because our short played there, but I never would’ve dreamed about going to Cannes or traveling the world with it. I didn’t think we would show the movie in Iceland or South Korea. It’s interesting how different cultures perceive it and take away. At Cannes, we did some Q&As closer to Nice and they were all rooting for Krisha. One of these older ladies in the front row was pissed at my mom. I guess they’re really big on family there, and felt as though the family betrayed her.
I’m from South Korea and I can tell you it’s a huge drinking culture. They call it “the Ireland of Asia” for a reason. I have a feeling a lot of people could relate to Krisha.
There you go! [Laughs] I didn’t even know that, actually. Unfortunately, I only got to be there for two days. The audience seemed to really dig it. It’s funny, too, because they want autographs and stuff. Who wants my autograph? I’m no one. It was weird they were mauling me for one. I didn’t even have a chance to have real conversations about how people perceived the movie there, although we did have a really nice Q&A. But that’s really interesting. I didn’t know that.
When you signed the two-picture deal with A24, did that include Krisha?
It includes Krisha. But I do have a third movie I’m trying to write right now that takes place in high school. It’s unlike any other high school movie you’re likely to see, I think. I don’t know why I’m obsessed with it, but I am. It’s almost like a culmination of the themes you see in Krisha and It Comes at Night, with added ingredients. My dream would be to shoot that next summer.
So this is going to turn into some sort of loosely-bound trilogy?
I’m a fan of European trilogies by directors like Lars von Trier and Bergman. It’s an unofficial trilogy in that they’re tied together thematically. I can see the correlation between them in my head, but I don’t know if the audience necessarily will. Krisha deals with regret and rage. Death will be a huge factor in my next movie. The third one will have elements of these two movies, and more.