[FILM: Interview] Director Jeff Nichols on Take Shelter
Labelled by industry site Indiewire one of the most anticipated films of Sundance, and bought sight-unseen by Sony Pictures Classics before the festival even opened, Take Shelter comes to Sydney Film Festival on the tail of a definite buzz. The name of it’s director, Jeff Nichols, may not mean much to you now – and perhaps you’re not even sure who leading man Michael Shannon is (despite his Academy Award nomination for Revolutionary Road in 2008) – but come Oscar season next year, you can expect to see at least one, if not both of them, contending for top honours.
Set in the same suburban, southern-state, working class milieu as Nichols’ debut, Shotgun Stories – which also starred Shannon – Take Shelter is an exploration of modern anxiety that takes cues from Todd Haynes’ Safe, Spielberg’s Close Encounters, and Kubrick’s The Shining. Nichols pitches his tent in the family nucleus of Curtis LaForche (Shannon), his wife Susannah (Jessica Chastain, of Terrence Malick’s Tree Of Life), and their hearing-impaired little girl, Hannah. Curtis has everything a man of his means and aspirations could want: a loving family, a home to shelter them, and a solid job at the local sand mines, with great health cover. He’s well liked by his friends, neighbours and colleagues, and he’s surviving the economic crisis. However as the film opens, he’s begun to have disturbing dreams in which both nature and his family turn malevolent. As his paranoia increases, so too does his chance of losing everything and everyone he cares about.
When Nichols starting writing his first feature, Shotgun Stories, he was 24 years old, and determined to have his first feature made by the time he was 25. Having seen classmates David Gordon Green (Pineapple Express) and Jody Hill (Observe and Report), among others, achieve indie notoriety, Nichols no doubt felt a competitive desire to throw his hat in the ring. The timing, however, was terrible: just as Shotgun released, in 2007, the bottom fell out of the market, and the indie production arms of major studios began to fold. “It felt like I got to the dinner table, and there was nobody left,” Nichols tells me. “I was like, ‘Hang on a minute! Who’s gonna pay me $2 million to make my next awesome film?’ That’s what’s s’posed to happen [when your first feature does well].”
Nichols went back to the drawing board. “I did something very unusual: I wrote a movie that had visual effects in it, and really wasn’t just the ‘no-brainer’ indie script. But I just wanted to try my hand at it! And at the time, I still had illusions of being able to make a film for between $2-5 million – I thought those films still existed. They didn’t.”
Then a miracle happened: Nichols’ script found its way to Hydraulx, the VFX company run by Greg and Colin Strause (directors of Aliens Vs Predator: Requiem and Skyline). By coming on board as executive producers, and taking care of the VFX side of the picture, Hydraulx brought the budget down to an enticing figure for investors, and enabled Nichols to put Shannon (rather than a more marketable ‘star’) in the lead. “It’s one of those stories about serendipity,” Nichols says appreciatively.
Nichols’ post-debut-film blues and anxiety are more than the backstory for Take Shelter – they are the inspiration. The end of independent film’s golden era was compounded by the post-GFC economic downturn, and Nichols’ personal ‘Saturn return’. “I was transitioning from a kid in his 20s, who can go out drinking every night, and risk his entire life savings on his first film, to a guy who’s married, thinking about kids, and really starting to look his filmmaking career in a long-term, sustainable sense… I started to have things in my life that I didn’t want to lose. My anxiety was born out of having things to lose – and I directly applied that to Curtis’s character. [His] fear of things getting derailed, is plucked directly from my life. But I mean, that’s anyone, you know?”
What: Take Shelter – Dir. Jeff Nichols
Screening in Official Competition for Sydney Film Festival on Friday June 17 (6.30pm) & Sat June 18, (11.45am)
MORE INFO & TICKETS