'We Couldn't Save Them': Lessons From A Film About Family And Addiction
The new movie Krisha is a family drama about addiction and chaos. In it, a recovering addict named Krisha comes home for Thanksgiving after being away from her family for years.
If the family in the film seems tighter than most acting ensembles, it's because they have history: The director and writer, Trey Edward Shults, cast his aunt as the main character, his mother as the family matriarch and himself in the role of Krisha's estranged son.
It's a small movie — filmed in Shults' mother's house and made on a tiny budget — but it won two of the biggest awards at last year's South by Southwest Film Festival.
Shults tells NPR's Ari Shapiro that he always knew his aunt, actress Krisha Fairchild, would star in his first movie. "She's [an] amazing actress and I just felt like she's never had a great role, and I wanted to write her a great role," he says. "I also had this fantasy that my family would star in my first movie. So it started there."
Fairchild also joins the conversation.
On the real life events that inspired the film
Shults: My cousin — she came home for a family reunion and she relapsed, and a month or two later she overdosed and passed away. My dad struggled with alcohol and drugs his whole life and our relationship was very much like the one Krisha and I have in the movie. And I hadn't seen him for over 10 years and then, like Tom Cruise in Magnolia, I go to see him on his deathbed.
On how the family reacted when they heard about the film Shults had written
Fairchild: We were all stunned and grieving for [my niece] because she had had five years of sobriety. She'd been good, and when she showed up off the rails — it's like when you see pictures of a tornado, it's as if that thing is approaching you and it's someone you love and they're about to come through the front door of the home and you still open the door, because that's what you do for people you love. So we had opened the door, we had experienced the tornado in our lives, and we were all kind of like on the ropes, you know, trying to recover.
And when he told us that he had written this, there was not a hesitation from any of us that sharing it was the right thing to do. You know, because when you live with something like this, you get used to the fact that everybody hides it, nobody talks about it. You know, I mean, we felt that if we told our story that people would feel solace that they weren't alone in that. So yeah, there was no surprise that he would take that pain and turn it into something that would help other people. That's kind of who he is.
On casting Shults' 92-year-old grandmother and Fairchild's mother, who has dementia, to play Krisha's mother
Shults: She didn't fully understand — she still doesn't fully understand she's in a movie, you know. But everything we shot with her was more like a documentary. The big scene where we bring her home to meet the family the first time, we put her in a separate room, in the office, and then ... on the third take we did it and she started talking about some subtext of the film — she started talking about her mother and family lineage.
Fairchild: [My sisters and I] always drove to the home where she lives to pick her up and bring her to the set, and always drove her back at night. So we experienced what it was she thought she was doing. To her mind, she had three days in a row where she got to go to a house where everybody was so incredibly sweet to her. She loved everybody that was there; they all loved her back. She sat in the dining room, where there was beautiful crystal on the table. She never got to eat the meal, though.
Shults: And she was mad it wasn't real wine in the glasses.
Fairchild: She definitely was mad it wasn't real wine in the glasses. [Laughs]
On Fairchild's mother's struggle with addiction
Fairchild: The dementia in our family has always been related to smoking too much or drinking too much or something. When she began to drink heavily — she was a late-onset alcoholic and she would fall and hit herself, so she has a lot of cognitive brain damage as well. ...
Our mother was a role model for any wonderful, loving, sweet human person until she was in her 50s. So we will always be able to see what happened to her as tragic and also laugh and love her. We had her. A lot of people aren't lucky enough to have the best of the people that they love. They only get them during the worst.
We didn't get it. We didn't get that we couldn't save them. We didn't get that our job was to love them until they realized they had to save themselves.
On how making the film changed their view of addiction
Fairchild: My empathy levels spiked. I had a lot of nights I cried myself to sleep about the people that I was representing. We didn't get it. We didn't get that we couldn't save them. We didn't get that our job was to love them until they realized they had to save themselves, all right? I didn't get that while they were alive. I kept thinking that I could save them. We put my mom in rehab places under duress three times. There were ways that I failed them, not in what I couldn't do for them, but what I couldn't help them understand they needed to do for themselves.
Shults: I know one thing I always wanted with the film is to have a ton of empathy for Krisha's character and for an audience to care about her and to go on this, you know, journey with her, even if it's a downward spiral journey. I know I cried like a baby making it and editing it and then thinking about family members with it. ... Just for my dad, I used to have a lot of resentment and anger towards [him] that and I don't at all anymore. It's all about forgiveness. And you know, there's part of the character that's me, too. I don't suffer [from] addiction, but I think I'd be a mess if I didn't have my parents. I always related to it and, you know, I really wanted people not to judge the character but really have sympathy for her and feel for her.
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