“Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols clears the air

“Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols clears the air (photo)

Posted by on

“I never considered myself going into ‘Shotgun Stories’ as a filmmaker with worldly aspirations in terms of the stories I’m trying to tell. In fact, it was quite the opposite; they were very specific and very regional. But I realized that there’s power in coming up with some kind of universal feeling and I was very much aware when selecting this topic for this film.”

The topic, in this case, is anxiety; the film is “Take Shelter.” And the man who made it, the man talking about his lack of worldly aspirations, is Jeff Nichols. He might want to find some and fast; “Take Shelter” is a very powerful film, even more powerful than his impressive debut, “Shotgun Stories,” from 2007. In my opinion, it’s one of the best movies of the year.

Michael Shannon stars as Curtis, a young husband and father paralyzed by nightly visions of the apocalypse. He sees enormous storms on the horizon, pouring weird, brown, oily rain. He sees his family dog trying to kill him. He sees people trying to kidnap and murder his family. These are more than just dreams; they feel like visions of the future. And in all of them, Curtis is powerless to stop what’s coming. Searching for some kind of relief and unable to discuss his condition with his wife (“Tree of Life”‘s Jessica Chastain), he starts building out the old storm shelter in his backyard.

“Take Shelter” is a rare kind of movie, technically impressive and emotionally devastating. And Nichols is a rare kind of director: intelligent, open, but not too full of himself and his work that he can’t make a joke or two at his own expense. Over the course of our half hour phone conversation, I asked him why he decided to make this film, how he directs an actor as good as Michael Shannon, and whether making this movie about anxiety alleviated any of the anxiety he was feeling in his own life. In some small way, it definitely helped me with some of mine.

What was the origin of the project?

The combination of a few things, the first of which was visual. I was standing in my backyard and I was struck by the image of a man standing over an open storm shelter. I wasn’t really sure what he was doing; I didn’t know if he was going in or coming out, or whether there was someone else in there. That stuck with me.

Whenever I write, I try and approach my stories from some kind of universal theme or idea or emotion. In my first film, it was revenge. I’ve been thinking a lot about anxiety, so I decided that might be an interesting idea or feeling to make a film about. In my life at the time, I was oddly struck with a lot of anxiety, because my life was actually going really well. I was in my first year of marriage, my first film had come out and people didn’t hate it. I was moving from my late twenties to my early thirties and I finally felt like I was starting to get my shit together. I didn’t want any of that to unravel. When I was writing this in the summer of 2008, it felt like everything was going wrong: our government was going to collapse, the dollar was going to go in the toilet, Iceland was bankrupt, not to mention constant reminders of polar bears leaping off icebergs that are melting. It just felt like there was this dull, gnawing dread, that I thought was palpable. I felt like it was something the rest of the world could identify with.

That, combined with this image combined with a little more pragmatic idea of wanting to make another film. It’s really hard out there to get an independent film made. I liked the idea of blending a genre film, in this case a psychological thriller, with the kind of pace and tone of “Shotgun Stories.” Whether you want to call that an art film or an independent film or just a boring film — I would say thoughtful film — if you combine those two, you could make something that was palatable, not just to an audience but also to the people who were going to put money into the movie.

You mentioned the movie was written during your first year of marriage, and the marriage between Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain’s characters is a big part of the film. Did you solicit any feedback from your wife about the marriage aspect of the script?

I didn’t until I showed her an early cut and we were sitting on our couch watching it on the DVD player. There’s a scene where Curtis, Michael Shannon’s character, urinates in his bed. And the wife comes in and he’s kind of abrupt and short with her. And during that fight onscreen, my wife looked over at me on the couch. And the reason was because it was verbatim the kind of fight we would have. [laughs] Not that I urinate the bed a lot. Basically, my wife has an intolerance for being sick. She gives you one day, and then if you’re not out of bed after that, she’s pissed. We’ve had that exact fight. I’m in bed going “Just leave. Go away,” and she says “What is that? What is that face? What is that you’re doing?” That’s the closest I got to home.

