If you’ve read anything about the making of "Krisha" you likely already know that writer/direct/co-star Trey Edward Shults filmed the entire movie in one location (his family’s house), cast members of his real-life family and somehow shot the entire movie in just nine days. That backstory can be misleading though, as "Krisha" is not simply another intimate homespun family drama, but rather the arrival of a major new cinematic talent that led the eagle eyes at A24 to not only scoop up Shults’ first feature film, but to quickly sign up to produce and distribute his second feature as well.
Shults’ long take, well-choreographed camera movement masterfully captures the troubled internal state of the film’s title character (Shults’ real life aunt, actress Krisha Fairchild) and demonstrates a level of craft that would seem virtually impossible for a lo-fi indie with an extremely condensed shooting schedule. Recently Indiewire caught up with Shults to discuss his use of long-take steadicam shots and to find out how he pulled this all off working under such extreme limitations.
In rather dramatic fashion, the opening shot of "Krisha" announces your use of long takes and camera movement. Why was that so important for you with this story?
One thing I loved right away is the tension of a long take. Film people like ourselves notice that, but what I care about more is that the average audience seeing the movie isn’t going realize it’s a big long take, but hopefully they feel that unbroken tension. In that long opening shot – following Krisha from the wrong house to the right one – felt like the perfect way to express how she was feeling at that moment. If we break when she opens the door, if I do cut, it’s more of a release. It had to be that unbroken tension until the right moment.
That was the jumping off point, and then from there I just thought long takes could be impactful in simple scenes, like between Krisha and I are on the couch, or the scene where Grandma comes home and meets the whole family. These are just very simple four minute takes with a slow zoom, which brings in this reality that I really wanted. I simply let the actors act until we feel the weight of this scene and the zoom – and it gets really claustrophobic, right on Krisha’s face.
I love the variety of shot length throughout the movie. There’s so many long takes, but then there’s these cut-up, montage-like moments towards the end of the movie. I sort of thought of it like a piece of music, where there would be these musical interludes – faster cutting, mirroring her mind state. I wanted to have these peaks and valleys.
And then there’s that amazing kitchen scene where you get that choppy, disorientating effect, but with a a long take.
That was steadicam again. The main take starts with a close up of the turkey and pulls out and starts what we called "kitchen chaos." Once again it felt like the right thing for Krisha’s mind state. That scene was the closest thing to a play where everybody had hit their marks and be choreographed just right. The camera pans left for the Tupperware, it pans right to the TV with the boys fighting, it pans right again for the boys fighting, it shifts and goes into Krisha’s profile. For that scene I was standing on a cooler, kind of guiding everyone and getting the rhythm right. At first it was just utter chaos and didn’t work at all, and then you do it enough times you find that balance between it being not too chaotic, but not too rehearsed. It’s right in the middle and feels real and natural. For a lot of the long takes I really had to find that middle ground for this movie.
The time it takes to practice and choreograph long camera takes like this is completely incongruous with the constraints of a nine-day shoot. Is this a case where this was what was most important to you, so that’s where all your money and time went?
Yeah, you’re nailing it on the head. That was my exact approach. When I was talking to people about it I kept saying I wanted it to be a cinematic chamber drama. Chamber drama in the sense that it’s this one family in this one house, but I wanted to find the cinema in it. Also, from a creative level, to me this is one of the most important days of Krisha’s life. I think this a day she’s going to remember for rest of her life and I wanted to feel that weight cinematically. It just felt like giving her more respect than [using] a handheld, shaky-cam, with a tight lens.
So much of our budget went into the camera stuff. My buddy was the steadicam operator and he came out for a few days and gave me a great rate. We were both camera PAs on Terrence Malick movies. We rented a Dana Dolly, it’s not a real dolly, but it close enough that it gives you a cinematic effect. We got different lenses, we used these Cooke S4 lenses and we got the nice optima zoom lens I wanted. To me, that was the stuff that elevates this to where it’s coming out in theaters from A24, my dream distributor, and it’s pretty awesome that it looks like a movie that A24 could put out.
I am sensitive when people say, "Oh, he did that for a calling card," because I thought this approach would do more justice to this woman. Really going for it and going for it cinematically was more respectful to her.
What about the mechanics of this? How long would it take to set up these shots? Were you feeling the time crunch, or did you just practice this ahead of time? It is beautifully executed, but that takes time and practice.
I booked an extra day purely for rehearsing, but that wasn’t rehearsing with all the actors, that was just rehearsing with my DP, my steadicam operator, my boom guy, first AC and Krisha, because she’s always dictating what the camera is doing. On that day we rehearsed the opening shot, the kitchen chaos, and any complex movement. I wanted her to feel comfortable with all those guys before we brought the other actors in.
The lighting is very practical in the movie. All the day stuff mainly was knowing what time the sun would hit the house and block off certain windows, because there were so many. And that makes it way simpler. It was an incredibly effective way of working because that opening take I blocked off an entire day, but we nailed it by lunch time. We did 17 takes and used take 11. It turned out to be an incredibly effective way of working, but it was also a gamble. We never shot traditional coverage, so if the performances weren’t coming together, you don’t have anything fall back on in the editing room.
And long takes put a huge stress on performance and you weren’t exactly working with a ton of seasoned professionals in this film.
Exactly. That was always going to be a little bit tricky because it’s one thing to chose to use your family, but then to demand performances in terms of long takes is more difficult. It was always a balance. If it was those big scenes with everybody together, some of those people are family members, some are actors, and meshing them altogether usually worked. It’s a great question, because that was the thing I was really nervous about. I planned all these things in one take, but if the performances aren’t working, it doesn’t matter.
Towards the end of the movie, when I’m doing really emotional scenes with my mom, who is not an actress, and Krisha, it’s a totally different approach. There it’s about me and the camera getting out the way and making it as easy as possible for the performers.
What were some of your influences in terms of camera movement and these long takes that informed this movie? Did some of this come from watching Malick on set?
With Terry, it was more spiritual, because I think he’s a genius and I think you are moron for trying to duplicate him, and a lot of people try [laughs]. Purely for the one take aspect of it, probably Paul Thomas Anderson, but not the stuff you would think, not the huge flamboyant longer takes in "Boogie Nights" or "Magnolia." But if you watch "There Will Be Blood," there’s so many subtle long takes that you don’t even notice they are long takes, which I love. They have this subconscious and effective way of creeping in on you.
The tension becomes so intense in some of those shots in "Blood."
Exactly, it creeps up and it was such an effective way for this movie to establish that tension and keep it going, even if it was a simple scene with Krisha and I on the couch. There were a lot of influences, but "There Will Be Blood" was the one I studied the most and kept re-watching.
For a more from Shultz, check out his Cannes Video diaries below: