Jeff Nichols’s Shelter Island



Emerging in the wake of Hurricane Irene, the festival hit Take Shelter couldn’t be more pertinent. The second feature from writer-director Jeff Nichols, whose previous film Shotgun Stories was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award, the film stars Michael Shannon as Curtis LaForche, a middle-class family man driven mad by a looming, ambiguous danger on the horizon—everything from heavy rain and strong winds to swarms of birds. To protect his family, he starts work on a tornado shelter in his backyard that soon takes over his life.

We spoke to Nichols, who is two weeks away from shooting his next film, Mud (starring Reese Witherspoon and Mathew McConaughey), about cultural anxiety, the visual influences on the film, and Michael Shannon’s Wal-Mart wardrobe.

CRAIG HUBERT: What are the origins of Take Shelter? The film takes a different approach than your first film, Shotgun Stories, though they share similar themes.

JEFF NICHOLS: Shotgun Stories came out, and the American independent film movement, as it was, kind of collapsed. The bottom fell out, and I wanted to get another film made and I was really thinking about ways to make independent films kind of viable, and I liked this idea of blending a genre film with an independent drama. I’d seen it done a couple times, and I thought that was an interesting thing I’d like to try. As a trajectory as a filmmaker, coming out of Shotgun Stories, that was one approach. As a human being, and a storyteller, there of course was, you know, these ideas of anxiety and fear that were out in the world that I felt like were an interesting theme to tap into.

HUBERT: You wrote this film a couple years ago, right?

NICHOLS: Yeah, 2008.

HUBERT: Were you dealing with these anxieties on a personal level? Were you thinking about cultural anxieties?

NICHOLS: Both. On the one hand, I felt that universal, or general, just free-floating anxiety that can be attached to just about anything—economic, environmental, all kinds of calamity were afloat back in 2008. The irony that they’ve continued along the course of this film is just strange and fascinating. It wasn’t as specific as, “I’m scared of a tidal wave coming,” you know? It was more like, “I’m scared of the world at large unraveling a little bit.” Society seems to be a tenuous thing, and I’m of the belief that it actually doesn’t take a lot to upset the structure or security of society, and that’s scary. It’s like pressure-testing the backbone of society—how much can it take? There’s that kind of general fear and anxiety, coupled with something really personal, which is I was moving from my late 20s into my early 30s, and I had just gotten married, and my career was developing, you can say. I was worried of losing all that stuff. That’s a really personal anxiety that kind of gets lumped in with the other, and those two things formed into this theme, this idea.

HUBERT: You worked with Michael Shannon on Shotgun Stories. Did you always have him in mind for the role of Curtis?

NICHOLS: I didn’t, actually. I wrote it thinking about myself and what I would do in these situations if confronted with them. I hadn’t put a face with the name of Curtis, right away. As the production started to develop and we started getting to casting, Mike was my friend and he had read the script and really liked it. And I had his phone number, which helped. [laughs] He’s the greatest actor in the world, which also helps. You’re sitting there as a director and thinking about your options, like, “I could try and find someone else to play this part, but if Mike wants to do, let’s do that.” So I called him and said, “Hey, I really want you to do this—I need you to do this, in fact.” And he said yes. That was just me being smart and taking advantage of the amazing stuff I had access to.

HUBERT: You’ve talked in the past about the differences between writing and directing, and how you consider yourself more of a writer than a director.

NICHOLS: I think I have to, because I do more writing than I do directing. That’s kind of changing this year. I’m two weeks out from directing my next film. I’m getting, I guess, more experience directing. You can write for free, but making movies is an expensive process. You just have less opportunity to do it.

HUBERT: I was asking because you seem like a director who pays close attention to the visuals. The camera movement in the film is very subtle.

NICHOLS: But it moves, yeah. There were a couple different models. Story-wise, Richard Dreyfuss’s character from Close Encounters of the Third Kind was a model, but even the way Spielberg shows middle-class life as cluttered and kind of hectic. In terms of camera movement, there were two films: one was The Shining, which is kind of a no-brainer because that’s about this supernatural force that lives beyond the edges of the film, pressing in on its main character. That’s lifted—just stolen whole-heartedly—from Kubrick. [laughs]  I wanted the camera to be slowly creeping in on us, or on our characters, through the whole movie. It’s not Steadicam, it’s all on dolly track, slowly pushing in on us. Another film which has a lot of similarities is a Todd Haynes film called Safe, with Julianne Moore. From a directing standpoint, he does this really interesting thing where he starts all the scenes in the close-ups and then, as the ending note or beat, goes to a wide shot. It’s really unsettling and adds to this tension of not knowing where you are or what you’re doing. I can’t say I lifted that as much as I lifted the Kubrick stuff, but the overall structure of Safe ended up becoming more of a tool for us.

HUBERT: One thing I found really interesting was the wardrobe in Take Shelter. Maybe this is just the way Michael Shannon is built, but all his clothes were a little baggy, which gave the sense that he was shrinking.

NICHOLS: That’s interesting. I wish I could take tons of credit for that. We bought his clothes at Wal-Mart—that’s what happens. The thing I can say about clothing—it’s the one thing Mike and I actually talked about for his character; he doesn’t like to talk a lot or rehearse. He was in Shotgun Stories, and we wanted to delineate the characters; they’re both working-class guys, but there is a big difference between the character in Shotgun Stories and his character in this, most of which is socioeconomic. Mike talked about, Curtis is a little bit more tucked in, he’s a manager at his work, and he’s a little bit lighter on his toes, too.

HUBERT: He walks a little bit like a Western character.

NICHOLS: Yeah. In Shotgun Stories, he lumbers a little bit more and his feet are heavy. In this, he’s just a little bit—his character, Curtis, prior to beginning of this film, is a pretty successful guy in day-to-day life.

HUBERT: The difference seems to be the confidence of a little more money.

NICHOLS: Yeah, which came from a little better work ethic, and a little bit more intelligence? I would never call Sonny [Michael Shannon’s character in Shotgun Stories] stupid, but Curtis is a little more with it, which changes the physicality of the whole thing. We talked a little about that, and of course Michael thought a lot about that.

HUBERT: There are a few moments of CGI in the film, but it’s not obtrusive. Was there ever a concern on your end that it would not work out with a low budget?

NICHOLS: Yeah, I hate dream sequences! What a terrible idea for a movie, a movie with dream sequences. [laughs] I would tell friends all the time, “I think I’m writing a movie hinged on dream sequences, this is just going to be a disaster.” As a result, I was scared of them and I limited them to the first half of the film, kind of. I very quickly set up a rule book for everybody, like: they can’t look any different than the rest of the film; they can’t be played any differently than the rest of the film. The scary stuff has to sneak in. That was all a result of my fear of making a film with crappy dream sequences.