To be very serious about it, I set out this tone or emotion of anxiety, but while I was writing I quickly realized that’s not enough. Anxiety is an effect, it’s not a cause. I needed the cause of all this stuff. As I built the character, I needed to give him a life that he loved and valued and arguably was respected by other people. Curtis begins this film in a good place. He’s kind of a guy that has his shit together. And as you start to dismantle that, that’s where the fear and anxiety comes from. I didn’t even know it but as I started writing, I was setting myself on a course to write a film about marriage, because separately from the film I’d been thinking about my marriage. How marriages work, why most marriages fail and what I have to do to be one of the ones that make it work. What do I have to do? The conclusion I came to was, I think it’s a lot about communication. We all carry these fears and doubts. They will always be there, whether it’s fear of the government collapsing, or the environment, or you can’t pay your bills, whatever. We’ll always have something to worry about. And I think where marriages maybe get damaged is in people not sharing those fears with their significant others. That seemed like an answer to me, and an interesting ending for this problem that I’d built up in this film. If that is indeed the ending or resolution then that kind of decides what your film is about; it’s going to be about these two people trying to put themselves back on the same page. They were on the same page at the beginning of this film. They were a happy, normal married couple. And then these things start to go off the rails.

There’s a few very memorable images in the film, but the one that I keep returning to is that motif of the brown, oily rain that falls in Curtis’ dreams. Where did that image come from? Was it developed over a long period of time?

It really just kind of came to me. I don’t see Curtis as a particularly religious man. However I do see him as a spiritual guy. And Curtis is very close to me as a character, the closest I’ve ever written in terms of my own belief system. I kind of want to think of myself as a guy who’s responsible and would support and care for my family, and if things go wrong that I would try and deal with them.

I also grafted on top of him a lot of my own personal belief system which is — and I promise this will make a point about oily rain — I’m not too big on organized religion. It just doesn’t do it for me. But something I very much believe is that if there is a God he’s somewhere in nature. Nature is the purest thing we can touch and observe. It can be the most beautiful and also the most devastating. I believe that there’s a natural balance to things; rain seems to be a very pure expression of that balance. And for that to fall out of the sky and be dark and viscous, that just seems to be a terrifying symptom of something out of whack. It’s the canary in the coal mine.

The first week we were filming, Deepwater Horizon happened. I got to a motel room one night and I turned on the TV after a long day of shooting, and Larry King was interviewing T. Boone Pickens, the Texas oil man. And I swear to God: I turn the TV on and the first thing Larry King said was, “T. Boone, can it rain oil?” I was like, “Shit! I’ve got to get this film finished. It’s already happening!” Of course T. Boone was like “No, no, oil is far too heavy to get caught up in the rain,” which I think might be true. But there were a lot of things that over the course of filming were just strange and ironic like that.

I loved the sound design in the movie as well. The way the sound of wind and rain were used reminded me of the way bird chirps were used in Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” that idea of innocuous natural sounds being rendered in this ominous and almost musical fashion. Was that an inspiration at all?

I didn’t take any direct inspiration from “The Birds;” I wish I could say I was that smart because I love that film. And I have to give most if not all the credit to Will Files, my sound designer and mixer. He is a genius. I went to school with him; now he’s one of the lead mixers at Skywalker Sound. He’s a phenomenal artist. A lot of that bird stuff, I just showed and it was already intact.

My approach to sound design, and this is something I had to develop on the fly during “Shotgun Stories,” is that everything has to come from a place of reality; with this film, you find ways to heighten that reality. I think this stuff is far creepier when it comes from an organic, naturally-sounding place. In Austin, where I live, you go to the grocery store and they have these huge swarms of grackles. And they make this insane sound. I remember using that as a reference. You don’t have to go far to find creepy stuff like that. The same with the wind.

We have to talk about Michael because he’s so incredible in the movie. Is he an actor that needs or wants a lot of direction?

We don’t talk much. I learned this on “Shotgun Stories.” He just shows up with things intact. We had a few very brief conversations over the phone about the kinds of clothes he wears, and we mainly had those conversations to delineate his character from the character he plays in “Shotgun Stories.” He just gets it, and I trust that he gets it. You don’t worry about Mike Shannon very much. I don’t worry about him at all.

