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The Storm Within: Jeff Nichols’ Take Shelter

Originally published in the Fall 2011 issue. Take Shelter is nominated for Best Feature and Best Ensemble.

As I write this introduction the financial press is buzzing about the BBC appearance of a trader, Allesio Rostani, who flatly stated, “I’m dreaming of a global recession.” He says he hopes — and expects — the world economy to crash. If it does, he’ll make a lot of money because he’s short the Euro and various European government bonds. There’s speculation that he’s a member of the political prankster group the Yes Men, not because of the substance of his commentary (there are other market analysts who’d say the same thing) but because of the almost gleeful way he described profiting from the misery of others.

Schadenfreude may be intemperate on morning financial shows, but without it there wouldn’t be much of a movie business. Horror films, reality TV and even comedies (see last year’s Coen brothers film, A Serious Man), for example, depend on our voyeuristic fascination with the pain of others. But in most cases, that pain’s cause is both external and slightly fantastic — a monster, a serial killer, or, in the case of Soderbergh’s Contagion, a virus.

Jeff Nichols’s Take Shelter — for my money one of the best films of the year — starts off like many such thrillers, but its depiction of psychic distress is, ultimately, a rewardingly compassionate one. Curtis (Michael Shannon) is an ordinary guy, a construction worker with a beautiful, caring wife (Jessica Chastain) and young daughter (Tova Stewart). But, reminiscent of Richard Dreyfuss’s Roy Neary in Steven Spielberg’s Close Encounters of the Third Kind, he’s plagued by troubling visions. In his case, they are apocalyptic nightmares, and instead of leading him to beneficent space aliens they send him on a journey into his own mind. Schizophrenia runs in Curtis’s family and his visions are most likely the product of not only family history but the anxiety created by our perilous world economy. (I say “most likely” because in his young career Nichols already knows how to use ambiguity for dramatic effect.) As his sanity slips, Curtis’s job working construction becomes endangered. He becomes obsessed with building a fall-out shelter in the backyard to protect his family — even as the money he spends doing so jeopardizes their livelihood and his daughter’s needed cochlear surgery.

In Take Shelter, Nichols presents us with a contemporary working-class America that is neither romanticized nor exploited. The film is both empathetic and understanding of its vividly hard-bitten characters. And while its apocalyptic visions — furniture flying through the air, giant storm clouds, swarms of birds — are thrilling to watch, Take Shelter refuses to allow spectacle to replace the reality of economic life today. Indeed, this is the first film I’ve seen in which the expiration of COBRA coverage is a major plot point.

Nichols and Shannon worked together on the writer-director’s first feature, Shotgun Stories, an Arkansas-set tale about a feud endangering two families. The film won awards at several regional film festivals and was nominated for a Spirit Award. Take Shelter, released by Sony Pictures Classics (which opened the film in September) and premiering at Sundance, is just the next step in what I’m sure will be a stellar career. In fact, Nichols is already working with Shannon again.  He stars alongside Matthew McConaughey, Sam Shepard and Reese Witherspoon in Nichols’s Mud, another southern-set tale, this one dealing with the relationship between two young teenagers and a fugitive. The following interview draws on two conversations with Nichols. The first took place just before his Sundance premiere, and the second, this fall, just before he began shooting his new film.

Jeff Nichols left on set with Michael Shannon

One thing I loved about Take Shelter was its human scale. Even amidst the apocalyptic special effects, it remained focused on the realities of Curtis’s life. Class is so rarely discussed in American film.

It’s just my approach. When I sit down to write and I start thinking about character, one of the first things I think about is, “What does he do for a living?” There are so many films made where everybody lives in really nice places, but you don’t know what they do for a living. I don’t live like that [laughs]. I guess I can’t help but design characters around their jobs, which [are what] define their lives. They define the kinds of houses they live in, the kind of people they’re married to. And since I don’t write in a three-act structure, and I’m not too plot heavy, plot all comes out of character for me. So, if you’re designing your characters’ lives as completely as possible, then all of that’s going to find its way into the movie. It’s all going to become plot — jobs, health insurance, cochlear implants — all that stuff that has grown out of character starts to become plot.

So was the beginning of this film for you this character, a working-class man struggling with mental illness and caring for his family?

No. It was the theme of anxiety. I try and tie things into some kind of universal theme from the beginning. It maybe sounds pretentious, but you’re looking for some topic that everybody can connect to. If you’re talking about subject matter that people can identify with [from the beginning], it helps. And this dread, or fear, or anxiety seemed to be something that was palpable, you know? It was just in the air.

Is this anxiety for you something that’s exclusively caused by the economy? Or are you thinking about other things, like the environment?

For me, it’s exclusively economic. That’s just the one I picked. The environmental stuff is so scary, but I don’t let myself get into it too much. It terrifies me so I can’t dwell on it. The economy is a little more interesting to me, and I spend more time fearing that. But yeah, it all adds up to a general sense of dread. You gotta find a way to deal with it and be productive in spite of it. It wasn’t until I started to write the characters that I realized anxiety is not really a theme. It’s an effect, not a cause. And the cause is actually the things in your life that you don’t want to give up, or don’t want to lose. That’s where a lot of the stress and anxiety comes from. And some of that people create, and some of that is just life. You want your family to stay together and be safe and be protected and all that stuff. So that’s when this other theme or topic of marriage, commitment and family life came from.

