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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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Rocky IV Paulie Robot

Mr. Roboto

5 Reasons Rocky IV Is Too Rotten to Miss

Catch Rocky IV Friday at 8P during IFC's Rotten Fridays.

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Photo Credit: MGM/UA/YouTube

When Rocky IV was released in 1985, the critics were not kind. (While it wasn’t around back then, the film’s 39% ranking on Rotten Tomatoes speaks for itself.) Less of a movie than a jingoistic music video starring a robot and a steroid-addled, monosyllabic Russian baddie, Rocky IV is a far cry from the Italian Stallion’s humble origins.

Still, more than any movie ever made, it exemplifies the whole “so bad its good” genre. This movie was made for us, the great-unwashed masses of the 1980s, who loved the band Survivor and hated those Commie bastards. Before you catch Rocky IV on IFC’s Rotten Fridays, let’s take a look at some moments that make this flick a “too rotten to miss” classic.

5. That Opening Shot

Rocky IV
United Artists

It takes all of 30 seconds for the audience to know they’re in for one ridiculous rollercoaster ride through a Cold War conniption fit of good vs. evil. Gone is the subtle tone and grounded reality of the first Rocky. In its place we see two gloves, one emblazoned with the American flag, the other with the Soviets’, hurtling toward each other. When they collide, sparks fly, and we witness an explosion decades in the making.

In case the symbolism is too subtle for you, director/writer/star Sylvester Stallone is trying to hint that this movie will be the clash of civilizations we’d all been waiting for, but instead of nuclear bombs, a humble palooka from the streets would be duking it out in the ring with the ultimate representation of coldhearted Communism. If it were up to us, this opening shot would’ve won Best Picture all by itself.


4. So Many Montages

Rocky IV has a running time of 91 minutes and 20 seconds. Its eight montages (yes, EIGHT) run a total of 29 minutes and 10 seconds. That is one third of the movie solely dedicated to montages. (Considering Stallone’s contempt for all things Soviet, we have to wonder if he knows it was a dirty Ruskie who invented the montage.)

During one of the many, many montages, director Stallone actually flashes back to a scene that had happened a minute and half prior, creating the impression that he might actually flashback to the montage we were just watching in the same montage. Stallone clearly loves a good montage set to an inspirational ’80s song, and so do we. Which brings us to…


3. A Soundtrack Full of Pumped Up ’80s Jams

Speaking of montages, they are set to the score of some of the cheesiest hits from the mid-’80s. For once, we’re spared tracks from Frank Stallone, with Stallone replacing his rocker brother with synth-y singles from Survivor, John Cafferty and Kenny Loggins. And of course, Robert Tepper, possessor of an ’80s mullet that could topple empires, crooning “No Easy Way Out.” The music in this movie is one step away from being a parody of the music in this movie. If you ever want to know what cocaine can do to the human mind, just listen to this soundtrack.


2. Rocky Ends the Cold War

Rocky IV speech
United Artists

In one of the most misguided, self-congratulatory, and immediately dated moments in cinema history, good ol’ galoot Rocky Balboa single-handedly ended the Cold War four years before the Berlin Wall came down.

To quote the Italian Stallion himself: “In here…there were two guys… killing each other. But I guess that’s better than millions. What I’m trying to say is… if I can change… and you can change…everybody can change!” And just like that the Soviet public, generals and even the Premier himself rose to their feet in applause, realizing what fools they’d been. This guy beat Mr. T for Heaven’s sake. He knows what he’s talking about!


1. Paulie’s Robot

Okay, let’s all take a deep breath and really consider this for a moment. Rocky IV has a robot butler in it. A movie franchise that began back in 1976 exploring the gritty reality of a bum fighter trying to prove himself somehow limped along long enough to turn into a weak Short Circuit rip-off in which an alcoholic mooch with a history of domestic abuse now gets his coffee served to him by a robot. A robot that he has programmed with a “sultry” lady voice!