When he shows up, we don’t rehearse. I’ll block the camera and we just go. As Mike puts it, he leaves the juice in the lemon. The trick with Mike is after you’re done, after he’s given away ownership of the performance, that’s when he starts asking questions. “How was it? How did it feel? How are you going to cut it?” Especially on this one; it wasn’t him being an annoying actor, it was because we shot this thing in four weeks, completely out of order, all in different pieces, and it’s an extremely difficult thing to track this character. Think about it: one day I say to him, “Today you’re going to wake from a dream you’ve been bit by the dog. We haven’t shot that yet, so you have no concept of what it looks like or how it feels or anything. We’re gonna shoot that part today.”

I know people watch the film and they’re like, “Wow he’s such a good actor. He’s there in all those moments.” From my perspective, he’s the most incredible actor in the world because he did all of that piecemeal, out of order. I just sit back and I’m in awe of him.

I read that when you cast Jessica Chastain you actually got to meet Terrence Malick and talk with him about her. What’s it like meeting Terrence Malick to talk about an actress?



He’s a busy guy. My executive producer, Sarah Green, produced “Tree of Life.” She’s the one who recommended Jessica, but it was a very difficult thing for me to judge because I hadn’t seen her in anything. She said “Well maybe you can sit down with Terry.” So she arranged it.

He was extremely generous and polite. From the 10 minute meeting I had with him, he struck me as a very sensitive, very sweet man. He spoke about Jessica very highly, and from my perspective that was all I really needed. But just for the sake of things, I flew out to L.A. and met her. She was lovely, but I still hadn’t seen her act. And it wasn’t until we were on set and started rolling the camera that I did.

When you started the project, you were writing about all this anxiety you had. Did making the film lessen that anxiety? How did you feel after it was over?

For me personally, I’m always going to be stressed out. If it wasn’t me being stressed out about being married and being a good provider for my wife, now we have a son. What elementary school is he going to go to? What kind of man is he going to grow up to be? What kind of father am I going to be? There’s always stuff to worry about. There’s always going to be pressure. What I’ve taken away from the process of making this film is it’s all about how you process that anxiety and that fear and somehow stay productive.

Without spoiling it for readers, the ending of the film is somewhat ambiguous. Do you have a preferred way that you want viewers to read it?

It’s specifically designed to be ambiguous. That really riles some people and some people really love it. What’s funny and interesting to me — and not to sound too cocky about it, but I really do think it worked — is everybody talks about the specifics of what’s happening in that scene. And to me, the specifics don’t matter that much. And I’ll explain.

What is happening, what is going to happen, all that is just fun to talk about. But what’s important to me is that these two people are on the same page and are seeing the same thing. There’s several interpretations of where they’re at. And that’s great. But as long as they’re seeing the same thing I think there is a resolution and the possibility of hope in the film.

Some people get it, some people don’t. But by God, we’re the ones making independent films here. We’re the only ones that get to do this.

“Take Shelter” opens in limited release tomorrow. If you see it, we want to hear what you think. Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Gigi Does It

Date Gigi

5 Ways to Get Ready for Tonight’s Gigi Does It and Tear Up the Dating Scene

Catch the season finale of Gigi Does It tonight at 10:30P ET/PT on IFC.

Posted by on

Listen up, widows and widowers: It’s time to stop your sulking! Whip up a beta blocker-and-Metamucil cocktail and hit the club, because it’s time for you to get back out there. But if it’s been awhile since you hit the dating scene, don’t fret. Tonight’s season finale of Gigi Does It at 10:30P ET/PT will guide you in the ways of modern love. Here are five ways to get ready for tonight’s episode and be a hellcat at your next senior singles mixer.

1. Maintain personal boundaries.

Courting rituals have changed quite a bit since the Eisenhower era, with physical relationships starting way before marriage. But no matter how much of a superfreak you are in the sack, don’t let anyone else tell you when you’re ready to show off those skills. Though right after the desert course might not be the best time to propose a public tryst, lest you end up on the receiving end of a drink to the face like Leonard here.

2. Cast a wide net.

As the saying goes, there are plenty of fish in the sea — so why not peruse the market before settling on a catch? Attend a speed dating event and let first impressions do all the work. You deserve a break. And it’s a great opportunity to show off your singing voice and/or share some cat stories.

3. Hide any inappropriate body art.

A first date might not be the best time to reveal your ink or your get-rich-quick scheme. That’s more of a third date thing.

4. Let Gigi keep you up-to-date with the latest trends in vulgarity.

Loose lips may sink ships, but no one wants an old fuddy duddy as a first mate. It’s time to undo that truss and check out this Gigi clip which removes the bleeps and blurs for a NSFW look at the foul-mouthed granny in action.

5. Remember: You’re a grandparent first and a lover second.

Rather than let casual sex rule her life, Gigi knows that being a grandparent trumps a roll in the hay every time. But do those nasty urchins appreciate their bubbes? As a little reminder, Gigi penned a children’s book that puts guilt back into grammar school literature. Give it a read here.


Music and 'Staches

The 10 Most Epic Examples of Facial Hair in Soft Rock

Catch the story of Blue Jean Committee tonight on the season finale of Documentary Now!.

Posted by on

Documentary Now! closes out its 50th season this week with the film “Gentle & Soft: The Story of the Blue Jean Committee,” a Behind the Music-style look at the rise and fall of one of the most successful purveyors of mellow, California-style soft rock. Despite the fact that the members of BJC hailed from Chicago, their hits like “Catalina Breeze” fit in perfectly with contemporaries like Kenny Loggins, Hall & Oates, Poco and other giants of “Yacht Rock.” (The band’s feathered hair and awesome ‘staches also helped.)

In honor of the Blue Jean Committee’s story finally being told, check out our tribute to the most epic facial hair in soft rock.

10. Paul Davis

The bearded “I Go Crazy” singer gets extra points for his luxurious mane of blonde hair.

9. Seals and Crofts

“Summer Breeze” makes us feel fine and so does the one-two punch of Seals & Crofts’ mesmerizing beard/goatee combo.

8. Rupert Holmes

Mr. Holmes’ neatly trimmed beard doesn’t excuse the fact that he was using the personals column to cheat on his lady. “The Pina Colada Song” is basically the Ashley Madison of its day.

7. Pretty much every member of Orleans

The ’70s bros in Orleans loved two things — beards and going shirtless on album covers.

6. England Dan and John Ford Coley

Ladies, these guys (and their mustaches) would really love to see you tonight.

5. Bobby Kimball from Toto

You might remember Toto for their monster soft rock jams “Rosanna” and “Africa.” But if you’re like us, you see the majestic follicles of singer Bobby Kimball’s mustache when you close your eyes and drift away on a blissful wave of smooth.

4. Both Guys in Dr. Hook

The “Sexy Eyes” and “When You’re in Love With a Beautiful Woman” band is a facial hair two-fer, thanks to Ray Sawyer’s awesome mustache and Dennis Locorriere’s respectable beard.

3. Michael McDonald

Possessing a set of velvety pipes that have brought weaker men to their knees, The Mighty Beard of Michael McDonald has remained strong since his days in The Doobie Brothers.

2. John Oates, Hall & Oates

Word is Daryl Hall is a major BJC fan, but we have to salute his musical partner’s famous lip magic.

1. Kenny Loggins

Besides being a ’80s soundtrack master, Loggins possesses some of the greatest facial hair in pop culture. Bask in the glory that is Loggins on Documentary Now! tonight at 10P.

Old School

Best Party Ever

Top 10 Wildest Parties in Movie History

Party on with the Benders season finale tonight at 10P ET/PT.

Posted by on

With the Uncle Chubbys boys throwing a wild party for Karen and Paul this week on the season finale of Benders, we thought we’d pay tribute to the biggest and most badass parties ever thrown on the big screen. Which parties would you die to go to? Which ones are you most likely to die at from going to? Before you catch the Benders finale tonight at 10P ET/PT, check out our list of the craziest parties to ever grace the silver screen.

10. Bachelor Party

20th Century Fox

Name the last party you went to attended by Tom Hanks AND a literal high horse. And if you can, kudos.

9. Animal House

Universal Pictures

Hey, does anyone want to hear me play gui—Ah, Bluto, what the hell??!!

8. Old School

DreamWorks Pictures

DreamWorks Pictures

Kegs, a hot DJ, random streaking…the Old School party has it all. We’re betting Frank never made it to Bed, Bath and Beyond, though.

7. Revenge of the Nerds

Revenge of the Nerds Thriller

Ain’t no party like a nerd party, particularly when “Thriller” starts playing. Don’t forget the “Wonder Joints.”

