Writer/director Jeff Nichols‘ thriller “Shotgun Stories” tracks a feud that erupts between two sets of half brothers following the death of their father. Set against the cotton fields and back roads of Southeast Arkansas, these brothers discover the lengths to which each will go to protect their family. The film was nominated for the John Cassavetes Award at the 2008 Film Independent Spirit Awards and won the feature film award at the Austin Film Festival and the New American Cinema Award at the 2007 Seattle International Film Festival. The film is currently playing in New York and opens April 25 in Los Angeles.
What initially attracted you to filmmaking, and how has that interest evolved during your career?
I was always interested in creative writing growing up. From junior high on, I was writing short stories. I also grew up watching movies. My father would take me to everything. Most weeks I could open the paper having seen every movie listed. When it came time to make a decision about college, film school sounded like an interesting option. I had no clue of what it meant to actually make films though.
At college I learned what the filmmaking process was like. I enjoyed it even though it wasn’t what I was expecting. I found filmmaking to be a very practical art form. It’s about figuring out how to create within the very practical limitations/constraints of time, money, and large groups of collaborators. Production and post-production are equations with hundreds of variables. Each project is different and that fascinates me.
How did the idea for “Shotgun Stories” came about?
The first image I had for this story was a character with buckshot pellets grown over in his back. This was inspired by a scene from Larry Brown‘s novel Joe, where a character has to perform home surgery on himself after being shot in the neck. In my story, I thought people could be talking about how this character had been shot, but no one would really know the truth. The title originally came out of this idea, people telling stories about how this man was shot. So I had the title and the image of this wounded man before I ever had the real idea for the film.
I was driving around listening to a song called “Decoration Day” by the Drive by Truckers. The song tracks a more traditional feud, but I began wondering what a contemporary version of a feud might look like in present-day Southeast Arkansas. From there, the idea of following a feud between two sets of half-brothers came to me. Once I had this backbone for the story, I just began layering the characters with other personal influences from my life; card counting, junior high basketball coaching, the need to be a better man, the fear of commitment. It took me about a year to cobble together all of the character elements before I finally sat down to write.
Please elaborate a bit on your approach to making the film.
For “Shotgun Stories,” I wanted to take the theme of revenge and the story structure that typically supports it and reexamine it. Typical revenge narratives begin with an inciting act (usually the death of the main character’s friend or family member). From there, it is the main character’s job to hunt down and destroy the cause of that inciting act (usually a bad guy that needs to be dropped from a tall building).
For “Shotgun Stories,” I started by saying there would be no good or bad guys. I would try to validate each side’s emotions, even if their actions seemed extreme. My second goal was to push the inciting act as far back into the film as possible. If a character’s death was going to be the thing that begins the revenge narrative, I wanted the audience to have as strong a connection to the character that would die as possible. The only real way to do this is with screen time. You have to invest people in that character. I pushed this inciting act 47 minutes into the film. I had no idea if it would work, but I wanted to try it. If people think the film is boring, it would be because of this decision. If the film emotionally affects people, it would be because of this decision. Since the film has started screening for audiences, I’ve heard both reactions.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced in either developing the project or making and securing distribution?
The biggest challenge throughout the production of this film was just money. We always had enough to finish what we were working on at the time. The pressure of where the next round of cash was coming from always made things a little tense. I never questioned if the film would get finished, but I was always worried about how the film would get finished.
The biggest hurdle in securing distribution was that we didn’t have a bankable star in our film. Everyone seemed to think the performances were all up to snuff, but there was no one star to advertise the film around. This seems to be the current business model for the release of smaller films.
How did the financing and casting for the film come together?
Financing for “Shotgun Stories” was initiated with money from close friends and family. This is where the money to go into production came from. After production, a company called Upload Films came on board and provided post-production funds and services. In both instances, people were taking a gamble on us.
The casting for this film was made up mostly of people I knew. Michael Shannon, our lead, was the one exception. I knew his work and had written the part for him, but I didn’t know him personally. I did however have a connection to him through a friend. This is how he got my script and eventually came on board. The other actors, for the most part, were written specifically for people I knew. This way, I knew what most of the cast was capable of before they even stepped on set. This helped streamline things during production.
Who/what are some of the creative influences that have had the biggest impact on you?
The writers that have influenced me the most are: Larry Brown, Raymond Carver, Mark Twain, Flannery O’Connor, Cormac McCarthy, Harry Crews, and Charles Portis. Larry Brown’s short fiction set the bar for how to write about blue collar Southerners. Raymond Carver, who Brown studied, was a master of observing every day emotions and actions. Mark Twain was an actual genius and possessed more wit than anyone I’ve ever read. All of these writers made me want to learn how to become a good storyteller.
The films that have influenced me most are: The Hustler, Badlands, Hud, Tender Mercies, Cool Hand Luke, A Perfect World, and Laurence of Arabia. I also really like Fletch. I feel like all of these films reached an honest place in regard to the human condition while also stringing together really entertaining stories.
What other genres or stories would like to explore as a filmmaker?
I don’t really think about my stories in terms of genre. I think a film can, and possibly should, be both funny and tragic. That said I’d like to make a horror/thriller movie and a sci-fi movie. Horror interests me because it focuses the direction of a film. You are putting images together in order to scare people. As a director, there is no fudging on this. It’s either scary or not.
What is your next project?
I’m working on several projects right now, and I’d be happy to have any one of them become my next film. “Goat,” a memoir by Brad Land, is being produced by Killer Films. I adapted the script with David Gordon Green, and I am signed on to direct. It’s a beautiful story about two brothers finding out how to communicate with one another after the oldest of the two goes through a tragic, life-altering experience. It deals with American masculinity and how we, as Americans, initiate our young men into adulthood. I’m also working on a script called, “Mud,” it is about a man hiding out on an island in the middle of the Mississippi River.
What is your definition of “independent film,” and has that changed at all since you first started working?
I define an “independent film” as a film that doesn’t have distribution in place before or during production. My definition hasn’t changed over the years, but I do think people’s perception of what is “independent” certainly has. It’s no longer as simple as saying independent films are films made outside the studio system. It is also not appropriate to say it is just about an independent vision for a film. For me, independent filmmaking is about working without a safety net. If I make films for people to watch, working without a distribution deal in place means I’m working on a film that may never achieve its only real purpose in life, being seen. That can be rough.
What general advice would you impart to emerging filmmakers?
Pick a date and start shooting. The most important thing I did for “Shotgun Stories” was to set a start date when I had nothing to go on. It forced me to make decisions and it added momentum to a situation that other wise wouldn’t have had it. A lot of low budget filmmaking is about creative compromise. Picking a start date initiates that process and adds accountability to all involved.
Please share an achievement from your career so far that you are most proud of.
Completing a feature on 35mm. There was a lot pressure to not produce “Shotgun Stories” on film. Money, time, equipment, crew, all of these things became more complex with the decision to shoot on 35mm, but I think all of those things eventually added to the quality of the film we made.