Jeff Nichols, Shotgun Stories
The North Carolina School of the Arts film program has, during its relatively short existence, produced a wealth of cinematic talent. Prominent alums includes writer-directors David Gordon Green, Craig Zobel, Michael Tully, Aaron Katz, Jody Hill and Nate Meyer, actors Danny McBride and Paul Schneider (who is also a writer-director), DPs Tim Orr and Adam Stone — and to that list one must now add another notable talent, Jeff Nichols. A native of Little Rock, Arkansas, Nichols graduated from the school in 2001 and has to date written and directed six short films in addition to working on Gary Hawkins’ The Rough South of Larry Brown (2002) and Margaret Brown’s Be Here To Love Me: A Film About Townes Van Zandt (2004). He currently lives in Austin.
Shotgun Stories, Nichols’ first feature, is a film with a classical feel that is nevertheless uniquely the vision of its writer-director. Set in Southeast Arkansas, where Nichols spent much of his adolescence, it is a small town tale of three brothers, Son (Michael Shannon), Kid (Barlow Jacobs) and Boy (Douglas Ligon), who are thrust into a feud when the father who abandoned them as children dies suddenly, and Son’s actions at his funeral incur the wrath of their four half brothers. Fusing together elements of classic tragedy, traditional American storytelling and epic cinema, Shotgun Stories is a poetic and powerful film which displays Nichol’s flair for creating vivid, original characters and intense and thoughtful narratives. Shot in 35mm anamorphic, it is a beautiful, expansive vision of America with a grandeur and grace that belies its limited budget.
Filmmaker spoke to Nichols about modern day revenge movies, the influence of Lawrence of Arabia, and his dad taking him to see Pale Rider in the second grade.
Filmmaker: What was the genesis of Shotgun Stories?
Nichols: I come from a family of three brothers and that relationship was something that I understood really well. I thought about if something tragic or violent were to happen to one of my brothers, just whatever the feeling is in your gut. At the emotional heart of the film was that feeling, and I held onto that through everything else. Combined with that was the fact that I grew up in this region and always knew that my first film would take place in this kind of setting. I was thinking about the idea of post-9/11 revenge in America and what it would be like to reexamine the structure of a revenge film. I was going along that path and I heard this song by the Drive By Truckers called “Decoration Day.” It was about a more typical feud, kind of Hatfields-McCoys, and I was wondering how a present-day version of that might play out in Southeast Arkansas. There was an image [in my head] of a guy spitting on a casket, and from there the story started to piece together.
Filmmaker: Shotgun Stories is a revenge movie but is very different from the usual genre take.
Nichols: [In a typical revenge movie], the guy that gets killed and [whose death] the hero spends the rest of the movie trying to avenge, we only get to spend five minutes with him and there’s never really any emotional connection or sense of loss. If Shotgun Stories to a degree is a meditation on conflict and conflict resolution, it didn’t make sense to make a film that relished violence or the act of revenge. [I thought], “I wonder if we can push the inciting thing, the death of someone, really far back into the film…” On top of that, when things really start to gear up in a revenge film, the good guy’s going to kick ass and find the bad guy and do him in. Violence really gets into that and there’s a definite sense of narrative drive, and I was debunking that at every step of the way.
Filmmaker: You call it a post-9/11 revenge story, but there’s also strong echoes of classical tragedy here.
Nichols: It’s a pretty universal theme we’re working with here: these brothers are fated to have to resolve their father’s past without him. It’s funny, in telling the story I didn’t sit down and plan out for Shampoo to be a Greek chorus necessarily. His character was developed very practically because I needed to transfer information between these two sides that wouldn’t speak, but at the end of the day that’s the exact purpose of a Greek chorus. I think it feels like a classic story and is aided by the environment. It’s not in a bustling city, it’s detached from the regular hustle and bustle of things. I guess there are very few trappings of contemporary cinema: it’s not handheld video with unscripted dialogue, it’s heavily scripted, the narrative structure is extremely thought out and plotted, and it’s shot, blocked off, widescreen. The camera only moves when it absolutely has to, which pushes a slower pace, and so the whole film is being presented to the audience in a classical way.
Filmmaker: You wrote in your Director’s Statement about the impact Lawrence of Arabia had on you.
Nichols: David Gordon Green said when George Washington was coming out that he wanted to make something beautiful that reminded him of the films that he had seen in a theater growing up that you were struck by because of their size and their scope. That was very much what happened with Lawrence of Arabia for me. I was in sixth grade and they had a re-release print of Lawrence of Arabia in my hometown. It was enormous. We had a dome theater so it was a beautiful screen to see it on. I remember being struck by its scope and also by the fact that a landscape could dictate structure, that things that happened in the movie couldn’t have happened without that landscape, and that landscape couldn’t have been shown any other way than to be that big. [laughs] I just remember being shook by it, saying, “Wow, that’s a powerful film,” and when I sat down to make Shotgun Stories, I wanted it to be a powerful experience. I know we didn’t have any money and were working with some non-actors and that this wasn’t a big budgeted 1960s studio films, but those were the films that I liked and I wanted to get as close to that as possible with what we had.
Filmmaker: How did you manage to shoot on 35mm widescreen anamorphic on such a small budget?