There’s an interesting parallel to the life of a filmmaker, especially early in their career, when economic anxiety has to be a constant factor.

Yeah, it’s constant. I was writing this right around the cusp of coming off my first film.

Shotgun Stories was very well received. I don’t know what it made.

I didn’t make any money. But it opened up the window just enough to think that, “Okay, I could really do this as a profession.”

What were things like for you right after the film came out?

I didn’t talk to anybody about Shotgun Stories, other than [producer] David [Gordon] Green, who’s my friend. I just went out and made it. So all of a sudden I’m talking to people about making movies and feeling kind of tied into an industry, and welcomed to a degree. But as a filmmaker in general, that adage “You’re only as good as your last project,” that’s a reality. Even in college, at the North Carolina School of the Arts, that was the way our program was set up. It was your first-year five-minute video project that got you awarded a ten-minute video project, because only half the class would get to make ten-minute video projects the second year. And then they decide who’s best, and only eight people go into the Director’s Program. And then, the film you make as your thesis has to be good enough to be taken out to L.A. to be shown to industry executives. Every project you’re like, “I can’t screw this up.” Which is stupid. It’s a terrible way to make films. It’s a stressful state to constantly be living and working in. It’s exhilarating and exciting too, but it adds to that stress. And especially now that I’m in the WGA, my family’s health insurance is tied to my success. That’s horrifying, but I guess it’s like that for everybody. You have to perform. That’s being a grown-up — that’s life. And being a grown-up is stressful [laughs].

Going back to Take Shelter, what were, then, the origins of Curtis?

Really, it was an image. I was standing in my backyard, and I saw this image of a guy standing over a storm shelter looking into it. And I was like, “Now what’s that guy looking at? Is he coming into the storm shelter? Is he leaving? Is somebody down there?” I began asking questions about who this guy was, and that seemed like a cool place to start. You know, zombie movies were all over the place, and you’re like, “Man, what if he had a zombie shelter?” Playing out the idea of a fallout shelter to the nth degree — that’s really how it started. And then you add these bigger things to it, these universal themes, and this family and these characters and everything else. And that initial idea of a man looking into a storm shelter takes a back seat to all of the other more important things. But it’s still there.

You mentioned zombies — your film does have a fantastic element even if it doesn’t resolve itself that way. Were the genre elements something you felt would help with financing?

This is not a zombie film, by the way [laughs]. But Shotgun Stories came out as American independent films were crumbling — the bottom was dropping out of the market. [After Shotgun Stories], I was aware of the fact that I wanted to tell dramatic stories, but that I had to weave in some genre elements. That was a conscious choice. [Take Shelter] is not a genre film, but it has these genre moments that I thought would make it a little more accessible. In hindsight, I don’t know if it really feels that way, but that was my thinking going into it.

So how did you wind up with a more realistic drama instead of pushing further some of the more fantastic possibilities of your material?

I’m not sure exactly. The ending came to me pretty quickly. But as the heart of the story developed to be about marriage and commitment, I realized that the true end of this film is going to be about where this family ends up. I realized that if I could get this family through this gauntlet, and end with them together, physically and also emotionally, then that’s a good way to end this movie. And the rest, it’s not window dressing exactly, but it can be open-ended or ambiguous, or however you want to play it.

When you say you don’t write with the three-act structure, what is your writing process like?

I start with a period of six months to a year, the longer the better, collecting images, like a guy standing over a storm shelter. But then as the story starts to develop, I drive around and think about it. I have ideas for scenes, and sometimes I don’t know where they go or their order. And that’s why I really like the note card process. I’m a very linear thinker, and the note cards actually help break that up. I’ll write every idea I have for a scene on a note card, and I’ll throw them on the floor. And some [scenes] have to come first naturally, and some have to come later. But then there are all these other scenes that kind of float around, and you start to put them together, and they create paths through the story that you wouldn’t necessarily have thought of if you sat down and started on page one and tried to get to page 20 [by writing] through pages five, 10, 15. It’s a good way to break up the thought process. It’s all about character because an idea for a scene can be as little as a line or a thought. It doesn’t always have to be an action. It could just be a moment between Curtis and his daughter. It’s not about trying to fit into, “Well, we’re 25 pages in and we need to be into the second act and everything needs to be established.” I just don’t think that way.

By the time you actually sit down to write, are those note cards in a kind of order?

I put [the cards] up on a corkboard on the wall so I can watch the whole movie before I start writing it. I can sit down and imagine every scene. And I write in days — in script days. I’m hoping to actually break out of this a little bit more the more I mature as a storyteller. But it’s a way to keep myself honest. When I was first in film school, I started developing this process. I didn’t have my characters in any sort of timeline. Random scenes would pop up, and they felt episodic and amateurish. A good professor of mine said, “It’s because you need to see your days.” If you look at Fargo, or any of the Coen brothers’ films, one character is always moving and you know where they are in the space and time of the film. It just makes sense. It seems like a really simple notion, but it’s actually kind of a difficult thing to balance — moving the characters through the time and space of the film in a cohesive way. It keeps the films from being muddled, I think. But I also use it as a bit of a crutch.

