"Krisha," the micro-budget drama that premiered last week at the 2015 SXSW Film Festival and won both the Grand Jury prize and the Audience Award for narrative feature, is not only about a family unraveling over the course of a tumultuous holiday. Its production was also a full-blown family affair.
Written and directed by first-time feature filmmaker Trey Edward Shults, who also plays a minor role in the film, "Krisha" stars his aunt -- actress Krisha Fairchild -- as the titular drug and alcohol addicted black sheep of her family. Shults' own mother Robyn Fairchild (who's not an actress, but works as therapist) co-stars as Krisha's exasperated sister. Even Shults' 90-year-old grandmother has a pivotal role as the clan's grandmother.
When Indiewire put the request out to interview someone from the project shortly following its SXSW Grand Jury surprise win, the film's publicist (who signed onto the film the day of the awards show) pitched a group session with Shults, his mother and aunt. For the trio, making "Krisha" was an intensely collaborative effort, one that brought the close-knit family even closer together.
Although extremely personal, "Krisha" is not based on the life of film's lead actress, who just so happens to share the same name as the titular protagonist.
"Krisha is a combination of addicts and different family members," Shults said, seated next to his aunt and mother. "The relationship between my character and her is very much inspired by the relationship I had with my biological dad, who passed away a year ago from pancreatic cancer. Before he passed, I hadn't seen him for five-plus years because of his issues with alcoholism and addiction."
Shults first explored the character in a short of the same name that he premiered at last year's SXSW, where it was awarded a Special Jury award for cinematography. He was inspired to make the short after his cousin, who had been struggling for years with addiction, had a devastating relapse at a family reunion. A month following the blowout, she overdosed.
"We have a lot of family with anger issues," Robyn added. "Trey has a lot of anger issues; our dad was a rager. He was prone to fits."
Both the feature and short center on Krisha, a deeply troubled mother who reunites with her family for a holiday gathering after years of absence. She relapses when the stress of the situation brings back her demons. As Krisha grows increasingly delirious over the course of long day, her family, including her son (played by Shults), retreat from her self-destructive path.
For Shults, making "Krisha" helped him come to terms with why he, like his onscreen character, detached from his cousin as her behavior worsened. "I was standoffish with her just like my character is with Krisha in the movie," he said. "I just got a terrible feeling, especially when she was relapsing. Subconsciously, I think I was shunning her. "We all struggled with that," his mother said. "We wanted to love her and help her, but she could only help herself. We had to put up some boundaries because we loved her."
"A human can only re-believe in someone so many times," Krisha added. "The family was protecting themselves. As the actress who was playing the role, I never felt they were shunning me. She had earned every look she was getting; she had earned it over years."
Despite his family's deep ties to the difficult subject matter, Shults said he had the best experience of his life making "Krisha." But watching the footage was another matter. "I was crying when editing it," he admitted. "Watching it brings back everything."
"We had to be so cruel to each other," Robyn said of the nine-day shoot that took place in her home, in which her son currently also lives. "We did a lot of, 'You okay?' after scenes. It was really important with our mother to keep reassuring her that we were okay and that this was pretend. We didn't want her to be traumatized, but her short-term memory was so bad that she didn't remember it."
Shults likened his SXSW experience to being the "'Bad News Bears' of the festival." As for what the future holds, he said he has no idea. The movie, which is currently seeking U.S. distribution, is not on the program for any upcoming festivals.
"I feel like we knocked it out of the park this time and [we] can't duplicate it again," Shults said. "I have another script I wrote right after my dad died that's like just as personal as this, but it's taking how personal this is and turning it into a horror film. I think it would be amazing, but I don't know. If someone lets me make that, that would be incredible."