6. Boogie Nights

Boogie Nights

If you ever find yourself at a party filled with ’70s adult film stars, remember to put a towel down.

5. House Party

New Line Cinema

If you’re wondering what the ’90s were like, watch any of the House Party movies. They were like this.

4. Can’t Hardly Wait

Columbia Pictures

This party is like an uncut blast of ever ’90s high school movie. When the kid from Hook is bringing down the house with an epic lip sync performance of “Paradise City,” you know it’s a good party.

3. Weird Science

Universal Pictures

Mutants, missiles and Kelly LeBrock. Whatever you do, don’t tell Chet!

2. Real Genius

TriStar Pictures

Val Kilmer knew the one secret to a kick-ass party. In a word, lasers!

1. Risky Business

Warner Brothers

Before there was Xenu, there were hookers. High school would never be the same.

at arrivals for PORTLANDIA Second Season Premiere on IFC, The American Museum of Natural History, New York, NY January 5, 2012. Photo By: Eric Reichbaum/Everett Collection

Carrie Loves Madonna?

5 Things We Learned About Carrie Brownstein From Her Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl Q&A

Get the scoop on Carrie's live book release event.

Posted by on

Carrie Brownstein’s Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is out on shelves both physical and digital, and the book tour kicked off with a Q&A session for fans at the metal bar Saint Vitus in Brooklyn. Questlove from The Roots and The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon joined the Portlandia star on stage to moderate a conversation before a huddled crowd holding their plastic cups filled with draft IPA. “It’s familiar to both of us,” Brownstein joked. “There’s no bathroom backstage…it’s very humbling.”

From Madonna to Portlandia, check out some highlights from the Brownstein-Questlove extravaganza.

1. Carrie and Questlove Are Now BFFs

Portlandia pregnant

After the Portlandia funny gal read a passage from the book, which follows her life in music with the band Sleater-Kinney, Questlove remarked how surprised he was to hear he would be accompanying her for this event. “I don’t know if growing up we’d be best friends, but I know that we’re the same person,” he said. As proof that they would totally be Bffs, Brownstein continued to say how the first thing they bonded over backstage was the TV series The Affair, which she said is so unrealistic because both stars are British. “Half of The Wire is British,” Questlove said.

2. She Has a Major Madonna Obsession

Carrie call me

Some of the topics discussed were Brownstein’s band experience, absorbing feminism through punk rock, taping pictures of Dennis Quaid and Mel Gibson to her wall, and — more impactful — her obsession with Madonna. “I remember sitting on my bed and crying because I’d never be friends with Madonna,” she said of her 10-year-old self. Brownstein still hasn’t met her, though Questlove only hesitated a moment before bragging about how the “Material Girl” is “kinda” his manager. Guess we know what to get Carrie for her birthday.

3. She Went Incognito at Traffic Class

Portlandia driving

You know that traffic class you have to take after you get a ticket? No? Well, Brownstein does, because she had to take one. Not only that, but she took it just after the season 2 premiere of Portlandia. As she said, this wasn’t even season 1 when most people didn’t know her name. She was quite recognizable at this point, so to ward off unwanted attention at driver’s ed she tried to disguise herself as best she could.

4. Music Is Her Lifeline

Portlandia cat nap

Things got a bit real when Questlove asked Brownstein whether she would be okay with the possibility of her acting career overshadowing her musical endeavors. He likened the subject to how most people recognize him as “Jimmy Fallon’s drummer” instead of everything else he does with The Roots or his writing. The short answer is yes. She said she wouldn’t do anything creative — music or otherwise — if she didn’t want her named associated with it. That said, music has and always will be her “lifeline.”

5. Shocker! She’s Not a Ben Carson Fan

Portlandia what are you

Things got even more real when a fan asked a question about politics. Brownstein said that the fact that Ben Carson, and many other presidential candidates, came out against abortion and Planned Parenthood is “madness” and also shared her thoughts on racism and police brutality. She also noted “a collective voice of dissent” and “people starting to be more connected,” especially on social media. To lighten the mood, Carrie then joked, “Let’s have another clothing question.”

For more Carrie quotes, check out her Tumblr Q&A and our live-tweet of the Brooklyn event.

Powered by ZergNet