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Michael Shannon Talks Madness, Working On A Budget & 'Take Shelter' Director Jeff Nichols

Photo of Oliver Lyttelton By Oliver Lyttelton | The Playlist September 15, 2011 at 5:46AM

Michael Shannon may have missed out on an Emmy nomination for his role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” but his anguished turn as Curtis LaForche in Jeff Nichols’ stunning “Take Shelter” should put the star squarely in the midst of Best Actor Oscar talk. (It should do the same for co-star Jessica Chastain.)
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Michael Shannon may have missed out on an Emmy nomination for his role on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” but his anguished turn as Curtis LaForche in Jeff Nichols’ stunning “Take Shelter” should put the star squarely in the midst of Best Actor Oscar talk. (It should do the same for co-star Jessica Chastain.)

Shannon’s lengthy resume includes films with Werner Herzog, Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin, Oliver Stone, and Sam Mendes—he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for Mendes’ “Revolutionary Road.” But he seems on the verge of a real breakout. As anyone who has seen “Take Shelter” can attest, it’s certainly deserving. His second film with Nichols, following the family-feud drama “Shotgun Stories,” it is one of 2011’s most wildly original works.

When we spoke to Shannon at the Toronto International Film Festival last weekend, he discussed his upcoming role as General Zod in Zack Snyder’s “Man of Steel,” the “ethereal” status of crime flick “The Iceman” and James Franco's adaptation of William Faulkner‘s “As I Lay Dying” -- you can read what he had to say here. But he mainly focused on “Take Shelter,” his role as Curtis, and how a low budget can have its advantages.


1. The actor, who has played his share of creepy characters in films like “Bug” and “Revolutionary Road” did not find playing Curtis to be unsettling, even with those apocalyptic, nightmarish dreams and visions.
Curtis might look like he's struggling with his sanity, but that's not how the actor approached it. “It’s unsettling to play a character who’s stuck in a situation he can’t control," Shannon said. "But I think Curtis is a real problem-solver. From the inside, from his perspective, I don’t think he’s getting hysterical. I think he’s really trying to handle the problem, more so for his family than anything else. I guess the thing that frightens him the most is that he’s not going to be able to take care of his family anymore. The dreams themselves I think he could probably handle them if he was by himself.”

2. The film’s low budget had a positive impact—it actually served to encourage camaraderie among the cast.
In sharp contrast to the currently-filming megabudget "Man of Steel," "Take Shelter" was put together on a thrifty cost. But that may have ended up working in the film's favor. “It’s a low budget movie, [and] there are no trailers or anything in between scenes, [so] particularly when we were shooting at the house, we were always together. We’d finish a scene, and then we’d go up in the attic and play a game, or go out in the backyard, or make sandwiches. It literally got to the point where it was like we were living in the house, and every once in awhile Jeff was putting us in a scene. It’s one of the rare benefits of not having any money.”

3. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he sees many similarities between “Take Shelter” and “Shotgun Stories.”
Few have seen Nichols' debut, the excellent "Shotgun Stories," in which Shannon starred, but the actor thinks that the two films are of a piece. “I think in both movies you see Jeff exploring both the pros and the cons of family. In both the characters I play, Son Hayes in ‘Shotgun’ and Curtis in ‘Shelter,’ they both operate from a tremendous love—Son for his brothers, Curtis for his wife and daughter.”

4. Director Jeff Nichols drew from his own life for both “Shotgun” and “Shelter”:
Despite the apocalyptic nature of 'Shelter,' Shannon believes that the film works because it's close to its director's heart. “I know Jeff is very close to his own brothers—he is one of three, just like Son, Boy, and Kid in 'Shotgun Stories.'" Shannon told us. "Jeff wrote 'Take Shelter' right when he was getting married and about to start a family. I think that’s what gives the movies kind of an undeniable gravity—Jeff is basically extracting a very personal story and a very personal energy and putting it into his films.”

5. The film’s long shot of Curtis pumping gas? It’s there for a reason.
It might try the patience of some audience members, but a lengthy shot of Shannon's character at a gas station is a key moment in the film. “I think a lot of that is there because Jeff gets frustrated with movies that try to tell stories about people like Curtis but leave those details out. It’s very rare that you see a movie that shows the dollars on a gas pump go up and up and up. But that’s something that everyone is dealing with. From Jeff’s point of view, it’s like, ‘Why shouldn’t I put that into the movie? Isn’t that going to reverberate with people? Why make up some fake world when I can just be telling a story about what we’re all actually dealing with?’" Indeed, Shannon believes that Nichols is firmly in touch with the mood of the nation, something that the shot demonstrates. "Every time I work with Jeff it feels like he’s very close to the culture of the region he’s from—he’s form Arkansas, I’m from Kentucky, we shot this movie in Ohio. Kind of the bedrock of this country.”

"Take Shelter" begins its limited roll-out on Friday, September 30th. —Christopher Schobert

This article is related to: Films, Actors, Jeff Nichols, Take Shelter, Michael Shannon


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