The buzz for Take Shelter – the second feature from Austin-based filmmaker Jeff Nichols (Shotgun Stories) – started in January, 2011 at The Sundance Film Festival when the film wowed audiences and Sony Classics bought it sight unseen. Expectation increased when the film won the highly coveted Critics Prize at The Cannes Film Festival in May, 2011. Nichols, a then-unassuming 32-year-old, was still coming to terms with that particular set of events when he chatted with FilmInk. “I didn’t think that we’d get into Cannes, let alone win anything,” he laughed at the festival. “I thought that sending the film over there was a total waste of time! When we heard that we’d got in, I became incredibly anxious. I started worrying about how European audiences would respond to this film.”
Nichols talks about anxiety a lot. He makes no bones about the fact that he has a few anxieties on the boil at any given time. Take Shelter, which stars Michael Shannon (Revolutionary Road), was the result of a number of fears that he was harbouring while writing the script. “I have different types of anxieties,” he says. “One is this personal anxiety, which is based on losing what little career I have,” he laughs. “Then there’s my marriage; my wife and I now have a son, so there’s a personal fear and anxiety which is just born out of not wanting my life to derail. Then there’s this free-floating anxiety, which is more of the universal type, where it seems like we’re heading for potential ruin. I was writing this script in 2008, and I felt that we were heading for true economic disaster. There were oil spills happening, and it felt like economically and environmentally that we just hadn’t been taking care of ourselves.”
Take Shelter – “an allegory for all the crazy shit that’s going on in the world right now” – takes place in rural America, and is essentially about a man who becomes increasingly panicked that an apocalypse is coming. Curtis LaForche (Shannon) is a loving family man devoted to his wife, Samantha (Jessica Chastain), and their six-year-old daughter, Hannah (Tova Stewart). One day, he starts having violent dreams and terrifying hallucinations. He sees furniture levitate, flocks of birds flying in weird formations, and ominous dark clouds that seem to be closing in on him. As the visions increase, Curtis becomes more obsessed with the need to build a storm shelter to protect his family from impending disaster. His friends and family think that he’s lost it. But has he? Is he a certifiable lunatic or a misunderstood visionary?
Despite the apocalyptic/natural disaster theme, Nichols describes this as a film about “marriage and commitment and ultimately communication. It isn’t a movie about Armageddon or schizophrenia. It’s about a couple trying to figure out how to stay together, and the answer to that is communication,” he says. So why did he choose to set the tale within a natural disaster framework? “It seemed like a natural manifestation of these fears, visually speaking,” he says. “I know this sounds pretentious, but I really like clouds. I really like having some representation of nature in a film, and then to explore how nature and the environment influence character. This film is about a storm rolling in.”
Nichols drew further inspiration from films like Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Todd Haynes’ Safe, and Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. “The Shining is all about this supernatural force that lives beyond the edges of the film, and I wholeheartedly ripped that off,” he laughs. “In Take Shelter, the camera is constantly closing in on Curtis, and that’s what the camera does in The Shining. Another inspiration was Steven Spielberg; his camera movement is effortless.”
Delighted with the film’s reception, Nichols appreciates that much of the film’s success is thanks to the powerful performance of his leading man. “Everybody thinks that I wrote it for Mike because we’d worked together on Shotgun Stories,” says Nichols. “But I didn’t. I didn’t know who I was writing it for. I was really thinking about myself in these situations, as kind of an everyman. When I thought about Mike, I didn’t think of an everyman. I was writing about a normal guy who starts to deal with these extraordinary nightmares and visions. I sent Mike the script because he’s my friend, and he wrote me back and said, ‘This is great. I want to do this.’ When Mike Shannon says that, you pretty much just say, ‘Okay!’ One of the reasons why he liked it was because we played it straight, and I find Mike to be the most fascinating when he’s being quiet and emotional. I found that in Shotgun Stories.”
An eerie original, Take Shelter instantly set Jeff Nichols up as a true talent to watch. Following it up with the equally acclaimed Mud, Midnight Special, and the upcoming Loving, the Arkansas-born filmmaker is now renowned as an original, unconventional documenter of the complex make-up of America’s south. “When I read Jeff’s script, it just felt like home,” Nichols’ Louisiana-born Mud star, Reese Witherspoon, told FilmInk in 2012. “And you never get to see home on a big movie screen. Jeff brought such an authentic, beautiful story to the place that I’m from. There are very few movies about the American South that are accurate, and this is one of them.”
Take Shelter is available now on DVD. Midnight Special is available now on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital.