UPDATE 03/25/16: Krisha is playing at the Sundance Cinemas.
One of the most anticipated films of this year’s Houston Cinema Arts Festival is Krisha. Written and directed by Houston native Trey Edward Shults, Krisha has only been seen at a few films festivals including Cannes and SXSW, where it won the Grand Jury and Audience Prizes. While previous audiences have certainly been drawn to this film about a (perhaps) recovering addict’s homecoming to spend Thanksgiving with her ambivalent family, the story behind the film is almost as unusual, even for a very limited budget independent film. Shults filmed the movie in nine days in his mother’s house in Montgomery County and cast members of his family and himself to play members of this fictional family.
I had a chance to speak with Shults before his own trip back to Houston to bring Krisha back to the place it was created.
CultureMap: I’ve read so many different synopses of Krisha, but I would love to hear how you describe it.
Trey Edward Shults: I’m actually the worst person to do this. It’s about a woman coming home on Thanksgiving to a family she hasn’t seen in a long time. How everyone is connected slowly reveals itself as the story progresses. It’s really a character study of this woman and it deals with addiction, the family she abandoned and the repercussions of that. Hopefully it has a range of tones.
CM: There are many movies that fall into the home-for-the-holidays genre, where a family comes together but then everything goes wrong. Krisha sounds like on the surface it fits into that genre, but, at the same time, it completely subverts it.
TES: Yes, it sounds like a movie you’ve seen before, but it isn’t. That was my goal with it, to take this almost generic setup that a lot of movies deal with and try to make something totally unique.
CM: It’s my understanding that you specifically wrote the part of Krisha for your aunt, Krisha Fairchild, who is a professional actress. So just how young you were when you first thought: Yeah, I want to write a movie that will star my aunt and I want to direct her.
TES: Honestly, I think I’ve always wanted to write her a great role. The first movie I made I was a little kid at a family reunion. Someone gave me their camcorder, and I turned it into a movie. Ever since then, I kind of looked up to her because she was the person in my family in the industry.
It was always my goal, and I always knew my first feature would star her. But I also had this dream that first feature would have other members of my family that weren’t actors. It was the idea of tackling this ultra personal family subject matter literally with my family. I thought it would be unique and hopefully authenticity would come through.
CM: When someone is directing a movie, I would think that there’s a distinct, defined relationship between director and actors but with family there’s usually a distinct, defined relationship between nephew and aunt or son and mom. Did roles get muddled when you were directing your family?
TES: Yes, of course it gets muddle, but from my experience it was perfect. My aunt is such a great actress, my only role was having them take it down a few notches here and there. What I did as a director was in terms of how I shot it. With really personal emotional scenes with Krisha, who is an actress, and my mom, who is not, is when I get out of the way as a director. I set it up so they can be as natural and authentic as possible.
But then when I was shooting stuff with my grandma, my grandmother didn’t even know we were making a movie. My grandma has dementia, but she’s kind of leading her scene. So everything I shoot with her is a documentary. My favorite scene in the movie was a big scene with her because it was so serendipitous the way everything happened.
CM: I have to ask this since you’re coming back to Houston for the Levantine Emerging Artist Award and to debut Krisha here. Did growing up in Houston and Texas influence your outlook as a writer or filmmaker?
TES: I know it does, but it doesn’t in the sense that I’m not the kind of person who only wants to tell Texas stories. I feel like for Krisha, I hope people in Houston just recognize this place, and it feels familiar, but at the same time, I think it could be anywhere, any suburb. Obviously, where you’re from shapes that. It totally does affect my work and how I approach things, but not in an obvious way, not like I’m trying to do that.
CM: I’ve read that you’ve already written you next film and that project is going forward. As you begin new projects, how important it is for you to be both screenwriter and director and have that level of creative control on the films you direct?
TES: So far the only stuff I’ve wanted to do has been what I’ve written. I’ve just wanted to make personal films. I want to make every movie like it’s my last movie. At the same time, if I read a script written by someone else and I just had a gut reaction to it, I would be happy to do that. And that would be a new and different challenge. But at the moment I’m focusing on this. I’m just excited. This has been a life changing year.
CM: With Thanksgiving coming, do you have any advice for families with their own Krishas. Is this a film the whole family should see together during the holidays?
TES: I have had people tell me: “You should release it this year during Thanksgiving.” I would love for someone’s entire family to sit around and watch this movie, especially if they have a Krisha in their family.
We struggle with that in our family and probably don’t talk about it enough. But the movie was incredibly cathartic for us. I do think the movie is about that. It’s about bringing out the skeletons in your closet and confronting them. My mom’s a therapist and she’s all about: you’ve got to talk about that stuff.
I don’t know if I have any advice, except don’t bury your skeletons. Get them out in the open.
Trey Edward Shults will accept the Levantine Cinema Emerging Artist Award at the screening of Krisha at 7:30 pm on November 14 at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston.