Interview: Michael Shannon & Jeff Nichols Take Shelter

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Actor Michael Shannon and filmmaker Jeff Nichols first teamed in 2007 for the festival favorite Shotgun Stories, a low-budget indie about a feud between two half-brothers. Anyone who saw that movie might be surprised by the major jump in production values between it and Nichols’ second feature Take Shelter.

It’s a psychological thriller starring Shannon as Curtis LaForche, a hard working Ohio family man trying to support his wife Samantha (the omni-present Jessica Chastain) and their deaf daughter Hannah. When he starts to have nightmarish visions about a destructive storm that’s coming, he desperately rebuilds the storm shelter behind their house. Curtis’ behavior gets more erratic as he starts hearing and seeing things and thinks maybe he’s inherited his mother’s mental illness, and his erratic behavior starts causing trouble for both at home and at his job. It’s another great role for Shannon in which he delivers a performance as explosive as the one that got him an Oscar nomination a few years back. (You can read our review here.)

ComingSoon.net sat down with the two guys at the Toronto International Film Festival, but because it was so late in their day, we didn’t get enough time with them to really get into some of the other things they are doing next, including Nichols’ third movie Mud, which he’s starting this month.

ComingSoon.net: I saw this at Sundance and then I saw it again three days before Irene hit, which was rather ironic.
Michael Shannon:
Where were you during Irene?

CS: I’m in New York.
Shannon:
Oh, you live in New York?

CS: Yeah, but I saw this and two days later the governor and the mayor were basically saying the same thing as Curtis, “There’s a storm coming.”
Shannon:
Get out.

CS: It’s true. So everybody who saw that screening a few days earlier was probably freaking out. Obviously you guys have worked together before, so when you came up with this idea, was it always something you wanted Michael involved in?
Jeff Nichols:
You know, it started from a really personal place. I like to write parts for people, but in this particular case, I was really just thinking about myself and how I’d respond to certain things. It wasn’t until I had the script finished that I really started to think about Mike in it. I sent it to him first just as a friend to tell me what he thought about it because I trust his opinion.
Shannon: I said, “Lose my number.”
Nichols: Delete that contact. So it didn’t take a lot of brainpower for me to able to put two and two together with this part and Mike. It’s rare that you have to access and one of your friends is such a talented actor, so I was fortunate.

CS: Did you know each other for a long time?
Nichols:
It was from “Shotgun Stories.” We remained friends after, I guess you could say that.
Shannon: We did, although there was a period where we didn’t talk. We just lost touch and then kinda outta the blue you called me up one day and said, “I think I have the money for this movie. Do you want to make it?”
Nichols: Yeah. (Laughs)
Shannon: I mean, it’s like that sometimes in indie film. Something looks like it’s hopeless and then all of a sudden it comes together in the blink of an eye.
Nichols: Then two months later you’re shooting. That’s exactly how it goes.

CS: I know it premiered at Sundance in January, so was it last year sometime when you started making this?
Nichols:
Yeah, we were filming it in June of 2010, which is actually a really fast turnaround. It took me a year just to edit “Shotgun Stories.” Actually, it took me two years to edit “Shotgun Stories.”

CS: Michael, was it really obvious when you read Jeff’s script that this was a part you had to play that had so many different dimensions? Or was it something he had to convince you to do?
Shannon:
Well, it was a huge responsibility. The character I play in “Shotgun Stories” was a little more damaged I think and not quite as functional as Curtis. At the beginning of the film, Curtis really is a pretty standup guy. He works hard, takes care of his family, pays his mortgage. He honors his responsibilities to his family and there was something kind of intimidating about that because usually I’m playing a character that doesn’t have their, for lack of a better word, sh*t together, not as much as that. It was interesting to start with the premise of a character like that and see them have to deal with this aberration in their mind and in their life and to go on that journey and see if they can overcome it or not.

CS: Mental illness plays a large role in this as does the history of mental illness in his family. How did that play into this? Did the movie just start with the idea of a storm coming and how someone might react?
Nichols:
Yeah, it started with a storm. It started with the idea that the notion of a man having these dreams of a coming storm. I think that seemed a little too simple. That wasn’t quite enough, to have a movie about a guy having prophetic dreams and then going about his business to prepare for them, that just didn’t seem complex enough to me and I thought, “Well, the way to make that a little bit more complicated is to confuse the one tool he has to process those dreams, which is his mind.” So, mental illness was a pretty logical development in the character, plus I really like characters that they have histories that extend far beyond the beginning of the film. And as characters, they’re dealing with it from the first moment. But, it takes us a while to catch up. In that sense, it gave my main character a history as well as an issue with decoding what those dreams meant.