Stallone was inspired to include the real life robot Sico in Rocky IV because of the work it did to help autistic children like his son Seargeoh. That’s all very moving, but doesn’t explain why he decided to write a scene where Paulie dubs poor Sico “the love of my life.” It’s a testament to Rocky IV‘s “too rotten to miss” status that Paulie’s robot girlfriend/personal servant isn’t even the craziest thing that happens to Rock and the gang.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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Gray's Anatomy

Everything You Need to Know About the Movie That Inspired “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything”

Brand new Documentary Now! airs Wednesday at 10P on IFC.

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Photo Credit: Cinecom Pictures

This week Documentary Now! spotlights a master monologist with “Parker Gail’s Location is Everything.” Before you tune in at 10P this Wednesday on IFC, check out our guide to Swimming to Cambodia, the 1987 film that captured writer/performer Spalding Gray’s acclaimed one-person show.

Spalding Gray 101

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures

Actor and renowned monologist Spalding Gray spent two years on stage perfecting his Obie Award-winning “Swimming to Cambodia” monologue. In it, Gray tells the story of his eight weeks in Southeast Asia while shooting the 1984 Academy Award-winning movie The Killing Fields. He had a small role, but the experience gave him several anecdotes about hanging out with the film crew and experiencing the local culture, all while searching for “the perfect moment.”

Directed by the Silence of the Lambs Guy

Hannibal Lecter
Orion Pictures/Everett Collection

Acclaimed filmmaker Jonathan Demme took Gray’s two-night, four hour performance and crafted it down to 85 minutes. His use of dramatic lighting, stylish camerawork and a score by performance artist Laurie Anderson was praised by critics and earned the film a cult following. No stranger to groundbreaking docs, Demme also directed the 1984 Talking Heads concert film Stop Making Sense, which Documentary Now! pays tribute to in this season’s episode “Final Transmission.”

All about the Voices

While it may have been a one-man show, Gray created a repertoire of characters all with distinctive accents. (He portrayed conversations between himself and others just by turning his head.) Our favorite impressions are of his demanding girlfriend Renee and Ivan Strasberg, the South African director of photography on The Killing Fields who, as depicted by Gray, sounds a bit like a Jamaican surfer.

The Original Cranky New Yorker

In one memorable scene, Gray rants about how his noisy upstairs artist neighbors are driving him and Renee crazy. Even in the mid-’80s, there were New Yorkers complaining that the city wasn’t what it used to be.

Show and Tell

Swimming to Cambodia
Cinecom Pictures/YouTube

A big fan of visual aids, Gray used pull-down maps to illustrate his travels. This helped to bring Swimming to Cambodia to life, since he’s basically sitting at a desk the entire time.

Inspired One-Person Shows

Gray’s groundbreaking performances in Swimming and other documentaries like Monster in a Box and the Steven Soderbergh-directed Gray’s Anatomy (about Gray’s struggle with a rare eye condition) paved the way for future one-person shows. (We wouldn’t have everything from Carrie Fisher’s “Wishful Drinking” to Mike Birbiglia’s “Sleepwalk With Me” without him.) Even Doc Now! star Fred Armisen got into the one-person show act for his recent SNL monologue.

Catch Documentary Now!’s tribute to Spalding Gray when “Parker Gail: Location Is Everything” premieres Wednesday, September 28th at 10P on IFC. 

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Burning Heart

10 Reasons Why Rocky IV Is the Ultimate Rocky Movie

Catch an all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC.

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Photo Credit: United Artists/Everett Collection

Sure, most people love the first Rocky for its heart, gripping boxing scenes and the classic training montage. Or, you might love Creed for being both a return-to-form and a new exploration of the Rocky mythology. Maybe the thrill of seeing Mr. T and Hulk Hogan in the same movie makes Rocky III your top pick. Well, sorry, you’re wrong: Rocky IV is the greatest of all the “Italian Stallion”‘s movies.

Before you watch the all-day Rocky movie marathon this Friday, September 30th on IFC (with Rocky IV airing at 8P as part of Rotten Fridays), check out a few reasons to appreciate the fourth installment as the king of the series.

1. The Greatest Opening Ever

How many openings are able to sum up the entire conflict of the film in less than a minute and without a single line of dialogue? And how many of those movies have exploding boxing gloves? Just try to watch the opening sequence above and not be completely psyched for the pumped-up flick to come.


