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Shotgun Stories loaded with talent from NCSA

by Mark Burger

Shotgun Stories, now available on DVD via Liberation Entertainment/Genius Products (see review on Page 45), marks the feature debut of writer/director Jeff Nichols, a graduate of the NCSA School of Filmmaking in Winston-Salem.

The NCSA connection doesn’t stop there. Shotgun Stories was produced by David Gordon Green and Lisa Muskat, themselves alumni of the School of Filmmaking. Green made a splash in indie circles with his award-winning 2000 feature debut, George Washington, and has since directed such acclaimed films as All the Real Girls (2003) and last year’s Snow Angels.

Like much of Green’s work, Shotgun Stories is populated by unique, almost eccentric characters, and depicts life in a small town – in this case a sleepy burg in Arkansas where a long-simmering family feud is about to explode into violent retribution.

The film focuses on the seven sons of a man named Hayes. The elder three, from his first marriage, tend to remember dear old Dad as an abusive drunk who ditched them and Mom when he found religion and kicked the drink. The younger four, from his second marriage, remember their father as a kind, upstanding man.

It is at their father’s funeral that tensions between the half-siblings erupt, leading to a series of violent clashes. In quick succession, there are more deaths in the Hayes family, and no one, either friends or family, seems able (or inclined) to stop it.

Heading the cast is Michael Shannon (familiar to audiences from World Trade Center, Bug and Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead) as the oldest son, whose unrehearsed “eulogy” at the funeral sets the story in motion.

Nichols first discussed his concept for Shotgun Stories with Green after both had graduated NCSA.

“We’d been talking about it,” Green recalls. “It sounded cool… [but] nothing revolutionary. Then he said they’d be shooting in Arkansas, that they’d gotten Michael Shannon involved, and that Adam Stone would be the cinematographer – okay, I’m interested! It suddenly became the most exciting thing in the world.”

Stone, yet another NCSA grad who worked on the film, “is an inspirational, eccentric savant of the camera,” Green praises. From a producer’s standpoint, he says, “right out of the gate, it was a perfect match.” (Award-winning editor Steven Gonzales, who cut Shotgun Stories and the majority of Green’s films, is both a graduate and a former faculty member, further solidifying the NCSA connection.)

Green was so deeply involved in the production of Snow Angels that he was unable to visit the Shotgun Stories set, but did find time to sit in on post-production after the film had wrapped. Green said he was stunned by what he saw, even in a rough cut.

“I remember telling Jeff, “It may not be big box-office, but you’ve got gold here. This is absolute gold. It’s an awesome movie.’ It was more and more exciting every pass I’d see.”

When Shotgun Stories couldn’t find a distributor, the film’s salvation came in the form of film festivals and critics. The film won the feature film award at the 2007 Austin Film Festival, the New American Cinema Award at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival, the Student Jury Award at the 2007 Newport International Film Festival, and was selected by Roger Ebert as one of the films shown at his annual film festival in Chicago.

Looking back on their NCSA days, “it was very unusual,” Green observes. “We had a very collaborative group of kids. The more I talk to people who went to film schools, the more I realize that we were in a very unique environment.”

Dale Pollock, the former dean of the School of Filmmaking and still a faculty member, remembers Nichols with great affection. “He was so intelligent in defense of his work,” Pollock says, recalling the time when he and Nichols butted heads over the latter’s fourth-year film. Pollock finally bet Nichols he couldn’t do what he was trying to do – that it simply wouldn’t come off. But it did.

“He was right and he proved me wrong,” Pollock says, smiling. “He had the passion of his beliefs and the artistry to be right. Without question, Jeff was one of the most talented graduates in my time as dean.”

Pollock is also happy and proud to see graduates and former students joining forces in Hollywood – and making it.

“It’s a party,” Green laughs. “Instead of talking about trying to get laid, we talk about who’s getting married and who’s having kids. You go out bowling and it’s with the same people you went bowling with ten years ago!”

Green’s next film, the eagerly anticipated comedy Pineapple Express, will be released this August and is predicted as a probable summer sleeper. As a matter of fact, when Green turned his attention to that film, he might have had to put aside Goat, a project he’d been working on. Instead, he handed it off to Nichols to direct and remains aboard as a writer/producer.

“Jeff surrounds himself with people he trusts,” says Green, whose own work ethic is very similar. “I think it’ll be in pretty good hands.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Mark Burger at marksburger@yahoo.com.

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