CS: I understand how actors prepare to play characters can be very personal, but did you do any research into mental illness in order to play Curtis?
Shannon:
I didn’t because honestly I don’t think Curtis knows much about it. I mean, Curtis does not really understand what happened to his mother and he doesn’t really understand what’s happening to him. Any answers that he’s coming up with, he’s coming up with while we’re watching the movie. I wanted to start from a very simple place ’cause he’s an everyman. The basic premise of the everyman is that every man can understand them. That’s why they’re called the everyman. I don’t look at Curtis as an eccentric character. I look at him as…
Nichols: It’s interesting that you say that because it’s very similar to the way I wrote it. My process of studying schizophrenia has kind of been what happened with Curtis. I literally got a book from the library and there was a test in the back that you took, and I filled it out with Curtis’ symptoms because I knew what they were going to be. I think from both of our perspectives, our approach was that this guy’s not crazy, he’s dealing with these things, but I didn’t approach him that way either as a writer, so it makes sense.

CS: One of the things about this movie that immediately steps it up from “Shotgun Stories” are Curtis’ nightmarish visions and the FX involved. From very early on in the writing, did you realize you’d have to up the ante a little bit?
Nichols:
Yeah, with “Shotgun Stories” I put such a shackle on myself because I knew I wouldn’t have any money. I knew I’d be financing it myself and asking friends to be in it and that we wouldn’t have any crew or any lights. So I really shackled myself in terms of… there’s only one shotgun fired in that entire movie and it’s at a tire, right? I think originally there are two brothers that are supposed to be sitting outside at the son’s house and they end up throwing a bottle in front of his house. Originally, they were going to shoot a gun into his window, but I was like, “I don’t know how I’m going to do that. I can’t afford that,” so it turned into a bottle. That’s how dramatically or severely I approached that movie, but with this, I really let myself just kinda go and I said, “You know what? I’m just going to write something because I know a few more people now. I’ve got an agent now. I’m going to see if they’re worth their salt and give them something that’s a little harder to make.” That being said, then we had to go kinda reverse engineer how to do it as well, but no, from the beginning, I knew I wanted to see this stuff.

CS: How important is it for you to shoot a movie like this in a certain order? I know it’s always a luxury to be able to shoot a chronological order movie. This movie it feels like there’s so many different things going on in Curtis’ mind that you feel you must have to shoot things in a certain order. How important is that for you as an actor?
Shannon:
Well, we didn’t have that luxury, so a huge part of working on a film is acceptance. You have to accept the circumstances. You can’t sit around making excuses and saying, “Well, gee, this movie would’ve been really good if we shot it in order.” So you get your circumstances. There’s a way that you can go through a script and figure out the architecture of the story, the structure of the story so that you can reference it. It’s real easy to just say, “Well, what happened before this and what’s going to happen after it?” I’ve heard stories of–I don’t know if it was Nick Nolte or something–who has the whole script, he hangs it all up and he’s got it all diagrammed out. I think that’s something I try and do, not literally, but in my mind. You always have Jeff to rely on because Jeff knows how the movie’s supposed to build better than anybody. So, there were instances dealing with… for example, remember when we were shooting me flinching when Samantha touches me and I’m trying to find an exact right tone of that? We actually wound up doing that a number of different ways, didn’t we?
Nichols: Yeah, we did because it’s just gotta be the right thing, but to Mike’s credit, he carries that in his mind better than anybody I know. I experienced it on “Shotgun Stories” and I certainly experienced it on “Shelter” because we didn’t do him any favors.

CS: Between this and “Boardwalk Empire,” this has been a really good year for you and you’re next playing Zod in “Man of Steel.” What’s going on with “Boardwalk Empire,” though? Did you finish all of your stuff for that already?
Shannon:
Yeah, Season 2 is wrapping up right now. It’s all done and I’m just focusing on “Man of Steel.”

CS: When I heard you were doing Zod I thought that it was great casting, but couldn’t imagine they’d find a Superman who’d be able to stand up to your Zod, but I guess we’ll see.
Shannon:
Henry Cavill, he’s a big boy. He does all right.

CS: And you’re going to start shooting “Mud” fairly soon, Jeff?
Nichols:
Yeah, two weeks, two weeks.

CS: Has it been easier to get this next movie going?
Nichols:
Sure, sure, it’s helped. Yeah, I’m sure it’s helped. Sarah Green, she was an executive producer on “Shelter” and she and I were working on “Mud” before “Take Shelter” started. I’ve been working on this film for a really long time, but it just happens that these particular stars are aligned for us to be shooting it this quickly after having “Take Shelter” finished.

CS: Do you think there’ll be an obvious throughline between “Shotgun” and “Shelter” and “Mud”?
Nichols:
I feel like it is. I’ll have to go on the next festival circuit and explain the progression, but no, I think it is. I’d like to think my directing style’s kinda dictated by the story at hand. I can break down how the camera doesn’t move in “Shotgun Stories,” how it does move in “Take Shelter” and how it will move in “Mud.” Those things I’m very aware of and I don’t know if anybody cares, but I can talk about it.

CS: Mike, are you going to have a cameo in that?
Shannon:
I’m really hoping to figure something out. I mean, it’s going to be difficult with my schedule on “Man of Steel,” but I don’t know, maybe I’ll be floating down a log in the river singing in the background.
Nichols: There’s your part right there.

Take Shelter opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, September 30.