Justin Long & ‘The Wave’ Director Discuss Bad Trips and Break Down Their Existential Thriller

     January 26, 2020

Be aware there are spoilers for The Wave below.

Justin Long takes a hallucinogenic trip down an existential rabbit hole in The Wave, the new psychedelic thriller from filmmaker Gille Klabin. Long stars as an insurance lawyer, Frank, who’s a little too good at a very bad karma gig. Celebrating a new promotion, Frank heads out for a night on the town with his co-worker Jeff (Donald Faison) and winds up caught in a surprisingly wild and increasingly bizarre night when he meets a girl (Shiela Vand), does some drugs, and winds up skipping through time in a psychedelic thrill-ride to try to save the successful life he’s built for himself — or decide if it’s worth saving at all.

Because as we learn in the film’s conclusion, and as I had a chance to chat with Klabin and Long about in the interview below, Frank isn’t high; he’s dying. Frank’s time-skipping hallucinations are the result of a fatal car accident, and the druggy trip through time isn’t courtesy of a creepy drug dealer played by Tommy Flanagan, it’s courtesy of the universe and his dying brain.

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Image via Epic Pictures

Back at Fantastic Fest last year, I had the opportunity to sit down with Klabin and Long for a spoilery chat about the film, from the real-life tragedy that inspired The Wave‘s psychedelic moral inventory, to the technicalities of depicting a drug trip on screen, and making sense of the world within Frank’s dying visions. With The Wave now available to watch on Digital, here’s what they had to say.

So how did you guys come together on this? Is it something you guys kind of developed together, or was it more like this was your film and you went to him?

GILLE KLABIN: So Carl, the writer-producer… He had this idea. Lieutenant Warren, the firefighter who dies in the movie; that character is actually based on Carl’s cousin who was a firefighter who died and had his insurance policy denied. So I think initially Carl was trying to do this as some sort of exercise of humanizing and understanding this person. And we developed it together because he had seen my music videos and wanted to make a film with me in mind, so basically working on my low budget music video background, which just strong visuals for a lower cost. And I’ve always told him I wouldn’t make a movie unless it had a message I believed in. So I think the idea was very much to get across ideologies and philosophies that we had experienced, both through general philosophy and through this psychedelic experience as well. And we wanted to get across those ideas and tread water in very murky waters around ethics. And then Carl had a casting director who pitched Justin to us and we would well, let’s swing for the fences and see if this works. And then Justin clicked with it.

JUSTIN LONG: Yeah, for similar reasons, I want him to be part of telling that story. I really believed in the message, although I’m not nearly as noble as Gille. I don’t set out to only make movies that have messages I believe in. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever done that. [Laugh]. This was the first time. Herbie was a bit like that, I really believed in that message, but no, it was just a wonderful story and speaking with Gille about it, in one phone conversation, I could tell that he really was more than prepared, and there was a group of people that all had worked together and known each other and they were all very passionate about the story they were telling and I just really loved their energy and enthusiasm and it kind of revitalized my own love of making movies. It was infectious.

Sort of a two part-er for both of you, from your different angles, in terms of bringing the drugginess to life. It’s not very easy to act out of your mind wasted, nor is it easy to bring that experience to audiences visually. So how did you guys work together on both of your sides of that?

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Image via Epic Pictures

KLABIN: I went the practical route… from a young age. [Laughs] We did the VFX with one of my longtime collaborators, Patrick Lawler, and I’m not censoring it, we would take LSD and take notes and try to recreate the actual — I wanted it to be earnest. And also beyond the sort of recreational drug concept of it, these things have had profound emotional, spiritual, philosophical effects on me, and I felt beholden to a duty to get that idea across. The movie is not a pro drug movie by any measure, but I wanted to replicate that awe, and that challenge of leaving your comfort zone, visually, and both in a narrative way as well. And Justin’s much more well behaved and a decent–

LONG: Not much more.

KLABIN: But to a degree.

LONG: Yeah. I’ve definitely had enough experience in that capacity to be able to relate somewhat to some of these states of being.

KLABIN: THC is a psychedelic and he has one particularly bad overdose on edibles.

Oh no.

LONG: Oh yeah.

KLABIN: And you boke the time continuum, which is really the fundamental of the movie, of that disarming, what the fuck is happening and where am I?

