For an actor, there’s nothing better than finding that one director who’s completely on his or her same page. Think of the great films created through the partnership of Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Scorsese, and anything made by Johnny Depp and Tim Burton not called Alice In Wonderland. Looking back at the classics of yesteryears, Clint Eastwood’s seminal westerns with auteur Sergio Leone defined a genre, and, before he linked up with Leo, Uncle Marty Scorsese collaborated with Robert De Niro on landmarks such as Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, and Goodfellas.
Emerging as one of this generation’s finest actors, Michael Shannon certainly has the chops to anchor films of that caliber; in independent filmmaker Jeff Nichols, Shannon seems to have found his directorial muse. The Boardwalk Empire star first worked with Nichols, a Little Rock, Ark. native, on the latter’s feature film debut, Shotgun Stories (2007), an unflinching, critically hailed drama about two half-brothers who come to trigger-happy grips after their father dies.
This weekend, their second team-up, Take Shelter, opens in limited theatrical release, and it’s a stunner. Shannon plays a blue-collar husband/father battling fears, anxieties, and realistically frightening nightmares associated with a looming thunderstorm. Co-starring an equally impressive Jessica Chastain, Take Shelter fires on all cylinders, with unsettling dream sequences, permeating dread and paranoia, and a blistering performance from Shannon that should, but most likely won’t, yield awards nominations.
As a show-and-prove exhibition for Nichols, Take Shelter is undeniable proof that Nichols is a major force within the indie movie circuit. Complex recently got on the horn with Nichols to discuss the film’s personal origins, his connection to Danny McBride’s camp, why he typically loathes dream sequences in movies, and the appeal of watching Michael Shannon tackle a good guy role for once.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)
Complex: Coming on the heels of Hurricane Irene, Take Shelter’s timeliness is quite eerie.
Jeff Nichols: [Laughs.] You know, the hits just keep coming. With the tsunamis first, and then it was Hurricane Katrina…. I can’t say I’m happy about it, but the irony is pretty sick.
Backtracking a little bit, you went to college with Danny McBride and David Gordon Green. How did working with them back then as film school students affect the way you make movies today?
It had a huge impact on me. I was the younger one; they were all two years ahead of me. So, I was in my second year of college when David was making George Washington, and it was kind of a revelation to see that movie hit. We weren’t at NYU, we weren’t at USC—we were at this really small arts school in North Carolina. Just to see one of us go and make a really great film, not to mention a film that people talked about and noticed, it kind of helped, in my mind, to break down the barriers of, like, “Yeah, you can do this, and if you do it the right way, people will pay attention.”
On top of that, I used George Washington as a real production model for how to get my first film made, Shotgun Stories. Now I’m two-and-a-half weeks away from making my third film [titled Mud, set to star Matthew McConaughey and Reese Witherspoon], and, because it’s a little bigger in budget, I was on the phone with David two days ago asking, “OK, what should I watch out for? What’s it like to work with teamsters?” [Laughs.] Every step of the way, he’s been there to be a mentor, and more so just a friend. He’s a great guy.
Can you see yourself ever going to the level of doing a film as big as Pineapple Express or Your Highness?
I don’t know. I definitely like the option of making a larger film some day, but what kind of film will that be? I don’t know. I don’t know if it’ll be like Your Highness; I don’t know if I’ll ever do comedy like those guys. Those guys are really funny, and I don’t know if that path is one that I’ll take. But, more than anything, I just want time to make my movies. The last two films have been so pressed for time, that the thought of having more time, which means more money and more flexibility, is really appealing to me. However, there’s a trade-off that comes with that. I’ve been really lucky to have final cut on both of my movies. I have ownership over these stories. I’m not sure how to wed those two things together, but I’m working on it.
How long was production for Take Shelter?
Twenty-four shooting days. So, four six-day weeks. I’m a pretty skinny guy and I lost 15 pounds during the shooting, that I didn’t have to lose. [Laughs.] It’s just really demanding, especially with a story like this. We were doing 27 set-ups a day, and we were shooting, for the first two weeks, three locations a day.
And in the work itself—every day, Mike [Shannon] was like, “OK, today I’m gonna get bit by a dog. Tomorrow I’m gonna have to act like I just had the worst dream of my life.” That guy had to show up every day and do some extremely intense stuff, and I think it was a really difficult shoot for everyone. Everyone was happy, though, and it was really positive, but the tone of the film made it a tough shoot.
Do you think the rushed schedule and stresses of the shoot actually benefitted the actors, helping them get into the right mind-sets for their extremely stressed out characters?
Yeah, I can’t help but think that’s the case. I heard this rumor about Godard, with Band Of Outsiders, the producers wanted to give him tons of weeks and tons of budget, but he actually decreased the budget and the schedule, because he wanted to literally have the characters running through the film. And, yeah, I’ve never had it any other way. [Laughs.] We definitely came out with a cohesive intensity that got captured on film.
When you first started writing the script for Take Shelter, was the basis of it your own fears and anxieties?
It started that I wanted to make a hybrid genre film, and I started thinking about themes that I wanted to deal with. Shotgun Stories was about revenge, so this one became about anxiety. I just felt all of this stress out in this world, and all of this fear about economic disasters and the environment.
So all of that was in my mind when I sat down to write, and then that’s when these thoughts of marriage and commitment started to be applied to the characters. What I realized was, anxiety is the result of something; it’s the result of fearing the loss of something, so I had to give this guy something to lose. I was in my first year of marriage, and thinking a lot about the concept of marriage, and it seemed like an appropriate place to put a lot of these questions.