Lady luck is currently showing Arkansas filmmaker Jeff Nichols her pearly whites. Though his strong debut feature "Shotgun Stories" took years to complete and be unleashed into the world, his sophomore effort "Take Shelter" was picked up by Sony Pictures Classics before they even saw a cut. In addition to that, its two principal players, Michael Shannon and Jessica Chastain, are having a banner year and are quickly rising to household name-status. To top it all off, the filmmaker is already lensing his next feature, "Mud," in addition to writing yet another movie. Needless to say, Nichols is very busy and in demand.
"Take Shelter" follows Curtis LaForche (Shannon), a laborer and family man that begins having crippling, horrifying visions involving a violent storm. Though he writes them off at first, they continue to bombard him and become so frightening that he decides to act on his instincts, building a heavy-duty storm shelter in his backyard. With Curtis' behavior becoming more erratic, his wife Samantha (Chastain) begins to suspect something is wrong and attempts to get through to him, but fails to make any sort of connection with her typically taciturn husband. Eventually his dedication to keeping his family safe strains their relationship, almost causing it to snap. But what if he's right?
Shannon, unsurprisingly, is a revelation as a man tormented by apocalyptic visions. It's a subtle, dedicated performance; commanding without being hammy or melodramatic. And although Chastain plays a supporting role that could easily be nothing but a prop in the wrong actor's hands, she helps shape a character that feels free of clichés. All that in mind, "Take Shelter" is not simply a tour de force by two fantastic actors, but actually a very tense, strange, and emotional film. Nichols quietly builds the drama with an assured hand much like he did in his first film, but here he plays with sound design and rhythm to further push the intensity. The Playlist recently spoke with the director and two actors concerning the film, the support of arthouse label Sony Pictures Classics, and the ending that will have everyone talking.
1. Sony Pictures Classics Bought Early Because Of Their Faith In Nichols
Even though the team had a quick post-production period to make the Sundance deadline, the arthouse distributor Sony Pictures Classics picked it up without even seeing a cut. "They talked to me a lot during 'Shotgun Stories' and they didn't buy it but they were really positive and enthusiastic about it. I think they were kind of tracking me a little bit," the filmmaker explained. "They had a copy of the 'Take Shelter' script from when we were going around looking for financing, so they knew what the story was. Still, they were really clear that they liked films with central performances they could build a campaign around. They just felt that it was Michael Shannon's time and though they hadn't seen it, they thought it would showcase him well and had faith in that from the script and the quality of my first movie."
2. With Sony Pictures Classics On Board Nichols Knew "Take Shelter" Would Be Marketed Correctly
When playing with some genre elements, there's always the danger of being marketed incorrectly and the subsequent audience accusation of doing a bait-and-switch, but Nichols' concerns were quickly allayed. "There was a fear that some less reputable distributor might buy it and sell it as a horror film or something, which would be a real disservice to the film and people would show up and be mad. So with Sony Pictures Classics, I knew the trailer and poster would be handled correctly, which was important to me." Nichols also admitted that he had some pressures to change the script by some potential financiers. "Some wanted to make it more of a genre movie, one guy was like 'Let's make a list of all the genre elements.' But I thought it needed to be a hybrid. I didn't want to take it through the studio system, and if I did I would've written it differently. There are always those kind of pressures, but as a story teller it was an interesting experience to try and balance all of these elements." And if he did make it through the studios? " It would've been tested with audiences eight million times over and sure enough that family would've been on a boat somewhere. Who knows what it would've become."