LONG: Yeah, I wish that had happened before we shot the movie, so I could have been even more prepared. It happened after we shot the movie. And I remember the next day that occurred to me, like “Oh shit, this is what the movie is about.” It was terrifying at the time.

But prior to the movie, I had an experience, which I’ve talked about where I smoked what I thought was weed, and I’ve told this story to people in my private security, where I was basically drugged, they think that they think it was PCP that I smoked. So that feeling, and I think a lot of that trauma still lived in me, of having taken it against my will and kept against my will, that I was able to relate somewhat, I mean obviously, I wasn’t jumping through time, but it was enough to be able to occupy this guy’s space for a little while.

Seems like a potentially exhausting space to occupy.

LONG: Yeah, I was. Just physically it was really tiring. Coffee really helped, anything to stay as boring as possible. [Laughs] It was really just about managing sleep and making sure I did nothing but if I was going to expend energy it was going to be at work, and so I tried to be as responsible as possible.

KLABIN: There’s also a real charming simplicity in the experience that I’ve never worked with anybody of this caliber, so it is surreal to me that the why’s were always answered. So when we’re going into the beginning of the scene, so we talk about what is Frank trying to get out of here, and what has just happened to him, and irrelevant of trying to replicate this sort of visual aesthetics of being on drugs, here’s the sheer thought of “Okay, this guy’s offering me drugs as a way out from an impending clock smash and me being launched out of here.”

That is a very natural motive. Sort of, “I’m unnerved, I’m in a very dangerous scenario with a very intimidating person, and everything’s about to go to shit again.”

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Image via Epic Pictures

LONG: Yeah, exactly. And you would remind me, the intention of the scene is that. You don’t play the drugs. You can’t play — It’s the same with being drunk. You can’t play the drunk, or else it’s going to look phony. You have to, if anything, work against the drunk. That’s why the best thing to do…

Chris Pratt had a great trick. I remember we did a movie together where he was he was drunk, and he would do this thing where he’d put his head between his legs, just so when he, he popped his head up, he was disoriented but he was working through it. Drunk people try to sound sober, if you listen to them. So they over-enunciate to make the point that they’re not drunk.

And it’s similar to being on drugs. You don’t want people to know you’re on drugs. So it’s fighting against that and yeah, it’s just the scenes we were in, the stakes were pretty high. But Gille would talk me through them and remind me — And the other actors were so fucking good that it made it that much easier. Ronnie Blevins, who is playing the drug dealer, that’s a role that could easily have been mustache-twirly, ah, drug dealer, and he found the humanity in that character, and so honest. So it made it easier. Donald was great, everybody made it a lot easier. Also, like I said, these guys had such enthusiasm and what they were doing technically around us was so impressive and committed that it was almost like, I want to rise to their level. I want to make sure I’m not the one bringing down the shit.

When it came to the scripting phase for you, how did you sort of determine the rules of the drug world, and what he could and could not do as he sort of became aware?

KLABIN: So the idea, fundamentally, for us is, the drug isn’t real. There is no drug. What’s happening here is the universe is hijacking Frank’s life, and everything that’s going to happen is going to happen. What The Wave is, is Frank learning why that’s okay. And Frank chooses to play a part at certain roles where he can, and if he didn’t play that part, the universe would hijack him and do it again. So, the rules were kind of up in the air and it wasn’t, they were all very well formulated, but the rules didn’t play much of a part as much as Frank just being on a ride and figuring out what’s happening as he goes along. So the reaction to certain substances was — it didn’t even matter anymore. He did all those drugs on the table. Doesn’t matter. He’s not going to get high on cocaine.

It’s like he ate a bunch of heroin and now he’s on heroin. He’s left this realm. The universe plucked him out and put him somewhere else in the story, like, are you piecing the pieces together? This is why what is happening to you is beautiful. It’s poetry. This is the most beautiful and purposeful way you can enjoy life. Not that he ends his own life, he just dies. He doesn’t jump in front of the car, he goes to help somebody across the street and he’s hit. It just happens to be a hit by the right person.

At what point did you arrive on that being the ending? Was that the Genesis of the story for you? This idea of death by good intentions?