What do you mean by days? Can you give me an example?

For instance, a script day is, “Curtis wakes up from his dream. He has breakfast. He goes to work. He comes home from work. And then that night they go to a class.” That’s a full day, you know? So you chart your characters’ progression through their days. What it does is like, in an earlier scene Samantha will say, “We have that class tonight.” And then later on, you can just cut to that class. It’s really simplistic stuff, but it’s a thing I use to just check myself a little bit, to not go willy nilly all over the place. “Well right now, I want to cut to this.” It’s like, “No, let’s put it within some kind of a structure.”

Tell me a little bit about working with actors, and specifically these two, who had to quickly build a rapport as husband and wife. What sort of things did you do to help them find that familiarity?  

Every actor is different, and you have to find a way to work with each of them. It’s my job as a director to help them present the best performance possible. That ranges from making sure the set is accommodating and quiet if that’s what they need, or talking to them about their character, or not talking to them about their character. In Mike’s case, we didn’t talk about anything. He just shows up and is ready to go. We didn’t rehearse; we just jumped in. And with Jessica, it was great because from the beginning she saw exactly what she needed to do. She was like, “He’s an intimating guy, so I’m just going to go and hug him.” What I would do is just try and make sure that when they were on camera together, that they felt loving toward each other. But Jessica is the one who did that, which is not to say Mike wasn’t doing it as well, because he totally was. But stepping back, I remember talking to Sarah Green, my executive producer, who’s the one who brought Jessica to my attention. She said, “Casting Jessica in that role makes Curtis more accessible. If he could marry her, it’s like he’s got something good going on.” I think having her helped that relationship. I can’t take too much credit as a director other than just picking the right people. That’s the honest answer.

Tell me about working with the visual effects. I don’t know what the budget of your film was, but I can’t imagine it was huge.  

When I was taking the film out for financing, I knew that before I could really figure out a budget I had to figure out who would do these effects. I knew how to make a film for cheap, but I didn’t know how to make effects. So before I even had any of the money in place, I had [the effects house] Hydraulx — it was kind of a handshake agreement. My agent at the time was really great because he represented [Hydraulx founders] the Strause brothers. I think he just said, “Hey look, there’s this little independent film. They don’t have any money. Would you at least look at this guy’s script?” And for whatever reason, they watched Shotgun Stories and responded to it. And with that component in place, I knew I could go out and say, “Yeah, I think I can make this movie for this, with these guys on board.” We brought them in early as executive producers, which really appealed to them. So often they’re a vendor that gets talked to by studios, 18 executives and a director who doesn’t know what he’s doing. But I really wanted their opinions on things, their thoughts. I became friends with Chris Wells, the visual effects supervisor there, and we got to talk through the whole process. And that made the effects look better; it integrated them into the film better, I think. They were really patient with me, because I had no concept of what they even did or how anything was done. They’re kind of like stunt guys in that regard. You talk to them and are like, “Can we do this?” And they’re like, “Yeah, we could do that.” And you’re like, “Yeah, but how are you going to do it?” “We’re going to do it.” And so they were really patient with me because I wanted to know what lenses I should shoot on and how much I could move the camera. And ultimately their answer was, “Just do what you want to do.” They did send someone out to set for the two scenes where the birds dive-bomb and where the furniture floats. Those had to be really specifically mapped out. But the rest we just shot plates, and it was relatively easy.

What did you shoot on?

Super 35. My first film was 35 anamorphic, which I prefer. But anamorphic is really tricky with focus and movement, and I knew there was no margin for error. I wanted to move the camera more [than on Shotgun Stories], and we weren’t getting dailies in a timely way — I just couldn’t take a risk of half the film being out of focus. So we landed with Super 35. And I knew on this one I’d be doing a DI, so the blow up to get that 2:35 aspect ratio wouldn’t really degenerate the image. But at the end of the day, I don’t like the lenses as much. They’re not as pretty. I’m going back to anamorphic [for my next one].

Was there pressure to use a digital camera like the RED?

Oh, yeah. The producers at one point were like, “This is what it would cost.” But I knew that was stupid because my whole crew is designed to shoot film. From college we put this together, and we shoot on film. We know how to make film look good. I told the producers, “The problem is I can’t guarantee you that this is going to look good. I don’t know what the skies are going to look like on the RED.” And this is a movie about skies. We need them, you know? But I’m a film purist, so they kind of knew that this was a losing argument. Now there are going to be a million people saying, “That guy’s an idiot! You can do everything with the RED.” I’m sure someone could get a beautiful version of this film digitally — just not me. I know that when you’re shooting on 35mm film, and you’re outside during the day, and you set the camera up, it’s going to look pretty good. And that’s a comforting thing.

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