Nichols: I have to give a lot of credit to watching David Green go through this process on George Washington, and having him as a friend. We went through the same film school, I was two years behind him, and I got to see the important places to put your cash and the kind of people you need to have around to make the equipment that you have work as well as possible. I knew I wanted to shoot on film, I knew we wouldn’t have a lot of crew or equipment or a lot of time to light. You just start off by using available light as best you can and if you’re shooting on 35 and you get a proper exposure, it’s gonna look good. On top of that, not everybody has a good friend like Adam Stone, the cinematographer, who’ll come down and work for peanuts and who is truly a talented cinematographer. I called my friends, cashed in as many favors as I could, cobbled together whatever crew that I could. I had a handful of really talented people that came out of college with me, I knew their abilities, I knew where to put ’em, and it was about knowing where to put things. [laughs] Although we gambled on everything, nothing was too unknown. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Did you shoot close to where you grew up in Arkansas?
Nichols: I grew up in Little Rock, which is the biggest city in Arkansas, which isn’t saying a lot, but my grandparents lived in a town called Altheimer, which is about an hour southeast of Little Rock. I would spend summers and holidays just basically driving through every location you see in Shotgun Stories. It was a valuable place to be because I was just removed enough from the locations for them to still seem special: we would drive out into the country and it would feel like a trip, so I had a romantic relationship with these landscapes. If I’d grown up in a small town like England, which is where we did a lot of the shooting, I may have perceived it a little differently. [laughs] This landscape produces these kind of men, this kind of stoic Southern man. These were guys I’d run into growing up. The fish farm that Son works at is owned by my dad’s cousin and I worked on that summers in high school, so there were people that I just felt close to.
Filmmaker: The first time I saw this film was on a DVD screener, and it’s nowhere near the same experience it is on the big screen. Is it very frustrating to you that a lot of journalists, film festival programmers and distributors are essentially watching it in an inferior format?
Nichols: It’s reality so I can’t buck it too hard, but the [Independent] Spirit Awards actually streamed our film online in a box considerably smaller than your computer screen. It’s tough. It’s not the way your film is meant to be seen. I was watching this thing on YouTube of David Lynch talking about watching movies on your iPhone. That’s pretty much the essence of it. There’s nothing I can do about it, but the flipside is this was a film that started from nowhere, below zero in terms of its aspirations for getting out in the world. Anyone that watches it, that’s one more person than I expected to. If someone can hear the title Shotgun Stories and be able to look it up and get it on DVD, that’s a pretty huge success for the film. But if people get the chance to see it in the theater, it’s definitely worth it.
Filmmaker: I know Terrence Malick was a big influence on David Gordon Green, but you also seem to share some of that epic scale and a poetic perspective on rural America.
Nichols: Badlands was the one film that struck me. I saw it for the first time in college. But I have a lot less to do with Malick than David does, I have a lot more to do with Tender Mercies, a lot more to do with Hud and Cool Hand Luke. A poetic realistic look of America was definitely something that I was going after, but the films I was studying were less Malick.
Filmmaker: The film also seems to come out of a tradition of American literature also. What authors were an influence on you?
Nichols: I was introduced to some of my favorite literature in high school, but it was in college that I started to read somewhat voraciously. At that time I was introduced to a lot of contemporary Southern writers: Larry Brown, Harry Crews, Cormac McCarthy. It was Larry Brown’s short stories that kinda floored me. Harry Crews wrote a biography called A Childhood: The Biography of a Place, a collection of essays, and that combined with Larry Brown’s short fiction and Big Bad Love and Facing the Music really kinda [made me think], especially given where I was from, “OK, this feels like an appropriate description of these places.” I definitely hadn’t seen it in movies and the fact that I found it in books was pretty overwhelming. So then you get back into Flannery O’Connor and, for me, a lot of Mark Twain and then, of course, Raymond Carver. I stumbled across Raymond Carver in my junior year, which is late. I’m kind of a late bloomer. [laughs]
Filmmaker: If you could travel back in time and be able to make movies in a time and place of your choice, where and when would it be?
Nichols: It would be the mid-60s and I’d be making movies in the South, American black-and-white films in Scope like The Hustler.
Filmmaker: When was the last time you wished you had a different job?
Nichols: When I worked at Blockbuster — that was terrible! That was my senior year in college, so that was seven years ago. As long as I’m writing and making movies, I’m happy.
Filmmaker: What was your dream job as a kid?
Nichols: Hmmm, I think in third grade I wanted to be a marine biologist. I don’t know why though. I think just because I had never been to the beach — Arkansas’s a landlocked state — and I just liked the idea of working on the beach all day. I don’t think that’s even what they do.
Filmmaker: Finally, what was the first film you ever saw?
Nichols: I don’t know about the first film I ever saw, but the first film I remember seeing in the theater (mainly because it was R-rated film) was Pale Rider, Clint Eastwood. My dad took me when I was in second grade. It had a huge impact on me. It’s the movie where he shoots everyone in the forehead and that didn’t bother me at all, but there’s a scene where a girl’s dog gets killed and it was rainworks, just tears. I feel oddly connected to Clint Eastwood. A Perfect World is actually one of my favorite movies. People don’t talk about it very much, but I really like it. Out of all the studio directors working today, I think Clint Eastwood seems to have the working style I’d like to work towards more than anyone.