KLABIN: The idea, at the earliest logline of the script — Again, this was very much a sort of cathartic experiment for Carl trying to process the humanity of this person who did this to his cousin, who left the family destitute, while just doing his job. Do you know what I mean? Like Frank is not, again, some mustache curly villain in a blimp. He’s a guy doing his job very well, actually. And so we wanted to get this sort of poetic humanity to him — but the first logline was, “You’re an asshole, kill yourself. Signed, the universe.”

Which was, basically karma coming back with a vengeance. And slowly, the more and more we developed the script, the more we spoke about, the idea was a very simple thing. If you’re watching a movie and you don’t like the protagonist, if you don’t see your common humanity, why the fuck are you going to care? Which was the biggest impetus for casting Justin because what a just offensively likable person.

the-wave-posterYou see him on set and everybody’s smiling and happy, and I’m like, there’s going to be a moment when he’s going to stab me or something. When’s he going to switch. But no.

LONG: We’re waiting for the closing party.

We faced a similar problem… The last time I was at Fantastic Fest was for Tusk, and I remember the first draft of that script, Kevin sent it to me to I read it and met him about it, and I didn’t know how to say this to Kevin Smith, like, “You know, I have some issues with the script” [laughs] because he’s somebody that I admired for so long. But testament to his character and who he is as a person, he totally listened and took it. We talked about it and it was a very collaborative experience but that character, as unlikable as it turned out in the final thing, the first draft was just a huge piece of shit. There was nothing, there was no glimmer of humanity. So, obviously this was a lot more relatable, but I remember thinking no matter how cool the walrus stuff and Kevin Smith, all that stuff, no one’s going to want to watch this for 90 minutes.

KLABIN: That’s why I find it remarkable in our film. Most of the emotional anchoring in the movie is an aggregate of about six or seven tiny facial expressions that Justin threw into his performance. Truly. When you walk down and sees a couple watching TV and he sees a couple of making out in a car, that barely be measured little sense of like, “what is it that I’m doing with my life?”

LONG: That’s a very relatable moment.

KLABIN: Intensely relatable. And you pulled me in by flinching the side of your mouth.

LONG: I do the mouth flinch.

KLABIN: Or when he’s at the party, trying to take drugs with Teresa, most of that situation, if it wasn’t for Justin… You would’ve never believed it. You would just be there sitting and be like, come on now, this is stupid. But you see that sort of, almost childlike glee, like oh, this is some cool hippie chick and I’m a corporate square and I’m going to get into that cult and it’s going to be cool, but I’m terrified of these drugs would his swarthy, weird older guy. All of that is sold with just a tiny little bit of humanity.

LONG: It’s just about getting out of your own way. It’s just about clearing a path so you can just sit there and be present, and there was so many moments like that, that were made that much easier because of the crew, and not to pass the complimentary buck, but it was like…

KLABIN: We have a one-for-one system around here.

LONG: No, but I mean that. It was such a relief that you trust everything, so all you have to do is be present and put yourself there. Sheila was great. And fucking Tommy Flanagan, it’s hard to look at that guy and not feel something.

KLABIN: Also, I have a lot of experience pulling off crazy shots for no money and no time. That’s fine. I had no experience with actors at this level and these people show up on these projects, they’re cast two or three days before they start shooting, and they have to bring you a human being. And I really learned, all crew makes fun of actors. Of course we do. But my God, I learned a whole new level of respect and admiration for these guys who just jump off an airplane and step into a world; it took me three readings of the script to fully understand every single beat and the whys in the hows and to start contributing ideas, and you guys just… it’s like sliding on the base in baseball, and showing up and being like, okay cool, we have our team, all right, how do I do this? It’s so admirable.

Did you put a lot of effort into understanding exactly where he was at every time because regardless of where he is, or what day, his track is linear, right?

LONG: Yeah, that’s true. So there wasn’t as much that I had to do. It wasn’t like I was jumping through time. So it was more about understanding the changing time world around me, if that makes sense.

KLABIN: I mean, we only leave Frank’s side once in the whole movie, and that’s when he meets the homeless person and sees the clock in his wagon. And that was the only really fun bit there, was to give you a sense that Frank is maybe finally taking ahold of everything, only to have that quickly taken away from us. But aside from that, we are with him. Everything from the composition to the editing, to the visual effects, it was designed to elicit the emotions that Frank should be feeling in that time.

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