A Thanksgiving family drama becomes a horror story of micro proportions.
Expanded from an unreleased short film of the same name that played at SXSW in 2014, Trey Edward Shults' Krisha tells the story of a woman's psychological breakdown over a 24-hour visit to her relative's house over Thanksgiving. Shults cast his own aunt, Krisha, in the lead, and shot the entire film in nine days at his family's house in Texas.
The film's camerawork, sound design, editing, and aspect ratio render it truly unique in form: experimental, yet accessible and fresh. It's the perfect example of what's possible with today's technology, perseverance, and a moving personal story to tell. At the heart of the film is the relationship between an estranged mother and son and the pain of giving up on your dreams.
One year after its 2015 SXSW Grand Jury & Audience Award win, Krisha is now being released theatrically. It has affected audiences all over the world, from Cannes to London and beyond. No Film School chatted with Shults, who not only directed but also starred in the film, about shooting Krisha with his own family and merging formalism with improvisation.
"I failed and I turned [the first feature attempt] into a short, and then finally I made Krisha. I made a lot of really bad movies. You've got to fail before you succeed."
NFS: How did the short film become a feature?
Shults: It was summer of 2012, and I was trying to make a feature, but I didn't know what I was doing. I was the sole producer. I put a thousand bucks of my own money up. We literally didn't have half of the cast or the camera we needed for what I wanted to do. And I was stubborn and we did it anyway. I failed and I turned [the first feature attempt] into a short, and then finally I made the feature again.
NFS: You used a combination of your own family and actors. How did you pitch it to your family?
Shults: The first time, with the short, it was more like, "How are we going to do this?" Not from [the real-life] Krisha, because she's an actress and I always promised I'd write a role for her. I always wanted her to star in my first movie. But I simultaneously had this fantasy that my family would star in it, too, because they had always been so supportive of me.
"I always wanted Krisha to star in my first movie."
Shults: It was just about convincing my mom that she could do it. My grandma didn't know we were making a movie, so that was a different thing. My mom just brought the groceries home one day, and then I'm like, "Mom, Cassavettes does it all the time." She's like, "Who's that?" And I'm like, trying to explain to her that [John Cassavetes'] family is in his movies. She was [hesitant]. But she's a pro and she didn't even realize she was. I'm very, very impressed with her.
Once we all saw the short and we knew we could actually make something of quality together, we were even more prepared for the feature.
"We kind of stumbled upon this awesome approach: every day we would know what we had to get in the script, and then we would improvise."
NFS: How many shooting days did you have? What was it like in terms of getting your shots and making your days?
Shults: We had nine days total. We had an extra day for rehearsal—not with family members and actors, but with Krisha, the steady cam operator, and the sound dude. The rehearsal was just to get down a lot of these long takes, figure out how we're going to pull them off. Like the opening one, when she comes into the kitchen, and the chaos has to be choreographed.
"It was a really beautiful way of working, because once we all got to know the story, it was just collaboration."
A lot of the movie is Krisha guiding the camera, since it's always from her point of view. That's why I wanted Krisha involved, but I didn't want to rehearse with actual actors because I thought it would get stale. We kind of stumbled upon this awesome approach: we would know what we had to get in the script, and then we would improvise. The final movie is 70% scripted, 30% improvised. Everything with the uncle and Krisha on the porch is all the genius of Bill Wise [the actor playing the uncle]. It was a really beautiful way of working, because once all got to know the story, it was just collaboration. Different actors would be in different rooms of the house creating new scenes. A lot of stuff didn't make it into the movie, but a lot did, and it was really beautiful.
We barely ever shot traditional coverage. Usually, our scenes play out in one long take. For scenes that don't—the ones that are more montage-y—all we would do was shoot one improvised scene in twenty minutes. Then we would either shoot it from a new angle or slightly tweak the scene for another twenty minutes. And then we would move on.
At the end of the movie, I kind of wanted to style the ship a little bit and have longer lenses and a few cameras rolling simultaneously. It was almost like making a documentary—especially the stuff between my mom and Krisha. I just wanted them to be able to do whatever they wanted.
NFS: How much of that style did you find while editing the film, and how much of that was by design?
Shults: I think that's a really good question. It kind of ranges. I didn't want the entire movie to just feel like nonstop chaos. I knew it had to have peaks and valleys.
I'm really into music. I like movies that flow like a piece of music, like Punch Drunk Love and a lot of other Paul Thomas Anderson stuff. So using the music to counter-balance that was very important to me.
"We barely ever shot traditional coverage."
At the beginning, you're like, "What the hell is this? Is this a horror movie or something?" But then we're following Krisha and there's nothing crazy [happening]. It's just simple. We're following her for the long take. We see her upstairs with her pills and her [amputated] finger.
But then she comes downstairs and the chaos hits. And then it keeps going for a little bit, on into this montage sequence. But then we take a break for a while, and it's like you are going into the other room. And then there's a scene with me. It was all about finding those peaks and valleys so it didn't become too overbearing.
"Just because you're doing a little chaos doesn't mean it has to be handheld, shaky, and crazy. Save that for the right time."
For the first time that Krisha comes to the kitchen with the turkey, which we call "Kitchen Chaos," the camera is not very chaotic at all. It's usually staring at Krisha or it pans to see what she's hearing. But we have so many other things going on, like the family is loud and crazy and the boys are fighting over the football game.
The score intermixed with the [sounds of] chopping and Tupperware dropping and cabinets slamming blend for the sound design. But if you look at the camera, it's just a wide lens. Just hanging out. So I like the idea of getting creative with your chaos. Just because you're doing a little chaos, doesn't mean it has to be handheld, shaky, and crazy. Save that for the right time.
The structure was very important and I knew how I wanted the stuff to flow. And I had faith that that would come across. The first time I was editing, it was the biggest high. I couldn't stop because it was the first time in years and years of making movies that I had pulled off the dream. I had pulled off the vision of what I wrote. But it was even better, because I had all this other stuff I couldn't even think of on my own.
So I edited it really fast; I think I got the first rough cut in a week and a half. My girlfriend would wake up at 3AM and I'm drinking wine, talking to myself.
"The first time I was editing, it was the biggest high. I couldn't stop because it was the first time in years and years of making movies that I had pulled off the dream."
NFS: The scene between you and Krisha upstairs is a really emotional scene. What advice would you have for other filmmakers who are perhaps still finding that ability to jump into the unknown without a safety net?
Shults: Keep going. Keep pushing, no matter what. A lot of family members won't understand it. They'll think you're crazy, or silly, or stupid, or whatever. "It's not realistic." My parents wanted me to do business school and get a business degree and get a good job and then do this on the side.
I've always been like, screw that. I just knew in my gut that it's what I love more than anything. It's what I believe I'm meant to do. I have fights with my parents about it. I ended up dropping out of college, just being a weirdo upstairs obsessing over movies.
But I just had blind faith and I didn't give up. I did anything I could, whether that was working on productions or studying movies and making my own short films and failing. I failed a lot. I made a lot of bad movies. But you've got to fail before you succeed. Eventually, it will work out.
NFS: I'm just super stoked that there are filmmakers like you out there who are actually shaking up the medium.
Shults: I totally agree. I want to make stuff that is not so new and experimental that there's not an audience for it, even though that is cool to make, too. But right in this moment, I think my goal is to intermesh stuff that can find an audience while at the same time can be something unique, be something new and try to play with grammar more. That's the goal. We'll see how it works out.