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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.
What made you want to use nature as the main catalyst for the character’s anxieties? Was it a response to disasters such as Hurricane Katrina?
Personally, I’m actually more scared of economic disaster, and the fear of governmental shutdown, more than anything. But there are a couple things about nature. One, I think it’s beautiful and terrifying all at the same time, and, two, it just seemed visually like a really striking thing. And then there’s this bigger idea—I’m not extremely religious, but I do believe that if there is religion, you can find it in nature. If there is any connectivity between human beings in this world, nature is the place to find it.
Nature seemed like an appropriate antagonist, because you can’t blame it, you know? In the grand scheme of things, these aren’t storms that are coming after Curtis [Michael Shannon’s character]—these are storms that are just happening.
The scary thing about nature is that, really, we’re all helpless against it. You can prepare all you want, but it’s either going to happen or it’s not going to happen. There isn’t much we can do about it.
Exactly, yeah. You can’t stop it if it’s going to happen. There’s nobody who can talk it down and reason with it. [Laughs.] Yeah, it’s this giant, awe-inspiring force, and I like that idea.
One of the things I loved most about Take Shelter was how well the dream sequences are handled. You don’t signal to the audience that a dream sequence is happening; specifically with the first one, where Curtis’ dog brutally attacks him, it just happens, and as it’s happening, you don’t realize that you’re even in a dream sequence. How important was it for you to manipulate the audience like that? Other filmmakers might telegraph those sequences with squiggly lines or something to that effect.
Oh yeah, they would. [Laughs.] I know exactly what you mean. Those are bad. I hate dream sequences, and, in fact, I just kept saying to people, “I hate dream sequences, but for some reason I’m writing a movie that’s based on them.” [Laughs.] “This is a terrible idea! This is going to end in failure!”
From the beginning, I said to my cinematographer and everyone involved, “I don’t want to separate them visually. We shoot them just like we shoot every other thing. It’s on shoulders, and on the shoulders of the effects company, to make them feel like every other part of the movie.” There were two exceptions to that, and I like the result, even though it wasn’t intended, which is in the truck wreck scene and a scene later when he imagines his wife, Samantha, in one of the dreams. Both of those are daytime scenes that, because of our schedule, we ended up shooting them at night. We had to put muzzles on all of the windows and blow all of this light through them, which actually gave it a bit more of a surreal look.
That’s the farthest we go from separating them from the rest of the story, because, yes, you don’t want to telegraph them. You also don’t want to separate them from his life, because then they’re fake; they’re fake to him, and if he thinks they’re fake, then he’s not going to go in his backyard and spend his life savings on a storm shelter. So they have to be real for the rest of it to make sense.
The dream sequence with his dog is especially impactful, perhaps because I’m a dog lover. I can’t imagine having to lock my dog up outside at all times because I’m afraid she’s going to attack me at any given moment.
Yeah! You can’t even trust the dog that you love. I remember getting a note from an agent somewhere that was like, “I think you should kill that dog,” and I was like, “You’re a horrible fucking person.” [Laughs.] That’s the worst note that I’ll ever receive in my life. The whole point of this thing is that he loves that dog—he doesn’t want to put his dog in the backyard. That sucks. But he also loves his best friend and wife, too, and his dream sequences where they both attack him have similar effects.
It was really important to keep Curtis’ approach to everything very pragmatic. Even his approach to mental illness, or his approach to the storm shelter, it’s kind of like, “OK, I have to draw up a plan, I have to get a budget together, I have to have to buy the shipping container, and I have to figure out how to get power and water.” All of that is happening in the background, but he’s very methodical about it. It’s the same way with his approach to mental illness; he’s like, “I’m gonna go to the library and get some books on it.” I think that’s important because that’s not crazy—that’s actually the opposite of crazy. That’s what “normal” people do when they have things that have to work out. And I really like that about the character.
And it doesn’t seem like there’s anyone else who could’ve played the character other than Michael Shannon. In any project he does, he always exudes this kind of internal anxiety, with the looks in his eyes. He starred in your first film, Shotgun Stories, so did you write the character of Curtis with him in mind?
You know, the funny thing, and this is showing my own stupidity, but, no, he wasn’t. I was writing it…. This is a really personal film. When I wrote Shotgun Stories, everyone was like, “Hey, is this about your personal family life?” And it wasn’t at all. But with Take Shelter, a lot of the character’s actions are pretty close to what I think I would do in the situation. They were a lot about me, and when I close my eyes and envision myself, I don’t envision Mike Shannon. I don’t know who I envision, actually. [Laughs.]
We started to work on the film, though, and I had a phone call with Mike. While we were on the phone, he started talking to his daughter, who’s very young, and I just heard this voice come out of him that I hadn’t heard before, and I was like, “Oh, god, that’s interesting.” Of course I knew he could it, but at the moment I knew that Mike could bring something really interesting to this. Between the fact that Mike Shannon is the greatest actor in the world, and I had his cell phone number, and he had recently had a daughter, all of those factors combined to make me think, “Wow, this is great.”
His character in Take Shelter is especially interesting because, for once, he’s not playing a creepy villain, or a deranged sociopath of any kind. Even on Boardwalk Empire, his character is on the “good” side, but he’s one of the show’s creepiest characters. In Take Shelter, Curtis is a well-meaning, loving family man.
Absolutely, it’s where I find him to be the most interesting, in those moments where he’s not tongue-wagging crazy, which we have some of, but that’s not the big thing here. In a character like Curtis, that’s when he becomes the most complex and interesting, and he’s more than capable of pulling that off. If he wasn’t capable of doing that, Take Shelter would be a much worse film. [Laughs.] So I thank him for that.
Interview by Matt Barone (@MBarone)