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“Take Shelter” director Jeff Nichols clears the air

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

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“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?

Brief.

[laughs]

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.

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Watch “Weird Al” Talk About Parodying Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney

Comedy Bang! Bang! gets weird starting Friday, June 3rd at 11P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Conan / TBS

Song parodist and Comedy Bang! Bang!’s newest bandleader “Weird Al” Yankovic dropped by Conan to chat about the upcoming season of the IFC series and drop a few bits of trivia from his past. For example, did you know meeting Michael Jackson is a lot like meeting an alien? Well, you probably did, but “Weird Al” confirms it! Also, Yankovic discusses how he had a little artistic dispute with Paul McCartney over the use of “Live and Let Die” for a parody titled “Chicken Pot Pie”. (We’ll let Al fill you in on details.)

Check out “Weird Al” talking about his odd encounters with Michael Jackson and Paul McCartney’s joke-ruining suggestions in the video below. And be sure to catch Al on the new season of Comedy Bang! Bang! premiering Friday, June 3rd with back-to-back episodes at 11P and 11:30P.

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10 Movies That Make Hitting Rock Bottom Look Like Fun

Maron hits rock bottom tonight at 9P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Dreamworks Pictures

This season on Maron, Marc is hitting rock bottom. He’s lost his career, his home and even his cats. But since Marc is involved, we figure he’ll be good for a few laughs on the way down. Thankfully, Marc’s in good company here. Some of our favorite movies feature characters who have hit the emotional basement face first. We’re glad we’re not them, but we definitely enjoy watching them fall apart.

10. Office Space

Office Space

If you’re going to flame out, at least do it with some panache. That’s the lesson office drone Peter Gibbons teaches us in Mike Judge’s cult classic, when a hypnotism gone wrong allows him to gain a little perspective on life. Soon he’s phoning in his job, and happily telling his superiors the ugly truth to their faces. This, of course, only makes him more popular around the office, a place he now has no need for. Peter has a mental breakdown with a smile on his face, and a bounce in his step, showing us that there is life beyond the cubicle.


9. The Weather Man

Weather Man

Sure, your job’s a joke, your kids are a mess and your father is disappointed in you, but there’s a shortcut to self-esteem that no one tells you about. It’s like a cheat code for when you want to turn your midlife crisis into a midlife adventure. That secret is arming yourself to the teeth. In local weatherman David Spritz’s case, that means carrying a bow and arrow around with him wherever he goes. Nicolas Cage has made a cottage industry of playing people in the midst of nervous breakdowns, from Leaving Las Vegas to The Family Man, but here he really separates David from the pack by going full Hawkeye on us with a bow and arrow. The lessons is, it doesn’t matter how bad you’re feeling on the inside when everyone is scared to death of you on the outside.


8. Trainwreck

Universal Pictures

Amy Schumer seems to have flipped the script when it comes to bottoming out. Sure, your life may be an unending stream of stripper heels, hangovers and one night stands. If you keep telling yourself everything awful about your life is completely awesome, who’s to say it isn’t? Mind equals blown. That, ladies and gentlemen, is called empowerment. Or delusion. It’s called something, and either way, Schumer knows how to make it hilarious. We may not want to be blackout drunk on a weeknight, but Amy sure makes it look like it doesn’t have to be the worst thing ever. You go girl.


7. American Beauty

American Beauty

Lester Burnham is just an ordinary guy with nothing to lose, and boy does he know how to quit a job. It involves admitting to masturbating in the company bathroom, and then blackmailing your boss into a year’s pay with benefits. If you’re going to hit rock bottom, you may as well get a little cash for the way down.


6. Rachel Getting Married

Rachel Getting Married

You can’t really hit rock bottom unless you take a few people down with you. That’s the lesson of this 2008 indie drama, in which Anne Hathaway plays Kym, a destructive addict inadvertently laying waste to her sister’s wedding. Sure, that doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs, but Hathaway’s “I don’t give a f*ck” performance makes Kym feel like the cool girl we all wanted to hang out with in high school. Sure, she’s probably going to end up dead or in jail, but what a time she’ll have before she gets there. Yes, there’s darkness underneath, but Kym knows that every party is a little better with some booze, a cigarette and a punch to the face.


