Gimme Shelter: Talking the apocalypse with filmmaker Jeff Nichols

by Mark Burger

When actor Michael Shannon attended the 2011 RiverRun International Film Festival in April to receive the Emerging Master Award, he was accompanied by award-winning filmmaker and UNCSA School of Filmmaking graduate Jeff Nichols, who made his feature debut with the critically acclaimed Shotgun Stories (2007), in which Shannon starred.

At the time, their second big-screen collaboration, Take Shelter (see review, Page 33), had just begun generating a buzz on the festival circuit. Following the award presentation to Shannon, he and Nichols engaged in an entertaining and affectionate questionand-answer session.

In an interview before his visit to Winston- Salem, Shannon lauded Nichols as a “distinctive” and “special” filmmaker. “No one else really approaches filmmaking the way he does,” he said.

In Take Shelter, which here opens Friday, Shannon stars as Curtis, an all-American blue-collar Everyman who loves his wife (Jessica Chastain) and daughter (Tova Stewart). He works hard, is a loyal friend, and worries about paying the bills just like everyone else.

Lately, however, Curtis has had more to worry about. He’s been experiencing strange visions of the end of the world. Given that his mother (Kathy Baker) was diagnosed with schizophrenia when he was a teenager, he begins to wonder if he too is susceptible. Whether he’s losing his mind, or whether he’s actually clairvoyant, the pressure is building on Curtis. He’s just trying to do the right thing.

Said Nichols: “Curtis isn’t crazy, but there’s that question … and it’s awesome in what Mike does offer. You don’t have to be schizophrenic to think everyone’s against you.”

Nichols’ impetus for Take Shelter was taken directly from his own observations about the world at large. “There’s this feeling out in the world that the world’s going off the rails — as a country, as an economy, as a human race. We’re heading for something … it felt palpable.”

The film has received considerable critical acclaim since its release, with Shannon being singled out as a possible Academy Award contender. Although they’d established a great rapport on Shotgun Stories, Nichols didn’t initially envision him in the role.

“Actually, I pictured myself in the role,” Nichols admitted with a chuckle, “which is kind of a bad thing to do as a writer/director!” Shannon’s participation came by the simplest means, said Nichols. “He’s my friend, and when I told him about the story he said it sounded interesting, so I sent (the script) and he responded.”

Down the line, Nichols got exactly the actors he wanted for Take Shelter, including Chastain, Baker, and Ray McKinnon as Curtis’ brother. “I simply wanted to have a scene with Mike Shannon and Ray McKinnon acting together,” he said. “I always wanted to work with Shea Whigham, I always wanted to work with Katy Mixon … there were no compromises made to casting.”

Take Shelter is also the first time Nichols has had to work with CGI visual effects, which he said may have been “the most daunting” aspect of the project, he said.

Working with acclaimed effects wizards and siblings Greg and Colin Strouse, whose credits include a bevy of big-budget blockbusters (Titanic, Fantastic Four, Iron Man 2, etc.), Nichols found collaborators more interested in what the story called for than in showcasing their own abilities. It was imperative that the film depict Curtis’ perspective of a potential apocalypse, but the emphasis was always on the character. Finding that balance, said Nichols, “keeps you on your toes.”

In the end, “I’m very proud of this film,” he said. “Of course I have reservations about my work, but this is a film that definitely represents what we set out to do. Whether people like or dislike it, I feel that this is the film we set out to make.”

Nichols graduated the School of Filmmak ing in 2001. Dale Pollock, currently a faculty member and formerly the dean, recalled him as “clearly a bright, committed filmmaker. His senior film, Noble Chrome Pirates, was definitely the best student film of that year and very well received in Los Angeles.” (Each year, graduating seniors from the School of Filmmaking travel to Los Angeles where their films are screened for industry people.)

“I also remember arguing with him about his final cut,” Pollock admitted. “He won the argument and was correct. The audience validated him. Jeff might have gotten an agent just off that screening. There was a lot of interest.”

Of course, Pollock has followed Nichols’ career ever since. “I honestly thought Take Shelter was one of the best films that I’ve seen so far this year,” he said. “This to me was a big step up from Shotgun Stories, which I liked but which felt very much like a first feature film. Jeff’s direction in Take Shelter was much more assured and controlled.”

After Take Shelter won two awards — including the Critics’ Week Grand Prize — at the Cannes Film Festival last spring, current School of Filmmaking dean Jordan Kerner said, “We want to draw special attention to the record of success our alumni have achieved in the industry. Jeff Nichols is an original voice in independent film. I could not be more proud of him.”

Nichols recently completed principal photography on Mud, a drama starring Matthew McConaughey (in the title role, actually), Reese Witherspoon, Sam Shepard, Joe Don Baker and, yes, Michael Shannon. Seems that Nichols and Shannon just can’t get away from each other, to which Nichols laughed: “Who would want to?”