2. Montages!

We all know that the best part of any sports movie is the montage, and Rocky IV doesn’t give you one measly montage. There’s a recap of the previous films montage, a getting to Russia Montage, two training montages and an ending fight montage. That’s five montages! There’s probably a montage of montages snuck in there, too.


3. There’s a Full James Brown Musical Number

This movie is so packed with memorable moments, it’s easy to forget one of the first things that happens in the film: Apollo comes out to fight Drago dressed as a shirtless Uncle Sam, while James Brown and a full band play “Living in America.” To drive home the number’s patriotism, there are dancers in tuxedos and top hats, weird unitards and bowler caps, and bedazzled showgirls with headpieces for miles. Oh, and don’t forget the giant tentacled dragon statue on the stage. This is how every boxing match should start. Heck, this is how we always want to enter a room.


4. The Soundtrack

The Rocky IV soundtrack doesn’t just feature James Brown — it has rock anthems galore, all of which make you immediately want to hit the gym. From “Heart’s on Fire” by John Cafferty and the Beaver Brown Band to “Sweetest Victory” by Touch to multiple Survivor jams, you’ll get pumped and stay pumped. Even the instrumental score rocks! Sure, sometimes it sounds like it was made on a kids Casio, but this soundtrack never quits and — to quote Robert Tepper — never takes the easy way out.


5. Abs!

Rocky IV weights

Every Rocky movie shows off Stallone’s incredible physique, but Rocky IV really ups the game. Not only do we get Dolph Lundgren mostly shirtless looking like a man machine, but we get a wide variety of scenes of Stallone doing impossible tasks. Stallone’s crazy dragon fly crunches, aka a thing no human should be able to do, automatically take this movie to the top.


6. Two words: Ivan Drago

Ivan Drago
United Artists

Not only does Rocky IV explore the global conflict between the US and the Soviet Union, but it encapsulates all of our fears of the Cold War in one perfect villain. Ivan Drago only trains with machines and science and looks like he stepped out of an Aryan Nations recruitment poster. He also only responds in short, cold phrases like “If he dies, he dies,” or “I must break you.” There’s never been a villain who we so clearly want to get the crap beat out of than Ivan Drago.


7. Rocky Makes Chores Look Badass

Rocky saw
United Artists

Rocky doesn’t need to be hooked up to machines to become the perfect fighter. All he needs are huge tires and some outdoor chores to do. No one’s ever looked cooler chopping wood and using tractor parts. Half of his training is lifting an old wagon, probably to fix a broken axle. If anything, this film inspires us to take care of that gardening work we’ve been neglecting.


8. Rocky’s Beard

Rocky IV Beard

Stallone’s beard game is truly on point in Rocky IV. And this isn’t some “I forgot to shave, here’s a little stubble” look. No, we get full out, lumberjack-style beard action. Does any other Rocky movie have our hero looking like an old Russian aristocrat? Another point for Rocky IV.


9. There’s a robot!

Again, there’s so much to Rocky IV, you probably forgot about the robot. Well, Rocky has some money now and he’s not going to spend it on frivolous things for himself. He’s going to buy Paulie a robot! The best part of this scene is how truly disturbed Paulie is by this new technology until he gives it a sexy lady voice.


10. Rocky Ends the Cold War

If you’re still not convinced that Rocky IV is the greatest, answer this question: Does any other Rocky movie bring peace between the US and Russia?

By the end of the film, Rocky rises up to beat the seemingly undefeatable Drago. He fights so well, that even the Russians begin to appreciate his skills. Then, instead of using his victory to prove America’s superiority, he gives a rousing speech of “If I can change and you can change, everybody can change!” The whole crowd goes wild, including all of the Russian government, who we assume give up Communism immediately based solely on Rocky’s words. Stallone’s call for international reconciliation through brutal fighting and a variety of montages makes this if not one of the greatest films of all time, certainly the greatest Rocky of them all.

Catch the “Too Rotten to Miss” movie Rocky IV this Friday at 8P on IFC. 

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