5. Anchorman

Anchorman

There’s nothing quite like chugging milk on a hot summer day to remind you that you’ve made some bad choices in life. Out of work, friendless, womanless, and mustacheless, legendary local newsman Ron Burgundy finds out the hard way that nobody loves you when you’re on the bottom. Not even your weatherman, who seems like he’d give up just about anything for one weekend alone in a New England B&B with you. Fortunately, Mr. Burgundy has a secret up his sleeve, and no, we’re not talking about his jazz flute. With a conch shell, a baby panda news story, and some swagger, Ron Burgundy reminds us that the only way to stop a downward spiral is with the help of your friends and fellow anchorpeople.


4. 28 Days

28 Days

Yes, the opening moments of 28 Days are supposed to be a cautionary tale. An out of control Sandy Bullock shows up drunk to her sister’s wedding, delivers a rambling speech, before destroying the wedding cake. In a panic, she steals a limo, and crashes it into a house while trying to find a cake store. Now, granted, if you’re planning a wedding, this is pretty much the worst case plus one we can imagine. But, if you’re a guest, well, this kind of sounds like fun. As days go, taking a limo joy ride in desperate search of cake sounds like time well spent.


3. Kill Bill

Kill Bill

Okay, being buried alive isn’t fun. That’s a given. But what if you were a master ninja, who ate black belts for breakfast, and found yourself in search of just the right motivation to kick some serious ass. Well, then waking up six feet under might just be the thing. Sure, The Bride had had a bad run, with a massacre at her wedding rehearsal and the whole coma thing, but this is the moment she turned from a wronged heroine into an ass-kicking machine. Everything she did after this was thanks to her premature funeral, and the folks behind it.


2. Bridesmaid

Bridesmaids

Weddings bring out a lot of emotions. Happiness, joy, regret, bitter jealously, a need to find the open bar. But for Annie, who lost her job, her apartment, and her boyfriend, only to see a fellow bridesmaid get the credit for a bridal shower she planned, it’s just too much. And when life throws a punch at you, you need to punch back, preferably if there’s a giant cookie nearby asking for a beating. Meltdowns aren’t fun in and of themselves, but going commando on a giant chocolate fountain is a dream we’ve had since childhood.


1. Fight Club

Fight Club

Yes, a schizophrenic breakdown, precipitated by the existential pain of a life left unlived, isn’t the most desirable way to spend a weekend. But what if you found out that the coolest guy you knew, the best looking, the guy you dreamed of being was actually (spoiler alert for a 17 year-old movie!) YOU? What if YOU planned the fight club? YOU had a six-pack? YOU were a freaking legend? Well, maybe blowing up a few buildings and crashing this whole system would be worth it. It certainly beats voting for Trump.

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Watch Marc Maron Talk About Sharing a Cigarette With Keith Richards

Maron returns tonight at 9P on IFC.

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Tonight Show / NBC Universal

If there was anyone who’d geek out over a chance to meet Keith Richards, it’d be Marc Maron. The host of the WTF Podcast and star of IFC’s Maron appeared on The Tonight Show With Jimmy Fallon to talk about the time he broke a ten-year hiatus from smoking and shared a cigarette with the Rolling Stones guitarist. A garage rock star in his own right, Maron related how he couldn’t pass up the opportunity to partake with a music legend and how grateful he was that he “caught Keith at the right time” — given the other substances he could’ve been carrying in his younger days.

Watch Marc share his Keith Richards story — as well as discuss the preparation that went into his landmark interview with President Obama (snipers are involved) — in the video below. And catch the season premiere of Maron tonight at 9pm ET/PT on IFC.

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