3. Jessica Chastain Hugged Michael Shannon On The First Day To Forge A Bond Between Their Characters
Curis and Samantha are one of the more believable couples in cinema -- you feel that they've been together a long time and know the ins and outs of each respective companion. When speaking they rarely look at each other, and yet it's played so well that it never feels routine or unhappy: instead, it feels harmonious. Much of their general repose (before she notices he is breaking down) has a lot to do with Chastain, who cheerfully recounted one of her efforts toward building the characters' dynamic. "I knew when I read the script that Samantha had to be very tough and wear the pants in the family...I was afraid that I'd be intimidated by Mike, and I couldn't have that because at certain points I'd have to take control of the scenes. We didn't have any rehearsals to get into that and I met him the day before we started shooting...So the second I saw him, I ran over to him and threw my arms around him to give him a hug. If I had weeks I'd be more reserved, but every time I saw him I threw my arms around him and tried to be as physically comfortable with him as I could. I didn't want my former idea of who he was to sneak into the filming. I didn't want to be intimidated on camera, I needed to, in a way, feel that I owned him," she said.
Shannon, in turn, talked her up. "I have to give Jessica a lot of credit for that because she's very mature in her approach to her work and very uninhibited and willing to put her heart into it right away. I've worked with other people where that process is very difficult."
Yet, even with the bond between Shannon and Chastain sealed, she couldn't get between the friendship of the longtime actor and his friend and frequent filmmaking collaborator. "They absolutely had a short hand. They were like brothers and I was the one who was pulling my hair, constantly not knowing what to do. We'd have three takes per scene and I'd confess that I didn't know if what I was doing was right, and we had limited coverage so we couldn't cut away if it wasn't right... There were a couple of times when the scene was being lit that I didn't know where Mike and Jeff went and I saw them talking outside. Finally I caught them in the kitchen once, and they were talking about the scene! And I was like, 'Guys, from now on, if you're talking about a scene that I'm in you're not allowed to go off and talk about it without me. I know you guys are brothers but I'm family now and you can't exclude me.' Their faces were great, they gasped and were extremely apologetic."
4. Nichols Also Wanted To Directly Confront The American Healthcare Issue
While on the face of it, "Take Shelter" is a psychological thriller, what elevates Nichols' film is that the thematic undercurrent ties in to the concerns and fears of contemporary America, with everything from gas prices, job stability and healthcare coming into play. And it's these issues that Nichols is more than acutely aware of. "I think it's insane that insurance is tied to your job. I don't know why my dad, who owns a furniture store in Arkansas, is in the healthcare business. Doesn't make sense to me, I don't understand it and it's terrifying," he said. "I'm a writer, I have insurance through the WGA, and if I don't write, my family loses their health insurance. Isn't there enough pressure in this world? And I don't have the answer, I don't know if the answer is universal health care or what, and I don't mean to be hypocritical and stating a problem and not giving an answer, but this is a very tangible fear that's in every American's life. It seemed like giving the daughter an issue that directly related to health insurance (she's deaf) seemed to appropriate. To be really crass about it, it was just another weight on Curtis' shoulders."
5. The Creative Team Stands By The Unforgettable Ending
A lot of what makes "Take Shelter" such an incredible watch is the mystery behind Curtis' visions. In the same way movies like "The Exterminating Angel" use a fantasy construct to explore humanity, Curtis' visions find him desperately preparing to protect his family from something that might not even be real. Through this, Nichols explores the nature of love and family. However, the final scene, which finally addresses the visions directly, will be a make or break moment for some audiences. Nichols spoke to the closing note the film ends on, saying "I don't expect everyone to like it, appreciate it, or be fulfilled by it.. but the theme of marriage really developed as I developed the storyline. And I knew from the beginning that I had this ending, and now the important part of the ending is these two people looking at each other at this moment, and they're finally on the same page. Whatever is happening around them doesn't really matter, it's up for debate or can be left ambiguous, so long as they make this connection and I make this one point."
Chastain also added her two cents. "That look, I don't think it resolves the anxiety, but it's the answer to that loss of control. The only thing real is the family, that connection we have to each other. It's hard to talk about, but the idea that you can lose everything, if tomorrow isn't here or if someone ends up going to the hospital, all we have is our relationship with each other. And that's the most important part, and for Jeff that's the hopeful ending he describes."
"Take Shelter" opens in New York and Los Angeles on September 30th and will continue to roll out nationwide in the coming weeks.